Visiting Lalesh in Iraqi Kurdistan
Some people make the headlines for all the wrong reasons, usually for doing something awful to a nice bunch of people. For others it’s only because the awful things are being done to them. Such is the fate of the Yazidis for whom persecution is so much part of their history that a list of 72 persecutions, principally carried out by the Ottomans, is an established aspect of the faith, though presumably it’s now 73 due to the efforts of ISIS, who ploughed through their lands in northern Iraq in a bitter torrent of rape and killing in 2014. At least the horrors of ISIS are sufficiently newsworthy that their suffering warranted some headlines and efforts at rescue but it was their fellow Kurdish peoples of the Syrian PKK and YPG who did most to save them. For many there was little option but to flee to the West, where their story was horrific enough to temporarily lessen by a fraction the utter inhumanity of some immigration systems, with the noble exceptions of Sweden and Germany who had not forgotten their obligations to those fleeing persecution. And so passed another phase in the inexorable decline of the religion, already beleaguered by Saddam’s rule, the sectarian chaos that followed his downfall and the corrosive drip of globalization and modernity.
Arriving in Lalesh, the spiritual home of the faith in Kurdistan, it is easy to be distracted from their trials and tribulations, especially if you arrive in the winter months as I did, because religious respect demands entering barefoot and it was absolutely fucking freezing, with the interminable drizzle only one small, molecular step away from sleet. The second distraction is the people themselves, who exude more bloody loveliness than seems humanly possible. I’ve met all kinds of fabulous people on my travels but few seemed as capable of expressing it without a word said, as the Yazidis did on that day. At times it even blocked the screaming from the nerves in my icy feet embedded with gravel. I was told that Yazidis are forbidden from lying, from my brief encounter I am prepared to believe it.
If you ask the locals, as I did, how long the village has been there, they will say, “since the beginning of time”, or words to that effect, as they believe it was here that God ordained creation. Quite what God is though is a another matter entirely, as for them he is unknowable, having largely left humans to get on with the job after creating us. At least that is what they tell us outsiders, for they have always been reluctant to reveal the deeper mysteries of the faith and some of the shallower ones for that matter. All beliefs are only passed on orally and there is no missionary tradition, you must be born into the faith and marriage to other religions is discouraged. Details related to outsiders both in the past and recently don’t always concur, maybe a deliberate policy of obfuscation or perhaps the Yazidi themselves don’t always agree. Certainly its roots are in the distant past, as it shares elements of the ancient Assyrian religion and maybe even the Babylonians: the Epic of Gilgamesh relates the sacrifice of a bull in a ceremony similar to that still carried out by the Yazidis today. As in ancient times the sun plays an important role. Prayers are made towards the sun as it acts as an intermediary between worshipers and God. In the first millenium the Middle East was a smorgasbord of religious plurality, the Yazidis just one of numerous faiths and innumerable variations within them, which after centuries of Islam has left only a handful of small communities such as the Sabeans and the Mandeans. Many others have disappeared entirely but often left faint traces in localised religious practices. A highly readable study of the remaining religions is Heirs to forgotten kingdoms by Gerard Russell, for those who are interested.
Quite when the religion formed remains a mystery but it has certainly evolved, both taking on other elements over time and passing on others. We may even owe it one of our most common practices: the shaking of hands: this was a sign of ritual bonding shared with the Roman cult of Mithras, itself an offshoot of Persian Zoroastrianism, that was gradually spread throughout the empire, losing its religious significance in the process. Even today there remains a bonding act similar to the idea of blood brothers, where earth from Lalesh is mixed with waters from its sacred well to create a ball to represent the world, which is clasped between the two persons’ hands.
In the dingy cavern under the temple at Lalesh, its walls and floor sticky with centuries of blackened soot from oil lamps, lies the tomb of Sheik Adi bin Musafir, who died around 900 years ago. He is regarded as a saint and reformer but confusingly he was a Sufi, hence a Muslim. The religion shares some aspects of Islam but only little of substance as much is Persian Zoroastrianism in origin but it shares elements with several religions. Frankly I remain befuddled as to how someone of another faith plays such a prominent role for Yazidis, even if Musafir’s order took on aspects of the faith when he moved to the region. One suggestion is that the sheik’s order, already somewhat esoteric, ditched much of its Islamic nature after his death. The cavern also offers a chance to gain a wish by attempting to throw a cloth onto a pillar, with the handicap of having your eyes closed. I succeeded and will hopefully discover in the near future if it has been granted, needless to say I wont be revealing to you lot what it is. I can reveal the result of a second test available to all visitors, where, again with eyes closed you have to throw a small stone at two adjacent holes in the floor, one determining your ascension to heaven, the other your descent into hell. Happily my first shot plopped straight into the heaven hole, although I am hoping that the outcome wont be confirmed for a good few years yet.
Musafir is seen as a manifestation on the being Melek Toos, that God created to act as his earthly vicegerent and is represented by a peacock like bird. Melek Toos has two other names, Iblis and Azazael, both of which are Islamic names for the Devil and the likely source for the ancient claim of their persecutors that they are devil worshipers. In fact, traditionally even hearing the word Satan meant that the speaker would have to be killed and then the hearer commit suicide. While they take Abraham and Mohammed as prophets, as well as the Greek philosophers incidentally, they don’t even believe that Satan exists, just to add another injustice to their history of suffering. Although a fallen angel like Satan, God forgave Melek Toos and returned him to heaven. A Muslim Kurd I spoke to about my visit to Lalesh merely dismissed them as superstitious, which may be a whole lot less malign than devil worshipers but this kind of attitude almost certainly contributed to the accusation that Kurdistan Peshmerga left the Yazidi to the fate of ISIS rather than defending them, leaving the generally less religious Syrian Kurds to rescue Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar. Although the reality was more that the Peshmerga were outgunned by the far better equipped Jihadis it is symptomatic of the distrust between many in the two communities.
The secretive nature of the faith means we will probably never discover many of their mysteries, such as why eating lettuce and wearing blue are forbidden or why the men must have moustaches but a world without mystery is a dull place indeed. Let us hope that the current, relative stability in Kurdistan permits them to save the religion, encourage refugees back home and clear the distrust between peoples.