A history of Kurdish navigation

A history of Kurdish navigation

By Prof. Mehrdad. R. Izady

General history

One of the least-known-and most fascinating-chapters in Kurdish history is the long-lasting participation and occasional dominance of the sea trade and colonization of coastal areas and many islands of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea basins by the Kurds.

Being “inseparably” a mountain people, the last place one expects to find Kurds dominating would be the vast oceanic expanses of the south seas. But we only need to remember how the Arabs-the “navigators of sand deserts”-came subsequently to engage in well-documented sea faring exploits to wake up to the fact that people and cultures are not genetically bound to a particular natural environment, way of life, economic activity, or trade.

Kurdish attention to maritime trade and settlement, as shall be seen below, was the rather unexpected result of a heavy settlement of the coastal regions that were at convenient distance from the Kurdish mountainous heartland. For most of the last 12,000 years, Kurdish mountains have been a source of population surplus and immigrants. From their Zagros-Taurus base, Kurds more than one occasion flowed to settle the coastal regions of the Black Sea to the north, Mediterranean Sea to the west, Caspian Sea to the east and the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean to the south. Once dominating the coastal regions, it was only a matter of time for these formerly mountain-dwellers to discover and participate in the lucrative maritime trade and commerce. To the north, the Black Sea coastal regions were already largely Kurdicized by the population moving out of Cappadocia by the 1st century BC, when the part-Kurdish geographer, Strabo, recorded the process. The movement into Indian Ocean basin had begun at about the same time as that into Pontus, i.e., prior to the 5th century BC.

In time, this Kurdish movement south resulted in heavy settlement and the political dominance of southern Persia by Kurdish dynasties who, having acquired long coast lines on the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, turned to benefit from the lucrative maritime trade revenues. By the advent of the Parthians in the area in the 2nd century BC, one Kurdish dynasty had come to dominate Pars/Fars, Shabankara, Kirman and Mazun (Oman) on both coasts of the Straits of Hormuz. This was the royal house of Badhrangi/Barzangi from whom issued Rambehesht, mother of Ardasher, the founder of the Sasanian Empire. Let us examine these two episodes separately.

Mediterranean and Black seas

The earliest known records of Kurdish engagement in navigation of these seas belong to the period of political dominance of the Zelanid Kurdish dynasties of Anatolia for the two centuries prior to the advent of Christ. Pontian Zelanids evolved into a maritime state with a maritime economic and military base. More than any thing else, this was the result of Pontian geography.


Walled in between powerful states in the Anatolian hinterland and the Black Sea, Zelanid Kurdish state soon came to view the sea as an opportunity rather than liability. In less than two generations time, the capital of Zelanid state was transferred from Amasea (modern Amasya) to the port city of Amisus (modern Samsun). From whence the Zelanids had only the horizons of the open sea for their limits. Tapping into maritime trade, they soon began sinking in gold-far more so than their Cappadocian counterparts ever dreamed of. The Zelanids’ push for land acquisition also followed this sea-faring orientation: they expanded to include coastal regions rather than the hinterland. First the coastal region of Bethynia was annexed with its ideally-located port city of Sinope, in which was to be born Mithridates the Great. Eastward, all the Black Sea coasts to the foothills of Mt. Caucasus followed suit. Legendary Colchis (Golkhidia in western Georgia) was in time to be assigned for rule to the geographer Strabo’s Kurdish uncle, Moaphernes. Coastal lands to the far side of the Black Sea soon followed. First was taken in ca. 110 BC the ancient Scythian kingdom of Bosporus along with its Greek colonists. The Zelanids thus inherited the Taman and Crimean peninsulas and the entire coasts of the Sea of Azov. This gave them control over the deltas of Don, Dnieper and Dniestr rivers which drained the entire grain-rich hinterland of Ukraine. The wealth and vast food supplies gained this way by the Pontian Zelanids propelled it into an empire-building mode.

