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 ‘www.lalishduhok.org’, 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.