Are Kurds Descended From the Medes?

A few years ago, I was given a letter from an American, non-academic individual, asking "Are Kurds descended from the Medes?" I responded as best I could avoiding the myriad of details which might well have diminished rather than enhanced interest in the topic. With the proliferation of printed matter on the Kurds since the Gulf War, this question-or presumption-increasingly arises in the media.

It is also difficult to set aside the political overtones attached to this otherwise academic question. Kurds and the Westerners interested in Kurdish topics--scholars, politicians, reporters, and the general public--have variously attempted to answer what is basically an academic pursuit. Unfortunately, the issue is too often raised to serve a political agenda and a scholarly pursuit. Consequently, this question can no longer be answered without crediting too much or denying too much of the Kurds history-a "history" necessary either to bolster or to deny Kurdish political claims. Apparently, there is an a-priori assumption that if Kurds descended from the ancient and illustrious Medes their claim to an identity, and therefore, to a modern homeland is more valid than would be the case had they simply appeared from nowhere on some auspicious occasion such as the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Admittedly and outside to the field of political gamesmanship, I can only attempt to respond to the question from an academic perspective.

Do Kurds descend from the Medes? Well, yes and no--the same "yes and no" response one might make to the question: "Are Italians descendants of the Romans?" Remember that the Italian peninsula (ancient Etruria) was well populated and boasted a sophisticated civilization before the coming of the Latin tribes who eventually established Rome and fostered what we know as Roman civilization. But they did not stop there. Latin-speaking Romans colonized and settled many lands in Europe and the Middle East. In the process, they imparted their language and many of their cultural traits to the local peoples. Linguistically, in addition to the Italians, the French, Romanians, Catalans, Corsicans, Portuguese, Spaniards (and all of Latin America) also speak Romance (Latin) languages. Thus at least linguistically, not just the Italians, but all these can claim to be the modern Romans.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, many other peoples (primarily Germanic, but Slavs as well) came to settle in Italy, superimposing new genetic and cultural material on what Romans left behind. Some of the most impressive examples of Roman art and architecture are found outside Italy in north Africa and the Middle East. The most important "Roman" thinkers and luminaries also came from outside Italy, from Greece, Spain, Anatolia, Syria…etc. If we were to honor the claim that the Byzantine Empire was in fact the "Eastern Roman Empire," the Greeks and the Anatolians (now Turkified) who spent 1400 years of their history under the "Roman" imperial rule and ran the region for all but 200 years, are more "Roman" than any one else. Italians ceased to be Roman subjects, when they fell outside the sphere of control of Constantinople-the "New Rome", after the 4th century AD.

If we were to call the Italians the modern descendants of the Romans, then it follows that we must also be ready to assume that the multitude of peoples and cultures that were there in the Italian peninsula before the coming of the Roman (Latin) tribes, and those who arrived after the demise of the Romans, all somehow vanished into the thin air. Are not the Italians the progeny of all these peoples and cultures and of the Romans as well? Of course they are.

Well then, are the Italians descended from the Romans? The answer still remains "yes and no." No, because linguistically and culturally, many other peoples share this Roman heritage, not just the Italians. All are equally right to assert that they are the descendants of the ancient Romans. Yes, because the Romans began their career in the Italian peninsula, and only then expanded out to form an empire and to cultivate their culture and language in other places. And when the Latin-speaking Romans were gone, their name and legend remained most tangible and concentrated in the region of their birth: the modern Lazio (ancient Latium), surrounding the city of Rome. On the question of Roman inheritance, Italians are therefore entitled to just a bit more, that which makes them first among equals-or prima inter pares, as a Roman might have put it.

The Italian example illustrates the complications that arise when attempting to apply simplistic questions to complex socio-cultural and processes. A more fundamental flaw in this line of questioning, i.e., Kurdish descent from Medes (or Italians from Romans), emanate from the common assumption that like movies, all peoples and cultures must have a "beginning." Presumably Kurdish descent from the Medes would then place their "beginning" with the reign of the first legendary Median king, Dioces, in 727 BC. But what was happening in 728 BC-a year before Dioces ascended the throne? Where were the Medes? Or were there any Medes before his coronation? Are we to presume that a populous ethnic group, a culture and a language-all appeared miraculously when Dioces decided it was time to crown?

Mesopotamian sources make reference to Medes nearly 500 years prior to this "beginning." Such sources also mention the Zagros and Taurus mountains teaming with other peoples, civilizations and governments with whom Mesopotamians conducted a bustling trade and cultural exchanges, or against whom they warred. What happened to all these sophisticated native populations and states in the area when the Medes "began"?

Median tribes first settled the areas between the modern Hamadan and Kirmanshah in southeastern Kurdistan--the very heartland of Media, and an area that came to be called in the Assyrian record, Medaya, in recognition of this settlement. Medes were a nomadic group who ventured into the Middle East along with other Indo-European-speaking nomads such as the Persians, Armenians, and Afghans. Soon, however, their fortunes eclipsed all others. The Medes first expanded from their heartland in southeastern Kurdistan and their capital, Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana), to cover the Zagros mountains, western parts of the Iranian Plateau and eastern Anatolia. This expanded territory is what the term "Media" meant to classical authors. From here the Medes would ultimately establish an empire stretching from Asia Minor to Central Asia. Their empire was ultimately eclipsed in 549 BC by the rising star of the Medes' cousins, the Persians.

Two thousand years ago, Strabo wrote: "The Medes are said to have been the originators of the customs for the Armenians, and also, still earlier, for the Persians, who were their masters and their successors in the supreme authority over Asia…" (Geography, XI.xiii.9). Strabo further asserts that the Median contributions included the costumes, ornaments, sports, court manners and the mode of kingship (Ibid.). To these Median contributions we also must add religion.

