In Guti we Trust

Recently I came across a new and otherwise excellent pictorial book on Kurdish costumes and fabrics. In such a book, nevertheless, the authors had somehow thought it appropriate to dedicate over a third of their accompanying text to Kurdish history. This was not an art history, which could have made its inclusion somewhat justifiable. It was instead a sad attempt at dynastic and political history of the Kurds with little if any resemblance to real history. In this caricature, mythological figures are treated as real persons and Kurds treated as non-Kurds and vice versa. And the starting point of all these "history" is set, of course, at the advent of the ubiquitous, sine qua non, Gutis. What the authors lack in historical knowledge, they simply replace with their pure and refreshing conviction. But, conviction alone makes for poor argument.

I have never known a Kurd who does not believe in the extreme antiquity of his or her nation's history. And yet, when asked, he or she can only conjecture over this presumably long history, with the "Guti" forming the last stop on this Proustian "remembrance of things past."

To Kurds, Gutis have become the source of history, ethnicity, and sentiments regarding their roots. They have even come to believe that the very term "Kurd" (however impossibly) derives from "Guti." In fact Guti has become synonymous with their history-the very embodiment of truth and authenticity; almost a god. But ask a Kurd: "Who were the Gutis?" and none can tell you! No surprise this; as they should not be able to. No one knows precisely who these Gutis were nor what of their achievements. If the Gutis are such an enigma and culturally such non-entity, why would Kurds want them as their ancestors; why do they point to these Gutis as the defining source to document for their long history? Well that is the exact point. To the unknown, one is free to attribute all things, great or small, good or bad-and get away with it.

But who really were the Gutis? Among the many Hurrian-speaking inhabitants of the Kurdish mountains one does find a group by that name (also called Qutil, Quti and the like). They are ascribed by Mesopotamian records to a land, conveniently called after the Gutis, "Gutium." This Gutium was located somewhere in the central Zagros range, between Luristan and Lake Van. For about two centuries (circa 2,200 to 2,000 BC) the Gutis gained the upper military hand over the Mesopotamian (primarily, Sumerian) states. In an impressive show of force, they succeeded to annex Sumeria to their domain. Apparently they also founded a separate Guti dynasty that ruled from Sumeria for over a century, until they were evicted. In fact, the Biblical- and modern Mt. Judi (between Zakho and Sirnak in north-central Kurdistan) and the Kurdish clan of Judikanlu preserve variant forms of the old name, "Guti." So far, so good.

The Gutis were certainly not the only Hurrian-speaking peoples who overflowed the Kurdish mountains into Mesopotamia, but just one of them. What little we know of the language of the Gutis, according to palaeo-linguist Diakonoff, is that it is a Hurrian dialect similar, for example, to Urartian (Diakonoff and Starostin, "Hurro-Urartian as an Eastern Caucasian Language," Münchener Studien zur Sprachwisssenschaft. New Series 12, 1986). Hurrian ancestors of the modern Kurds were already populating entire cities in Mesopotamia (e.g., the twin city of Kesh-Adab) and those on the foothills (e.g., Nuzi/Gasur). By 1,500 BC, these Hurrian multitude had even created a form of pidgin Akkadian to communicated with the Mesopotamian lowlanders. Akkadian tablets speak disparagingly of the Hurrian scribes whose bad usage of the Akkadian they brand "the Hurrian style." At the important, nearby Hurrian urban centers like Arap'he (ancient Kirkuk) one does not even find even the name Guti mentioned in any record. One might argue that Arap'he's archives are only 3,500 years old, and therefore, about 500 years younger than the Gutis. Well, the Sumerian tables commissioned under the famous king Enmerkar about 4,500 years ago, speak at length of the strong economic, religious and political bonds between Sumeria and "Aratta"-the famed, thus far mysterious kingdom in the central Zagros mountains and presumably the heartland of the Gutis. Enmerkar lived about 450 years before the occupation of Sumeria by the mountain peoples we call Gutis. Nowhere, however, does Enmerkar speak of the Guti or mention their land. One might argue that Enmerkar did not know the mountains and mountain dwellers well. But he did.

A startling fact came to light when the Sumeralogist S.N. Kramer's translated a Sumerian tablet revealing that Enmerkar himself a brother of the king of Aratta, and therefore, presumably a native of the Kurdish mountains (Kramer, "Ancient Sumer and Iran: Gleanings from Sumerian Literature," Bulletin of the Asia Institute, 1, 1987). How could he not have heard of the Gutis, if indeed they were a significant military force?

