jeudi 28 octobre 2010

My visit to the cultural centres in Iraqi Kurdistan

I went on a trip to Iraq, to take part in an international Congress of Kurdology, organised in Erbil by the Kurdish Institute of Paris and the Government of Federal Kurdistan of Iraq. The Congress was held at Salahadin University from Tuesday 4 September 2006 to Friday, 8 November 2006.

I spoke about two brilliant and tolerant Kurdish Dynasties, that of the Marwanides (983-1085), established in Mayafarkin, and that of the ‘Ayubides of Jezira with the great Malik al-Asraf (+1237).

The Syriac chroniclers often wrote about these princes who kept in cordial touch with Syriac Christians living in that region.

Permanence of the Syriac culture, a culture of the world

Heirs of the old Mesopotamians, proud of their traditions, Syriac had an original vision of the world and of the man. During centuries, prelates, clerks, doctors, philosophers, and translators celebrated the flame of knowledge. They showed exceptional enthusiasm to be educated, to study theology, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and Syriac language.

They founded many famous schools. Their culture, enriched with many documents, manuscripts, archaeological vestiges, inscriptions, took part in the cultures of the world, like Greek, Egyptian and Roman cultures.

Alas, since the creation of the State of Iraq in 1921, for lack of means and freedom, Syriac culture could not spread out and was enfeebled.

The beginning of revival

At the time of the revolt of the great Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani in 1961, who asserted autonomy, many Christian and Kurdish villages in the North of Iraq were destroyed by the governments of Baghdad and the populations were deported.

In 1991, during the Gulf’s war, the Kurds were agitated. The army of Saddam Hussein pursued them to the Turkish borders. Then the Americans and the Allied nations created a zone of protection in Kurdistan, which covered the governorates of Dohuk, Erbil and Soulemanya. The Iraqi Kurds began, since 1992, to manage their own affairs, to form a government and to create ministries and political institutions.

A new climate of liberty started to take place little by little for the Syriac people. Their culture sprang and developed in the form of courses of language, cultural centres, newspapers, reviews, radios and televisions.

Under the Direction of the Education Department of the Kurdistan Regional Government, there were new programs and text-books for the year 1993/1994. Several schools in Erbil welcomed Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people. In Dohuk, teaching in the Arabic and Kurdish languages started to take shape and there was a special section for teaching the Syriac language.

Seventeen primary schools taught all their subjects in Syriac. Six Highs schools provided a teaching in all academic topics, but the Syriac language remained compulsory.

Specialist linguists wrote Arabic-Syriac, and Syriac-Arabic dictionaries specialised in the vocabulary of modern sciences.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in 2003, the movement of revival sprang and kept on flourishing till the present day. In the towns and villages of the Nineveh’s plains, where there is a sizable community of Assyrians, Chaldeans and other Syriac speaking communities. Some of these towns include Bagdeda, (Qaraqoche), Bartella, Alqoche, Tell-Kaif, Karamless, Tell-Esqof, Batnaya and others towns and villages. Many cultural centres and primary schools that taught in Syriac were created and began to work in order to promote the Syriac studies, culture and traditions.

The new Ishtar television had started to broadcast and was very important for the culture.

It was only in 2005 that the name of the Assyrian-Chaldean people, one of the oldest in the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent was inscribed in the Iraqi Constitution and recognised.

Today, the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people of the North of Iraq realise the richness of their culture and history. They wish to awaken in their children an interest in scientific subjects, such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, but also for history, philosophy, literature and arts. They want to keep their language, the modern Syriac (Soureth) alive and flourishing as it has been for hundreds of years. On the other hand, the liturgical language remains the traditional Syriac, used since the very early centuries of Christianity.

Some values of the modern world, competition, money cult, and poor politics cannot totally fulfil the hearts and minds of the young generations, who are in need of morality ideals and traditional culture and meanings in their lives. Knowledge, intellectual research, literary and artistic creation lead the way of progress in people’ minds and open horizons of liberty, tolerance and fraternity.

The visit

The congress of Kurdlogy having come to an end, I left Erbil and I returned by car to the Chaldean city of Ankawa, populated by nearly 20 000 inhabitants. I had visited Ankawa, 45 years ago. It had been a greatly modest village at the time, but now, I was pleasantly surprised to see its great development and expansion. Hundreds of beautiful, residential houses have grown there like mushrooms in open extensive fields.

Mentioned several times in an account reporting the siege of Qala by the Mongols, in 1310, the citadel of Erbil and the old village of Ankawa had become a bastion of Nestorian Christianity. But in the XVIII century, it was made Catholic. At the end of the century, a priest, Yussif Ibrahim al-Rawanduz (1832) came to live in Ankawa and greeted his small land of adoption like “the mother of Chaldean science.” He wrote several poems in the Turkish language, hymns in Chaldean (Soureth) and he carried out translations of Arabic into Syriac, a lexicon in Syriac language and in Soureth and a grammar into Syriac.

Today still, the bishop resides at Ankawa. He exerts his influence and his jurisdiction on the entire province. A very old church was dedicated to Saint Georges.

