There is an old saying: “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” To their fellow Yazidi minority, this is even closer to the truth. Situated mainly in the Sheikhan and Sunnjar area of Iraqi Kurdistan, this Kurdish sect has been regarded by locals and foreigners as “devil worshippers” and persecuted throughout history for the very same reason. Three mountains, Arrafat, Mshat and Hzrat, surround their Holy Site in the Lalish valley, which, in the past, was a hidden haven for Yazidism‘s followers.
However, they did not protect the sanctuary from attacks by Ottoman and Arab conquerors, who burned it down twice in the past centuries. Christian missionaries and western travellers also had for long misunderstood Yazidis, ascribing them as dirty, fanatics and illiterate believers. “But look, I even have perfume on my car,” laughs Ayad Khanky, a Yazidi Lecturer in History at Duhok’s University, while opening his clove box.
"This Kurdish sect has been regarded by locals and foreigners as 'devil worshippers'"
There are no official data regarding the number of Yazidis. Some estimate that the entire population range around 800,000. Ayad, one of the 600,000 Yazidi that are living in Iraq, is a member of the Lalish Cultural Centre of Duhok, the headquarters of Yazidism’s social foundations. Here, security guards play with the Misbaha – the Muslim prayer beads – and drink cay tea while sentinelling the entrance: “We use it just for fun, not like Muslim for counting the chants,” comments one of them.
To profess their faith, in fact, Yazidis are not committed to pray a certain amount of time during the day. They consider themselves the direct lineage of Adam and their religion affinity is hereditary. Based on ancient Persian Zoroastrian and Mithraic traditions, Yazidism is a syncretism between them and the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For instance, they recognize Abram, Jesus and Mohammed as prophets but they are divided per castes and have a particular reverence to the sun.
Those contradictions were the reasons of many stereotypes and widespread misinformation about their faith: “Our job at the Lalish Centre is to contrast these fake stories,” says Shivan Bibo Darwish, a senior journalist of the Lalish Magazine, “and promote the coexistence of our religion along with the other Kurdish faiths.”
Today, the Lalish sanctuary is visited also by Muslims, Christians and people of different faiths. Although it is located just a few miles away from Duhok, the drive from here takes almost two hours due to the several peshmerga - Kurdish armed forces – checkpoints. As soon as the hilltop is reached, kids, women and laborious men take off their shoes and kiss the darchek, the first step located at the entrance of each of the many sanctuary’s rooms. For many of them, who live in the villages around the province, visiting the temple is a particular joyous experience.
“Many of us do not come here very often due to the cost of transportation,” says Khalida, a 22-year-old who is in Lalish for her second time.
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The temple is surrounded by a happy and friendly atmosphere. People cook meals together, paint eggs and lay chatting under the trees nearby a small pyramid. The monument, built on a squared space, whose corners sign to the four points of the world, is located at the center of the building. Its meaning is strongly related to the sun’s symbolisms and mythologies, but also in the other buildings there are keys to greater mysticism principles. There is the one dedicated to hope, where people tie colorful blankets in order to fulfill their dreams; the room where madmen used to get locked in, until they do not rebound from their stigma; the dark baptism’s site, crossed by a small stream whose water is considered to be holy.
The biggest pilgrimage’s attraction, however, is the Mausoleum of Shiekh Adi, the man who reformed Yazidi beliefs in the eleventh century. People, in a disciplined way, enter in this tiny room and homage the grave of this ancient Sufi master. It has been known that this Islamic Sufi, from the Beqaa Valley of modern Lebanon, came here and recognized it as the place where God sent his seven angels to begin the creation of the world.
Till now, for this very reason, the temple is regarded sacred and believed to have a spiritual function for humanity. Once a year, 365 consecrated torches lighten the sanctuary with the olive oil preserved in the caverns, wishing peace and prosperity to the world. “Yazidis are very kind people,” says Chinar, a young Muslim girl visiting the temple. “For long we have been taught very strange stories about them, but I feel honoured to finally have the opportunity to know their beliefs.”
"The temple is surrounded by a happy and friendly atmosphere"
However, to some extremist Islamic groups, their faith is still blasphemous. In 2007 four truck bombs killed 215 Yazidis in two villages in the Nineveh Plains, along the Syrian border. Also recently, in the disputed areas on the border with the Kurdish autonomous region and the rest of Iraq, terrorist attacks have threatened the local Yazidi community. “I was studying at Mosul University but then I had to move here for security reasons,” says Thikra, a Yazidi girl, now living in Duhok.
It is the controversial figure of Malak Taus, part of their belief, that still gives rise to many fictitious stories. For the other monotheistic religions, hell was created by Lucifer, the fallen angel of God’s heaven. Yazidis, however, cannot believe that Lucifer, which they call Malak Taus could have created the bad in this world. Something who comes from the same divine essence of God, they say, cannot be evil.
For this reason, they worship and represent him as a peacock Angel, one of the most beautiful manifestations of God’s universe. “They just do not have a dualist perception of the good and the evil,” comments Dr. Birgül Açıkyıldız Şengül, lecturer at Mardin Artuklu University in Turkey and expert on Yazidism. In the past 10 years, in fact, she has researched Yazidism traditions in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. “Malak Taus,” Dr. Birgül adds, “has an intermediate function between God and humans and definitely no connection with the most traditional perception of Satan.”
Indeed, throughout history, people have preferred superstitions to dull reality. The idea that for centuries a sect has secretly worshipped the fire of devil’s hell is certainly fascinating. But here in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, the only flames burning are those from the oilfields, enriching the region.