Here is the paradox: No Sumerian had ever seen or heard of a Guti before the Guti occupation of Sumeria. Nor did natives of the Kurdish mountains afterward. In fact, we would never have heard of Gutis either, were it not for their 125-year-long occupation of Sumeria, which in fact forever destroyed Sumeria and the Sumerian society. The rising star of the Semites in Mesopotamia shone brightest under king Sargon I of Agade (Akkadia). Sargon got rid of Sumeria and the "real" Gutis with it some 3,800 years ago.

After Sargon, the Gutis are not seen again. But for the next 1500 years, Mesopotamians call all inhabitants of the Kurdish mountains "Guti" as a derogation.

Let me reemphasize that the Hurrian archives-that is, those of the native inhabitants of the Kurdish mountains-never note the Guti phenomenon. If the native cultures in the mountains did not know the Gutis, and, except for the Sumerians in a single century, nor did any of the lowland cultures in Mesopotamia, then how important could the Gutis really have been? Not very much, I am afraid. If the Gutis were so in consequential, why all the fuss and for so long a time? Gutis became big shots by accident when they inadvertently got mingled with the proverbial "right" people: the Sumerians, who would matter a great deal in millennia to come. Sumerians are the ones whose concerns became eventually the foundations of modern humanity's concerns; their religion and myths the foundation of most subsequent religions and myths. The stories of Noah and the Flood, patriarch Abraham (a native of "Ur of Chaldese"-a capital of Sumeria), even English terms such as "hallelujah" and "abyss" are Sumerian in origin. Therefore, what affected the Sumerians made an everlasting impact on humanity's basic tenets of knowledge and tradition. What pained Sumerians, pained everybody else indirectly-and for a long time to come. Fortune smiled on the obscure Gutis only when they pained the Sumerians.

Many otherwise obscure and insignificant peoples are familiar to us today for no better reason than they pained or pleased the Jews thousands of years ago (and now us through the influence of the Bible and the Koran). Who would have heard of the Edomites, Sodomites, Gomorrahns, Moabites and others had they not been incorporated into Jewish myth and religion? Surely Gutis would have gone forever unknown had they not showed up in Sumeria at the proverbial eleventh hour.

The Akkadians passed the Sumerian legacy to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians and on to us. Thus until the eclipse of Mesopotamia under the Persian dominance in the 6th century BC, the Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians called every one they did not like in the mountains "Gutis." Today, still we refer to all ill-mannered people as "Philistines", despite the fact that the ancient Philistines managed to only get on the wrong side of the Jews. But adoption of the Jewish legacy by more than half the world's population since then is accompanied by the disdain for the Philistines, although no one has seen a Philistine in the flesh for about 3,000 years. Remember, the real Vandals only managed to "vandalize" the art and architecture of the imperial Rome. But today, we call all such persons "vandals," being whether American or Armenian, Japanese or Jamaican.

It is the source of delight that Kurdish public feels the need for their history. But it is a disgrace that Kurdish historians and intellectuals have failed to make available their real history-a history which the Kurd can be proud of, and not a "Guti" fantasy.

The "Guti" bug has infected even the Westerners who write about the Kurds-often in flights of fancy. One remarkable example appeared in a draft for a guidebook produced by a Washington-based organization called Access, which received a grant for the publication from the US Institute of Peace. The section on the Kurds contained a chronology that began thusly: "2,400 BC: A nomadic herd [sic] of Guti in the Zagros mountain range"! And this guide was publicized as a resource for the use of "students, scholars, public officials" and the like. Hallelujah.

Writing to dispel the Guti hang-up, I may well be accused of leaving the Kurdish "herd" without a history. But banking on illusions to build reality is like building palaces on the clouds. Kurds have been given the one-fits-all Gutis by their intellectuals as a poor excuse for history. In the company of the Gutis, Kurds have become the object of ridicule among those with some knowledge of the real history. In all honesty, how serious would we take a group's claim to antiquity if all they could produce to prove past greatness were a connection to the Philistines? Gutis, great ancestors?!

With luck, we ought to see less of the Gutis and Guti buffs in the future. The conviction of Kurds regarding their antiquity will inevitably result in restoration of the true history of this ancient people. For where there is demand, there will always be a supplier.


Source: M.R. Izady, “In Gutis We Trust”, Kurdish Life, Number 14, 1995