Khurasani Kurdish Exclave in the 19th Century

Khurasani Kurdish Exclave in the 19th Century

By Prof. Mehrdad. R. Izady

This detached exclave of Kurdish inhabited land is found on the modern northeastern borders of Iran with Turkmenistan in what has been historically known as northern sector of the province of Khurasan (the “land of rising sun”).

Politically, at around 1835, the territory of northern Khurasan was fully inside Persia/Iran, although the writ of the government in Teheran was barely read in the area. The Kurdish and Turkmen nomadic tribes held undisputed sway over their territories, paying practically no homage to the Persian crown. The same was true of the old Kurdish principalities in the area, whose power was soon to be violently ended by the military actions of the Persian army.

The Khurasani Kurdish exclave is located on the Revand Heights, a formation of two parallel ridges running in a southeasterly direction from the Caspian Sea to the borders of Afghanistan where they join the Parapamisus mountains. In effect, the Revand bridges the high Elburz mountains to the west to the Hindu Kush massif to the east. The Revand may well be considered the eastern third of the high Elburz.

The two parallel ridges of the Revand act as ramparts to a long fertile valley with three main towns of Qochan, Shirvan and Bojnurd, lying almost equidistantly from one another, from east to west. River Atrak runs almost the total length of the valley, from the southeast to the northwest, emptying into the Caspian. The smaller Kashaf River drains the southeastern quarter of the valley, running the exact opposite course of the Atrak and disappearing in the sands of the Kara Kum desert of Turkmenistan in Central Asia. The thick Caspian forests cover the western one third of the exclave, becoming open parkland and then grassland towards the east. The northern slopes facing the parched Kara Kum desert boast only to seasonal grass and open stands of tamarisk trees and brushes. The area is naturally rich in cochineal-bearing trees, producing copious amount of the valuable crimson dye for local weavers as well as for export.

The summers are generally warm, and occasionally hot due to the impact of the great Kara Kum sand desert to the north and the Kavir salt desert to the south. Winters, on the other hand, are brutal. The cold Siberian air mass descends on the region like a frigid dome, dropping the temperatures to around minus 40 degrees on any normal winter. Production of heavy furs (Persian lamb coats and hats in particular), heavy woolen clothing and thick durable rugs are thus a necessity in the area. Much was produced and exported in the past as in the present, marketed in the local bazaars of Qochan, Shirvan and Bojnurd as also in the great emporium of Meshhad.

The major city of Meshhad—for long the capital of Persian Khurasan—is on the immediate eastern fringes of the Kurdish exclave, while to the west is the city of Asterabad (modern Gurgan), for long the largest city and emporium of the province of Mazenderan. Much was exported from Asterabad to the Russian markets and beyond via the Caspian Sea. Meshhad, on the other hand, was one of the major cities on the entire old Silk Road. This made the city a great natural market for the Kurdish exclave’s export of its goods and import of technology and products it needed. There are also many other ancient towns and cities dotting the Revand Heights and its piedmont on all sides. The modern Turkmen capital of Ashgabat is, for example, on the northern slopes of the Revand, with its southern suburbs being in the Kurdish territories.

The main trunk of the Silk Road crossed on the southern slopes of the Revand, from Meshhad to the fabled Nishapor, and on to Sabzavar (Bayhaq), Damghan, Varamin and Teheran (Ray), and then toward the Zagros crossings at Hamadan and Kirmanshah (see the section on Southern Kurdistan in this book). A secondary trunk line ran parallel to this, from Meshhad to Qochan (Khebushan), Shirvan, Bojnurd (Buzanjird), Gorgan, Asterabad and joined the main line at Damghan. The northern route passed through the heartland of the Khurasani Kurdish exclave, but was always secondary in importance due to predation by the Turkmen raiders since the 13th century. Nonetheless, much commerce took place on that secondary line. Often, such as at Isfarayin, this secondary line would join main line deep within the Kurdish territories and well before arriving in the dangerous Turkmen-held territories farther west. Commodities such as dried foodstuff (raisin, almonds, apricots and peaches), cereals, raw wool, and dye stuff (such as cochineal), precious and semiprecious stones such as turquoise and carnelian were soled to the passing merchants. Kurds and the remaining settled Persians also presented for sale woolens and cotton goods, rugs, kilims and various other textiles.