I went to visit the new Arts Centre in Ankawa. It was in a beautiful three-storey building. There was a large room at the entry of the building, open to the public, where the newspapers and the magazines published in Iraq and in Kurdistan were on display. A young man welcomed me and offered me his services.

I was shown round the Centre. I went into a vast reception room, on the right, furnished with gold velvet armchairs. There was a portrait of the Kurdish chief Mustafa Barzani mounting on the wall.

There were several administrative staff offices and also the manager’s office on the left side of the ground floor. We went up to the first floor and entered a room equipped with computers. There were many boys and the girls looking at the screens; they stopped and waved to me. I moved towards the library. A Chaldean woman, with black hair and eyes, was sitting behind her desk. She welcomed me, showing me around the library, which was full of shelves filled with a lot of beautiful books in English, Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac. She told me proudly that the library had 1788 books and that they had just acquired several new books. She was responsible for cataloguing and organising them.

I congratulated the librarian, and then passed quickly into the next room, which was used for training actors and actresses and it was also used for Eastern and Western music.

On the second floor there were other offices for files and management issues.

The Adiabene Room

Always escorted by my young companion, I visited another building by the ground floor, called the Adiabene room, which was used for lectures and receptions. It was a really large room of 600 square metres, with a splendid ceiling. It was a beautiful room, decorated with velvet curtains. It could receive 700 people and had modern conveniences and fully air-conditioned.

This room was also used as a grand theatre. I was told that many plays in Syriac were shown there, testifying to a true birth of the Syriac theatre activities.

I went upstairs and arrived in a vast kitchen and an elegant dining room, opened to the staff of the Centre and to the guests.

At the house corner, I saw workmen who finished the construction of six flats, intended to receive writers, painters, artists and journalists, invited by the Centre.

The talk with Jalal Marcos

I could not keep Jalal Marcos, the vice-president of the Centre waiting longer in his office, which was situated in the first building. He was a nice man with average size and grey-hair, about fifty years old. He invited me to sit down on the sofa. I told him that I was really impressed with the beauty and the order of the Centre in Ankawa. He smiled with gratitude. He had prepared some documents to show me and also to give me details about this Centre.

In answer to my queries, Jalal Marcos told me that the Centre was founded in 1998. It is currently financed by the Minister of Economy and Finance of Iraqi Kurdistan, Sarkgis Agajan, but managed by the Religious Chaldean Organisation. It is has now ten officials and many other office workers.

We had a long discussion about the numerous activities of the cultural Centre. I was told that the Centre had a magazine publication of 128 pages, written in Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac languages, and another magazine entitled Radya Caldaya. Another monthly newspaper published is the Beth Ankawa, written in Arabic and Syriac languages. The centre has a small publishing firm dedicated to the great Chaldean scholar Addaï Scher (1867- 1915), who wrote “The history of Chaldea and Assur”. The firm had published about fifteen books already, in order to promote the culture of the Assyian-Chaldean-Syriac people.

Jalal Marcos was responsible for the publication of printed work and also for increasing publications.

I thought of the printing works of the Dominican Fathers of the Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul, opened in 1859, and then closed by the Turks in 1914. It had published 350 books in Arabic and Syriac languages and had placed them at the disposal of the population. I had the feeling that a new age had started for the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac researchers, writers and journalists. They could give a new impulse to their original culture.

I thanked Jalal Marcos for his hospitality and we separated. The team went down and greeted me with cordiality. I promised them a lecture on the history of our culture and people the next time I visited them.

My visit in Ankawa came to an end; I had the impression that the city was going to become the cultural capital of our people.

A Stop at the Assyrian cultural Centre of Dohuk

I went up in the car and returned to Dohuk, a city located between the mountainous chains (Bekher and Shndokha), which border Turkey, and Syria in North and West. Today, it is populated by more than 800 000 inhabitants, Moslems, Christians and Yazidis.

I thought of the famous Syriac writer Narsaï (399-503), who had been born in a village close to Ma’altâye and who had founded the famous School of Nisibe (a kind of university), which had given Mesopotamia many famous philosophers, doctors, and theologians. Today, Ma’althâye was a new district of Dohuk.

I arrived in the town mid afternoon. I went straight to the Assyrian cultural Centre, which I had been told many things about in the past. It was a large, blue-mauve building, crenulated, decorated with a Syriac inscription.

The Director, Nissam Mirza, who had been informed of my visit, came up with his team of supporters and workers to welcome me. He was a tall, slim, dark-haired man, who had been a graduate in Management and Economy. He took me to his office and ordered coffee which was served in little cups. While sipping his coffee, he spoke to me about the history of the cultural office.

He told me that the Assyrian Arts Centre, the first in the area of Dohuk, was first established on 15 March 1992. The main objective was to start a new renewal phase to the culture and language, the inheritance of the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people. Another objective was to make known the writers of the Chaldo/Assyrian culture. A third one was to establish a link and respectful dialogue with the Kurds. Since the opening of the Centre, the Syriac language started to be taught at the primary and secondary schools.

