Jalaleddin (Ջալալէդդին) is named after the eponymous Kurdish Sheikh, whose exploits are also described in the non-fiction book Armenia and the Campaign of 1877 by British war correspondent Charles B. Norman, which referenced Sheikh Jalaleddin and his massacres of the Armenians almost exactly as Raffi described in Jalaleddin.
Nicholas Al-Jeloo also helpfully pointed us to some Turkish source material about Sheikh Jalaleddin, who was from Arvâs (Doganyayla). He was born to Sheikh Sıbğatullah as one of eight brothers, and a man named Sheikh Taha of Hakkâri became like a second father to him. He was considered a great hero by the Kurds, and a fearless leader by Kurds and Armenians alike. He led various Kurdish tribes to attack, plunder and destroy about two dozen Armenian and Assyrian villages near Aghbak (Baskale), as Raffi described, for which he received impunity from the government. Incidentally, Sheikh Jalaleddin died a peaceful death in 1878, the same year that Jalaleddin was published.
The Kurdish Tribes in Jalaleddin
The first chapters of Jalaleddin vividly portray a large number of Armenians in the Van district being killed or displaced as a result of Sheikh Jalaleddin’s massacres during 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. 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:
“From the Hayderanli tribe of Mount Süphan,” the young man replied in that tribe’s dialect.
“Aren’t the Hayderanlians going, too?”
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. We also meet one particularly important character in Jalaleddin—the cheerful and brave Město—whom Raffi introduces as a “Yezidi Kurd”.
Jalaleddin, Chapter 12:
On the western shores of Lake Van, at the base of Mount Süphan near the verdant edge of a small stream, a few shepherds’ tents could be seen, but their poor outward appearance indicated that their owners did not belong to one of the more fortunate tribes of Kurds. They were the tents of Yezidis, who were even more persecuted than the Armenians and had withdrawn to the loneliness of that mountain during the chaos of the war to protect themselves and their few livestock.
In the 19th century, the Yezidi people (also spelled Yazidi) resided in a large region that extended throughout the Ottoman Empire into northern Persia and the Caucasus region of the Russian Empire. Writing about the Yezidis in 1861, W. Francis Ainsworth explained that, “One of their chief strongholds is the Sinjar mountains, in central Mesopotamia, and several tribes have taken refuge from Muhammedan persecution in Georgia; but the residence of their spiritual and temporal head is in the neighborhood of Nineveh” (p. 12; Nineveh is located near Mosul in Iraq). Ainsworth also goes on to note that Yezidis were generally known by the name of the district in which they dwelled, and Yezidi villages could be found throughout Mesopotamia and Anatolia including in the districts of Julamerk (Hakkâri), Amadiya, Jezira ibn Omar (Cizre), Zakho, Mardin, and Diyarbakır.
Although the Yezidis speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish, also called Ezdiki by the Yezidis), they are not Muslim like the majority of Kurdish peoples, and instead follow their own religion, Yezidism. In the 19th century, this resulted in foreign travelers to the Ottoman Empire incorrectly describing the Yezidis as “devil worshippers”. Despite the Yezidi belief in one God consistent with other monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, scholars such as Kreyenbroek and Omarkhali (2016) have suggested that the misunderstanding of Yezidism arose due to, “a misinterpretation of the Tawûsê Melek (“the Peacock Angel”), the “Lord of this World” who is responsible for all that happens on earth, both good and bad (as humans would see it)” (p. 123). The unique religious beliefs of the Yezidi people, particularly their lack of a sacred text such as the Bible or Quran (i.e., they were not “Masters of a Book”), contributed to their persecution during the 19th century. In his contemporary account, Ainsworth (1861, p. 13) suggested that:
The harems of the south of Turkey have been recruited from them [Yezidi women]. Yearly expeditions have been made by the governors of provinces into their districts; and, whilst the men and women were slaughtered without mercy, the children of both sexes were carried off, and exposed for sale in the principal towns … This system was still practiced to a certain extent to within a very short time ago, and gave rise to atrocities scarcely equaled in the better known African slave trade.
In order to survive such persecution, many Yezidis fought back. Ainsworth (1861) went on to note, however, that they did not attack Christians, viewing them “as fellow sufferers for religion’s sake” (p. 13) within the Ottoman Empire. This is consistent with what we read in Jalaleddin when we meet Město, a young Yezidi man who had once been a servant in an Armenian home. Město is portrayed by Raffi as brave and loyal, and offers his Armenian friends protection among the resilient people of his tribe.
Jalaleddin, Chapter 5:
The young Kurd responded with self-assuredness and boasted, “Sheikh Jalaleddin and his entire army could not penetrate Město’s tent! You know well the Yezidis’ zealousness: whenever a man, no matter his race, enters a Yezidi’s tent, he becomes the happy guest of the entire tribe, and the entire tribe will shed blood to prevent that guest from falling into enemy hands.”
Despite the Yezidis unique religious beliefs and persecution as a result of those beliefs, Yezidis were usually identified as Kurdish in the late 19th century when Raffi wrote Jalaleddin. Even so, the identification of Yezidis as Kurdish continues to be debated, with many arguing that the Yezidis are a distinct ethnic-religious group. Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in a recent interview with SBS, “If you ask Yazidis whether they are Kurdish, they very vehemently disagree with that. They do not want to be identified as Kurdish. They think of themselves as an entirely separate group.”