Being so close to the world’s primary east-west land route naturally provided a vast market for what could be produced locally. The same commercial land route also attracted into the region some of the most vicious raiders and bandits seen anywhere. The road was operative only as long as some measure of safety could be provided. The Kurdish emirs and khans, as also their Persian neighbors had much to gain for providing the necessary safe passage. The revenue earned from tolls and sales could have been dazzling. Kurds, however, were relative new comers to the area by 1835.

The Khurasani exclave is not a “native” Kurdish territory, at least not in the standard Middle Eastern parlance, in which the criterion for nativeness is measured by the millennia not centuries. For medieval times, the periodic reports of Kurdish nomadic presence in the area are not uncommon, although at no time did the Kurds form anything like a substantial portion of local population there. The area forms the very heartland of ancient Parthia, with Parthian ruins everywhere. The territory had, however, been Persianized by the 5th century AD. The Turco-Mongolian nomadic influx, beginning with the 6th century had turned into a destructive flood by the 13th. As the result, these, some of the most fertile territories in southwestern Asia, had been largely depopulated and its urban-agricultural base destroyed by the nomads when the present Kurdish population arrived.

The present Kurdish population began settling the area early in the 16th century, with the major influx taking place in the 17th, when vast numbers of Kurds were deported en masse by the Safavid kings of Persia into northern Khurasan and beyond. These arrivals did not cease until well into the 18th century, with the Zand tribe of southeast Kurdistan being among the last deportees to arrive there.

Prior to this episode, however, Kurds had ventured into the region in the earlier centuries and millennia, with considerable population of Kurds present in the Revand Heights as late as the 10th and 11th centuries. These earlier Kurdish populations, however, were voluntary arrivals of wondering nomads, and in time they largely, if not totally were assimilated into the local Persian population. Upon their mass arrival in the 16th century, the Kurds found the countryside nearly entirely dominated by the Turco-Mongolian Kara’its, many of whom by then practiced settled agricultural life, while the nomads in the area comprised of some of the fiercest Turkmen tribes. The ancient Persian community had retreated into strongly fortified fortress-villages or barricaded themselves inside walled cities. Kurds changed this picture drastically and almost immediately.

Such deported populations, having been removed from their cultural and geographical roots, normally face assimilation. Many Kurdish deportees in the past have assimilated into the local populations, leaving behind only vestiges of their former selves as marker in the modern inhabitants (such as Kurdish clan surnames, toponyms and/or weaving styles). Why the Kurdish exclave in Khurasan has survived unassimilated, remains vivacious and in fact expanding, is due to several auspicious reasons: 1) they were brought into the area en masse, leading to abrupt dominance of the territory through their sheer numbers and, 2) the local Persian peasantry had been already decimated by the Turkmen and Uzbek raiders and the Kara’it settlers. This fact had necessitated the repopulating of the area in the first place with loyal newcomers in the minds of the Safavid strategists; 3) the religious animosity between the Kurd and the Turkmen elements in the area—Kurds being Alevi and Shiites, while Turkmens Sunnis—further hampered assimilation even after the loss of their language. By the end of the 19th century, the third largest Kurdish tribal confederacy in the area—the Qarachorlu—who had been most exposed and often dominated by the Turkmen tribal chiefs, had become Turkmeni speaking. They did not, however, assimilate into the Turkmen ethnic pool because of their religious difference. They remain today a large Kurdish clan who are identified as Kurds by their neighbors as well as themselves, although they are almost totally Turkmeni speaking.1

The Safavid resettlement authorities must have been counting on this element for choosing Kurds to be brought into the area. But there were also the paramount elements of military prowess and tribal social coherence among these Kurds of upper Tigris-Euphrates basin that were needed for a successful defense of Safavid northern Khurasan.2 The entire mountainous northern Khurasan was subsequently reconstituted into five autonomous fiefs, placed under five Kurdish emirs of Zafaranlu, Shadlu (or Shadilu), Qarachurlu, Qaramanlu and Kowanlu. The first three of these had survived the ages until 1835 as autonomous principality (like the Zafaranlu) or khanates (the others). The harsh security conditions reigning in northern Khurasan—the very reason that necessitated bringing of Kurds into the area in the first place, had taken a bloody toll. The Kurds were being hemmed in from all sides but south by the Turkmen raiders who had access to better European firearms, purchasing them at the bazaars of Khiva and Bukhara. The price for these arms were ironically provided by the Turkmen engagement in trade of Kurdish and Persian slaves.

