The Kurds have inhabited an area of rugged mountains and high plains at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for over two thousand years. They are believed to be descended from the Medes who overthrew Nineveh in 612 B . C . Their traditional mode of subsistence is pastoralism and agriculture.
The territory Kurds conceive of as Kurdistan ("the land of the Kurds") is distributed across the present borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. There are other pockets of Kurds living in these countries, but outside of Kurdistan. A large group of Kurds can also be found in contiguous parts of the former Soviet Union. The terrain of Kurdistan is formed by the Eastern Taurus and the Zagros mountains and includes the steppelike plateaus to the north and the foothills of the Mesopotamian plains to the southwest. The climate is prone to extreme temperature fluctuations, from -30° C in the winter, to 45° C during the summer. Some mountain villages are completely isolated by heavy snows for up to six months of the year.
Kurdish, an Indo-European language, is most closely related to Persian. It consists of four main dialects (northern, middle, and southern Kurmanji, and Gorani), which in turn include several local dialects.
Estimates of the number of Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the former USSR are unreliable owing to the census policies of the various countries. Estimates of the Kurdish population in the mid-1970s for all these countries combined ranged from 13.5 to 21 million.