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Who Are the Yazidis? And Why Is ISIS Trying to Slaughter and Enslave Them?

Home of the Yazidi People

On February 3, the New York Times quoted the desperate plea of a Yazidi, a member of an ethnic-religious group facing communal extermination at the hands of ISIS jihadi terrorists. In simple, but moving terms he summed up the plight of his people, whose ancestral lands in northern Iraq was conquered by the ISIS “Caliphate” in the summer of 2014, “Please help us. They are killing us and kidnapping our women and children.”

In case you missed the story of the ISIS fanatics’ conquest of the Yazidis’ ancient homeland in August 2014, a recap is essential for understanding the plight of this endangered community that has faced centuries of what can only be described as a genocidal assault. This assault has historically been carried out by surrounding Arab and Turkish Muslims who have falsely accused them of being “devil worshippers.” It is a tragic tale of the followers of a peaceful religion—with origins that are lost in the mists of time in Mesopotamia—whose very existence is now threatened by a combination of fanaticism on the part of ISIS, and indifference on the part of Western powers.

Devil Worshippers” or Believers in the Peacock Angel?

To understand the secretive religion of the Yazidis, my colleague Professor Adam Sulkowski, who had previously joined me in exploring the mountain realm of the ancient Kalash pagans on the Afghan-Pakistani border, decided to journey to the holiest spot in the world for Yazidis, the stone temple complex at Lailish. Lailish is nestled in a narrow valley in the hills of the autonomous realm of Iraqi Kurdistan, a few miles from the frontlines with ISIS. Our guide for the trip was a gregarious Yazidi named Thamer Alyas who was eager to give us an insider’s tour of this sacred spot that has for centuries been closed to outsiders.

As we drove through the mist-covered hills of Iraqi Kurdistan with Thamer, he explained that his people worshipped one Creator-God, just like the surrounding Muslim Kurds and Arabs as well as Christian groups (these ancient Christians, largely known as Assyrians, have also been targeted for destruction by Al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS and their community has dwindled since the 2003 U.S. invasion from 1.5 million to about 200,000 today). The Yazidis’ God is known as Khude and is all forgiving and merciful. God-Khude created himself and seven archangels led by Melek Tawus, the Peacock Angel. Melek Tawus was sent to earth to create life from the primordial chaos and act as an intercessor between man and God. The first human had been created without a soul, so Melek Tawus blew the breath of life into him. He then turned Adam towards the Sun, symbol of the Supreme Creator, which Yazidis, like ancient Mesopotamians, still worship.

There are many other archaic aspects of the faith that indicate it may be among the world’s oldest and their calendar dates back 6,756 years, nearly 5,000 years further than the Christian or Gregorian calendar and nearly 1,000 years further than the Jewish calendar.

So far we felt this story seemed innocuous enough. There is nothing in this ancient myth of creation that warrants centuries of repression by Ottoman Turkish authorities and now slaughter by ISIS.

But it is the sad fate of the Yazidis that the story of Melek Tawus has eerie parallels with the story of Shaytan, the fallen jinn (genie) of Islam who is known in English as Satan. According to Yazidi tradition, Melek Tawus was told by God-Khuede not to bow to other beings. Then God tested Malak Tawus by creating man out of dust and ordering Melek Tawus to bow to Adam. Melek Tawus replied "How can I submit to another being! I am from your illumination while Adam is made of dust." After forgiving him, God made him the ruler of earth after he cried for 7,000 years to extinguish hell with his tears.

Unfortunately, in the Islamic tradition, Shaytan or Iblis was a jinn who similarly refused God’s order to bow down to Adam. For this sin of pride, God-Allah cursed him and expelled him from heaven to earth. Starting in the fifteenth century, surrounding Turkish and Arab Muslims came to equate Melek Tawus, who was primarily worshipped by Yazidis, with Shaytan the Tempter. Thus began centuries of slaughter and persecution that saw the Yazidis flee to the mountains of northern Iraq.

