OPINION

Kurds in Akre, Iraqi Kurdistan celebrate Newroz with fire / John Beck

21/03/2017 - 18:20 0
Newroz and the Epic of Kawe the Blacksmith

The conventional account of Newroz traces its origins to the epic of Kawe (Kawa) and his rebellion against Zuhak (Dehak). Accordingly, the latter was a foreign monarch who had conquered Kurdistan, and pursued a brutal range of strategies to continue his grip on it. Moreover, two serpents grew out of his shoulders each of which had to be fed daily with the brains of a young person. Many youths were sacrificed in this manner until the cooks, whose duty it was to satiate the serpents, felt moved to save some of them, replacing their brains with that of sheep. The survivors of both sexes thus spared, took refuge in mountain highlands where they founded the Kurdish nation. Subsequently, Kawe the Blacksmith, who lost two of his sons to Zuhak’s serpents, mobilised them into a powerful army with a view to liberating their homeland. After their final attack on Zuhak in which they killed him and expelled his forces, Kawe’s troops kindled bonfires on the mountaintops to celebrate their victory over the tyranny of foreigners. The day of Kawe’s triumph over Zuhak is said to be 21st March that is the Kurdish New Year’s Day, Newroz. But as I argue in this article, this is only an epic penned by a Persian poet, Firdausi, bearing no relation to the true account of the Medes Rebellion against and the destruction of the Assyrian Empire, which paved the way for the formation of the Median Empire.

According to the ‘father of history’, Herodotus, the Assyrians had dominated the whole of Asia for 525 years.[1] Some historians have argued that they had maintained their reign through the force of an annual genocide.[2] When the Medes mounted their successful rebellion against and put an end to this pattern of mass-killings, they set a precedent for other peoples living under the Assyrian rule, who then followed suit and liberated themselves.[3] Even though the Assyrian state had consequently been pushed back to the city of Ninawa, it seems to have generated a constant state of insecurity for its neighbouring states. Owing to this, one of the Medes’ kings, Kiyaksar, in collaboration with his Babylonian counterpart, Nabopolassar, invaded Ninawa. After the destruction of the whole city in 612 B.C. and the killing of the last Assyrian king, Sinsharishkun, they stamped out the Assyrian state for good.  

A Russian historian, Igor Diakonov, argues that this marked a watershed in the history of the Medes. Because previously as long as the Assyrians had invaded them, they would have taken a defensive approach, retreating to their mountain strongholds. Yet in that year, they took a proactive strategy, attacking their enemy in their capital city, and destroying the very last remnant of the most formidable ancient empire.[4] This paved the way for the establishment of the Median Empire, which became the master of Asia, incorporating both of the Persian and the Assyrian territories and populations.[5]

Even though the Median Empire did not last comparatively long enough to make manifest its contribution to civilisations, it prepared the grounds for Persian civilisation. As a pair of credible historians, Will Durant and Ariel Durant, tell us, they offered the Persians their language, their alphabet of thirty-six characters, their Zoroastrian religion, their replacement of clay with parchment and pen as writing materials, their extensive use of columns in architecture, and a corpus of administrative law with which to run an empire.[6]

Herodotus was probably correct to claim that the Medes’ successful rebellion served as a source of inspiration for other subjugated peoples to rise up against foreign occupation. [7] Given the length of the Assyrian Empire, 525 years, and the brutality with which they contained the populations under their domination, any successful uprising against it would certainly have inspired others to rebellion. To demonstrate this point, let us take a look at a modern case. When the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1922 won the war of national independence against the British Empire, which rose to prominence from 1850s onwards, it inspired, throughout the twentieth century, other dominated nations to follow suit. The most prominent among those who were influenced by the Irish Revolution were Ho Chi Min and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Vietnamese and the Indian revolutionary leaders respectively. Given the fact that the Assyrians supremacy had been far lengthier than that of the British, four to five times, one can imagine the impact of the destruction of such an omnipotent and omnipresent hegemon on the following generations, including the non-Arab populations of Mesopotamia and Iran who later experienced forceful conversion to Islam.

The Arab invasion of Mesopotamia and Persia, which ushered in a new era marked by forceful assimilation of non-Arab populations into Arab culture, instigated ‘nationalist’ feelings among many. Of these the Persian epic poet, Firdausi, stands as the most prominent. Witnessing the gradual assimilation of Persian culture and the violent subjugating conducts of the Islamic army, Firdausi sought to remind the invading Arabs, among others, of the resilient character of the region’s populations to foreign conquest. In his endeavour depicting this, he resorted to the Medes’ resistance and triumph over the Assyrian Empire. While reconstructing this episode, however, Firdausi paints a completely different story.

Firstly, he reduces the Medes’ king and the founder of the Median Empire, Kiyaksar, to Kawe the Blacksmith. With all my respect for the career of blacksmithing, Firdausi’s attempt here represents an obvious case of ‘methodological reductionism’ for reducing a king to a blacksmith. Even though this sort of reductionism is problematic in itself, it is an insidious example of historical contortion and evisceration, when carried out in order to condescend ‘others’ while correspondingly enhancing the status of ‘self’. The reason for this argument is because in that rebellion there had not been a Persian figure called Fereydoun, whom Firdausi reifies to the status of a king, commanding Kawe as his submissive soldier.

Secondly, Firdausi turns the Assyrian last king, Sinsharishkun, into a giant called Zuhak, putting two of the ugliest serpents on his shoulder. Here, he might have tried to draw a fitting picture of the atrocities the Assyrian kings committed against the peoples they subjugated. And, due to the fact that Firdausi was neither a historian nor a political theorist, he may not earn himself our criticism. As mentioned earlier, he was an epic poet who sought to reconstruct a historical event from his own ‘nationalist’ perspective.

