LOCATION: Armenia, Iran, Syria, and Ira q (Zagros Mountains)
POPULATION: 100,000-200,000 (some estimates are as high as 500,000)
LANGUAGE: Yazidi; Kourmanji; Armenian
The Yazidis are members of a religious sect who think of themselves as a totally separate people from the rest of humanity. According to their beliefs, they were created independently; they are not descended from Adam and Eve, as other human beings are believed to be. Because of this belief, they keep themselves isolated from the rest of human society. For this reason, not much is known about them. The Yazidis live in the Zagros Mountains in Armenia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, with a few scattered settlements elsewhere and small diaspora communities in Europe, particularly Germany. Their religion combines elements from a variety of faiths, including Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Nestorian Christianity. Muslims consider the Yazidis infidels and have persecuted them over the centuries. The Yazidis have fought back, often successfully, leading to a great deal of bloodshed on both sides.
The Yazidis originated as separate groups of people who migrated at different times to the mountains of Iraq from other parts of the Middle East. The first migration may have occurred as early as the 6th century bc. These diverse peoples lived together in isolated mountain valleys, practicing their different religions, until Islam arrived in ad 750. At that time, they added Islam to their mix of religious beliefs and came together as one people, keeping elements of their former religions as well. Shaikh Adi (ad 1072-1161) became their leader, and the Yazidis worshipped him as a god. In 1830-40, a number of Yazidis migrated north to Armenia. Since then, the Yazidis have settled in other places as well, but the largest group outside Iraq can be found Armenia. The Yazidis and Kurds [seeKurds ] were lumped together in Armenia as one ethnic group beginning in 1931. Many Kurds and Yazidis speak the same Kourmanji dialect. However, the Yazidis continue to think of themselves as a separate people, and in 1988, the official census takers in Armenia agreed, listing Kurds and Yazidis separately once again. "Yazidi" is the name given to the group by others. They call themselves theDasin.
Location and homeland. Most Yazidis live in the Zagros mountain range, which runs north to south from Armenia through Iran and Syria to Iraq. The mountains reach heights of up to 1,500 m (5,000 ft). The Yazidis live in the valleys. Annual rainfall in the valleys is 65-100 cm (25-40 in), most of which falls in December and January. Temperatures in the summer are mild. In the winter, temperatures often drop well below freezing.
Population estimates for the Yazidis vary widely. A 1992 estimate put their population at 200,000, though more recent estimates suggest 100,000 or fewer; some Yazidis insist that they number close to half a million. A 1989 census taken in Armenia counted 5,190 Yazidis in that country; in 2002, censuses in
Russia, Georgia, and Iran counted roughly 31,000 altogether. The difficulty of arriving at a consistent number derives from the persecution the group has endured in many countries, which makes them reluctant to accurately report their numbers to government census takers.
Language. Yazidis speak Yazidi, a language with an alphabet of 33 letters. In Armenia, Yazidis speak the Kourmanji dialect of Kurdish. Some Yazidis in Armenia speak Armenian so well that it is difficult to tell them from native Armenians. Some have even adopted the typically Armenian -ian suffix at the end of their names.
Religion. The origins of the Yazidi religion are unclear. Mistakenly called "devil worshipers," the Yazidis believe that Satan was once the chief angel in heaven. Because of his pride, he fell (or was banished) from that position. Th is belief accords with that of other religious groups, such as Christians and Jews. However, the Yazidis go further, believing that Satan repented and was restored to his position as chief angel and now oversees the running of the universe. The supreme God created the universe and then turned it over to Satan (or Melek-Tavous, as the Yazidis call him) and six other angels. The creator God, they believe, has no direct interest in the universe.
The name "Melek-Tavous" means King Peacock, or Peacock Angel. In much of the East, peacocks are revered as symbols of beauty and majesty. Melek-Tavous and the six angels are thought to rule the universe, and they are worshiped in the form of peacocks, represented by seven bronze peacock figures called sanjaq. The largest of the sanjaq weighs about 320 kg (700 lbs). These seven figures are kept at Lalesh in Iraq. Each
year they are taken out and paraded around Yazidi neighborhoods to bring wealth and good fortune to all believers. Lalesh is the Yazidis' holy land. The tomb of their principal saint, Shaikh Adi, is located there, as are the sanjaq. Shaikh Adi was a 12th-century Muslim mystic who became the leader of the Yazidis. The Yazidis believe that he achieved divinity through reincarnation, and they worship him as a god. His tomb is the site of an annual pilgrimage.
Each morning, the Yazidis pray to the sun, the source of life, so that there will be health and well-being in the world. Yazidis pray five times a day, facing the holy city of Lalesh at the noon prayer. Each Yazidi is obliged to make a pilgrimage to Lalesh at least once during his or her life.
The holy scriptures of the Yazidi religion consist of two short books in Arabic: the Kitab al-jilwah (Book of Revelation) and the Mashaf rash (Black Writing). An Arabic hymn in praise of Shaikh Adi is also recited.