There, this people, who are ethnically Kurdish and speak the Kurdish dialect of Kurmanji, have long been protected by fellow Kurds who have a tradition of moderation and hospitality toward repressed minorities. Kurds believe that they were all once believers in the ancient Yazidi faith and see this minority as the living memory and conscience of their people. In essence, they feel that Yazidis are repositories of their pre-Islamic traditions. There is some truth to this as many of the Yazidis’ customs, such as their belief in angels, sacred trees, and the purity of earth, air, fire and water, come from ancient Mesopotamian and Iranian-Zoroastrian belief systems.

But the Yazidis’ sanctuary among the Kurds was to be threatened by the rise of fanatical Sunni Arab jihadist groups which rose up to resist the overthrow of their sectarian group by the Americans in 2003’s Operation Enduring Freedom.

ISIS Declares a Total Jihad on the Yazidi “Infidels”

Like most Iraqis who suffered under Saddam Hussein, the Yazidis celebrated the overthrow of this hated dictator but, like the ancient Christian communities of northern Iraq, they soon became the target of fanatical Sunni jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which rose up to fight the Americans. In 2007 AQI targeted the northern Iraqi Yazidi communities of Kathaniya and Jazeera with the deadliest suicide bombing in the world since 9/11. As many as 796 Yazidis were killed and another 1,500 wounded in this massive bombing that involved a fuel tanker and three cars carrying two tons of explosives.

But worse was yet to come. AQI morphed into ISIS and, in August 2014, launched a blitz on the Mount Sinjar region in northwestern Iraq. Mount Sinjar had been protected by the legendary Kurdish Peshmergas (literally “Those who Face Death,” a famed fighting force), but these fighters fell back before the ISIS attack leaving this region to the mercy of the fanatical ISIS fighters. As it transpires, Mount Sinjar is the primary geographic focus of the Yazidis who consider it to be a holy mountain (they believe that this mountain, which rises spectacularly out of the flat desert, is the spot where Noah’s ark first touched ground after the flood and have seven temples there with eternal flames).

As the ISIS fighters stormed the town of Sinjar, which lies at the foot of the mountain of the same name, they killed as many as 5,000 Yazidis in an act that the U.N. labeled “genocide.” One report of this massacre stated: “Some of the killings were brutally simplistic, with people being lined up at checkpoints, shot dead, then bulldozed into mass graves. Others were herded into temples which were late blown up.”
The jihadists also captured hundreds of Yazidi women as sabiya (Quran-legitimized sex slaves) and sold them like chattel in markets to ISIS fighters. These women, many of them young girls, were systematically raped and abused by their ISIS masters and most still remain living in misery as sex slaves for fanatics who legitimize their abuse by labeling them “idolaters” and “infidels” (their plight did not garner as much attention as the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram jihadi terrorists in Nigeria). Older women who were not deemed worthy to be sabiya were dragged away and systematically murdered en masse in cold blood.

As many as 50,000 panic-stricken Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar’s bleak, inaccessible heights to escape the ISIS slaughterers. To prevent their genocide, President Obama launched a bombing campaign that halted ISIS’s advance and an airlift that provided food and water to the starving Yazidi refugees trapped on the mountain. Kurdish Peshmergas later broke through ISIS lines creating a corridor allowing most, but not all, of the refugees on Mount Sinjar to escape.

But by then it was too late, the heart of the Yazidi population and culture had been obliterated and many distinctive Yazidi shrines, with their conical, fluted towers, were destroyed. Fortunately, in December 2015, Kurdish forces backed up by the U.S. Air Force defeated the ISIS fighters occupying the town of Sinjar and some of this scattered community are tentatively returning home. But most have been scattered far and wide from their sacred lands and many have joined in the movement of refugees to Europe. The Yazidis’ exile from the ancient shrines of their people threatens to dilute their identity as a distinct people.

This was the background for our visit to the holy shrine of Lailish located to the east of Mount Sinjar safely behind Kurdish Peshmerga lines in northwestern Kurdistan.

