Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Chris KUTSCHERA


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

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.

Amedee Jaubert

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.

Baptistin Poujoulat

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”, he answered.

“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