Under the half-a-century-long reign of Mithridates Euergetes, the Zelanids followed the natural maritime routes and after dominating the Sea of Marmara and moved into the Aegean Sea. Strabo relates how his great grandfather, Doryla?s, was assigned by Euergetes to raise troops from the island of Crete in the far end of the Aegean Sea. (Strabo, Geo, X.iv.10) Consummating a process started by his father, Emperor Pharnaces I, under Euergetes’ direction the Pontian Zelanids became by and large a maritime empire.

The next step-expansion into the vast expanse and tapping the wealth of-the Mediterranean Sea came under Mithridates the Great. But instead of expanding directly through the Aegean into the Mediterranean, he established a short-cut over land, and reached Mediterranean through Cappadocia and Cilicia. Neither he nor his predecessors ever had embarked to fully annex Cappadocia and snuff out the ancient branch of the Zelanid house there. Now, however, the commercial and economic opportunities outweighed the filial concerns, and Cappadocia was annexed outright, while making Cilicia a vassal. By 87 BC, Zelanid navy and allies were in control of eastern Mediterranean Sea, from whence they attacked and harassed the Romans in Greece and Sicily.

The eventual defeat of the Zelanids on land and the occupation of their original home by the Romans, neither could nor did end in the destruction of the Pontian Zelanids: they simply moved their seat to their overseas possessions in Bosporos and Crimea on the Ukrainian-North Caucasian coasts. But first let us examine the events in the Indian Ocean as they were unfolding at this time, before concluding the Zelanid maritime history.

Indian Ocean

It is fascinating to note that while these events were transpiring in the Mediterranean and Black seas, another Kurdish dynasty was going through the same metamorphosis from a mountain kingdom to a maritime empire: the Badhrangids of Persis and Carmania. These occupied the extreme opposite space from the Zelanids in respect to Kurdistan proper. And like the Pontian Zelanids, the Badhrangids were pushed against the sea, in this case, the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, and like them they discovered the wealth and military opportunities open to a maritime regime.

As the Pontian Zelanids were moving to annex the coastal territories of the Black Sea, the Badhrangids/Barzangids were doing the same in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Mazun/Oman became the first major overseas possession of the Badhrangids where they took up the port of Suhar as the regional capital. From this base the Barzangids had by the end of 1st century BC, moved to annex most of the islands off East Africa. Socotra, Zanzibar, Pemba and Mafia were followed by the Combolo/Comoros and Madagascar. By the 1st century AD, the Badhrangids were the dominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean, with headquarters at newly-founded ports from Madagascar to Somalia. Then came the disaster at home. Like the Zelanids, the Badhrangids were challenged on their original home territory by the emergence of an expanding young empire; Rome in case of Pontus, Sasanian Persia in case of the Badhrangids. Similar to the Zelanids, in a short few decades, the Badhrangids had been expelled from their home region. To survive, the Badhrangids too found it necessary to transplant their power center to their overseas possession.

The extant historical records make it fairly clear how and when the Zelanids moved to northern coasts of the Black Sea. No such records are thus far available for the early stages of the Badhrangids’ transplantation overseas. It is not clear, for example, whether the main seat of the Badhrangids was first moved across the Persian Gulf to port of Suhar in Mazun (modern Oman) before resettling later, and permanently in East Africa, or was it moved directly to Africa. Mirroring the struggle between the Romans and the Zelanids who followed the latter even into their overseas retreats, the Sasanian Persians, after chasing the Badhrangids off their ancestral home in Fars/Persis, had by the late 3rd and early 4th century AD taken Mazun and other regions on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf from the Badhrangids. This pushed the Badhrangids conclusively into East Africa. While the second push by the Romans against the Zelanid in their overseas refuge in Bosporus concluded their history for ever, the Badhrangids survived for another 500 successful year in their third place of refuge: East Africa. The Badhrangids in fact outlasted the Sasanians, and in wealth and commerce, outranked them. The Zelanids were not so fortunate. This major difference between the fortunes of the two Kurdish maritime empires was due fully to the blind element of geography and not the talent of their dynasts.