A Visit to Yazidi Shrine at Lailish

As our SUV paralleled the nearby ISIS front lines through the mist-covered hills of Iraqi Kurdistan, we peppered our Yazidi guide Thamer with questions on the beliefs and rituals of his people’s ancient faith. But he told us to wait until we got to the shrine since he had to show them to us. As we arrived in the narrow valley covered in mulberry trees that cradles the shrine, Thamer told us we had to take off our shoes as the ground we would be walking on was holy. This was the spot where Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel had first descended to the earth to bring order from chaos.

With undisguised excitement (and feet that were numb from the January cold) we entered the outer courtyard of the Lailish complex and approached the main gate. On the stone wall was a talisman of a black snake that was said to have tried leading the Yazidis to abjure their faith and convert to Islam centuries ago. Black snakes, we were told, had magical powers and were not to be killed. We were then asked to reverently kiss the stone sides to the inner shrine’s door and step over the sacred threshold without stepping on it.

As we entered the ancient complex (seen in the photo above) we noticed a dark pool built into the stone floor on our right. This was the Lake of Azrael, the Angel of Death. Yazidis believe that Azrael washes his sword in this pool after taking a soul. Beyond the pool we found a stone hall of tombs with scarves hanging from it with some Yazidi women tying knots in them. Thamer told us that when you tie a knot and make a wish it comes true when the knot is later untied by another worshiper.

From this hall we passed a stone staircase winding down to a subterranean cave. We could hear the sound of running water from below, but we were told we could not go visit this holy spot, known as the Spring of Zamzam, since it was off limits to non Yazidis. Here Yazidis, who must make a pilgrimage to this spot once in their lives, are baptized.

From there we passed through a stone arch and entered the sacred heart of the shrine, the nine hundred year old tomb of Sheikh Adi. Sheikh Adi codified the Yazidis disparate beliefs and is worshipped as a saint and avatar/incarnation of the Peacock Angel. He is also one of the principal judges of men’s souls.

From the crypt of Sheikh Adi we passed into a long dark stone chamber where olive oil was stored in ancient clay amphorae. The olives for the oil are picked from the surrounding hills and are pressed in Lalish; the oil is used for religious rituals and for burning in lamps. We were also shown to holes in the stones that were said to represent the entrance to both heaven and hell.

Having toured the subterranean stone catacombs, it was now time to meet their sacred guardian, a eunuch who dedicated his life to the shrine and the second most important priest in the Yazidi faith, Baba Chawish (literally Father Guardian). We entered his chambers reverently and found the white turbaned holy man sitting with several acolytes. He warmly invited us in from the cold to his warm room and offered us sweets from a golden peacock dish.

In the past, meeting with such a figure would have been difficult and the mysteries of the faith would have been kept secret. In fact, most of the Yazidi traditions are passed on orally to keep them secret. But Baba Chawish was a kindly soul who shared with us the inner workings of this ancient faith that has been for so long misunderstood by, and kept hidden from, outsiders.

The Secrets of the Yazidi Faith

As it transpired, Baba Chawish was a member of one of three castes that all Yazidis belong to. He was a holy man from the highest sheikh (priest) caste. He led a life of piety and celibacy and had authority over the shrine. He was assisted by the feqrayyāt, (celibate ‘nuns’) who are unmarried or widowed and also care for the sanctuary. The other Yazidi castes consisted of pirs (elders) and murids (disciples), with most Yazidis belonging to the latter caste. Membership in both the sheikh caste and the pir caste is hereditary and is said to often come with special abilities. Each sheikh and pir family, for example, possesses some healing ability and some families are said to be able to cure snake bites, others madness, fever, headache, arthritis, etc.

Within the sheikh caste one finds kocheks or “seers” who are blessed with spiritual gifts, such as clairvoyance. The kocheks can psychically diagnose illness and they are even said to know the fate of a soul after it leaves the body of the deceased. There are also kawwals or reciters who specialize in the playing of religious music on sacred instruments, such as the daf (frame-drum) and šebāb (flute), and in the recital of the sacred hymns known as kawals.