It is also a training centre for Information Technology, in order to familiarise all students with the computer and to Internet.

Each year, several exhibitions of books, works of art and publications are organisned. Hundreds of visitors, especially those who have interest in the Syriac culture, attend and admire the exhibits. Some personalities come to give lectures and seminars.

I asked Nissam Mirza about the financial resources and support for these important cultural activities and exhibitions. He told me that they were all gifts from the Assyrian community of Dohuk and also from the various charitable organisations from America.

The Director took me on a tour of the Centre building and offices. He showed me the large room of lectures, exhibitions and festivals, which was often rented for marriages and constituted a source of useful income for the Centre.

I was then led to the library which contained 1600 books in Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac. The young readers were sitting in front of tables and were lost in their books, in spite of the semi-darkness. The Director told me that the readers there would damage their eyesight, because the lamps gave a poor light. In addition, it seemed to me that the blue plastic armchairs were too modest and rather uncomfortable.

He told me that he agreed and that they were aware of the problems. He added that they were going to undertake a construction of a new, more spacious library, with large windows.

Then I was led to the Editorial Office of the quarterly journal entitled Kukhwa Beth Nahrain, The Star of Mesopotamia. Created in December first 1992, it is published in Syriac and Arabic and comes in 132 pages. It is financed by some Assyrian benefactors. I attentively studied an issue, and congratulated Farid Yacoub, in charge of it, for it was a really good and well presented magazine, cover of glazed paper, decorated with coloured photographs and beautiful Syriac (Soureth) characters.

I told Mr Yacoub that I was really impressed with that brilliant work. He told me that his people are well experienced with the art of creating newspapers, reviews and magazines. The Assyrians of Ourmia in Iran had created the magazine Zahira of Behrea, the Ray of light as early as 1846.

After completing the visit to the Centre, Nissam Mirza, showed me the Printing house and told me that about fifteen books had been printed and published there. They have now a great freedom and a lot of projects are planned ahead. They have great ambitions to print and publish the writings of our fathers and scholars. He hoped that one day they would be pleased to translate into Syriac one of my own books, “The Epic of the Tiger and Euphrates”. They had already read it in Arabic translation and they liked it tremendously. I was really pleased to offer my acceptance and admiration for their activities.

When I was about to leave I was given a gift of a bag with ten books in it. I took that as a great privilege.

The International School of Dohuk

I could not pass to Dohuk without going to visit the International School of Dohuk. A few years ago, the dynamic bishop of Amadia, his Grace Bishop Raban had been entrusted with the project, which matured little by little. That led to the creation of an International School. The authorities of Kurdistan, with the assistance of the Town of Dohuk, granted a ground and the construction started.

The International School, under the auspices of the Education Department of the Kurdistan Regional Government, was opened on 15 September 2004. The Chaldean Community ensured the presidency of it, but the direction was Kurdish.

Nowadays, the school has 170 students, 30 teachers and 28 staff members.

I met the director, Wahid Atrushi, a Moslem Kurd, a cultured, humanistic open-minded man. He told me that the school uses the English language to teach Years 4, 5 and 6 respectively, mainly scientific subjects such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology.

The students are also taught Social Sciences, Human rights, Democracy, History of the Kurds and English, French, Arabic, Kurdish, Aramaic languages. Aramaic was taught one hour weekly and was compulsory for Christians but optional for followers of other religions. The school wished to help Iraqi Youth to study English and French languages, so as to open their minds to the world and to “occidental” culture.

The pupils write a magazine and they have sports teams. The education there is free of charge.

I asked who could study there. The answer was that there was a great selection. The students who are usually accepted in the school must have obtained a minimum of 75% in the Baccalaureate of the 3 rd Year and have 15 years of age and more. The European and American students must pass an interview.

Then, I visited the school which was very modern, occupying a five-storey building, already equipped with all modern conveniences and computers. All the students were wearing a uniform, a model of white shirt, a blue dress or trousers.

I also learnt that the students were full board. The building had a large canteen and a vast room for lectures.
The weather was hot and Wahid Atrushi took me along to his office, where I rested. The phone rang. It was His Grace, the Bishop Raban of Amadia. He gave his apologies for not being aware of my visit and for not coming to meet with me. He had not been informed of my visit in Dohuk. He thanked me for the hundreds of books which our delegation of Kurdlogy had brought from Paris for the library of the school.

Hîzil, the social and cultural Centre of Zakho

I had a keen desire to stay a few days in Zakho, now a large city which is about 120 kilometres of Mosul, not far from the Turkish / Iraqi borders. It is today a significant trading centre, populated by some 250000 Kurds, Chaldeans, and Armenians. It is the sub-prefecture, which belongs to Dohuk Governorate. I had been born in Sanat, which was affiliated to Zakho.

