The followers of the Yezidi religion, who have variously referred to themselves also as the Yazidi, Yazdâni, Izadi, and Dasna’i, have often been pejoratively referred to by outsiders as “devil worshippers.” They constitute less than 5% of the Kurdish population. At present they live in fragmented pockets, primarily in northwest and northeast Syria, the Caucasus, southeast Turkey, in the Jabal Sanjâr highlands on the Iraqi-Syrian border, and regions north of the Iraqi city of Mosul.
As a branch of the Cult of Angels, Yezidism places a special emphasis on the angels. The name Yezidi is derived from the Old and Middle Iranic term yazata or yezad, for ,1 angel,” rendering it to mean “angelicans.” Among these angels, the Yezidis include also Lucifer, who is referred to as Malak Tâwus (“Peacock Angel”). Far from being the prince of darkness and evil, Lucifer is of the same nature as other archangels, albeit with far more authority and power over worldly affairs. In fact, it is Malak Tâwus who creates the material world using the dismembered pieces of the original cosmic egg, or pearl, in which the Spirit once resided.
Despite the publication of (reportedly) all major Yezidi religious scriptures, and the availability of their translations, the most basic questions regarding the Yezidi cosmogony are left to speculation. For example, it is left to deductive reasoning to figure out in which epoch of the universal life Lucifer belongs, or what his exact station is. He naturally cannot be the same as the Universal Spirit, as the Spirit does not enter into the act of creation. In Yârsânism and Alevism it is Khâwandagâr, the “Lord God,” who as the first avatar of the Spirit undertakes the task of Sâjnâri-world genesis. It is tempting to concluded that Lucifer replaces Khâwandagâr himself in the Yezidi cosmogony. Two Yezidi holy scriptures, Jilwa and Mes’haf, both discussed later, substantiate this conclusion. The following translations of these texts are adopted almost entirely from Guest (1987). Jilwa reads, “Malak Tâwus existed before all creatures,” and “1 (Malak Tâwus) was, and am now, and will continue unto eternity, ruling over all creatures …. Neither is there any place void of me where i am not present. Every Epoch has an Avatar, and this by my counsel. Every generation changes with the Chief of this world, so that each one of the chiefs in his turn and cycle fulfills his charge. The other angels may not interfere in my deeds and work: Whatsoever I determine, that is.” The implied attributes are all those of Khâwandagâr in Yârsânism and Alevism. Mes’haf asserts> “In the beginning God [which must mean the Universal Spirit] created the White Pearl out of his most precious Essence; and He created a bird named Anfar. And he placed the pearl upon its back, and dwelt thereon forty thousand years. On the first day [of Creation], Sunday, He created an angel named ‘Azâzil, which is Malak Tâwus, the chief of all….” Mes’haf goes on to name six other angels, each created in the following days of this first week of creation in the First Epoch. The names of these angels closely match those of Yârsânism and Alevism, as given in Table 6. The problem is that there are seven rather than six avatars, leaving out, therefore, the Spirit himself from the world affairs. This is, however, the result of the later corruption of the original cosmogony, perhaps under Judeo-Christian influence. The rest of the opening chapter of the Mes’haf provides a version of human origin close to the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, and their interaction with Satan, even though Satan, here Lucifer, serves them only as an honest councillor and educator. Thereafter, he is left in charge of all creatures of the world.
The real story of the First Epoch however surfaces rather inconspicuously, in a single sentence at the end of the Mes’hafs first chapter. As it turns out, the sentence is very much in agreement with the basic tenets of the Cult of Angels. It reads, “From his essence and light He created six Avatars, whose creation was as one lighten a lamp from another lamp.” It is then safe to assume that the original Yezidi belief was that Lucifer was the primary avatar of the Universal Spirit in the First Epoch, and the rest of the cosmogony of the Cult of Angels remains more or less intact. Lucifer himself, in the form of Malak Tawus, “Peacock Angel,” is represented by a sculptured bronze bird. This icon, called Anzal “the Ancient One,” is presented to worshippers annually at the major jam at Lâlish.