At the top of the Yazidi community one finds the Mir (Prince), the temporal ruler of the Yazidis, and the Baba Sheikh (Father Priest), the religious head of the community. Both of these leaders belong to the sheikh caste whose members are descended from the Six Great Angels who assisted Melek Tawus. The sheikhs officiate at circumcisions, weddings, funerals, baptisms and religious festivals. Religious holidays play a key role in the Yazidi faith and several of them have roots traceable to antiquity.

The most important Yazidi festival is the Feast of Seven Days, which takes place at the beginning of October. During this festival the seven archangels, including Melek Tawus, are believed to visit the shrine of Lailish. Yazidis attempt to make a pilgrimage to Lailish at this time in order to rekindle friendships, affirm their religious identity and partake in the seven-day festival. The two most important events of the Feast of Seven Days are the Evening Dance and the Sacrifice of the Bull. The Evening Dance is performed by sheikhs every evening just after sunset in the courtyard of the temple complex. Fourteen priests dressed in white, the color of purity, parade to the music of kawals (the reciters). They proceed in procession around a sacred torch that represents both the Sun and the Supreme God Khuede.

The Sacrifice of the Bull takes place on the fifth day of the festival. It signifies the arrival of Fall and carries with it the Yazidis’ prayers for rain during the coming winter and a bountiful Spring. After guards fire a special gun salute, a small bull is let loose from the main gates of the Sanctuary. The bull is chased by men of the Qaidy tribe up a nearby hill to the sanctuary of Sheikh Shem. There, the bull is caught and subsequently slaughtered. Afterwards, the meat is cooked and distributed among all the pilgrims present at Lalish. The sacrifice of a bull harkens back to the worship of the Iranian sun god Mithras who was worshiped with the sacrifice of a bull.

As for their beliefs, Yazidis do not believe in eternal damnation. Instead they believe in reincarnation or transmigration of souls through a gradual purification cycle. The souls of sinners are reborn as animals for a probationary period before passing into human form again. Ultimately, their souls ascend to heaven. Yazidis do not accept conversion into their faith and those who marry outside of the community are banned. Yazidis are also forbidden from wearing the color blue, eating lettuce, and saying the word Shaytan. In addition to venerating the sun, Yazidis, like Zorastrians, consider fire to be sacred and are not allowed to extinguish it with water or to speak rudely in front of it. They celebrate the new year in April with colored eggs and also have a Feast of Sacrifice, when a sheep is slaughtered by the Baba Sheikh and torches are lit throughout the valley of Lailish.

There are many more aspects of the faith that we did not have time to learn during our visit to the shrine at Lailish, but the window we were given into this secretive religion that has recently opened its doors to outsiders was fascinating. As we said our farewells to the protector of the shrine, Baba Chawish, and left this enchanting place that was the “Mecca” for the estimated 700,000 Yazidis in the world, we had a newfound appreciation for this beautiful belief system that seemed to belong to a different age.

The valley shrine of Lailish had been a place of calming meditation, serenity and contemplation and we were touched by how welcoming and eager to interact with outsiders the Yazidi worshippers had been. In a part of the world where the mindless destruction of pre-Islamic communities and pagan antiquities seems to be the norm, it was a reminder that there are still living remnants of ancient faiths in the Muslim world, such as the dwindling number of Parsi Zoroastrians in Iran, Kalash pagans in Pakistan’s mountains, and Yazidis, Mandaens, Shabaks, and Assyrians in Iraq, who face the very real risk of extinction in our time. Having made a life-changing pilgrimage to the holy sanctuary of one of these endangered faiths and seen for ourselves the beauty of this timeless belief system, we can safely say that the world would be a less colorful place should the ancient Yazidi people disappear from the pages of history as so many other ethnic-religious groups in the region have over the centuries.