Thirdly, when the Median and the Babylonian armies in 612 B.C. occupied Ninawa, the former left the city and withdrew to their mountainous territories. Yet when Firdausi reconstruct this occurrence, the first and the only impression that he conveys to his audience is that because Kawe was from a lower background, being a simple blacksmith not knowing anything about kingship, he therefore had no option but to pass the dominion to Fereydoun. I argue that such a reconstruction of an ancient event is nothing less than a pure contortion of historical facts, as all past evidences claim that until 539 B.C., which means 73 years after the Medes Rebellion, Babylon was an independent state. It was only in that year, 539 B.C., which it fell to the Persian domination when Cyrus occupied the city and famously set the Jews free to go back to Israel.  

The question begging here is how has this epic found its way into the Kurdish national discourse, assuming such an invigorating character? The first person who basically plagiarised the epic was Şerefxan Bidlîsî, the prince of Bidlîs principality. More noticeably, following Firdausi, Şerefxan traces the origins of the Kurds to those youths the Zuhak’s chiefs refused to slaughter, sending them to mountain hideouts where they consequently founded the Kurdish people, and under the direction of Kawe put paid to Zuhak’s reign.[8] According to this epic, therefore, the history of the social category now known as ‘Kurds’ goes back to something around 2,629 years ago, or probably to a few years earlier. In sharp contrast to this, however, a good corpus of archaeological research tells us that it was 11,000 years ago when the Zagros Highlanders of Kurdistan accomplished the Neolithic Revolution, during which they invented agriculture and domesticated animals.[9]

Apparently as it is, Şerefxan lived in the sixteenth century; a period which might have suffered from the paucity of historical and archaeological sources. More importantly, he had worked in both the Ottoman’s and the Persian’s courts where he might have been overwhelmed by the dominant representation of Kurdish history and origins. So, for this reason, among others, we might not well be justified in criticising him for the reproduction of a false interpretation of his people. What is really bewildering in the twenty first century, however, is the lack of a concrete attempt to rectify this historical evisceration. Moreover, why has a heroic figure such as Mezlûm (Mazlum) Dogan, who celebrated in Amed Prison the Newroz of 1982 by self-immolation, been reduced to a fictitious figure constructed by ‘others’ in order to promote the reification of them ‘selves’?

If the Epic of Kawe is an indispensable component in the construction of the Kurdish national identity, as was the Epic of William Tell in that of Swiss identity, one may think its preservation in the Kurdish national discourse twice. But if not, the lingering of this epic is tantamount to stabbing oneself from behind.

Looking at Swiss history one can see that the Epic of William Tell bears a striking resemblance to that of Kawe. But in contrast to the latter, which had been constructed by ‘others’, that of William Tell was the product of the Swiss them ‘selves’.[10] The reason was that the Swiss populations did not have a common feature around which to form a unified platform against the Romans, or to construct a coherent national identity, as they had been divided between German, French, Italian and Romanesque speakers, each of which was further divided by Catholic and Protestant adherence. Their territory, furthermore, was divided between 25 (now 26) cantons, each of which had been administered by a discrete customary law. The lack of a common national attribute, therefore, seems to have obliged the Swiss to recourse to a mythological sphere, to create something in which they all could find themselves: William Tell.

In sharp contrast to this, though, not only do the Kurds not suffer from such lack, having a common language and a single territory, they also possess the actual story of the Medes Rebellion, led by the Kurdish king, Kiyaksar, in collaboration with that of the Babylonians, Nabopolassar, as opposed to a blacksmith called Kawe who was directed by his fabricated Persian ‘king of kings’, Fereydoun. One puzzling issue that should not escape our analysis here is that when the Kurds recount the epic they tend to exclude Fereydoun, and when the Persians describe the event they downplay Kawe as a soldier of Fereydoun, censuring the Kurds for their omission of the latter.

To conclude, I think this is time for the Kurdish people, particularly the Kurdish Freedom Movement, which has restored the political connotation of Newroz by enhancing its status from a private fest into a massive public space for national resistance against foreign occupation, to rectify this historical evisceration and appreciate the actual rebellion that took place, rather than resort to its fictitious reproduction which is a biased work of a Persian proto-nationalist.


[1] Herodotus. Histories (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1996) p. 45.

[2] See Mann, Michael. The Dark Sides of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p. 40. Also, Van De Mieroop Marc. A History of the Ancient Near East (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) p. 230-31-33.

[3] Herodotus, 1996. p. 46.

[4] دیاکۆنۆڤ، ایگور. میخائیلوویچ. تاریخ ماد (تهران: انتشارات علمی و فرهنگی، ١٣٨٨) ص ٢٤٨.

[5] Herodotus, 1996, p. 48-9-50; Diakonov, 2009, p. 248-72-3-84.

[6] Durant, Will. The History of Civilization I: Our Oriental Heritage (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954, [1935]) p. 351.

[7] Herodotus, 1996, p. 46.

[8] [8]  بیدلیسی شەڕەفخان. شەڕەفنامە: مێژووی ماڵە میرانی کوردستان، چاپی سێهەم، وەرگێڕانی مامۆستا هەژار (هەولێر: ئاراس، ٢٠٠٦) لاپەڕی ١٩-٢٠-٢١.

[9] Ucko and Dimbleby 1969; Berg and Protsch 1973; Wright 1969; cited in Izady, Mehrdad. The Kurds: A Concise Handbook (Washington: Taylor & Francis, 1992) p. 23-4; see also Service, E.R. Origins of the State and Civilization; The Process of Cultural Evolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975) p. 204.

[10] Linder Wolf. Swiss Democracy: Possible Solutions to Conflict in Multicultural Societies, Third Edition (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2010) p. 20.


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