Images and Symbols of the Supernatural and Sacred Objects among the Kurdish Yezidis

 

 

Text: Eszter Spät

 

Photos: Christine Allison, Estelle Amy de la Bretèque, Eszter Spät, Khanna Omerkhali, Wassfi Haji Sulaiman

 

 

Yezidis are a Kurdish speaking religious minority living throughout the Middle East, mainly in Iraq, but also in Syria, Turkey, Iran and in the Transcaucasia, where they emigrated in the 19th  and 20th century. The origin of their highly syncretistic religious system has long been a topic of debate among researchers. Assyrians, Babylonians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, and Sabaeans have all been cited. However, today a consensus seems to be emerging that the beginnings of the Yezidis, as an organized religious community with a conscious sense of identity, can be traced back to a 12th c. Sufi brotherhood. The “al-Adawiya” was founded by Sheikh Adi bin Misafir in the valley of Lalish in the Kurdish mountains near. With time this Sufi order incorporated so many pre-Islamic elements from its environment, that it ceased to be a part of Islam and became a religious entity of its own. Though some Yezidis today like calling themselves “Sufis”, Muslims traditionally see them either as heretics, or, even worse, as infidels, who worship the devil.

 

                     

 

Visual images of the supernatural among the Yezidis are far and few between. This is easily explained by the circumstances. Yezidis, a persecuted religious minority not belonging to the so called “religions of the book” lived in isolated rural areas, and until recently many of them continued a semi-nomadic way of life. Furthermore, their environment wasn’t one to encourage the production of images or the physical representation of the Divine. Their majority neighbours, Sunni Kurds would have considered any figural representation in religious context as heretical. The same is, of course, not true of the Christians, with whom Yezidis were on rather good terms. Icons were always a part of the Syriac speaking churches, as attested by the Doctrine of Addai, from the 4th century. However, living as a minority in an Islamic world that prohibited sacred images, visual representation of the sacred was mainly limited to manuscripts. Syriac art found its way within the Gospels and Lectionaries rather than in external expressions on church and monastery buildings. All the same, these manuscripts were not easily available to the Yezidis, especially since Yezidi religion strictly forbade the art of reading and writing, and Yezidis themselves transmitted their religion orally.

 

     

 

Though one cannot talk of “images of the supernatural” among traditional Yezidis in the sense this expression is used in connection with European sacral art, the need for tangible forms representing the presence of the divine or the supernatural is present among the Yezidis as well. As regards the strictu sensu use of the word “images,” we find only two images, that of the peacock, and that of the black snake. While there are no representations of human forms in Yezidi tradition, these two, especially the image of the peacock, are of great importance. Besides these images we find the physical representation of the divine in a great number of sacred objects, including metal objects (nishans) inherited by families belonging the leading religious castes, clothes with symbolical meaning, and sacred pieces of cloth covering graves. We may include among the representations of the supernatural the holy places of ziyaret (pilgrimage,) which play a central role in the perpetuation of Yezidi faith, a faith of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.

 

        

 

It must also be noted that Yezidi faith displays a great diversity. It is based on oral tradition, as reading and writing was banned, a fact that prevented the development of a unified body of dogmas. Consequently rituals and beliefs regarding sacred objects are also very diverse. This diversity is really highlighted if one looks at the different geographical regions inhabited by Yezidis, stretching from Armenia to Aleppo, but differences on a smaller scale can be detected even in adjoining regions or sometimes even between villages of the same area. This collection brings examples from Iraq (Eszter Spät, Wassfi Haji Suleyman) and from Armenia (Christine Allison, Estelle de la Breteque, Khanna Omerkhali). Hopefully others will contribute later on.

If you would like to contribute to this site, please send your photos (with your name on it, plus a short description) to Eszter Spät.

 

Content:

 

The Yezidis of Iraq

 

           The Sanjak of the Peacock Angel

           The Black Snake

           Nishans (Signs)

           Ritual Items of Clothing

           Places of Pilgrimage

 

The Yezidis of Armenia

Selected Bibliography on the Yezidis