“The Hero’s Rock”- When the Kurds Rebelled
Along the road from the oil-rich multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk towards the modern cosmopolitan Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, there sits a rather large boulder. For the most part this boulder is unremarkable, probably shaken from the mountain above it by an earthquake in times past. Yet, to the inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan this boulder has become a symbol of the injustices they have faced in the 20th century and their on-going struggle for Kurdish self-governance and independence. The Kurds of Iraq have nicknamed the boulder “Barda Qaraman” or the “The Hero’s Rock”.
Monument to the Barda Qaraman or “The Hero’s Rock” (back central) and Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji between Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. Photo: General Board of Tourism of Kurdistan Iraq
It was behind this boulder, at the end of the First World War, that the leader of the first Kurdish nationalist uprising, Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, personally took on the British Empire in the name of Kurdish statehood. This is the untold story of the first Kurdish rebellion by the self-proclaimed ‘King of Kurdistan’ against British rule as preserved within the India Office Records at the British Library.
Map: ‘Kurds and Kurdistan,’ 1919, showing the road from Kirkuk to Sulaymaniyah (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 117)
As the grip of the Ottoman Empire eased at the end of the First World War the British found it difficult to establish control over the rugged and mountainous terrain of the Kurdish provinces of the old Empire that now became into their sphere of influence. The Kurdish people are often quoted saying they “have no friends but the mountains” and for the early years of engagement with the British the mountains served them well. The lack of a railway line into Kurdistan and the inhospitable terrain made communication and the movement of troops difficult. Moreover, mounting economic pressure on the British treasury to reduce spending on imperial projects meant the need for a railway in Kurdistan was never met. This allowed the Kurds a much needed political space to contemplate their post-war future.
At the end of the First World War, the Kurds had initially asked for British rule and protection on account of their impoverished state. Previous Turkish and Russian rule had left many villages desolate and in a state of famine. Needing to remedy their inability to hold Kurdistan the British agreed to Kurdish requests and installed a colonial system of indirect rule. They worked to reinforce Kurdistan’s feudal and tribal structures by giving tribal elders the ability to feed their people, and rebuild their villages.
To have some semblance of control the British also decided to appoint a local Kurdish notable Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji as governor of lower Kurdistan in 1918 to act as their regional representative. To support Sheikh Mahmud’s governance and in some part to pacify his known rebellious nature, British officials travelled to the west and north of Sulaymaniyah to garner support for the new system of British rule. They replaced Arab and Turkish officials with Kurdish ones, in effect giving the Kurds their first taste of self-rule.
Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, 1920s
At the end of 1918 doubts began to arise about the wisdom of allowing Sheikh Mahmud to increase his power in the region. This excerpt from a Military Report of 1919 titled ‘The Kurds and Kurdistan’ documents the changing British attitude towards him (p. 81):
Unfortunately, he is a mere child as regards intellect and breadth of view, but a child possessed by considerable cunning and undoubtedly inspired by an inordinate ambition. Moreover, he was surrounded by a class of sycophants who filled his head with extravagant and silly notions, leading him to style himself ruler of all Kurdistan and encouraging him to interfere in affairs far beyond the borders of the sphere allotted to him.
ʻKurds and Kurdistanʼ, 1919 (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 81)
Realising that giving Sheikh Mahmud more power and broadening his rule could be dangerous the British decided to restrict his authority. They prevented the incorporation of the Iraqi towns of Kifri and Kirkuk into his jurisdiction and removed the powerful Jaff tribe from under his rule, deciding instead to deal with them directly. This influenced other tribes to seek direct contact with the British and thus support for Sheikh Mahmud quickly waned retracting his zone of influence to the immediate vicinity of Sulaymaniyah city. Responding to this challenge and in an attempt to force the creation of separate southern Kurdistan under his rule he rebelled against the British on 22nd May 1919.
With the support of a tribal coalition of men and horses Sheikh Mahmud defeated a small group of Kurdish levies and imprisoned the British officers and their staff in their houses in the city of Sulaymaniyah. He then appointed his own mayor, seized the government archives and money from the treasury. He also cut the telegraph-line between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, essentially annexing southern Kurdistan from British rule. The next day a British aerial reconnaissance of the area in revolt noted that the city of Sulaymaniyah was filled with armed men. What is more, the imprisoned British officers made themselves known to the aviators by signalling to them from their houses.
After rounds of heavy RAF bombing and machine-gunning of Sulaymaniyah city and the surrounding villages, Sheikh Mahmud’s rebellion was forced out of the city towards the surrounding hills and valleys. According to accounts, it quickly became clear that Sheikh Mahmud’s Kurdish forces were by and large ill-prepared to face trained soldiers on the battlefield let alone a sustained RAF air bombardment that resulting in heavy casualties and the gutting of entire villages and neighbourhoods. With the Sheikh’s ammunition supplies running low many of his allies began to lose faith, some switching sides as the battle went on. The rebellion culminated in the standoff at the ‘Bazian Pass’.
‘Bazian Pass. Road leading from Kirkuk to Sulaimani’, Edwin Newman Collection, 23 May 2012 (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Newman Collection, Album AL4-B, p 32, no. 1)
The ‘Bazian Pass’ is a gap between the Sulaymaniyah valleys and the Garmian plains, that is hemmed in by mountains. In the hope of stopping the British advance Sheikh Mahmud’s forces constructed a stone wall across the pass. However, a British pilot spotted that the wall was not effectively constructed and on the 8th of June 1919 pilots bombed the pass and its surrounding areas weakening the defences and hitting Sheikh Mahmud’s troops hard. This was followed on the 18th of June by a further attack which brought down the wall. Sheikh Mahmud’s men were then easily routed. Some were killed, but the majority were wounded and imprisoned. Sheikh Mahmud himself was found injured taking cover behind the large boulder on the east of the pass. Once they had control of the pass the British quickly returned to Sulaymaniyah and disarmed the local population freeing the imprisoned British officers. Sheikh Mahmud himself was tried, and imprisoned in India only to be released a few years later.
‘Kurds and Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers’, 1919, IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22
‘Mesopotamia: British relations with Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 27 Aug 1919, IOR/L/PS/18/B332
‘Persia: operations against Sirdar Rashid and Sheikh Mahmoud’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 23 May 1923-2 Aug 1923, IOR/L/PS/11/235, P 2756/1923
Shkow Sharif, Asian and African Collections