Many Kurds and Persian peasants were taken into slavery by the Turkmens and sold in the slave markets of Khiva and Bukhara, and as far as Kashgar in China, where they were encountered by the early European travelers. At the time of the Russian takeover of the Khanate of Khiva in 1873, they found over 15,000 Kurdish and Persian slaves in that khanate alone!  Their sales’ proceeds usually went into the purchase of the firearms that were then used to capture more slaves for the Turkmen raiders. The Kurdish territory was shrinking under this ceaseless Turkmen tribal predation powered by the new European armaments.

Under the military pressure of the central Iranian government, the Turkmens were disarmed in the course of 1930s, losing their military advantage vis-à-vis Kurds. The numerical superiority of the Kurds now came to play the decisive role and a reversal of the situation dominant circa 1835 has been at work ever since. A massive resettlement of that rich pastureland by the Kurdish sheep breeders had marginalized the far less numerous Turkmen horse breeders. This feat was largely accomplished in the past 50 years, bringing with it an expansion of market for Kurdish handicraft such as rugs. The market cities of eastern Mazandaran province, Iran, such as Gurgan, Sari, and even Gumbad-i Qabus (the primary market town for the Turkmen products) are now awash with Kurdish rugs, kilims and other products. Earlier, it was the eastern markets such as Meshhad, Sabzevar (Bayhaq) and Nishapor which served as sole outside market for Kurdish fabrics.

In their composition, the Khurasani Kurds are perhaps the single most nomadic of all Kurdish groups today. At the time when nearly all Kurds’ neighbors in that area have become settled farmers, the mobile Kurdish nomads there are actively expanding the ethnic territories of Khurasani Kurds in nearly all direction. In fact the fourth original fiefs set up by the Safavids for the Kurdish settlement in the area in the 17th century, but subsequently lost, is being actively retrieved by the Kurds at present. That is the Gurgan Steppe, the westernmost of the five fiefs, and the heartland of Turkmen tribal areas in Persia/Iran.

The primary Kurdish tribal confederacies in the region were (and remain today) the same as the original fief divisions under the Safavids. The most important was and remains the Zafaranlu, headed by the princely House of Chemishkazag whose last capital at Qochan remains the largest city and market in the area. The Karamanlu and the Kowanlus have been eclipsed to become constituent parts, albeit very large parts, of the Zafaranlus. In 1835 the Zafaranlu territory stretched from the western environs of Meshhad to half way between towns of Shrivan and Bojnurd. The Shadlu (more properly, Shadilu) were the second most important, and held their capital at Bojnurd (the medieval Persian city of  Buzanjird). The Qarachurlu held the westernmost territory of the Khurasani Kurdish exclave, and the most exposed one to the Turkmen raiders. The town of Samalqan served them as their headquarters.

There were also several smaller confederacies at the time, including the Jelali, whose territory were the northern hill country facing the great Kara Kum desert in central Asia.

The Zafaranlu confederacy (more correctly, Zakhuran) have always controlled the largest area and contained most member tribes, clans and household. Rarely have the Zafaranlu lost their political and military leadership of the Khurasani Kurds. They also have distinguished themselves with their military service to the Persian court, defending her northeastern imperial boundaries against the incursions by Central Asiatic powers that may be. Further afield, they participated in various foreign expeditions of the Persian monarchs, extending to the recent Iran-Iraq war. It may be remembered that it was the Zafaranlu general and his Kurdish contingency that played a major role in the conquest of Mughal India for the Persian monarch, Nadir Shah in 1738.3

The Zafaranlu comprised of the following tribes and clans in early 19th century: Amarlu, Badelan, Bichran, Hewadan, Hizowalan, Izan, Jalali, Kardakan, Kaykan (Kiki), Khalikan, Kowan, Malewan (or Milan), Mazhdakan (Mazdakan), Naman, Palukan, Qachkan, Qaramanlu, Qasmanlu, Rashan, Retakan (Radkan), Sefkan, Selseporan, Shakan, Shamlu, Shaykhawan, Shirkan, Titikan, Topkan, Waran, Zangan (Zinkan), and Zaydan. All these clans engaged in production of rug and/or kilim. The name of their products, however, seldom paralleled those of the producing clan, but rather came to be known after the town in which they were marketed, such as Qochan, Shirvan, Daragaz, or Meshhad.

The Shadlu comprised of the Alan, Bughan, Dirqan, Garivan, Gurdan, Inran, Japa, Juyan, Kaghan, Mitran, Qilichan, Qarabashlu, Qupran (Kupran).

