Often derided by their Muslim neighbours as peacock-loving, lettuce-dodging devil-worshippers, the Yazidi are one of Iraq’s more ancient and mysterious sects whose beliefs have long been misunderstood and maligned.
From their base in a 1,000-year-old former monastery at Lalish, near the northern city of Mosul, the Yazidi community have traditions that date back at least to the days of Zoroaster some 2,500 years ago.
Down the ages, their beliefs have mingled with the credos of their neighbours, especially Muslims, adding to misunderstandings about what they really believe. On the entrance to the Lalish sanctuary, a large black snake is carved next to the stone portal, believed to represent the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The Yazidis are mainly Kurds, spread out in villages around Lalish and across northern Iraq. The temple is leased out each year to a different family, who are ordered to maintain the leafy courtyards and smoke-blackened halls while taking whatever surplus profits are made from pilgrims. Few are allowed to enter the precincts, although The Times was granted access in November 2005 for a rare viewing.
On one of the walls of Lalish’s principal outside courtyard is a beautiful image of a peacock, representing the main angel created by God when he formed the world. One of the Peacock Angel’s names is Shaytan, the same as the word for Satan in the Koran, which has led to misunderstandings about the Yezidis being devil-worshippers. He is, however, only one of seven archangels created by God and revered by this obscure community. The pointed-roofed shrines and tombs of Yazidi leaders that dot the landscape of northern Iraq are often referred to by local Muslims as “Beit Shaytan”, of the House of Satan.
The taboo on lettuce is also obscured by secrecy and age. It is believed to derive from the fact that the name in the Yazidi dialect of Kurdish resembles the title given to the seven angels when they periodically appear in human form, giving rise to an injunction that prohibits worshippers from unwittingly eating the bodies of those they revere.
Inside the temple of Lalish, the austere halls built by early Christians as a monastery are covered in many places with colourful cloths and veils, while in a vault full of huge, crusted jars of lamp oil there is a tradition for newly wedded couples to throw a cloth over their backs onto a slanting wall: if it sticks to the wall, it is considered a sign of good luck.
The international Yazidi community is believed to number between 100,000 and 400,000, often living in uneasy co-existence with their Muslim neighbours. Like the Druze to the west, they do not easily disclose their innermost religious secrets. They maintain a strict caste system within their society, with marriages to other sects strictly forbidden.
In April, a 17-year-old Yazidi girl who had married a Muslim and converted to Islam was stoned to death by her own community, a brutal murder that was caught by a witness on a mobile phone camera. In retaliation, Muslim gunmen murdered 23 Yazidi factory workers, and 800 Yazidi students fled from Mosul university fearing of reprisals.