I thought of the father R.P. Guiseppe Campanile, O.P., who has appointed apostolic Prefect for Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in 1809. He visited and liked Zahko. He wrote:

“Zakho is the most gracious and pleasant city amongst the miserable cities of Bahdinan. It is located on a soft slope and forms an island surrounded by the Khabour River which joined together with some ramifications of Hîzil River at a little distance from Zakho. Zakho is located in the middle of a very beautiful cutting of green grass hills, which form picturesque and delicious perspectives. The small gardens which surround it contribute to make it merrier and pleasant.
It is a rich and commercial city. The traders come there, from almost all Kurdistan and Mesopotamia. There, they buy and sell a lot of good : Walnuts, who are estimated to be the best of all the Kurdistan, rice, wax, honey, oil, sumac (soummâk in Arabic), raisins, lentils and a lot of fruits. There are also very famous sulfatemines.”1

Two centuries had passed, but Zakho had preserved its charm and attraction and also its dynamism. I could have re-written the text of Guiseppe Campanile !

When I arrived, I wanted to see the old, famous Dalal Bridge which spans the Khabour River, probably dating from the Roman time, or from a late epoch. I saw that the stones were falling over; the bridge urgently needs to be restored. Anxious, I called on my mobile phone Kana’an Mufti, the Director General of Antiquities, a courteous and pleasant man. I warned him of the danger of the bridge breaking down due to decay. He promised me to take action for a restoration of the bridge.

After a few days, at home, with my kinship and relations, I went to visit the cultural and social Centre, close to the Chaldean See. I asked to meet the director. Much to my surprise, I saw Amir Goga, a friend of childhood, lost of sight for a long time. He looked older; of course, partly white-haired, but had kept his enthusiasm, his dynamism, his wittedness.

He told me he was so happy to see me back in my home country after all these years I spent abroad. Then, we exchanged memories. We told some jokes in our Soureth language.

I asked him about their cultural and social activities, as I had heard that it was a very good Centre.

Amir Goga told me that eighty-three employees work at the Centre. Many people come to the dispensary every day, requesting assistances of all kinds which are free of charge. They are given drugs.

The Centre offers a monthly allowance to 912 Christian families emigrated of Mosul, Baghdad, and also to 570 other needy families of the area. As for the culture, the Centre publishes in Arabic and in Kurdish a review entitled Hîzil. The writers, the artists of the province of Zakho can promote their inheritance.

Then the director showed me the back of a magazine which he took from over his desk. To my great surprise and pride, there was a picture of my own village, Sanat. What an emotion!

I was told by Amir Goga that a small team was charged to animate a radio which diffused its programs in Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac and Armenian from 8.30 a.m. to 8.30 p.m . The audience can listen to radio news, music, and songs.

Another team in charge of Information Technology for the young people and had in the area 5 centres equipped with computers offering the access to the Internet.

Then I was informed by Amir Goga with much liveliness and sensibility of a great project: the rebuilding of the Christian villages destroyed by the Baathist regime of Iraq, like Peshkabour, Deraboun, Bajida, Karaoula, Charanes, Deschtatar and many others.

Six hundred and fifty houses had been already rebuilt, with running water, electricity, and two hundred are awaiting the end of the public works. Eight primary schools had opened their doors.

The Diocese of Zakho had taken charge of rebuilding the churches.

I told my friend that I had been to Deschtatar the day before, where the Sanati are coming to live on the lands of their ancestors. I saw the new buildings, and then I had a picnic with residents on the bank river Nhera. I felt a true feeling of joy! I reminded a proverb of the area:

“Bird, tell me, where are you the most happy? –It is where I was born,
answered the bird.”

Indeed, I was in communion with this little bird !

I was impressed by the extensiveness of the task, and I asked the director if he was not cramped for room.

He told me that the buildings were too exigent then now, but they were about to buy a greater Centre for all their social and cultural activities. Fortunately, the Kurdish Federal Government, directed by the Prime Minister, Nejirvan Barzani, and the minister for Economy Sarkgis Agajan, agreed to finance all their projects.

I felt that my friend was doing a great job and I conveyed my feelings to him as I was leaving him, praising his dynamism and devoutness.

On my return home in Paris, I think of all things I had seen in Iraq. I reconsidered with my visits in the various cultural Centres of Iraqi Kurdistan and with the people who I had the opportunity to meet. I had the feeling of a beginning of renewal of the Assyro-Chaldean-Syriac culture and language. I had seen the signs of them. The Federal Government of Kurdistan and the President Masoud Barzani backed up this cause, this renewal.

I hope that one day, a Syriac University will be born for the greatest joy of all young and old Chaldo Assyrian people youth. They do say dreams sometimes come true. We will pray for that dream.

lundi 25 octobre 2010

My Visit to the Yazidis in the North of Iraq

In September 2006, I went on a journey into Iraq, to take part in an international congress on Kurdology, organised from Wednesday 6 September to Saturday 9 September, by the Kurdish Federal Government and the Kurdish Institute of Paris. I gave a lecture on two brilliant Kurdish dynasties, the Marwanides and the Ayubides, as seen by the Syriac Chroniclers.