The smaller Jelali khanate was centered on the town of Firuza, only a few miles from Ashgabat, the capital of modern Turkmenistan. The Jelalis consisted of the clans of Bagân, Farkhân, Jelâlân, Kewerân, Kumbalakân and Qurakan

Although the Topkanlus were in principle a member of the great Zafaranlu confederacy, due to their immense size, degree of autonomy, as well as their own distinct style of rug weaving, merit a subdivision of their own.

The Kurds who arrived in Khurasan were largely from the parts of Kurdistan now in Turkey. Thus, they naturally speak various dialects of North Kurmanji that still predominates among the Turkish Kurds. Indubitably, there must have also arrived in Khurasan an appreciable number of Dimili/Zaza speaking Kurds as well, since they form a large linguistic minority in Turkish Kurdistan–then as now. These, however, have almost all assimilated into the Kurmanji-speaking community in Khurasan.

What distinguishes the Khurasani Kurds from their kin in Turkey, however, is that they are by a vast majority Alevis and Shi’ites, while in Turkey it is Sunni Islam that claims the largest number of Kurds there. This may point to the fact that the said area of Kurdistan was far more dominated by the followers of Alevism and Shi’ism 500 years ago. Presently, only about a quarter of the Kurds in Turkey still practice Alevism and Shi’ism. The Khurasani Kurds, therefore, may be preserving a relic of the past religious history of Kurdistan. This holds credulity when it is viewed alongside the art and costumes of the Khurasani Kurds

The costumes and customs of Khurasani Kurds, for example, although most closely resemble those of Kurds in Turkey, nonetheless, they actually show more affinity with the Southeast European costumes than what one understand today to be conventionally Kurdish. The knee-high skirts of women, worn in layers and fitted with white aprons and high-healed shoes remind one more of the Ukrainian or Romanian costumes than Kurdish, or even Middle Eastern. There can be no doubt that this was the fashion of what the Kurds in Anatolia wore 500 years ago as none other in Khurasan wear anything remotely resembling their costumes. The loyalty with which the Khurasani Kurds have maintained their antique language, customs and costumes also point towards antiquity of their rug weaving and designs.

During the formative years of Qajar dynasty’s ascendancy in Persia, much effort was given by the government in Teheran to bring local emirs and princes under the vassalage of Persia if not incorporate them altogether. In 1822 James Baillie Fraser visited Qochan. Seven years earlier, the last of the independent Chemishkazag emirs, Emir Riza Quli Khan had replaced his father on the throne. He had successfully withstood the siege of his capital by the Qajar King of Persia, Fath Ali Shah, by taking refuge at the better-defended fortress of Shirvan. There, the flooded moat prevented the Qajar artillery from getting too near to cause the collapse of the defensive walls. Thirteen years later, James Baillie Fraser was to visit and report on other Kurdish principalities in Central Kurdistan (present Iraqi Kurdistan) and how they were faring with the threat of centralizing imperial Ottoman government. This has already reviewed in this book under the relevant chapter.

The Emir was not so lucky, however, in 1831, when nine years after Fraser’s visit he had to face the able Persian crown prince, Abbas Mirza, who having finished two drawn-out wars with the Russian Empire over the Caucasus, had now brought the full force of his war-hardened army and lethal artillery upon the Khurasani Kurds. Having failed to gain the submission of the Kurdish prince, his capital of Qochan was besieged by 13,000 Persian troops and given to three days of heavy artillery bombardment in August of 1831. British army engineers oversaw the efficient performance of the canons. The 8,000 defending troops under Emir Riza Quli Khan finally succumbed to the force of the Persian artillery and surrendered. Emir Riza Quli was banished to Azerbaijan but died conveniently on the way. His son, Sam, was appointed by the Persian crown to rule as vassal from Qochan.

The loss of autonomy lead to a slow but steady loss of ability by the Chemishkazag emirs to protect their territory from frequent incursions by the raiding nomads gathering slaves and booty. The economic conditions deteriorated, impacting the quality of the rugs produced in the region as well. The British diplomat and traveler Alexander Burns arrived in Qochan the following year in 1832 and reports on the condition of the city and its principality. Burns relates that most of the countryside had been abandoned, and the peasants had taken refuge in Qochan. The final coup de grace to the emirate came in a series of devastating earthquakes in 1873, 1894 and particularly in 1895. Most of the city’s population died during and in the aftermath of the last quake. The devastation was so thorough that the old city had to be abandoned altogether. A new Qochan was built 712 miles east of the old city. Only 8,000 people survived the final quake in 1895. In 1835, there had been more than 40,000 living in Qochan. Only some vintage photographs are all that now remain of the sumptuous palaces and mansions of the old Kurdish principalities of Khurasan.