Lâlish and its environs are also the burial site of Shaykh Adi, the most important personage of the Yezidi religion. Adi’s role in Yezidism is similar to those played by Sahâk in Yârsânism and Ali in Alevism. To the Yezidis, Shaykh Adi is the most important avatar of the Universal Spirit of the epochs following the First Epoch. Adi being a primary avatar, he is therefore a reincarnation of Malak Tawus himself. In its modern, garbled form, Adi is assigned a founding role in Yezidism, and interestingly is believed to have lived at about the same time in history, as Sultan Sahâk is believed by the modern Yârsâns, i.e., sometime in the 12-13th centuries. (This is about the same time that Bektâsh of Alevism is believed to have lived and founded that branch of the Cult.) Both Adi and Sahâk are believed to have lived well in excess of a century.
In addition to the main sculptured bird icon Anzal, there are six other similar relics of the Peacock Angel. These are called the sanj’aqs, meaning “dioceses” (of the Yezidi community), and each is assigned to a different diocese of Yezidi concentration. Each year these are brought forth for worship to the dioceses of Syria, Zozan (i.e., Sasoon/Sasun or western and northern Kurdistan in Anatolia), Sanjâr, Shaykhân (of the Greater Zâb basin), Tabriz (Azerbaijan), and Musquf (Moscow, i.e., ex-Soviet Caucasus). The sanjaqs of Tabriz and Musquf no longer circulate, since there are not many Yezidis left in Azerbaijan, and the anti-religious Soviet government did not permit the icon to enter the bustling Yezidi community of the Caucasus.
Like other branches of the Cult of Angels’, Yezidism lacks a holy book of divine origin. There are however many sacred works that contain the body of their beliefs. There is a very short volume (about 500 words) of Arabic-language hymns, ascribed to Shaykh Adi himself and named lilwa, or “Revelation.” Another, more detailed book is the Mes’haf i Resh, “the Black Book” in Kurdish, which has been credited to Adi’s son, Shaykh Hasan ibn Adi (b. ca. AD II 95), a great-grandnephew of Adi.
Mes’haf is the most informative of the Yezidi scriptures, as it contains the body of the religion’s cosmogony, catechises, eschatology, and liturgy, despite many contradictions and vagaries (far more than in the works of the Yârsâns). The Mes’haf may in fact date back to the 13th century. Mes’haf was written in an old form of Kurmânji Kurdish. Kurmânji in the 13th century was primarily restricted to its stronghold in the ultra-rugged Hakkâri highlands (see Kurmânji) . But Hakkâri is in fact exactly were the most ardent followers of Adi and Hasan arose. Adi himself, despite the Yezidi’s belief that he was born in Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, came to be called Adi al-Hakkâri (“Adi of Hakkâri”).
Of the Yezidis’ four major annual celebrations, two are of special interest here, the Jam and the feast of Yezid.
The most important Yezidi feast is the seven-day-long feast of lam, when the bird icon of Anzal is presented to the worshippers. It occurs between the 6th and 13th of October, which is obligatory to all believers to attend, and is held at Lâlish, north of Mosul, the burial site of Adi and other important Yezidi holy figures, including Hasan. It coincides with the great ancient Aryan feast of Mithrâkân (Zoroastrian Mihragân, Nusayri Mihrajân; see Alevism), held customarily around the middle of October. Ancient Mithrâkân celebrated the act of world creation by the sun god Mithras, who killing the bull of heaven, used its dismembered body to create the material world. On the occasion of the feast at Lâlish, riding men pretend to capture a bull, with which they then circumambulate the Lâlish shrine of Shams al-Din (the “Sun of the Faith”), before sacrificing the bull and distributing its flesh to the pilgrims.
