Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Three French precursors of Kurdology
Par Chris KUTSCHERA (*)
Decades, and even centuries, for one of them,
before the rise of Kurdology as a modern science, three French travelers wrote
accounts of their missions to Kurdistan which rank, by their insight and their
knowledge, among the first “essays of Kurdology”.
Francois Petis de la Croix
Son of King Louis XIV’s interpreter in Turkish and Arab,
Francois Petis de la Croix was raised to take over from his father, and studied
several oriental languages during his childhood. He was not yet 16 year old
when Colbert, the King’s “prime minister”, sent him to the Near East to
“improve his knowledge of oriental languages and implement missions related to
the well being of France”. He left France in 1670 for what is now Iskenderun
(Alexandrette), and from there to Aleppo, where he stayed over three years, and
to Isfapahan (two years), and Istanbul (Constantinople, four years). Back in
France in 1681, he was sent on missions for the King to Morocco and Algeria, where
he negotiated the peace of 1684 and translated its Treaty in Turkish. Holding
the chair of Arab studies, he was also appointed “secretary interpreter of His
Majesty in Arab, Turkish and Persian”. He did not travel anymore, and died in
Paris in 1713, two years before Louis XIV.
His book “The Journey of sir Francois Petis in Syria and
Persia” is a remarkable document in which his descriptions of the cities of
Diyarbekir, Hasankeyf, and Djezireh are unique accounts of the condition of
these Kurdish cities and of the mental world of the Kurdish chieftains at the
end of the 17th century.
“Diyarbekir, which the Turks also call Amed, he writes, lies
at the 37° degree of latitude. The Tigris flows at 2.000 feet east of the city
which is built on a steep hill. The city is almost as big as Aleppo… It
contains at least 120 mosques, six or seven of which are very beautiful, and
the first one was in the past the famous convent of Saint Bazile. The varnished
domes of these mosques illuminate the city. There are Nestorians, Jacobites,
Armenians, few Greek Orthodox, no Maronites, and many Jews. The only Europeans
are a few capucin priests, who survive thanks to the gifts of our King and
their practice of medecine… “
Petis de la Croix writes that he described more in details
in his “Big Journal” a city which “suffers much of the tyranny of the Turks”.
“There is, he adds, little trade, and it consists of linen, soap and paper”.
Petis de la Croix traveled from Diyarbakir to Djezireh with
what was at that time the safest way of traveling -- the “kelek” -- a kind of
raft flowing down the Tigris until Mosul. Petis describes how twenty persons
were embarked on 15 square feet rafts made of bundles of firewood tied together
and floating on inflated goat skins.
He reached safely Hasankeyf, of which the citadel, he
writes, “is built on the top of a steep and incredibly high rock. And one can
reach it only through steps carved in the rock with a rare talent. Farther down
there is a bridge of four archways over the river” -- of which we can see today
only the remains of the pillars. “This city, writes Petis, has ten mosques, and
its trade is much more active than Diyarbekir’s. Its inhabitants are Kurds,
although the surrouding villages are inhabited by Yezidis”.
The envoy of the King of France then describes how his party
faced a band of 120 Kurdish highwaymen while they were camping for the night on
the river’s bank. And he relates this extraordinary dialoguewhich took place
after their chief, “a rebel prince”, got his share of money to guarantee them a
safe passage : when asked if he had friendly relations with the Ottoman
emperor, the chief of the robbers answered : “It is me who is the Emperor,
and if he is stronger than me, I am more noble than him”.
If only for this quote, Petis de la Croix would deserve to
rank among the first “Kurdologues”. It tells all about one of the most salient
features of the Kurdish character -- an unlimited pride, which makes every Kurd
feel superior to his other countrymen, and which makes the building of a
coalition -- the basic feature of a democratic system -- so difficult.
Finally Petis de la Croix’s party reached Djezireh “which,
he writes, the Kurds want to be the capital of Mesopotamia, since it carries
the same name. It is a very clean small town, built of bricks, of which the
houses, kiosks and balconies are embellished by various kinds of paints. It is
ruled by a beg, or Kurdish prince, and his “serai”, built on a tower on the
river’s bank, coated with varnishes of different colours, looks quite
beautiful. It is inhabited by Kurds, Turks and Armenians. On the other side of
the river there are villages inhabited by Yezidis. There is a boat bridge”. It
is difficult to imagine , when wandering today in what looks like a rather
derelict town, that Djezireh which was to become amir Bedir Khan’s “capital” ,
was such a beautiful city at the end of the 17th century… Today there is
nothing left of its castle, razed after the collapse of amir Bedir Khan’s
rebellion in the middle of the 19th century.