The Zelanids overseas refuge was on the far side of the Black Sea-an inland sea for which the only exist to the open world oceans was through the narrow straits of Bosphorus and Dardanells, both of which firmly under controlled of their Roman enemy. The Zelanids were thus hemmed in, and were in time snuffed out by the Romans. The Badhrangids, on the other hand, were facing the Indian Ocean and the open seas. No Sasanian naval or land actions could any longer corner the Badhrangids trade routes or their versatile maritime empire. The Badhrangids in their overseas possession were there to stay-and prosper. Their complete expulsion from the Persian Gulf-Arabian Sea basin by the Sasanians turned out to be a further boon to the Badhrangids, who seeking new trading outposts, fanned out to coastal India, Indochina, and southern China, and eventually, the eastern Pacific Ocean. As early as AD 110 one finds in the navigation logs, The Roundabout the Inidan Ocean (Periplus Maris Erythraei, trans. and ed., Lionel Casson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), recounts a brisk trade between the Kurdish Barzangi ports on the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman, and East Africa (Periplus, 38).

Colonies of Kurds, Persians and other Iranic peoples from southern Iran “founded everywhere on the [East African] coast and islands commercial settlements in pre-Islamic times, centuries before Muhammed?” (Richard Reusch, History of East Africa. New York: Ungar, 1961, 33, 49). Because of the dominance of the Barzangi of East Africa, soon it came to be known as Barzangibar (“Barzangi coast”), eventually shortened to Zangibar (whence Zanzibar). The black slaves they marketed in Asia, were thus known as the zangi/zinji, meaning a native of Zangibar-a name that continues to the present as a pejorative for an African black in the Middle Eastern languages.

In East Africa, many colonial cities were founded in the Zanzibar archipelago and later, on the mainland under the tutelage of the Barzangis. The cities of Zangibar and Manda in the archipelago soon were rivaled and surpassed by cities like Mombasa, Malindi, Brava, Mogadishu, Kisimayu and of course the Barzangi colonial capital of Kilwa Kisiwani south of modern Dar es Salaam. Kilwa became the nucleus of an East African Barzangi empire, better known as “Kilwa Empire,” that stretched from the Horn of Africa to Mozambique and included settlements on Madagascar, the Comoros, the Seychelles and the Zanzibar archipelago per se.

An independent Kilwa Empire seems to have come into being when the first Sasanian emperor, Ardasher I, ended in AD 224 the independent rule of the parent Barzangi state in southern Persia. In the reign of Ardasher’s successor, Shapor I, Sasanians had annexed the southern shores of the Gulf and Muscat on the Indian Ocean, finishing off any vestige of Barzangi independence on the Asian continent. By the mid-6th century, the Yemen had been wrested by the Sasanians from the Ethiopian Empire, effectively cutting off the Barzangis in East Africa from all their Middle Eastern roots and trade. These steps may have been the impetus for the Kilwa Barzangis to embark on a search for new markets, now that the Sasanians were in firm control of the ports and markets in Persia and Arabia.

The Barzangis thus fanned out east and engaged in commerce with India, the Malay archipelago and south China, leaving behind geographical names telltale of their once dominant position. The name of the Malabar coast of India (Malay+bar, “Malay coast”) is just a parallel with that of Zangibar/Zanzibar. This process is also at the root of how the sea faring hero Sindbad, gets his Kurdish name, and how the third largest island in the Philippines archipelago is called Palawan/Pahlawan-“hero” in Kurdish, and now also “hero, saint” in all Southeast Asian languages.