Yezid, a puzzling personage, is venerated by the Yezidis in a somewhat confused fashion. Yezid is credited with founding Yezidism (the religion, obviously, shares his name), or to have been the most important avatar of the Spirit after Malak Tâwus (some even claiming he is the same as Malak Tâwus). He is occasionally identified by the Yezidis as the Umayyad caliph, Yazid ibn Mu’awiyya (r. AD 680-683), the arch-villain to Shi’ite Muslims. This faulty identification is encouraged by the Syrian and Iraqi governments (who hopc thus to detach the Yezidis from other Kurds, and to connect them instead with the Umayyads, hencc the Arabs). It has also prompted the leading Yezidi family, the chols, to adopt Arabic costumes and Umayyad caliphate names. Yet, far from being the ‘Umayyad caliph, the name is certainly derived from yezad, “angel,” and judging by its importance, he must be the angel of the Yezidis. This comical confusion, which permeates the Yezidi leadership to the extent that they doubt their own ethnic identity, is not unexpected, given the intensity of their persecution in the past, and the destruction of whatever religious and historical literature Yezidism may have had in the past, in addition to the little that remains today.
Is it possible that Malak Tâwus, who created the material world in Yezidi cosmogony by utilizing a piece of the original cosmic egg or pearl that he had dismembered earlier, originally represented Mithras in early Yezidism, and only later Lucifer? The second most important Yezidi celebration points toward this possibility. It is held between middle and late December and commemorates the birth of Yezid. His birthday at or near the winter solstice, links him to Mithras. (Mithraism did after all expand into the Roman Empire from this general geographical area in the course of the first century BC, and Mithras’ mythical birth was celebrated on December 25 as already has . been discussed.)
The celebration parallels in importance the major jam ceremony in October. It is commemorated with three days of fasting before the jubilees.
In the Yezidi version of world creation, birds play a central role in all major events too numerous in fact to permit summary here. The reverence of the Yezidis for divine manifestations in the form of a bird, the Peacock Angel, and the sacredness of roosters are just two better-known examples. What is fascinating, but less known, is that within 30 miles of the shrines of Lâlish are the Shanidar-Zawi Chami archaeological sites of central Kurdistan, where the archaeologist Solecki has unearthed the remains of shrines and large bird wings, particularly those of the great bustards, dated to 10,800±300 years ago. The remains are indicative of a religious ritual that involved birds and employed their wings, possibly as part of the priestly costume (Solecki 1977).
The representation of bird wings on gods was later to become common in Mesopotamian art, and particularly in the royal rock carvings of the Assyrians, whose capital Nineveh can literally be seen on the horizon from Lalish. The artistic combination of wings and non-flying beings like humans (to form gods), lions (to form sphinxes), bulls (to form royal symbols), and horses (to form the Pegasus), as well as wing-like adornments to priestly costumes, are common in many cultures, but the representation of the supreme deity as a full-fledged bird is peculiarly Yezidi. The evidence of sacrificial rites practised at ancient Zawi Chami may substantiate an indigenous precursor to modern Yezidi practice.
The bird icon of Lâlish has always been readily identified, as the name implies, as a peacock. However, there are no peacocks native to Kurdistan or this part of Asia. In light of the discoveries at Zawi Chami, the great bustard is a much more likely the bird of the Yezidi icon. The great bustard (Kurdish shawtlt) is native to Kurdistan. It too possesses a colorful tail, similar to that of a turkey (similar to, though much smaller than, that of a peacock, which is seen on the icon). The great bustard far more logically suits the archaic tradition of the Yezidis than does the peacock, a native bird of India.
The practice of bowing three times before the rising sun and chanting hymns for the occasion is practiced by the Yezidis, as among the traditional Alevis (Nikitine 1956). The Yezidis also practice the rite of embracing the “very body of the sun,” by kissing its beams as they first fall on the trunks of the trees at the dawn (Kamurân Ali Badir-Khân 1934).
Another Alevi hallmark, the representation of the deity in the shape of a sword or dagger stuck into the ground, is also found among the Yezidis, albeit not for worship but to take oaths upon it (Alexander 1928, Bellino 1816).