The khanate of Bojnurd had to also go through the same harrowing experience of the emirate of Qochan as the Qajar dynasty of Persia proceeded with centralization of their imperial territories. The Khurasani Kurds faced the process a full 30 years ahead of the Adrenals of eastern Kurdistan in Persia who were overthrown in 1867. The Kurdish principalities in the Ottoman lands fell in 1847-48. What was common among all these (except the Ardelans) was the way of their downfall: artillery bombardment by the Persians and the Ottomans, hiring the services of the European army engineers (the English in case of Persia, the Germans in case of the Ottomans). The same blood bath that had brought down Qochan and its house of Zafaranlu princes in 1837, visited on Bojnurd ten years later. The city came under a Persian siege and artillery bombardment in the winter of 1846-47. Its surrender effectively ended the autonomy and prosperity of that Kurdish khanate as well.

It is fascinating that an indirect glimpse can be mustered into the economy and prosperity of the exclave, before and after the loss of its autonomy, via an examination of its artwork and handicraft made for sale. There is a marked difference between the Kurdish rug production in Khurasan before and after the loss of the emirates. The high quality rugs become a rarity after the 1840s, but the lower quality, village rugs and kilims continue production. Several weaving provinces nonetheless can be recognized in the area, all of which named after the major market town they were presented for sale. Qochan, Shirvan, Bojnurd—all have a recognizable style of weaving. It is difficult to distinguish them apart today, due to frequent movement of people. The sedentary people have been pushed around by frequent wars and calamitous earthquakes. The nomads, meanwhile, have been changing their location drastically due to creation of new impenetrable international boundaries, forced settlement by the central governments, and their ubiquitous interethnic wars. Indeed the provenience of earlier Khurasani rugs of circa 1835 are far easier to ascribe than specimens that came after, due to these social and political upheavals.

The most interesting aspect of the Kurdish rugs from Khurasan is the retaining of their original, eastern Anatolian designs, coloring and motifs. After nearly 500 years of exile, this seems to be an extraordinary feat. The local Persian Khurasani style as well as the well-known Turkmen style have had only a minor impact on the Kurdish weaves. The abundance of cochineal dye that gives the Turkmen rugs their brilliant, but monotonous, red coloring is largely absent from the Kurdish rugs. True, there are Kurdish products at present or in the past that mimicked the easy dying of the Turkmen rugs with cochineal red added to the natural black and white wool being the only colors used. On occasions, even the Turkmen “gul” (rose) style has been copied by the Kurdish weavers in Khurasan. These, however, were and still are marginal in their importance to the Kurdish weavers. The paramount design of the Khurasani Kurdish rugs remains—like those in northern and western Kurdistan where they originate—hauzi, mina khani, pir gul and chwar souch, while the latch-hooked diamonds are the most common device, followed by the kissal. Brilliant yellows, greens and orange, mixed with cochineal red and natural wool colors, give the Khurasani rugs a brilliance and variety that Kurdish rugs are known for everywhere. Khurasani Kurdish rugs and kilims are therefore easy to recognize in the large surrounding markets, from Meshhad to Gurgan to Nishapor or Ashgabat.

Like the rugs produced in Eastern Kurdistan under the Ardalan princely patronage of the early 19th century, the contemporaneous Khurasani Kurdish rugs also demonstrate a dichotomy in their quality and design: a repertoire of very delicate weaves with sophisticated designs coupled with the finest raw material–catered to the princely tastes of the local emirs as well as for sale to discriminating buyers in far away markets. Another was the heavy (and prolific) product for the common people—nomads and farmers—who faced harsh climatic condition and boasted to a limited individual purchasing power. The unique specimens of these early 18th and 19th century Khurasani Kurdish rugs found in the shrine collection in Meshhad form the evidence for the existence of this dichotomy of quality in the rugs of the area.


  1. This should not be taken as strange in itself. The Irish speak English, but neither themselves nor anyone else would identify them as “Englishmen.”
  2. A few other groups were also brought into the area by the Safavids, none however, as massively as the Kurds. Many have in fact survived to the present. Among these are the Lurs and Afshar Turcomans from Azerbaijan and the Caucasus.
  3. In 1747, the same Zafaranlu generals assassinated Nadir Shah at Qochan.