Entrusted by Napoleon with a diplomatic mission at the court
of the King of Persia, Amédée Jaubert traveled in 1805 through all Turkey, from
Constantinople to the Persian border, without facing any problem, until he
arrived in Bayazid (Dogu Bayazit) where he was arrested by the Pacha and thrown
in a dungeon of his castle with his French servant and the Tatar provided by
the Sultan as a guide and interpreter. His other servant, an Armenian, was
immediately strangled to death upon their arrest. And Amedee Jaubert spent more
than six months in his jail, from 5 July 1805 to 19 February 1806. He was freed
only after the King of Persia intervened in his favour, and… after the pacha
got struck with the pest.
Amedee Jaubert’s “Travel”, published in 1821, shows the
talent of an astute observer, with an interest both for the economics and the
culture of the Kurds. It also tells much about the way prisoners were
treated : from his jail, he was allowed to mediate in a wedding !
“Containing many pastures, Kurdistan, the country inhabited
by the Kurds, he writes, feeds a large number of sheeps and goats, the sale of
which provides fairly huge amounts of money. It is estimated that 1,5 million
heads arrive yearly from this country to Constantinople. A larger number leaves
Kurdistan, but many of them perish on the way due to the length and the
difficulties of the journey. Each herd numbers 1.500 to 2.000 animals led by
several shepherds who avoid as much as possible the tracks followed by the
caravans. It takes 17 or 18 months to take a herd from Van to Constantinople.
“The northern part of Kurdistan produces the wheat and the
rye needed by its inhabitants. It produces also sulphur and alum. The wide
valleys and the large plains of southern Kurdistan are fertile in rice, wheat,
barley, sesame, fruit, tobacco and cotton. It also produces honey and an
excellent kind of nuts, which is shipped to Europe from the ports of
Alexandrette (Iskenderun) and Smyrne (Izmir)
“Military exercises are the Kurds’ main entertainment. They
like much tales, and they compose songs about licentious loves, or about
battles, or about tragic or memorable events. One song was written about the
tragic death of two Pachas of Bayazid, and another one about our captivity.
Although it is simple, the music of the Kurds is not without art. It is
expressive and melancholic”.
“No Kurd, whatever his age and his rank, can marry without
the consent of his parents”.
And Amedee Jaubert tells a story which shows to which degree
“paternal authority is strong in Kurdistan, and to which point the Kurds
respect misfortune”. Mahmoud agha, who was commanding the castle where Amedee
Jaubert was kept in jail, had a grand son, Hussein, who had fallen in love with
a young woman.
But for some reason Hussein could not get the consent of his
grand father who stubbornly rejected the demands of all his parents and
friends. Then somebody remembered that a poor foreigner was rottening in a
dungeon of the castle, and suggested that maybe Mahmoud agha would bow to the
demand of a poor and oppressed man… Amedee Jaubert accepted to intercede, and,
to everybody’s surprise, the inflexible Mahmoud agha gave in.
“Listen, foreigner, the old man told Amedee Jaubert, what
you demand from me goes against my will and my interest. I have seen the tears
of an imploring family. I heard the threats of a severe master. And I did not
change my mind. But the prayer of a guest is sacred. The voice of the
unfortunate is the voice of the Providence, and his wish is an irresistible order.
You want it, then these two lovers will be united”… So the wedding took place,
and the groom and the bride sent to Amedee Jaubert, who remained locked in
jail, a bowl of mead and a bunch of flowers.
“My son, Mahmoud agha told Amedee Jaubert, may this
example be a lesson for you. If you ever see again the blue sky, your homeland
and your family; if you ever have a chance to serve your people, do not forget
that the most beautiful attributes of power are acts of generosity”.
This episode tells a lot about another salient feature of
the character of the Kurds -- their nobility and generosity.
Traveling in Turkey in 1837 while a 40.000 strong Ottoman
army was campaigning against Revendouz beg, Baptistin Poujoulat is a rare
witness of the destructions and sufferings of this war, in his “Travel”
published in 1840. While he has little sympathy for the Kurds, he shows how
already in the first part of the 19th century, Kurdistan was devastated by
Turkish armies who destroyed the Kurdish villages and deported thousands of
Kurdish families. And he vividly describes a rather incredible scene of
torture, which proves that the 20th century did not invent anything in this
field. Baptistin Poujoulat also describes his visit at the headquarters of the
Ottoman general in chief, Hafiz Pacha, a very learned Circassian officer, who
asked his military band to play music by… Donizetti, and asked Poujoulat what
were the last news fom Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister….
“After Revendouz beg’s surrender, the war became fiercer
than ever, writes Baptistin Poujoulat. Irritated by the treason of one of their
main leaders, the Kurds fought desperately. Kurdish fighters were appearing
from everywhere, and the Ottoman army was seriously worried by their obstinate
bravery. The Kurds were merciless with the captured Turkish soldiers: they drew
their nails, plug out their eyes, and burned them alive. The Pachas answered by
impaling their Kurdish prisoners. These atrocious reprisals lasted three
months. It is estimated that 10.000 Kurds were killed while fighting or under
torture. And the Ottoman army lost 4.000 soldiers. An infinite number of
Kurdish villages were looted and burned…
“How could I describe the scene I am presently watching near
the village of Argah ? At the foot of the Aladjah-Dagh, on a dusty soil
deprived of any shade, 4.000 Kurdish prisoners of all ages and sex are kept in
custody. They have no cloth to make tents and are exposed to an intense sun.