In addition to an entrenched aristocracy, the social class system of the Yezidis shows interesting similarities to the rigid social stratification of the Zoroastrian Sasanian Empire. Zoroastrian priests forbade anyone who did not belong to the priestly or princely class to gain literacy, and traditionally Yezidism barred such luxury altogether. (Some Yarsans also believe that this should be so, and also practice it.) In fact, it has been asserted that until the beginning of this century only one man among the Yezidis, the custodian of the Jilwa, knew how to read (Guest 1987, 33). This ban is largely gone now, although through force of habit the Yezidi commoners are still not keen on literacy.
Interestingly, the wealthier Yezidi shaykhs and mullahs wear Arab Bedouin clothes and headdress, speak both Arabic and Kurdish, and usually have Arabic names. The poorer Yezidi social and religious leaders, on the other hand, have Kurdish names, speak only Kurdish, and wear Kurdish traditional clothes and headgear (Lescot 1938).
Leadership of the Yezidi community has traditionally rested with one of the old Kurdish princely houses, the Chols, who took over in the 17th century. They replaced the line of rulers who claimed descent from Shaykh Hasan, the author of Mes’haf. They are supported financially and otherwise by every Yezidi. The priestly duties reside, as in Yârsânism, with the members of the seven hereditary priestly houses, which include the Chols.
The relative smallness of the current Yezidi community can be misleading. At the time of Saladin’s conquest of Antioch, the Yezidis were dominant in the neighboring valleys in the Amanus coastal mountains, and by the 13th and 14th centuries Yezidis had expanded their domains by converting many Muslims and Christians to their faith, from Antioch to Urmiâ, and from Sivâs to Kirkuk. They also mustered a good deal of political and military power. In this period, the emirs of the Jazira region (upper Mesopotamia) were Yezidis, as was one of the emirs of Damascus. A Yezidi preacher, Zayn al-Din Yusuf, established Yezidi communities of converts in Damascus and Cairo, where he died in 1297. His imposing tomb in Cairo remains to this day. Of 30 major tribal confederacies enumerated by the Kurdish historian Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi in Sharafntlma (1596), he contends seven were fully Yezidi in times past. Among these tribes was the historic and populous Buhtans (the Bokhtanoi of Herodotus).
An early Muslim encyclopedist, Shahâb al-Din Fadlullâh al-‘Umari, declares as Yezidi in AD 1338 also the Dunbuli/Dumbuli. This reference carries a very important piece of information, which can be the only known reference to the Cult of Angels before its fragmentation into its present state and the loss of its common name. Since the Dunbuli were a well-known branch of the Alevi Daylamites, and since the reporting by al-‘Umari is normally astute, the declaration of this tribe as Yezidi may indicate that at the time the appellation Yazidi (“angelicans’) was that of the Cult of Angels in general. (The historical designation Yazdtlni here for the Cult of Angels has been used to avoid confusion with the modern Yezidism.)
There have been persistent attempts by their Muslim and Christian neighbors to convert the Yezidis, peacefully or otherwise. The Ottoman government and military schools recruited many Yezidis, who were then converted to Sunni Islam, while in the mountains the Yezidis maintained their faith. A petition submitted in 1872 to the Ottoman authorities to exempt the Yezidis from military service has become the locus classicus on the subject of Yezidi religious codes and beliefs (for the English translation of the text, see Driver 1921-23).
Failing peaceful conversion, the Ottomans carried out massacres against the Yezidis in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. The massacres recurred in Ottoman domains in the middle of the 19th century, resulting in a great migration of Ottoman Yezidis into the Russian territories in the Caucasus. Twenty major massacres between 1640 and 1910 were counted by Lescot (see Deportations & Forced Resettlements).
