AuthorAkturk, Ahmet Serdar


Anyone studying modern Kurdish history would notice the princely Bedirkhan family's special place in Kurds' national memory. The Bedirkhanis were the ruling house of the last major Kurdish principality, the Bohtan Emirate, until its suppression by the Ottoman central government in 1847. The failed uprising against the central government in 1847 by the progenitor of the family, Bedir Khan, has been memorialized and transmitted through generations by means of Kurdish oral literature. Furthermore, Kurds came to respect Bedir Khan's offspring, who played significant roles in the Kurdish cultural and, later, nationalist movement through the late and post-Ottoman eras. However, a once very significant component of the Bedirkhan family's narrative is rarely recalled today. The Bedirkhanis had historically claimed to be the descendants of an Arab Muslim hero, Khalid ibn al-Walid. Today, this distinction is no longer evoked even by the family members.

This article contextualizes the Bedirkhanis' claim of noble descent through Khalid ibn al-Walid against the backdrop of late Ottoman and post-Ottoman political and ideological developments such as the Ottoman modernization and the growing influence of nationalism. The family's so-called link to al-Walid continued to be very significant for its members throughout the late Ottoman era. However, prominent members of the family attempted to repudiate it in the post-Ottoman Middle East, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. This fact presents a fascinating case to illustrate the shifting identities in the Middle East from the first half of the nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth centuries. As a subtheme, this study also traces the Bedirkhanis' evolving approaches to two pre-modern texts in which the family's link to al-Walid was grounded in an attempt to rewrite their family history "in response to the changing priorities of the age." (1)

The Bedirkhan family is a branch of the broader Azizan family, which belonged to the Kurdish Bohti tribe. Until the suppression of autonomous Kurdish principalities around the mid-nineteenth century, the Azizans were the hereditary ruling house of the Bohtan principality in Ottoman Kurdistan. The town of Jizra or Jazirat ibn Umar (modern-day Cizre in Turkish and Cizire in Kurdish) (2), was the seat of the Bohtan principality, surrounded by Mosul to the south, Diyarbakir to the north, Van and Bitlis to the east, and Urfa in the west. It encompassed territories at the intersection of present-day Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. The last ruler of the Bohtan principality was Bedir Khan (r. 1837-1847). His short-lived resistance against the Ottoman central government in the summer of 1847 made him a prominent figure throughout Kurdistan, and his descendants came to be known as "Bedirkhanis." After the suppression of the Kurdish dynasties, Bedirkhanis, like some of the other prominent Kurdish princely families, were uprooted from Kurdistan and absorbed into the Ottoman imperial system. Many of Bedir Khan's male descendants became Ottoman-Kurdish gentlemen and took a leading role in the Kurdish cultural awakening after the middle of the nineteenth century. (3)

But for centuries the Bedirkhanis proudly claimed to be the descendants of Khalid Ibn al-Walid (592-642 CE), one of the greatest generals of the early Islamic conquests. He was from the Makhzum clan of the Quraysh tribe, to which Prophet Muhammad's Hashemite clan belonged. Like many other aristocratic figures in Mecca, Khalid initially resisted Muhammad's new religion and fought against the Muslims. Aware of his military genius, Muhammad named Khalid the "Sword of Allah" when he eventually accepted Islam in 629. After Muhammad's death, Khalid participated in the suppression of the dissident movements in eastern Arabia and in the Islamic conquest of Iraq and Syria. Khalid died and was buried in the Syrian city of Homs in 642. His role in the defeat of two superpowers of the time, the Sasanians and the Byzantines, turned Khalid into an invincible heroic figure in the popular Muslim imagination. (4) Some prominent families have traced their ancestry back to Khalid ibn al-Walid as a source of honor, as did the Khalidis, Jerusalem's renowned urban Arab family. (5) In some instances, scholars have refuted certain families' claims of descent from Khalid ibn al-Walid, such as Palestine's al-Barghouti clan and the Bayt al-Afwghani lineage of Medina. (6)

The princely Kurdish Bedirkhani family, too, claimed descent from this prominent historical figure. Tracing their roots back to Arab Muslim heroes was not unique to the Bedirkhanis. In his seminal work on the political and social structures in Kurdistan, Martin van Bruinessen has indicated that "the chieftains of the large [Kurdish] tribes and emirates nearly all claimed foreign descent," usually through "an Islamic hero or a saint, or a more recent successful warrior-chieftain." As Bruinessen puts it, foreign descent provided a chieftain with the "charisma" he needed to guarantee the loyalty of his subjects. Moreover, "a prestigious foreign descent" enabled Kurdish chieftains to keep a "sufficient distance" from their subjects. This turned them into impartial leaders and mediators in times of conflicts among their subjects. (7) Thus, a Kurdish tribal chief's or emir's claim of descent from an historic Arab Muslim leader or saint was instrumental for their legitimate and neutral leadership. As will be shown later, this centuries-old tradition came into question only when nationalism based on ethnic roots became prevalent in the Middle East in the 1930s.