At the time of the congress, three lectures were given on the Yazidis, their religion and culture. A lecture particularly attracted my attention was that of a Yazidi professor, Khalil Jindi, who lives in Germany. The article talked about the Yazidi intellectuals who rediscover their culture and history. They do not want to leave any more the responsibility of writing about their own culture and history to non-Yazidi people, who had sometimes written about them in dubious texts. So the Yazidi intellectuals now write their own books and articles, which convey to readers, more genuinely and authentically, credible accounts of the history of Yazidism.

The origins of Yazidism are very ancient, mainly shrouded in the Middle East. The word Yazidi could be derived from the old Iranian word “Ezid” or “Yezdan”, meaning God, or “Yazata”, meaning to be worthy of veneration, like a divine being.

Yazidis are approximately estimated today at about 500,000 individuals.

Most of Yazidis live in North Mesopotamia, mainly around the City of Mosul. They speak Northern Kurdish, with the exception of the villages of Bashika and Bahazane population who mainly speak a variety of the Arabic language.

Yazidi communities live in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Georgia, Armenia, and Europe.

The visit to the Cultural Centre of Dohouk

I had had a keen desire to visit the high places of Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the end of September 2006 the opportunity came to me along with my brother Brikha. At first we went to Zakho City, which is about 120 kilometres north of Mosul, not far from the Turkish/Iraqi borders. We then went to the Sipan Hotel which belonged to Sheikh Khairy, who is a religious chief Yazidi, descended from the great tribe of Haweri. I met with Sheikh Khairy and his elder brother Shamo. They are very good friends of my family.

I expected to see an old sheikh with a long beard and a turban on the head. I was rather pleasantly surprised to see a good-looking and dynamic young man, about forty years old, with clear chestnut hair and white complexion. He was well dressed in the costume of an Occidental, modern man.

We had a very interesting conversation before we were taken by two cars to the Yazidi Arts Centre in Dohuk. The city of Duhouk is located about one hundred kilometres away from Zakho, between the mountain chains of Bekher and Shndokha. When we arrived in the Cultural Centre, we were welcomed on the threshold by the director, Said Sallo and his team. They welcomed us warmly, kissing Sheikh Khairy, and shaking hands with us. We were taken to visit the gallery-museum which was decorated with photos evoking the great political and religious events concerning the Yazidis.

Then we went to see the library which was contained a lot of books, journals and reviews. The director Said Sallo showed me with pride a cultural illustrated quarterly magazine. The issue number 24 of May 2006 is entitled Lalish and written in Kurdish, Arabic, and English. I studied it attentively and admired it as a really good and well-presented cultural magazine.

I was shown another semi monthly newspaper, the voice of Lalish, which gave news on the religious and cultural activities of the Yazidi people.

The director spoke to me about the numerous projects of the Centre. One of their regular activities is the organisation of artistic displays and exhibitions, and also lectures on the relationship of the Yazidi community with people from other communities and faiths like the Christians, Moslems.

One publication contained the calendar of the religious and civil year of Yazidis. The centre received numerous delegations from Armenia, Caucasian Republics and Europe.

I was told that the Centre was an active place of study and research for students and researchers, which are really pleasing, considering the circumstances the area had gone through during the past decade or so.

Then the man in charge of Information Technology arrived. He told us about the new website entitled ‘’, which had been just inaugurated officially. We were told that the website would be used as a channel for news about the Yazidis and their friends nationally and internationally. This showed how the advanced status and support the Centre seemed to have.

After completing the visit to the Centre we rested in the office of the Director Said Sallo. We were offered hospitality and welcome all throughout the visit. We had long discussions about the friendly and cordial relations that had always existed between the Yazidis and the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people, the two minority groups that had dwelt in the north of Iraq since Ancient Times.


The successive governments of Iraq, anxious to unify their country, often adopted an aggressive attitude as regards the Yazidi people. At times there was even continuous persecution, which resulted in mistrust and misunderstandings. The Yazidis resisted, trying desperately to keep their faith and traditions. There was poverty all around the various communities which resulted in ignorance and lack of education. However, people started to understand that, in order to survive, it was necessary to be modernised and to catch up with the age of knowledge and advancement. In 1933 primary schools were opened in Sindjar and Cheikhan, but were closed in 1934-1935 by the rulers of Baghdad at the time of the revolt of the Yazidi tribes against the military service. The schools reopened in 1936, after the end of the rebellion.
About 1960, the Yazidi families started to encourage their children to pursue studies at universities and higher education institutions. Unfortunately however, during the Baathist dictatorship and the regime of Saddam Hussein, it was not possible for their young people to continue their higher education. In 1991, after the Gulf War, the three departments of the North of Kurdistan, Dohuk, Erbil and Sulemaniya came under the protection of the Americans. The Kurds, regarding Yazidis as other Kurds, gave them the possibility of practising freely their religion and of promoting their heritage and their culture. For the first time in their history, the Yazidis managed to create their own Cultural Centre in Dohouk, adding to their identity an element of education and modernisation that was denied them for ages under past repressive regimes.

