Driving south of Duhok, we were curious enough to visit the Lalish temple, the place where the world began and the holy site of the Yazidis. The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority in Iraq that is often misinterpreted to be devil worshipers. In actuality many of their religious stories root from the same fables of other more common beliefs. Their stories differ, however regarding their patron angel the Malek Taus or Peacock Angel. They believe that God left the earth in the care of seven angels and told them to obey Adam. The Malek Taus was the only angel to refuse, stating that Adam was created from the soil and the angels were created from God’s light. According to this angel, light could not be at the mercy of the soil. The Yazidis believe that this was the answer that God was looking for, proving that he was the most loyal angel, and made Malek Taus responsible for all humanity. In the Islamic tradition, that angel was Satan, who was punished by his disobedience by being sent to hell.
As Yezidi people enter the village, they stop to remove their shoes, and as they enter the temple; they stop to kiss the entryway. It was noon, the ground was burning hot and I had a sprained foot, but I had to respect the traditions. It felt like a holy place, especially when the Yazidi young guy that was showing us around told us we could not touch the step that was part of the entryway; “It is for angels only” he said. It seemed a mysterious and mystical place.
Yazidis secretive beliefs date more than 4000 years, before both Christianity and Islam. Yazidis have 5 daily prayers. However, most Yazidis observe only two of them; the sunrise and the sunset prayer. The daily prayers must not be performed in front of outsiders and are always performed in the direction of the sun. Wednesday is their holy day, but Saturday is their day of rest. Yazidis cannot spit on the ground, eat lettuce, cabbage (which causes gases), cannot wear blue- the color of the peacock? I am glad I was not wearing blue!!
Lalish temple is either less than 1000 years or as old as time, depending on who you ask. The Yazidis believe that when God created the earth, he first created the temple and all living things sprang outward from its walls. Its labyrinth rooms comprise a series of holy sites. When you enter there are colorful silk fabrics tied together to the many temple columns. You can make a wish as you untie one of them. We entered one of its rooms which contained the tomb of the Yazidi prophet Adi Ibn Musafir, a Sufi whom the Yazidis believe incarnated Malek Taus until his death in 1162. Sheikh Adi influenced the largely Zoroastrian tribe with Islamic beliefs. A set of stairs nearby his tomb lead to a cave from which holy waters of Zam Zam flow, which he named after the spring in Mecca. We could not see the spring, as only Yazidis are allowed into the cave.
The temple was dark even in the heat of the day. The young guide showed us the room where they make candles. I remembered that my friend told me to ask if I was going to heaven or earth. Yazidis try their luck with a series of wishing games. A scarf tossed to perch perfectly at the top of the stone means that one’s wish will come true. A pebble thrown at two holes will show us where our souls will land on the judgment day. One has three tries to toss toward one’s preferred fate. I tried with the scarf, and I wasn’t lucky. I didn’t dare for the second one, I didn't want to know..where I will end up.
Today, the Yazidis serve an important political role in the region. Their numbers in disputed territories could act as a swing vote to sway cities such as Mosul towards the Kurdistan Regional Government over the Central Iraqi Government. Many attempts to define the Yazidis’ ethnic identity (notably the policies of the Baʿathist government in Iraq, which designated them as Arabs) have been politically motivated.
Yazidis were stripped from their Kurdish identity and reclassified as Arabs. Many were forced to leave their villages to be dispersed or concentrated in other territories. Apart from a few Arabic-speaking clans, Yazidi communities speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) as their first language, and their cultural practices are Kurdish. Most Yazidis claim Kurdish identity when it relates to politics and the Yezidi identity otherwise. In Iraq, this view has had the support of the government in the Kurdish Autonomous Region since 1991.
In recent years the threats are mainly from militant Islamist groups, like Al Qaeda who views them as infidels. Terrorism has driven Yazidis from Mosul, where their numbers were once strong. Violence has even reached their smallest villages. In 2007 a set of bomb trucks killed hundreds of Yazidis This current situation affects the Yazidi’s rites and traditions preventing people from coming to Iraq for their required pilgrimage to Lalish.
As part of the Tiziano project, I came across the story of Alia, a Yazidian, who was the first woman to graduate from law school. She is also from one of the highest families in the Yazidi order, but even that has a price; she was forced to close her practice and move with her father in law upon her husband’s death. “Yazidis are quiet and peaceful people, they are very nice and very kind with other people because of the many genocides we have had, but maybe between us, we are not; we are cruel”. “She describes her situation: “Our traditions are very heavy to a woman if she is without a man and also I have no son, so is not allowed for me to work anymore. I am staying at home. I read and write, only this. My world is within my home, really.”
Her loyalty to the tribe keeps her captive; she calls her home a prison. “I belong to Yazidi, I am Yazidian and I am very proud of this, but in my life, I am secular, I don’t believe in religions that could separate people.” There is no way to become Yazidi. Yazidi souls must be re-incarnated into new Yazidis, so there are not enough souls to accommodate new converts. This alsp means that Yazidis cannot leave the group because their souls are Yazidians. To maintain order, the religion upholds a complicated caste system that divides members into three groups by status, which is then in some cases sub-divided by occupation and wealth. Yazidis are only allowed to marry within their caste. Marrying outside your caste or outside your religion is often punished by death.
In 2007, a girl named Du’a fell in love with a Muslim boy in Bashiqa, near Duhok. Rumor got into the community that she had converted to Islam to marry him. The girl went into hiding but was found and dragged into the town’s square, where members of the community stoned her to death.
When we finished our visit of the temple, we had some time to wander around. There were some young people and families having a picnic. The place was quiet and beautiful and I was glad we were welcomed by the Yazidis and they were open and willing to show us their holy place.
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2. http://360.tizianoproject.org/kurdistan/#/213, Yazidi’s Power and Peril, accessed June 30th, 2011