The Sasanians took great interest in continuing the Barzangi enterprise in the south seas, for by middle of the 5th century AD, they had gained from the Barzangis the “control of the sea ways in the western half of the Indian Ocean.” (Gervase Matthew, “The East African Coast until the Coming of the Portuguese,” in Roland Oliver and Gervase Mathew, eds., History of East Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963, 99). This added a definite Persian coloring to the earlier Kurdish endeavor in maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. Persian colonies were already flourishing in South China, East Indies and south India-and East Africa by the 7th century.

It is not clear how successful the Sasanians were in continuing the impressive steps of the Barzangis in dominating the maritime trade and the colonies in East Africa, south and southeast Asia and China. The rather scanty numismatic evidence on exhibit at the Beit al-Amani Museum at Zanzibar city includes four Parthian and one Sasanian piece from the mint at Ctesiphon, the latest of which is one of Ardasher I. This can hardly be used to compare Barzangi Kurdish success with that of subsequent Sasanian Persians.

One should recognize that the survival of Zoroastrian fire temples found in many locations in the Kilwa domain is not necessarily a Sasanian vestige. Sasanian sources, including rock inscriptions and textual records tell of the Badhrangi/Barzangi house having served an important Zoroastrian function as custodians of the great temple of the goddess Anahita at Stakhr/Persepolis. It is hard to believe that such a religious function was not transplanted by the Barzangis to their East African domains. These mixed Iranic colonies continued to prosper into the early Islamic era, when under attacks from the aggrieved native population, the imperial capital of Kilwa fell and nearly 2,000 of its inhabitants were eaten in a single week.

A new wave of Iranic dominance of East Africa unfolded in the 11th century, and this time it was a joint endeavor by the Persians and Shabankara Kurds of Shiraz region in southern Iran. East African traditions and chronicles, numismatic and architectural evidence, statements of European traveler Joao De Barros, and reports of Muslim travelers and geographers imply that after the Barzangis, another “Shirazi” dynasty moved to East Africa, establishing the Zanj Empire, and ruling there for more than 500 years from 980 to 1513 (Reusch, 91-215; Mathew, 102-106). The founder, Ali ibn Hasan, “ruled over the whole coast from Lamu in the north to Sofala in the south, if not farther.” (Reusch, 107). Thus modern elite and many common citizens of the Zanzibar archipelago and those of the “Swahil” (Lindi to Mombasa and Malindi) and “Benadir” (Kisimayu to Mogadishu) coasts of East Africa call themselves “Afro-Shirazi,” including the main political party in Zanzibar, the “Afro-Shirazi Party”.

The foundation of the modern town of Zanzibar (the stone town center) was laid late in the reign of this Kurdo-Persian “Shirazi” dynasty. Arabs, particularly those from Oman came to dominate East Africa after the fall of this dynasty. The Portuguese, Germans and the British successively ruled and divided the area into various colonial domains beginning with the 17th century. The dominance by Middle Easterners of the area, nevertheless, continued under European colonial regimes, albeit in an ever-shrinking form, until the anti-white revolution of 1964 completely removed the last vestiges of non-native, Iranic-Arabian domination from their first, and ironically last, bastion-Zanzibar. Recent archaeological excavations in the old Kilwa imperial sites such as Unguja Ukuu, Tumbatu, Mtambwe and Mkumbuu are shedding new light on the history of settlement and institution of the Iranic empire of Kilwa, and the interconnection between various far-flung segments of that maritime state with each other and southern Iran.

One can only hypothesize what could have been, if the much more powerful Zelanids had an open ocean lapping on their coast instead of the besieged Black Sea. The great potentials of this Kurdish maritime empire may not have been wasted and the history of the Kurdish people in general might have taken a different, less mountain-oriented turn.

Bibliography: The most valuable textual source of information on the Kurdish maritime enterprise into the South Seas comes from The Periplus of the Erythraei. A rather short manual by an anonymous traveler, the Periplus provides a concise description of trading ports in the Indian Ocean basin, including East Africa and the Persian Gulf. The Periplus Maris Erythraei, trans. and ed., Lionel Casson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).