Alliance and Rivalry on the Ottoman-Iranian Frontier


A review of The Politics of Alliance and Rivalry on the Ottoman-Iranian Frontier: The Babans 1500-1851, by Metin Atmaca.

There is little doubt that the growing international profile of the Kurdish movement is fueling both scholarly and more general interest in the history of the Kurds and Kurdistan. Nevertheless, until recently there existed very few scholarly studies relating to Kurdish history, especially with regards to the Ottoman period. Indeed, as Atmaca points out, historians of the Ottoman Empire tended to pay very little attention to events in Ottoman Kurdistan (pp.11-12). Nevertheless, this state of affairs is changing. A new generation of academics is now seeking, in a scholarly and sophisticated manner, to understand and reassess the Ottoman past as it relates to the Kurds and Kurdistan. Often drawing on the pioneering work of Martin van Bruinessen, recent monographs by authors such as those of Hakan Özoğlu, Janet Klein and Sabri Ateş have done much to enhance our knowledge of Ottoman-Kurdish relations. It is very much within this overall movement that one locates Atmaca’s scholarship.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps pertinent to note that, while we have witnessed, over the last decade or so, a growing interest in the affairs of Ottoman Kurdistan, much of this has focused on the regions which lie within the borders of present day Turkey. In contrast, Atmaca’s study centers on the Babans, a Kurdish noble house with dominion over much of Shahrizor (in present day Iraqi Kurdistan) between the early sixteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century. Hence, simply due to its geographical focus, Atmaca’s work stands out as an important contribution to the emergent scholarly literature on the Ottoman Kurdish past. The work is also commendable in its ambitious scope as it seeks not only to shed light on the realm of ‘high politics’ but also the social history of the Baban emirate.

The dissertation is organized into five chapters, in a largely thematic fashion, focusing on a broad range of issues. The first chapter provides historical background of the Baban dynasty and, more generally, the social and political structure of Ottoman Kurdistan between the early sixteenth and late eighteenth century. It focuses, in particular, on the complex set of social and political institutions which characterized Ottoman administration in Kurdistan during this period. Nevertheless, while Kurdish noble houses had been important players in the politics of the Ottoman-Iranian frontier from the early sixteenth century onwards, Atmaca dates the rise of the Baban to the eighteenth century, a period in which the power and influence of Istanbul in the provinces was in decline. The chapter aims to present the Babans as a family seeking to maintain their influence in the Ottoman-Iranian borderlands against other important provincial notables, most importantly the Georgian Mamluks. At the same time, with regards to the role of Istanbul in these rivalries, Atmaca notes that, although Istanbul may not have always trusted the Babans, they, for reasons of security, generally regarded them as “a necessary element in the border region…” (p. 60).

The second chapter examines the internal affairs of the Baban emirate and the role of Sufi religious orders in shaping the emirates politics. The social and political significance of Sufi orders amongst the Kurds has been highlighted by a number of authors. Building on these studies, Atmaca seeks to demonstrate how the influence of Sufi orders played out within the Baban emirate. In particularly, he seeks to show the nature of the spiritual and material rivalry between the Nakshibandi-Khalidiyya order, which proliferated in the early nineteenth century under the leadership of Sheikh Khalid, a native of Shahrizor, and the more established Qadiriyya order, led by the Berzinji family. Atmaca narrates the emergence and the development of the rivalry between these two groups, examining the efforts of the Baban emirs to mediate between the two sides. It is argued that, although Sheikh Khalid was pro-Baban, his conflict with the Berzinji led to his ultimate banishment, a striking example of how Sufi politics shaped the political agendas of the Baban emirs.

The third chapter seeks to provide a social history of the Baban emirate and, more specifically, in their capital of Sulaimani, which had been established in the late eighteenth century. Atmaca presents the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a golden age for the emirate and its capital, examining various aspects of life in Sulaimani and its environs. This includes the various non-Muslim religious minorities as well as the various classes of Muslims which comprised the majority of the emirates population. Atmaca also examines the varying role of women in the emirates society, highlighting the almost complete seclusion of elite women within the emirate, a situation which was in stark contrast to the relative freedom of women within the emirate’s more tribal districts. However, perhaps the chapter’s most significant observation is the relationship between the Babans and the development of the Sorani dialect of Kurdish. Atmaca directly links “relative political stability and economic well-being” (p. 101) of the Baban emirate and more specifically their capital of Sulaimani to the development of the Babani dialect of Kurdish, spoken in Sulaimani, into the dominant literary idiom in modern day Iraqi Kurdistan.

Chapter Four examines the circumstances around the Ottoman-Iranian War of 1820-1823. Atmaca highlights the role of provincial leaders such as the Babans as well as the Ottoman governor of Baghdad and the Iranian governor of Kermanshah in drawing Istanbul and Tehran into a broader conflagration. In particular, he examines the Baban emirates defection to from the Ottomans to the Iranians and the subsequent restoration of Ottoman influence over Sulaimani following the 1823 Treaty of Erzurum. The final chapter focuses on the decline and fall of the Baban emirate in the years between 1839 and 1851. Atmaca demonstrates that the Ottoman Empire’s efforts to centralize provincial administration as well as efforts to demark the Ottoman-Iranian border led to the overthrow of all the Kurdish emirates on the Ottoman-Iranian frontier. This included the Baban emirate, which was one of the last borderland emirates to be eliminated, bringing to an end not simply a Kurdish emirate but an entire political system, in which Kurdish emirs had maintained themselves on the borderlands between empires, a system which had existed not only for much of the Ottoman period, but for much of the post-Islamic period.

In general terms, Atmaca’s study is significant not so much for putting forth new arguments to the historical debate. Many of the themes touched on in the study have been elaborated on in earlier works, in particular Martin van Bruinessen’s Agha, Shaikh and State. Rather its importance lies in providing a comprehensive monograph of the Baban emirate, an arena in which the dynamics observed in earlier studies can be examined in detail. Based on an extensive survey of Ottoman documents, western travelogues and local histories, it constitutes an important addition to the growing historical literature on the Kurds and Kurdistan.

Djene Bajalan
Faculty of Social Sciences
The American University of Iraq -Sulaimani

Primary Sources

Başbankanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (BOA Istanbul)
Public Records Office (PRO London)

Dissertation Information

Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, 2013, pp. 233. Supervisor: Maurus Reinkowski.

Image: Sulaimaniya in the first quarter of nineteenth century. Source: William Heude, A Voyage up the Persian Gulf (1817).

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