by Nathan Hamm on 7/6/2004 · 20 comments

Via Blogrel I found a great photostory on the Yezidi or Yazidi Kurds of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia.

Always one to want to know more about these obscure and largely unknown groups, I decided to dig up a little more.

Unlike other Kurds, the Yezidi worship Malak Ta’us, the pre-Islamic peacock fellow on the right. Theirs is a mix of any number of religions including Islam, Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and even ancient buzzard worship. As this description of Yezidism suggests, it’s best to say no one is exactly certain of the origins of the religion.

Yezidism is an enigma that has confounded scholars and incited debate for some time. The influence of Islam on the religion is heavy and obscures other aspects. Tantalizing clues point in every direction- rituals involving fire and prayers recited in the direction of the sun are distinctly Zoroastrian; taboos against eating lettuce and beans, baptisms, and the belief that Christ is a prophet hint at Manicheism. Other unusual aspects of Yezidi belief are the reverence of an immortal elemental spirit named Khidir; temple decorations in Lalish are distinctly Mithraic.

The “pantheon” of the religion is especially interesting because Malak Ta’us is also known as Lucifer. Lucifer plays a very different role in Yezidism though.

he is considered the chief Archangel, and the creator of the material world. In Yezidi belief, Lucifer is not a fallen angel, or the enemy of God- in fact, there is no devil or equivalent in Yezidi belief.

In Yezidi cosmology, the universal Spirit (the Supreme deity) created a pearl (Durre), which became broken after forty thousand years. Melek, (Lucifer), used the remains of the pearl to create the material world. After this creation, the Spirit created the remaining Angels. Yezidi theology claims that Lucifer was forgiven for his transgressions, and those who revere him are the spiritual elect of humanity. They are forbidden from referring to him as Satan.

Unsurprisingly, surrounding Muslims often accuse Yezidis of practicing Satanism.

The Wikipedia entry on the religion is interesting as well.

According to the Yazidi, Malak Taus is a fallen peacock angel who repented and recreated the world that had been broken. He filled seven jars with his tears and used them to quench the fire in Hell. Although primarily a monotheistic religion, Yezidism also includes minor deities and some clans venerate Sheikh Adii as a saint, subservient to Malak Ta’us.

The Yazidi holy books are the Book of Revelation and the Black Book. The latter forbids eating of lettuce or butter beans and wearing of dark blue. The historical status of the book is questionable.

Yazidi are exclusive and do not reveal most of their secrets to the uninitiated. The twice-daily prayer services must not be performed in the presence of outsiders, and are always performed in the direction of the sun. Wednesday is the holy day but Saturday is the day of rest. There is also a three-day fast in December.

The most important ritual is the annual six-day pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adii in Lalish, north of Mosul, Iraq. During the celebration, Yazidi bathe in the river, wash figures of Malak Ta’us and light hundreds of lamps in the tombs of Sheikh Adii and other saints. They also sacrifice an ox, which is one reason they have been connected to Mithraism.

Their Black Book is quite interesting. When their is a direct prohibition against saying “Satan” because it is their god’s name, it’s fairly easy to understand why they are accused of being on the wrong side of things.

Wikipedia says that the community is very exclusive–to the point of not marrying other Kurds–and accept no converts. This says they proselytize and readily accept converts.

Matt cites their name as coming from the city of Yazd, though Wikipedia and others make the connection more to the Pahlavi word “yezd,” meaning “angel.” The Yezidi claim that the name is from Yazid bin Muawiyah, the second Umayyad Caliph.

Ethnologue lists Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) as their language. If you speak or read German, you might want to check out Dengê Êzîdiyan, a page for the 30,000 Yezidi refugees in Germany.

Though this article is obviously Christian and says that Yezidis are Satanists, it gives a glimpse of life among Armenian Yezidis.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Matt Frost July 6, 2004 at 1:46 pm

There’s a mention of the Yezidis (and Nestorians, to boot!) in William Dalrymple’s excellent travel book From the Holy Mountain.”

praktike July 6, 2004 at 1:54 pm

Fascinating. I wonder if the Yazidi were the “cult” that the CIA used as an intelligence network in the runup to the war.

Nathan July 6, 2004 at 3:12 pm

Thinking about it more, the idea of worshipping a giant peacock is pretty cool.

Matt Frost July 6, 2004 at 4:19 pm

Dalrymple mentions that both the Yezidi and Nestorians were stuck languishing in prison camps in the Iraq desert after the first Gulf War.

You might have something here…

Matt Frost July 6, 2004 at 4:37 pm

The German article says flat out that Yezidis don’t proselytize and conversion into the religion is not an option.

Nathan July 6, 2004 at 4:40 pm

The Wikipedia entry mentions that they were considered Arabs under Hussein to try to use them against the Kurds. I can’t seem to find anything on that though except for a German article that (I think) says that Hussein was trying to get them to assimilate into and identify with the Arab population.

Nathan July 6, 2004 at 4:42 pm

Well, sounds like your German’s better than mine. This is the Iraq article.

A few random descriptions I’ve found of them describes them as “secretive” and say they usually won’t discuss their religion with outsiders.

Matt Malcomson July 7, 2004 at 2:47 am

As always, the origins of names are contentious, but the version you cite sounds more plausible. I had heard the Yazd version in Armenia.

Matt Malcomson July 7, 2004 at 2:47 am

As always, the origins of names are contentious, but the version you cite sounds more plausible. I had heard the Yazd version in Armenia.

Matt Frost July 7, 2004 at 10:14 am

I started to translate more of the article in this comments box, but it got out of hand. So there are a few translated paragraphs regarding the forced Arabization over on my site. I’ll translate the rest of the article later if time permits.

praktike July 7, 2004 at 10:35 am

Is there any connection here to Yazid, the guy who crushed Husayn?

Nathan July 7, 2004 at 10:42 am

If you believe the Yezidis there is. They claim Yazid as a founder, though there’s little historical evidence that he is connected to the religion.

praktike July 7, 2004 at 10:48 am

Duh. Never mind my last question.

In any case, check this out.

praktike July 7, 2004 at 10:55 am

And here’s a good article about the latest status of the Yezidis.

praktike July 7, 2004 at 11:16 am

And finally, they have a newspaper.

praktike July 7, 2004 at 11:20 am

OK, one more.

This Prince Tahsin Sayid Beg character must be the guy that the CIA used to run its network. All the details fit.

praktike July 7, 2004 at 11:26 am

Sorry. One more photo album and an article with snippets of an interview of the Prince.

PF July 16, 2004 at 12:11 am

Great post! A related metafilter post. And, if I may self-link, another post, this one at living in europe.

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