The Yezidis

Issue section: 

For centuries the Yezidis (most scholars use the Yazidis spelling) have lived in today’s Kurdish regions of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Armenia. Throughout history this ancient community has suffered repression and massacre and since the 19th century many have migrated to escape persecution.

They came to international attention after suffering harsh persecution by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq who denounced them as “devil worshippers”.

The Yezidis speak a Kurdish dialect as well as the Arabic, Turkish and Armenian languages, depending on where they live.

Their culture is a synthesis of ancient pagan Zoroastrian (3000 BCE) and Persian Manichaean (216-276 CE). The religion is overlaid with elements of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions — especially that of Sufism.

The strength of Birgul Acikyildiz’s book is her analysis of Yezidis’ ancient monuments and tombstones that are scattered throughout the region.

Her discussion of the ceremonies and rituals of the Yezidis, especially the celebration of the sun, stars, fire, water and earth, reflects the influence of the ancient Zoroastrian traditions.

Furthermore, she traces their traditions — through the animal shaped tombstones on graves — back to 3000 BCE in Persia and Mesopotamia.

However, the influence of this fascinating history and culture is not fully explored and the book mainly concentrates on the history and culture of this community since they were forced to convert to Islam.

Their historical persecution has resulted in the absence of effective written and oral histories. Hence very little is known about their ancient culture.

Acikyildiz writes, “Many Yezidis believe that Yezidism is the most ancient Middle Eastern religion, one whose origins are lost in antiquity. They believe that the entire Kurdish population was once Yezidi, until repression and massacres forced them to convert to Islam.”

The Ottoman Empire forced the Yezidis to convert to Islam. Despite this, they continued to pray to god in the direction of the sun.

After the First World War, and the drawing of the modern political boundaries, their ancestral homeland was split across the newly formed countries and they were separated from each other.

When in 1970 the Peace Accord was reached between the Kurds and the Iraq government, the Yezidis’ homeland remained outside the Kurdish territory and they were subjected to Arabisation policy imposed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Moreover, since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ongoing conflicts in Syria they have been under attack by groups such as Al Qaeda and more recently by the IS.

Despite persecution, there is evidence of continuing Yezidi resistance against the repressive regimes in the region and their struggle to preserve their ancient culture.