Devil in the detail as Yazidis look to Kurds in withstanding Islamic radicals’ advance
Whether you approach it from the west, across the dry steppe of northern Iraq, or from the east, through the bare mountains of Kurdistan, Lalish shocks you with its sudden lush beauty.
There, in the last folds of the Zagros mountains, the little- known Yazidi faith maintains the tomb of its founder Sheikh Adi and the shrines of its saints, a jumble of caves, spires and eccentric stone buildings shaded by olives and alive with the music of quick-running streams.
To enter this quiet little valley, after the sweep of the desert or the grandeur of the mountains, is like stumbling on a hidden remnant of an older dispensation, a place out of time. Or at least it was 11 years ago, when I came across Lalish myself during the US invasion. Today, as the world knows, Iraq’s remaining Yazidis are under threat of expulsion, forced conversion and extermination by the advancing gunmen of the Islamic State (formerly known as Isis). Many of those driven last week from the Yazidi stronghold of Mt Sinjar, to the northwest, have now taken refuge amid the holy places of Lalish or in nearby Shekhen, the Yazidi “capital”, which has yet to be attacked.
Having endured for 1,000 years while states and empires rose and fell, Lalish could soon go the way of the Shia shrine of the prophet Seth in Mosul, or the buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, desecrated and dynamited in a Sunni extremist Year Zero.
The chief hope of the Yazidis, now as 11 years ago, is for military support from the nearby enclave of Kurdistan, whose Kurdish language and culture the Yazidis share. But when Islamic State gunmen attacked Mt Sinjar last week, Kurdish defenders who once withstood the conventional army of Saddam Hussein melted back into their own heartlands.
The Kurds, while generally tolerant of the Yazidis, are themselves for the most part devout Sunni Muslims, unenthusiastic about a religion that they – like many in the West – misconceive as devil worship.
As a Kurdish acquaintance said to me: “It’s well known that they pray to Satan. Apart from that they seem to be nice people.”
‘Cult of the angels’
The belief that Yazidis worship the devil stems from their faith’s roots in “the cult of the angels”, an ancient Indo-European folk religion which gave rise to the Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, which in turn passed key beliefs and traditions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
According to both Christianity and Islam, when God created his angels one of them rebelled against him and became the devil, source of all evil. The Yazidis see it differently.
Their Bab el Sheik or supreme religious leader, Kurto Haji Ismail, explained their core belief to me at his house at Shekhen.
“God created the seven angels and he told them that they must worship no one else but him. After that, to test the angels, God told the angels that they should pray to Adam, and all the angels obeyed the order but one.
“The Peacock Angel refused. He said to God, ‘You told us not to pray to anyone but you.’ And because of that he passed the test. God forgave him and he became the greatest of the angels.