Bruinessen's remarks about Kurdish chiefs resonates with an Ottoman official's observations in 1836 regarding the Azizans, the ruling house of the Bohtan principality The Ottomans had integrated the majority of the Kurdish territories through negotiations with hereditary Kurdish emirs as long ago as the early sixteenth century. In fact, the Kurdish emirates' support had played a major role in the Ottoman victory over the Shia Safavids in the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. To reward their cooperation and further guarantee their loyalty in what was an important buffer region against the rival dynasties ruling Persia, the Ottomans recognized the autonomy of the Kurdish hereditary dynasties from the early sixteenth century until the first half of the nineteenth century. In the latter period, however, the Ottoman central government introduced centralized administration to Kurdistan as part of the modernizing reforms designed to tackle internal and external challenges threatening the integrity of the empire. Thus, the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839) and the following era of Tanzimat reforms (1839-1876) were times of profound changes for Ottoman Kurdistan. The establishment of firm Ottoman central control in Ottoman Kurdistan was a process that encompassed the mid-1830s through the 1840s, which was officially named the "re-conquest of Kurdistan." (8)

It was in the context of the Ottoman reconquest of Kurdistan that the Azizan family's claim of descent from Khalid ibn al-Walid came to the attention of the Ottoman authorities. Reshid Mehmed Pasha (1780-1836), a former Ottoman grand vizier and the field marshal (musir) of the Sivas province at the time, noted the Azizans' claim in a letter. Reshid Mehmed Pasha was in charge of the Ottoman forces dispatched in 1836 to deal with the rebellious Kurdish ruler of another principality, the Soran Emirate, namely Muhammad Pasha of Rawanduz, who had taken advantage of the Ottoman army's preoccupation with pressing internal crises. As a result, the Bohtan principality the Azizans ruled fell under the influence of Muhammad Pasha of Rawanduz. Reshid Mehmed Pasha was in the region by the spring of 1836 to liberate Jizra, Bohtan's seat of power. The emir of Bohtan at the time was Sayfaddin from the Azizan family. He refused to surrender to the Ottoman forces and instead fled to Baghdad. Reshid Mehmed Pasha not only referred to Sayfaddin as a "traitor," he also called the disobedient emir and his zealous followers "insects" (hasarat). He became even more furious when he learned that Friday sermons (khutba) were delivered in the names of Emir Sayfaddin and Muhammad Pasha of Rawanduz rather than in the name of the Ottoman sultan. Reshid Mehmed Pasha further discovered that Emir Sayfaddin's subjects revered him as a descendant of Khalid ibn al-Walid, a claim that Reshid Mehmed Pasha found highly questionable. (9)

Reshid Mehmed Pasha was probably not aware of two major sources that supported the Azizan family's claim of descent from Khalid ibn al-Walid's lineage. The first one was a 1597 work, Sharafnama (the Book of Honors) by Sharaf Khan Bidlisi (1543-1603). (10) Written in classical Persian, a lingua franca of the Muslim world at the time, Sharafnama is known as the oldest surviving book on Kurdish history. It presents a chronological survey of the Kurdish princely dynasties up to the 1590s and of the Ottoman imperial dynasty with reference to other dynasties such as the Safavids, Timurids, and Aqqoyunlus. The author, Sharaf Khan, belonged to the Rojki tribe, which was then the ruling house of the Bidlis Emirate in Ottoman Kurdistan. (11) Based on reports by "credible historians" and his own research, including his interviews with members of Kurdish dynasties, Sharaf Khan clarifies the historical origins of each Kurdish ruling family covered in his book. A section of Sharafnama is dedicated to the hereditary ruling dynasty of Jizra, the seat of the Bohtan principality. Sharaf Khan traces the genealogy of Jizra's rulers back to Khalid ibn al-Walid. Sharaf Khan indicates that the Bohti tribe, to which the rulers of Jizra belonged, had earlier adhered to the "ill-fated" Yazidi faith but later adopted Sunni Islam. (12) He also explains the history of Jizra, which...

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