The oppression Raffi described in Jalaleddin was far from the only example of persecution the Yezidis have experienced. Most recently, the Yezidi community featured prominently in the news due to the devastating 2014 genocide that resulted in thousands of Yezidi men being killed and similarly large numbers of Yezidi women being sold into human trafficking. In 2018, a survivor of the genocide, Nadia Murad, was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Congolese gynecologist, Denis Mukwege.
The Assyrians of Eastern Anatolia
The Assyrians have an ancient history in Eastern Anatolia. This is attested in early Armenian history and folklore; for example, in the story of Hayk and King Belus that describes the founding of the Armenian nation and in the story of Assyrian queen Semiramis’ founding of the city of Van (which came to be the capital of the Kingdom of Ararat). Armenians throughout history have also referred to Van as Shamiramakert (“Semiramis’ city”). This is the same Semiramis who features in the story Ara the Handsome (Ara the Beautiful).
The Assyrians also had various migrations to and from there in the Ottoman Era. Of particular interest for this post is Nicholas Al-Jeloo’s description of the latest settlement of Assyrians in the 17th century, mainly in the province of Hakkari on the southern border of Van. Mar Shimun XVII Abraham (right) was himself from Hakkari.
For over 200 years (17th c. to 19th c.), Armenians and Assyrians peacefully coexisted in this region and to its east (e.g., near Urmia in Persia). We also have information from this online book from 1914 on the Assyrians of Van, which explains that Armenian women who married Assyrian men were not required to become Nestorian, “as [it was believed that] the Armenian Church is nearest to their own church.” In the region of Lake Urmia, the lines separating Armenian and Assyrian had started to blur. For example, pictured below is the local Church of St John the Baptist in Balanej, constructed in the Assyrian style. It incorporates Armenian inscriptions and is owned by the Armenian Apostolic Church, while the nearby Armenian church of St. Mary (not pictured) is in the care of local Assyrians.
(In his three-part talk (1, 2, 3), Nicholas Al-Jeloo surveys the various forms of cooperation unique to the Armenians and the Assyrians of the Lake Urmia region. It is therefore not a surprise that Raffi, who was from Pekajik, was married to an Assyrian named Anna Hormouz).
Despite this peaceful coexistence, the Ottoman Assyrians were already subject to Kurdish attacks soon after their 17th century resettlement:
…The oldest Assyrian manuscript to survive from the Van region was copied in 1683 in a church in the village of Akashim (Ongun). A later note however mentions that the village had been attacked by Kurds and that the poverty-stricken inhabitants were forced to sell the manuscript to sell off their debts since no priests or readers remained and they were unable to maintain their church. By the first half of the 18th century, this manuscript had come into the possession of a church in Iran’s Urmia region… It appears that the Assyrians of Van had strong links to the Assyrians of Iran…
These attacks would persist more or less for 200 years, culminating with the Hamidian (1894-1896) and better-known 1915 massacres. Reverend Thomas Laurie reported a Kurdish attack “to the Nestorian village of Seel, or Seer” in 1841. Hirmis Aboona located this village in Aghbak (Başkale), which readers of Jalaleddin will recognize from the opening line of the book.
At the same time, another set of attacks was taking place in Hakkari. In his book, Assyrians, Kurds and Ottomans: Intercommunal Relations on the Periphery of the Ottoman Empire, Aboona cites the report of one James Brant, who was the British consul at Erzurum, and who “bore witness to the extent of the cruelty and oppression practiced against the Assyrians of the district or those of Tiyari [an Assyrian tribe in Hakkari] who were obliged to cross to other provinces.”
He then cites a segment from Brant’s report from 1841:
[t]he governor […] is Kurdish and is depriving the Tiyari tribe from pasturing in that district. He executed 20 of them and demanded payments from the others. The Pasha of Mosul demanded their presence in his office and sent them to be detained in the Castle of [Amadiya] until they paid for their liberation. This [state of affairs] led the Tiyari tribes to take revenge on [the Kurds].
In the remainder of Chapter 10, Aboona details the 1843 massacres of the Assyrians of Hakkari by Kurdish tribes led by Bedr Khan Bey, who he argues was in cahoots with Ottoman officials.
Although the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is widely recognized, many people are not aware that Assyrians were also massacred on a large scale in the same event.
Light to the departed.
Çakir, M. S. (2016). SEYYİD SIBĞATULLAH ARVÂSÎ HİZÂNÎ VE GAYDA TEKKESİ. CİLT, 2, 24-39.
Bardizaktsi, V, Natanyan, B, & Sırvantsdyants, K. Palu-Harput 1878: Çarsancak, Çemişgezek, Çapakçur, Erzincan, Hizan ve Civar Bölgeler.
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.
Ainsworth, W. F. (1861). The Assyrian origin of the Izedis or Yezidis—the so-called “devil worshippers”. Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, 1, 11-44.
Kreyenbroek, P. G., & Omarkhali, K. (2016). Introduction to the special issue: Yezidism and Yezidi studies in the early 21st century. Kurdish Studies, 4(2), 122-130.