Many Yezidis escaped into the forbidding mountain areas, but others converted, at least nominally, to Sunni Islam. The Ottoman Land Registration Law of 1859 particularly pressed for conversion by refusing to honor ownership claims of Yezidis. Many Yezidi shaykhs, who were the primary property owners, maintained their lands and property by converting. The Yezidi leaders whose holdings were in the inaccessible higher mountains were spared the need for conversion, and so were the landless sharecroppers or herders. Before 1858, the Yezidis in the Antioch-Amanus region on the Mediterranean littoral numbered 200,000, constituting the majority of the inhabitants. In 1938, Lescot counted only 60,000-a small minority.
Even today the Yezidis are still subject to great pressure for conversion. There is now also a movement to strip the Yezidis of their Kurdish identity by either declaring them an independent ethnic group apart from the Kurds or by attaching them to the Arabs. Hence, the Yezidis are now called “Umayyad Arabs” by the governments of Iraq and Syria, capitalizing on the aforementioned confusion that exists among the Yezidis with respect to the irrelevant Umayyad caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiyya.
Most Yezidis are now in Syria, in the Jazira region and the Jabal Sanjar heights, and in the Afrin region Northwest of Aleppo. The next largest population of Yezidis is found in the Caucasus, where up to half the Kurds are followers of Yezidism. In Iraq, where the holiest Yezidi shrines of Lâlish are located, they are found in a band from eastern Jabal Sanjâr toward Dohuk and to Lâlish, northeast of Mosul. There used to be a large number of Yezidis in Anatolia, prior to the massacres of the last century. Those who now live within the borders of Turkey are thinly spread from Mardin to Siirt, and from Antioch and Antep to Urfâ. There are also a relatively small number of Yezidis in Iran, particularly between the towns of Quchdn and Dughâ’i in the Khurâsâni enclave, and in Azerbaijan province.
Further Readings and Bibliography: R.H.W. Empson, The Cult of the Peacock Angel (London, 1928); E.S. Drower, Peacock Angel (London, 1941); G.R. Driver, “The Religion of the Kurds,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and Studies 11 (1921-23); John S. Guest, The Yezidis (New York: KPI, 1987); Isya Joseph, Devil Worship (Boston, 1919); Alphonse Mingana, “Devil-worshippers: Their Beliefs and their Sacred Books,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1916); R.C. Zaehner, Zurv4n: A Zoroastrian Dilemma (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955); R. Lescot, Enquete 5ur les Yezidis de Syrie et du Djebel Sindjar, Memoires de L’Institut Francais de Damas, vol. 5 (Beirut, 1938); Hugo Makas, Kurdische Studien, vol. 3, Jezidengebete (Heidelberg, 1900); Ralph Solecki, “Predatory Bird Rituals at Zawi Chemi Shanidar,” Sumer XXXIII.L (1977); Rose Solecki, “Zawi Chemi Shanidar, a Post-Pleistocene Village Site in Northern Iraq,” Report of the VI International Congress on Quaternary (1964); Sami Said Ahmed, The Yazidis: Their Life and Beliefs, cd. Henry Field (Nfiami: Field Research Projects, 1975); E.S. Drower, Peacock Angel: Being Some Account of Votaries of a Secret Cult and Their Sanctuaries. (London, 1941); Cecil 1. Edmonds, A Pikdmage to Lalish (London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1967); Thcodor Menzel, “Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der jeziden,” in Hugo Grother, cd., Meine Vorderasienexpedition 1906 und 1907. Vol. 1. (Leipzig, 191 1); Basile Nikitine, Le5 Kurde5, etude 5ociologique et hi5torique (Paris, 1956); KamurAn Ali Badir Khdn, “Les soleil chez les Kurdes,” Atlantis 54, vii-viii (Paris, 1934); Constance Alexander, Baghdad in Bygone Days, from the Journals of the Correspondence of Claudius Rich… 1808-1821 (London, 1928); Charles Bellino letter, 16 May 1816, to Hammer, included in Fundgruben des Orients 5 (1816).
Sources: The Kurds, A Concise Handbook, By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilization Harvard University, USA, 1992