After 2003, and after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, in order to give an impulse to the Yazidi people, ten cultural centres were created in the cities and villages of Kurdistan, in Baadri, Sindjar, Cheikhan, Barshika and many others. They all have libraries, rooms of lectures and other facilities.

Fifty years after, the trip to Sheikh Adi’s tomb

Sheikh Khairy, my brother and me, left Dohouk and the Centre in the cars we had come by to go this time to Lalish, thirty-six miles northeast of Mosul. Lalish is surrounded by high mountains. It is a major religious and symbolic centre of worship and pilgrimage as it contains the famous tomb of the famous Sheikh Adi ibn Mustafa

According to scholars, this famous mystic lived in the early twelfth century. He had travelled to Baghdad to study Theology. He had then retired to the valley of Lalish. He lived a monastic kind of life, away from society, lost in thoughts and spirituals meditations. He had attracted many followers and disciples. A community grew up around him. He died in 1162, but his influence did not cease growing. His tomb became a focal point of Yazidi faith and important place of pilgrimage.

We drove at a speed, crossed the city of Cheikhan, a sub-prefecture inhabited by a majority of Yazidis. We saw a church, a mosque, and a white, fluted temple. The three religions, Christian, Moslem, and Yazidi lived together in peace.

A few kilometres further we arrived in a narrow, luxuriant and beautiful valley, which had many fig , pomegranates and mulberry trees. An ancient temple, dedicated to Sheikh Adi was surmounted by two white, large cones, and stood out against the mountain planted with oaks and shrubs. We crossed a gate, drew up and parked the cars in a forecourt bordered with nice buildings.

Members of the Yazidi clergy, capped with turbans and dressed in tunics and white trousers, respectfully came to kiss Sheikh Khairy and to greet us. All of us must go in barefoot, as a sign of respect. A young boy approached us, asking us to take off our shoes.

We went into a second courtyard, where there was a temple. Above the door, we saw two carved peacocks, and, on the right side, a black snake, two meters high, carved on the wall. There were many old symbols, suns, moons, stars, crooks, flowers, decorating the stones.

Childhood memories came to me. It was coming back to me that fifty years ago I had come to this temple with my teachers and my school friends. I had been a student in a secondary school in Mosul.

The temple had been completely restored. New constructions rose. I heard the voice of Sheikh Khairy who asked me to take care never to step on the sacred threshold stone, because only Sheik Adi had had the right to step there.

We stepped barefoot into a vast gallery of 30 meters out of 12, decorated with lamps and crossed by a colonnade of seven arcades. A delicious freshness reigned there. Around the columns, pilgrims had bound red, green, mauve fabrics, and they had tied bows for the realisation of theirs wishes.

Another part of the temple contained tens of oil earthenware jars, of all sizes. A small lamp shone by releasing a light smoke. Its flame would never die out. Smaller rooms sheltered the cenotaphs of old sheikhs.

We were led to a wide chamber into the Holy of Holies, the lofty tomb of Sheikh Adi, a lofty sarcophagus concealed behind a pink, tasselled cloth. Sheikh Khairy kissed the sarcophagus and asked us to turn with him five times around. We seized the tassels, the fringes and made a wish. I wished peace and prosperity to Federal Kurdistan. We returned towards the doorway and we stuck our back to the wall of a niche, making a more individual wish.

Then, we went down to a narrow staircase and arrived in a small room. In the centre there was a basin, supplied with a source which flowed from the mountain. The pilgrims who came there splashed themselves with holy water.

We went out into the warmer air. In the sunlit courtyard we met other Yazidis, dressed up with white tunics, trousers, or in Kurdish costumes. They invited us to a copious repast of mutton stew, rice, cucumbers, tomatoes, and cheeses. All the men stood barefooted and ate, in front of trestles furnished with these foods.

On the wall, a large, multicoloured peacock, drawn a few years before by a Yazidi painter, fanned its tail, picture of Tawûsê Melek, the most powerful and noble of the angels. I thought that the peacock, in many traditions was a solar symbol, a symbol of beauty, peace, prosperity and immortality; its tail, fanned out, symbolise the cosmic deployment of Spirit. (In the beautiful picture of the Flemish painter Rogier Van der Weyden (1399-1464), The Last Judgement, Michael, the chief of the Angels, has his wings covered with peacock’s feathers).

The Peacock-Angel, the pearl and the illumination

Tea was brought, and I asked a question to a sheikh with a sallow face.

• ‘Can you tell me how many folds there are on the cones of the temple?’
• ‘Twenty-four’, he said to me slowly. ‘Corresponding to the twenty-four hours of the day. As for the cone, it symbolized the earth touching the sky’.
• ‘What can you tell me about your religion?’, I asked.

He tried to answer all my questions with enthusiasm. Here is a summary of the Yazidi Doctrine, as I gathered from his answers :

The Yazidi Faith is a monotheist, syncretistic cryptic religion, which mixes apparently Sufi influence with many points of ancient Mesopotamian and Iranian religions. The Yazidis believe in the goodness and unity of God. They have two Holy books, Mishefa Resh (Black Book) and Kitba Cilwe (Book of the Illumination).