Now, where did the Medes acquire the sophisticated civilization they later passed on to the Persians and Armenians? Surely it could not have been a part of their primitive nomadic heritage that was shared with their fellow nomadic Armenians and Persians. At no time in history have nomads been known for civilized customs or cultural sophistication. And there is no reason to believe the Median nomads who arrived in the Zagros were any different. Most likely, Medes simply inherited the cultures which came under their suzerainty, and in time became their champions. Medes did however bring a language, which matters now, but in all likelihood did not matter then.

Modern Kurds speak a language akin to the Median, i.e., an Indo-European language of the Iranic branch. But so do most other ethnic groups in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Baluchistan. In a more restricted sense, the language of the modern Kurds belongs to a group of languages (Northwest Iranic) which is concentrated, with the exception of the Baluchi, within the territories of old Media. We can only surmise that the Medes also spoke a language of this branch because, except for a few words and proper names, there are no surviving records of the speech of the Medians. What remains can only affirm conclusively the Indo-European, Iranic identity of the Median language-nothing more. But someone must have originated the Northwest Iranic group of languages, and the Medes remain the best, if not the only known candidates to have done so.

But linguistically, the Gilanis, Mazandaranis, Tats, Talishis, and Baluchis, all have as much in common with the Medes as do the Kurds: they all speak Northwest Iranic languages! In fact, the now Turkic-speaking Azeris, if they so choose, can also lay strong claim to the legacy of the Medes. In classical times, Azerbaijan was nearly always included as a part of Media. Moreover, the Azeris became linguistically Turkified only a few centuries ago. Their very ethnic name still remains Iranic.

Clearly, this matter cannot be settled linguistically, even if we knew precisely what the Medes spoke. Too many other ethnic groups share their linguistic past with the Kurds, and presumably all of them with the Medes.

So how about geography or ethnography? Median territories included mountains as well as the neighboring plains. Strabo tells us that most of Media is cold and mountainous, particularly "those mountains which lie above Ecbatana/Hamadan"; but he also recognizes the extension of greater Media into the balmier plains to the east where one now finds the bustling Persian communities and cities such as Teheran and Isfahan.(Geography, XI.xiii.7)

During the period of their ascendancy, all earlier peoples who inhabited the territories that came to be called Media were lumped together and called Medes by outsiders. On the other hand, when Strabo wrote his geography, the ethnic name "Mede" (if it ever had such connotation, particularly after the establishment of the empire), was already dead. Old ethnic names had re-emerged, or new ones had appeared in place of those that died out. However, "Media" as a geographical designator remained. And this geographical designator, like that of Rome after its political demise, kept shrinking until in Islamic times it had receded to were the ancient Median began their expansive careers in southeastern Kurdistan--the area between Hamadan (their ancient capital) and Kirmanshah. Until about eight centuries ago, that region in southeastern Kurdistan was still called Mah (i.e., Media). Like Latium and Rome in Italy--and their special place in the story of rise and twilight of the Romans--what little remains today of the old Medians and the name "Mede," is found densely concentrated in southeastern Kurdistan--the site of the rise and twilight of the Medes. In fact there are still some Kurdish tribes and clans who carry the evolved forms of the name "Mede." Among these are the Meywandlu, Meymand, Mamand, and the Mafi, to name a few. The largest plain in that entire region is still called, Mahy Dasht, "The Plain of Medes."

A composite past is virtually the norm for every old civilization. It would be very strange otherwise. The Persians, Arabs and (though they prefer not to admit it), the Turks--all have similarly composite pasts, as do the Italians and all other peoples and culture that have evolved in these, some of the planet's oldest civilized parts.

Considering this complicated picture, which ethnic groups can claim to be the descended from the Medes? If it mattered--and I do not believe it does--then Kurds along with a few others can make this claim. But like the Italians, who can claim a little bit more of the Roman legacy than the others on geographical and chronological grounds , the Kurds can do likewise in respect to the Medes. For like the Italians, they too are 'first among equals.'

The Medes added nothing of particular cultural value to justify fighting over their inheritance. The civilization and cultural lux ascribed to the elusive Medes they had adopted from the indigenous peoples and illustrious cultures they found already in place when they arrived in western Asia as nomadic immigrants in circa 1100 BC. Kurdish culture, which identifies the Kurdish people, has its native roots in the distinguished legacy of all those who preceded the Medes, but also includes the Medes. Only for a relatively short time did those mountains come to be called Media. And the Medes who settled in the Zagros brought little but they learned much from the local indigenous people with an ancient and sophisticated civilization. Before merging their identity with them, the Medes enriched the local cultures with one more layer of experience and one more addition of genes into their racial pool. And what they left behind after their ethnic name disappeared, continued to evolve through cultures and peoples who came after them, settled in the area and in turn disappeared into the local milieu.

Yes, Kurds as the descendants of the Medes inasmuch as they contributed genetically and linguistically to the formation of what the Kurds are today. No, Kurds are not descendants of the Medes as their civilized ancestors were already in place when the Medes appeared, flourished, and ultimately disappeared. Kurds need not have come at some given date from some other place into their present homeland; indeed they did not. They and their culture are the progeny of an evolution of native inhabitants and cultures of the Zagros-Taurus mountain systems, coming to us from remote antiquity. The addition of a Median ingredient was only one of countless many.

Let us conclude that neither Kurds or any other nation require ad discrete beginning. Only the most fanciful movie buffs can think of the intricate processes of the evolution of nations as one that needs a beginning, and an end.

Source: “Are Kurds descended from the Medes?”, Kurdish Life, Number 10, 1994