Unable to cope with the heat, they put their face in the dust. Most of these
men, these women, these young girls, these children are completely naked. Some
of them have a piece of cloth wrapped around their waist. Their faces show pain
and despair…. The screams, tears and wails of these 4.000 Kurds remind me of
the horrible suffering of those convicted to Hell.
“These unfortunate people have been here for six days ;
they get, for all food, some black bread and water from a near-by brook. In
three days, 20 children died in their mother’s arms who had no more milk to
feed them…. The Kurdish prisoners are no more sentenced to death, concludes
Baptistin Poujoulat, Hafiz Pacha plans to settle them in his pachalik”….
After describing the destruction of the Kurdish villages,
Baptistin Poujoulat writes a vivid account of his visit at Hafiz pacha
headquarters, where he witnessed a scene of torture which tells a lot about the
bravery of the Kurds.
“There were Kurdish men of amazing character, he writes. One
of the most fearsome Kurdish leaders, who was not yet 30 year old, was captured
by the Turks. He was tall and handsome, one had not yet seen such a beautiful
Kurd. He was led to Hafiz Pacha. A visiting vizir would not have been welcome
with more consideration. Hafiz Pacha and the cadi of the army spoke at length
with the young Kurdish chief, trying to convince him to inform them about the
Kurds’ positions. The Ottoman general even promisd to appoint him colonel at
the head of one of his regiments if he would answer frankly their questions.
“Don’t be fooled, answered the Kurd, I will not be a second
Revendouz beg (who had surrendered). After having been chief of the Kurds, I
will never be chief of other men. If I was at the head of one of your
regiments, it would only be to turn my arms against you, and God knows I am not
a traitor. About the revelations you expect from me, you waste your time.
Misfortune put me in your hands, do what you want”.
“Loosing hope to convince him with words, Hafiz pacha
resorted to torture. The general began by ordering to flog him 500 times on his
feet. Lying on his stomach, while he was beaten, the Kurd asked for a
“schibouk”, and he started smoking, as if he did not feel the pain.
“This horrible punishment was inflicted during two days, and
on the third day, the unshakable Kurd was undressed and put in a big boiler
full of hot water. He was asked the same questions about the Kurdish rebellion,
but he did not say a word. “You do not answer, said Hafez Pacha, Don’t you hear
me” ? “Thank Allah, my ears are not closed, but my tongue remains mute”,
“Which more cruel torture could we invent to make him
speak”, the cadi asked the general. The tortured Kurdish chieftain, pointing at
a man who was in front of him, answered : “No torture, no torment, could
be more horrible than the sight, right in front of me, of a coward Kurd who
abandoned his brothers and surrendered to his ennemies”. Hearing this, the Kurd
renegade -- we would say today “jash” -- to whom these words were addressed
seized a pistol and putting it in his mouth, shot himself and blew up his
brain. A few minutes later the Kurdish chief kept in boiling water passed away.
Ancient history does not show more admirable case of
patriotism. No soldier, no chief, not among the Greeks, nor among the Romans,
displayed a more heroic firmness than this young barbarian, whom name the world
will never know”.
Coming from a French man who, again, did not feel any
particular sympathy for the Kurds, this is not a minor tribute.
There were other French travelers, who wrote somewhat more
scientific reports about Kurdistan in the first part of the 19th century, like
Xavier Hommaire de Hell, who, in his very rich book “Travel in Turkey and
Persia in 1846, 1847 and 1848” published in 1854, describes, among others, the
old city of Kharpout (El Azig), the last battle and the surrender of amir Bedir
Khan, whom he met near Trabzon. He also gives rare statistics about the
population of Diyarbekir, of which, according to him, half of the population
was christian. And he describes at length the poverty and misery of Kurdistan,
of which 75 per cent of the villages lie in ruins.
But I wanted to pay due homage to Petis de la Croix, Amedee
Jaubert and Baptistin Poujoulat, whose names should figure in any history of a
Kurdology which found its first master with Claudius James Rich and
his”Narrative of a Residence in Coordistan” (1836).
Petis de la Croix, Jaubert and Poujoulat, despite the fact
that they were “amateur” Kurdologues, underscored a very characteristic feature
of the Kurdish character -- an immense pride intertwined with a rare bravery,
which explains the historical divisions of the Kurds and the present
factionalism. They also show that the devastation, ruins and misery of
Kurdistan are not a new phenomenon brought by the dictators of the 20th
century : war and its destructions are, alas, a permanent feature of
Kurdish history, as early as the beginning of the 19th century.
(*) Journalist and writer