The account of the Creation, according to Mishefa Resh, differs from that of the Christians and the Moslems.

In the Yazidi view, God created in seven days seven angels, and then He formed the world as a pure, white, invaluable pearl. The pearl is a symbol of illumination. It remained thus during forty thousand years. God broke the pearl, whose pieces formed the sky, the earth, the sea, and paradise. He created the animals and the plants. He built the body of Adam with dust, blew on him, and called him into existence from his own breath.

Other accounts tell that God created Tawûsê Melek from an illumination, and later on, the angels. He ordered to Tawûsê Melek and the angels to bring dust from the earth, water, and fire and to build the body of Adam. He gave life to him.

God asked the angels to bow to Adam. All obeyed except Tawûsê Melek. God inquired on his refusal. The angel replied that he worshipped only God. He paid homage only to the Single One. He said that Adam was made of dust, while he, Tawûsê Melek, was born from an illumination of God.

So, God had tested him. Now, He praised Tawûsê Melek made him the leader of the angels and His representative on the face of the earth.

Two principles ruled on Yazidi religion: the purity and belief in metempsychosis. The Seven Holy Angels are periodically reincarnated in human forms.

Moslems blame Yazidis for not being a “People of the Book”, like Jews and Christians who, according to the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam, had the official status of Dhimmis. In the past, sometimes, they could not establish relationships with the Yazidis and were intolerant of them.

Yazidi communities have nothing to do with satanic sects, nor with their rituals. The black snake on the door of the temple is not a symbol of evil but of slough regeneration. Tawûsê Melek is not a fallen angel or a source of evil. It is a demiurge, born from an illumination of God, and the creator of material world, according to several accounts.

Yazidis think that good and evil are in the mind and the heart of the human beings. It rests with them to choose the good. The devotion towards Tawûsê Melek, the powerful, wise, majestic Peacock Angel, can guide them. God having given him the choice between good and evil, he chose the good.

The angel, who lives beyond the stars, has a sublime nature; he knows in a light which is above time, eternal. He is the auxiliary of God. He plays a role of illumination and protection to the humans.

Every angel is terrible, wrote the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), in his famous Elegies. Tawûsê Melek allocates blessings and misfortunes as he wants; it is unseemly to question him. He has a great influence on the world and makes it go.

A hierarchical society

Yazidi society is well organised. At the top there is a hereditary Emir, who is a secular leader. Then come the religious chiefs, the sheikhs; below them are the pirs, religious delegates; the qawals, reciters, who hand on orally all the secrets of their religion to other generations; the faqirs, ascetics dressed in brown tunics, who look after the tomb of Sheikh Adi; and the murids, the disciples.

Each Yazidi tribe keeps the hierarchy and obeys the great Emir of Cheikhan. Yazidis are forbidden to marry outside their cult.


The festival of New Year’s Day celebrates the creation of the world. It begins the first Wednesday of Nisan (March, April), according to Julian calendar, with music (drums), dances, meals, and decorated eggs. Yazidis drink alcohol, which is not prohibited. They believe that Tawûsê Melek comes down to the earth on this day. (God creates him on this day).

Another festival is the Feast of the Assembly, Cejna Cemaiya. It is celebrated to commemorate the death of Sheikh Adi in 1162. It lasts seven days. The pilgrims light hundreds of lamps on the tombs of Sheikh Adi and others saints. They celebrate the next arrival of autumn, from 23 rd of Elul to I st of Tishrei (September).

An important festival is the Tawûsgeran (circulation of the Peacock). The qawals visit the Yazidi villages with drums; they bring the Senjaq, sacred images representing the Peacock and associated with Tawûsê Melek.

Yazidis venerate the Senjaq, preach sermons and distribute holy water. They collect taxes which would be used for maintenance of the tombs of Sheikh Adi and other saints.

In Vienna in Austria, a splendid brass or bronze symbol representing the Peacock Angel is exhibited.


Yazidis principally have two daily prayers, Dawn prayer, when they pray to the sun that they venerate, and Noon prayer, when they face towards Lalish.

They honour trees and streams. It is forbidden to spit on the holy elements, water, fire and earth.

Wednesday is the Yazidi holy day, but the day of rest remains Saturday. They observe two periods of 40 days fast, in winter and summer. They fast one Wednesday in February, and the following day begins the Festival of Khidir Allias.

Yazidi traditions proclaim that they descend from Adam.

They are forbidden to marry outside their cult and they remain dominantly monogamous, but chiefs may have more than one wife.

Children are brought to Lalish to be baptised in clean cisterns. Circumcision is not required. The dead are buried near their village, in conical tombs.

The Yazidi religion prohibits the eating of lettuce, cauliflower and chicken, and sometimes of the wearing a blue colour.

Today, young people wear western clothes, but the old ones keep on their traditional dresses, Kurdish trousers, long shirts, tunics, girdles. They wear brown felt caps surrounded by a turban. The women are dressed in white, capped with a turban.

