As the first chapters of Jalaleddin vividly portray, a large number of Armenians in the Van district were killed or displaced as a result of Kurdish massacres that took place during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The title character of the novella, Sheikh Jalaleddin, was a real historical figure, and the events Raffi describes such as the pillaging of villages and towns are grounded in historical fact (see Jalaleddin and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878). Even so, Raffi is careful not to implicate the entire Kurdish population in these events. Later in the novella, for example, we meet Omar Agha, a leader of a small Kurdish village, who refused to participate in Jalaleddin’s incursions against the Armenians. But who were the Kurds of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, and what correspondences existed between the tribes Raffi named in the novella and the real tribes of the time?
Jalaleddin, Chapter 2:
“Where are you from?” one of the Kurds asked suspiciously.
“From the Hayderanli tribe of Mount Süphan,” the young man replied in that tribe’s dialect.
“Aren’t the Hayderanlians going, too?”
“They must go on the instructions of their Sheikh. The Hayderanlians are not to combine with the Shekaks, Rawandiz and Bilbas, who are under the instruction of Sheikh Jalaleddin.” Even though the words of the proud Hayderanlian were offensive to his listeners, who were of the Rawandiz tribe, they remained silent under the assumption that the stranger must be important, seeing as he was delivering a letter to the Pasha.
The Kurds are an ancient people who comprise a large number of distinct tribes. In 1908, Mark Sykes conducted an extensive survey of the Kurdish tribes that inhabited the lands in and around the Ottoman Empire. The final survey resulted from “about 7,500 miles of riding and innumerable conversations with policemen, muleteers, mullahs, chieftains, sheep drivers, horse dealers, carriers and other people capable of giving first-hand information” (p. 451). During the period in which this survey took place, which is close to the time when Jalaleddin was set, Kurdish tribes occupied lands that extended from around Lake Van and Armenia in the north, to the Tigris in the west, and into the plains of Persia in the south. As a result of his survey, Sykes suggested that the Kurdish population could be divided into three classes: semi-nomadic tribes that occupied plains and southern hills, sedentary mountain tribes, and semi-nomadic mountain tribes.
Sykes explained that Kurds from the semi-nomadic tribes of the plains and southern hills were usually wealthy shepherds who were “expert smiths, weavers, and tent makers” (p. 453). Between the months of October and February, members of these tribes tended to remain stationary in villages, before moving to tents and migrating to the “Wazna district” (a probable reference to Wazna Pass on the Turko-Persian frontier, now in modern day Iraq) with their flocks during the spring and summer months. On the other hand, the sedentary mountain tribes were described as “industrious agriculturists” who demonstrated expertise in cultivating the land around their villages. Sykes went on to note that fierce intertribal battles were not uncommon. The men of the semi-nomadic plains tribes were “fine horsemen, and expert marksmen” (p. 453) who were noted for their chivalry and valor. Similarly, the men of the sedentary mountain tribes carried “rifles and daggers,” and were “active fighters and hunters” (p. 454). Unlike the plains tribes and sedentary mountain tribes, Sykes did not write positively of the semi-nomadic mountain tribes, who he described as being “of a thievish disposition, bloodthirsty, cowardly, and often cruel” (p. 455).
Generally speaking, these depictions are consistent with Raffi’s in Jalaleddin. For example, Omar Agha is described as being wealthy, with herds of sheep and horses, and was characterized as intelligent and courageous. Even for the Kurdish tribes who did participate in Jalaleddin’s incursions against the Armenians, Raffi notes their bravery on the battlefield. For example, he states in Chapter 7:
“The Kurd reveals his sublime nature in moments of danger; he turns into a dragon and tries to eat through the rocks. The steep and craggy rocks [of the canyon] were not obstacles to the eyes of the Hartoshi. Like tigers, they scaled the rocks to face their enemy.”
Interestingly, the tribes that Raffi includes in Jalaleddin are documented in depth by Sykes. For example, the Bilbas tribe comprised 400 families and were a semi-nomadic frontier tribe who spent each summer at Wazna. The Harkis (called “Herki” by Sykes), on the other hand, comprised 3,000 families and were, “a great nomadic tribe, much scattered … found near Erzerum, others near Van, and great numbers near Mossul” (p. 458). Sykes described them as “very dark-skinned,” the women “bold and manly,” and went on to explain that they were large sheep owners and pack horse dealers. Nevertheless, he noted that “it is impossible to mark them down with any accuracy, as they seem to have no fixed beats,” instead preferring to “camp in small numbers and move about in little detachments” (p. 458). The Hartoshi (called “Hartushi” by Sykes) was another important tribe that Sykes suggests may be the “connecting link between the Kurds of Irak [sic] and the Kurds of Armenia”. He noted that they resembled the Harkis in appearance and way of life, and that the nomadic branches of the tribe had “a very bad reputation” (p. 462).
Unlike the preceding tribes, the Shekak tribe, who Sykes explained were called the Revand tribe by local Armenians, comprised 6,000 families and only spent three months of the year in tents. As a result, he suggested that they should be considered sedentary. There was, however, a southern sub-branch of this tribe consisting of 1,000 families (also called Shekak) who were complete nomads. It is unclear if Raffi was referring to the main tribe or the sub-branch in Jalaleddin. Indeed, Raffi also refers to a tribe that transliterates to “Rawandiz,” but which may, in fact, be a reference to the Revands. Alternatively, it is possible that the “Rawandiz” tribe was a distinct tribe that originated from, or near, the town of Rawanduz in modern day northern Iraq, but it should be noted that no tribe with a similar name was identified in that region by Sykes in his survey (n.b. if any readers have further information about this tribe during the late 19th century, we would love to hear from you). Finally, the Hayderanli tribe (called “Haideranli” by Sykes) was the largest of all Kurdish tribes to be included in Jalaleddin. They consisted of 20,000 families but were not described in positive terms by Sykes, who suggested that they were “of no merit either as soldiers, agriculturists or shepherds” (p. 478).
In addition to the aforementioned Kurdish tribes, we also meet one particularly important character in Jalaleddin—the cheerful and brave Město—whom Raffi introduces as a “Yezidi Kurd”. To better understand who the Yezidis were, we will be discussing the Yezidis of the Ottoman Empire in greater depth in an upcoming post.
Sykes, M. (1908). The Kurdish tribes of the Ottoman Empire. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 38, 451-486.