The Yazidis deny the existence of evil, sin, the devil as an evil force (they believe that Satan, or Melek-Tavous, was restored to heaven), and hell. What other religions call sin—the breaking of divine laws—is mended, according to the Yazidis, through reincarnation and the progressive purification of the spirit or soul. Shaikh Adi excused his followers from saying the five daily prayers, as well as from other Muslim practices. Wednesday is the Yazidis' holy day, and Saturday is their day of rest. Rites of passage. Boys are generally circumcised. They are baptized on their first birthday by a shaikh (leader of the tribe). The shaikh takes a handful of the boy's hair, recites some prayers, and then cuts the hair.
Interpersonal relations. The Yazidis are a very isolated people, choosing to remain separate from their non-Yazidi neighbors. It is traditionally forbidden for a Yazidi to enter any public place where he or she might hear words that are contrary to the Yazidi faith, including schools, theaters, and so on. This restriction has been relaxed as more Yazidis have moved out of their isolated mountain valleys and into towns and cities, where they must interact with nonbelievers.
Family life. Yazidi society is organized according to a strict division of castes. Rulers make up the three highest castes. At the top is the prince, or emir, who is a descendent of Shaikh Adi and serves as his sole representative on earth. Next are the Pesmrreyyah, cousins of the prince, who act as his advisors. The next caste is made up of the shaikhs of the Yazidi tribes and the elders from the house of Shaikh Adi. Religious leaders make up the next set of three castes: the faqirs, who are ascetics (those who deny their bodily needs in order to attain a
higher spirituality); the chanters, who recite religious songs and poems for the people; and the kochaks, who serve as spiritual advisors to the people. The kochaks also prepare the dead for burial and foretell the fate of the dead person's soul. At the bottom of the caste system are the Merides, or believers—the everyday Yazidis—and the commoners, who work as serfs for those in the higher castes. Commoners are either sold to or inherited by higher-caste families.
Yazidis may not marry outside their caste, and marriage to non-Yazidis is forbidden as well. Marriages are arranged by the tribe's shaikh. A young man tells the shaikh which young woman he wishes to marry. The shaikh talks with the young man's father and settles on the bride price, or dowry, to be paid to the young woman's father. Polygamy is legal, and Shaikh Adi's teachings allow adultery. Each Yazidi also has a special relationship with another person who is chosen to be a brother or sister in the afterlife. This brother or sister is with the person in times of sickness or need in this life.
Clothing. Unmarried women and girls wear flowers in their hair; necklaces made of grain, coins, or small pearls; and colorful clothing, with a red or black cloth on the head and a white veil that hangs down from the chin. Married women wear white, with a white turban on the head. Women's traditional dress consists of a long dress, ankle-length cotton pants, and a heavy coat in winter. Men traditionally wear a coat and broad-cloth pants with a woolen belt and a white cloth with red polka dots on the head. Some men wear a high, brown, cone-shaped hat covered by a black or red turban. In the winter, men add a cloak and furs to their other clothing. Yazidi men must wear mustaches—they are forbidden to shave them. Young Yazidis are beginning to wear Western-style clothing.
Food. A staple food of the Yazidis is a dried cream formed into round pieces, which are ground into a sort of meal that is mixed with butter and garlic. Yazidis are permitted to drink alcohol, unlike Muslims.
Education. Education was once the sole privilege of descendants of one Yazidi family headed by Shaikh Hasan al-Basri. However, others have begun attending government schools. Traditional Yazidis still live only according to the teachings of their holy books.
Work. Most Yazidis are rural farmers, although some nomadic tribes exist. Those who farm and raise livestock do so on communal land. The main crops are wheat, barley, chickpeas, lentils, olives, and corn. Livestock animals include mules, Social Problems. Yazidis have been subject to much persecution, particularly by the Muslims who live around them. The Yazidis have fought back, resulting in a great deal of bloodshed on both sides. In Iraq, persecution has been relatively rare, but in August 2007, significant violence was directed against the community in the northwestern Iraqi region of Jabal Sinjar, Ninawa Governate. News reports vary as to the number of people who were killed in the attack. Four separate car bombs were detonated in different parts of the traditional Yazidi area, killing at least 500 and injuring 1,000.
In Armenia, the Yazidis also face conflicts with the Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in that country. The Kurds oppose the Yazidis' separateness and refuse to recognize them as a separate people. Instead, they want the Yazidis to consider themselves Muslim Kurds. The Yazidis, however, insist on maintaining their separate identity. This has led to significant tensions between the two groups. The group has also faced persecution by Persian Turks.
Because of religious persecution, many Yazidis have fled the Kurdish areas of their traditional homelands and now reside in Germany and in the United States, where their largest settlement is located in the small Midwestern town of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Gender issues. Gender roles are highly prescribed among the Yazidis. Polygamy is allowed, although it is restricted to the higher castes. Marriages are typically arranged. In April 2007, a Yazidi girl was videotaped being stoned to death by a Yazidi crowd who believed that she had converted to Islam and married a Sunni Muslim she had been seen with in Nineveh Province of Kurdistan, Iraq. (The truth of the matter is in dispute, and no definitive judgment exists.) Two weeks later, Sunni extremists murdered 24 Yazidis in what some considered a warning to the Yazidi community not to mix with Muslims. In the twentieth century, the Yazidis were ruled by Mayan Khatun, a woman regarded by most historians of the area as a remarkable and astute ruler. She assumed power in 1913 after the murder of her husband, Mir Ali Beg. She held power, along with her son and then her grandson, until 1957.
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—by D. K. D. de Mott