A tragic history

During the centuries Yazidi villages were regularly devastated. In the middle of the XIII century, local princes, as Badr al-Din Lulu, The Emir of Mosul, devastated Cheikhan, massacred a lot of Yazidis, set fire to the tomb and burned the bones of Sheikh Adi. The tomb was built again afterwards.

The Ottomans, in the middle of the XVII century, sent to Cheikhan the pasha of Van, Shamus Pasha, with troops to destroy the temple of Sheikh Adi and kill a great number of Yazidis.

In 1708, there was a rebellion of the Yazidis against the Ottoman Empire in Jabal Sindjar, a mountain located at the west of Mosul. The Emir of Baghdad, named Hassan Pasha, suppressed the revolt.

In 1832, Bedir Xan Beg, the Emir of Bothan, invaded Cheikhan with troops, seized their prince, Eli Beg, led him to Rawanduz and cruelly put him to death. Many villages were devastated; men, women, children tried to flee but were slaughtered.

The pashas of Baghdad and Mosul often left their suppletive troops maltreat the Yazidi communities. At the end of XIX century, Omar Wali Pasha, the general inspector of Iraq, dispatched an army to decimate the Yazidis, and to abolish their religion.

In his Memoirs, Qoriakos Paulus Daniel, the Syriac bishop, who was native of Baghdad, wrote that in the year 1892, Omar Fami Pasha, the Governor of Mosul, had fought a terrible campaign against the Yazidi communities. The pasha seized 70 important persons and forced them into apostate. A part of the group accepted to do it; another part refused to do it. At once, 4 men were trampled to death. In August, in Baadri, Barshika, Bahzane, Omar Fami Pasha seized the Senjaq, sacred image of the Yazidi, and he profaned, destroyed the image. In 1893, he sent 7 army corps to destroy the Yazidis of Sindjar (in The Memoirs of the Bishop Qoriakos Paulus Daniel, from 1831 to 1916, published by Suhail Kacha, Beirut, Lebanon).

Since 1915, during the First World War, Yazidis protected the Armenians and the Assyro-Chaldean-Syriacs, who took refuge in Jabal Sindjar, after being pursued by the Turks. They received approximately thirty thousand of them, until 1918. In February 1918, the Turks sent troops to Sindjar. The Yazidis refused to hand over the Christians to the Turks and they even carried out hard combats to defend them. Being inferiors in number and badly armed, they were beaten near Balad. They took refuge in the mountains with the Christians. Delivered by the English army of the Ottoman yoke, they agreed to recognise their chief Homo Soro, appointed by their liberators.

In 1933, the Yazidis of Sindjar did not choose Syria, but they joined independent Iraq.

The next year there was the problem of military service, of which they had been exempted by a decree since 1849. They asked the rulers of Baghdad to carry on with the exemption, but the government wanted to unify the country as only one people, one religion, Islam, and refused the exemption. There was a revolt in Sindjar and in the territories inhabited by the Yazidis. This revolt, carried out by Daoude Daoud, the Yazidi sheikh of Mihirkam, was followed by others tribes. Baghdad sent the general Bakr Sidqi at the head of a military brigade. The repression was bloody in all Sindjar, many villages were burnt down and 2000 prisoners were deported in the South. Three Christian notables who had supported Daoude Daoud were hung in Mosul. After several months of combat, in October, Daoude Daoud was defeated, wounded, he fled to Syria where he was interned.

In 1936, Daoud Daoud came back to Iraq; he was led to the village of Sanat, my native village, in the North, and lived in exile for three years. The Sanatis nicely welcomed him. My father, who was a child, told me that the boys of the village traced around him enchanted circles, like Enkidu around Gilgamesh, the hero of the old and famous Mesopotamian Epic.

Under the Baathist regime the Yazidis suffered from the politics of arabisation, but they could not be assimilated. They often fought against Baathist troops, with the Peschmergas, the Kurdish combatants; several Yazidi villages were destroyed.

Since 2003, the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the occupation of Iraq by the Americans, the Kurds wanted the Yazidis to be recognized as ethnic Kurds.

The right of the Yazidis to practise their religion is recognised by the new Constitution of Iraq and by the Constitution of Federal Kurdistan. They have two ministers at the Federal Parliament of Kurdistan.

Unfortunately, today, Islamic groups threaten the Yazidi villages.

End of the trip

Sheikh Khairy, my brother and me, left this unforgettable place which had an atmosphere that touched upon us. It comes from the spirit of the faith, from the white, fluted spires of the Yazidi shrine, from the holy water, from the lush, peaceful valley, from the primitive beauty of the mountains, of the trees and flowers.

We had to say good bye at last; Sheikh Khairy offered us dry figs of Sindjar, and kissed us, before taking the road out of Dohuk.

We returned to Erbil. The following day, I took the airplane back to Cologne in Germany. I was lucky to find out that Professor Khalil Jindi was on the same airplane with me, accompanied by the sub-prefect of Cheikhan. At the airport of Cologne, a delegation of Yazidis came to welcome them with much joy. It was really one of the best trips of my life.