Alborz Habibi
Last updated: 8 January, 2013

What do you know about Kurdish culture?

Your Middle East’s Tehran correspondent, Alborz Habibi, an Iranian Kurd, provides some basic insight into Kurdish history, culture and life.

Sanandaj, the capital of the Kurdistan province in Western Iran, is known for its old history and eye-catching landscapes. Described as the city of Sina by the French geologist and archaeologist Jacques de Morgan visited the region in the late 19th century, the current form of Sanandaj was shaped and built during the rule of Suleiman Khan Ardalan, the governor of Kurdistan about 400 years ago.

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Strategically located along the border of western Iran, Kurdistan and Sanandaj have been of key importance throughout history. Most of the city’s residents are Kurdish Sunni Muslims, but there are also a few remaining Jewish and Christian groups living there. Assef Mansion, a great building in central Sanandaj, which was originally the house of a high-ranking Kurdish official under Ardalan, is now used as a museum dedicated to Kurdish culture.  

Unofficial figures suggest over eight million Kurds live in Iran, constituting nearly 10% of the country’s population. Kurds comprise about one fourth of the population of Turkey and are also the second largest ethnic group in Syria, Armenia and Iraq. Kurds are the fourth largest ethnicity in the Middle East after the Arabs, Persians, and Turks.

Kurds are generally more secular than other Muslims in the region. Many foreign diplomats, visitors and authors on Kurdistan have been surprised by the manner in which Kurdish women wear colorful costumes, rather than veils, and participate in mixed-gender dancing at festivals and weddings.

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Kurds inherit a rich cultural legacy received from their ancestors, like Medes, an important shaper of Kurdish society who reigned today’s Iran and neighboring regions over 2,500 years ago.

Kurdish music includes a variety of types and differs from one region to another. Classical folk and traditional songs are very popular with the elders while pop and rap music attract more fans by the day. The lyricists have often shown interest in parsing beloved girlfriends as well as national heroes like Saladin.

Musical instruments such as tembûr, şimşal (long flute), cûzele, kemençe and def (frame drum) dahol (drum) are used in areas resided by Kurds and some are arguably and historically made in Kurdistan.

When there is a Kurdish celebration, there must be a dancing party. From the high peaks of Ararat in Turkey to the remote corners of Zagros Mountains in Iran, no matter where they live, these people dance in dozens of styles including: Dilan, Geryan and Chapi.

Clothing styles vary extensively in Kurdish regions, making it possible to distinguish people by their outfit. Men usually wear turbans called Mezareh and neutral-colored suits known as Rengûchox. Kurdish women are often dressed in motley clothes, with sparkling ornaments shining on the forehead and Mezareh and also a cloth belt around their waist.

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Kurdish designs are famous, not least the region’s rugs. Kurdish rugs and carpets reflect both floral and geometric patterns like Mina Khani motifs and the “jaff”.