Me­sopotamia, Ana­to­lia, Syria and Tran­scau­ca­sia


Few peo­ple had heard about the Yezidis un­til sum­mer 2014, when world public opin­ion gal­va­nized to res­cue them from the group now known as Is­lamic State. The Yezidis are an an­cient peo­ple whose faith started in the Kur­dish moun­tains of north­ern Iraq in the 12th cen­tury. The Yezidis bear a cul­tural and belief sys­tem inspired by Zoroas­tri­an­ism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam, with rit­u­als such as a hair­cut af­ter birth, cir­cum­ci­sion and baptism. De­spite their roots in monothe­is­tic faiths, the Yezidis are of­ten maligned by out­siders for their de­vo­tion to the Pea­cock An­gel, or Tawûsi Melek, con­sid­ered by the group’s ad­ver­saries to be the em­bod­i­ment of Satan.

In the pa­per­back edi­tion of her book “The Yezidis: The History of a Com­mu­nity, Cul­ture and Re­li­gion,” which she has just re­leased, Birgül Açıkyıldız -- a pro­fes­sor of art history at Ar­tuklu Univer­sity in Mardin -- pro­vides a trove of in­for­ma­tion on the Yezidis. Read­ers will pro­foundly ap­pre­ci­ate this many-lay­ered text cov­er­ing not only the Yezidis’ belief sys­tem and re­li­gion but also their ma­te­rial cul­ture, in­clud­ing shrines, tomb­stones and caves. The book stands out be­cause it is the first to treat the Yezidis transna­tion­ally rather than fo­cus­ing on their pres­ence in in­di­vid­ual na­tion-states, as pre­vi­ous stud­ies have done.

Based on the au­thor’s doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion, the book was trans­lated from the orig­i­nal French to English by the au­thor -- and un­for­tu­nately, to the pub­lisher’s dis­credit, it has been edited in­ad­e­quately and of­ten fails to cor­rect uni­d­iomatic lan­guage. This is­sue notwith­stand­ing, the vi­brant and un­usual char­ac­ter of the book pre­vails even in the trans­lated ver­sion. Açıkyıldız’s work dif­fers starkly from other aca­demic texts in that the au­thor in­cludes her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence among the Yezidi com­mu­ni­ties, rang­ing from a com­pelling per­sonal nar­ra­tive to in­ter­views and pho­to­graphs. Color photos would have brought the Yezidi cul­ture even more vividly to life -- per­haps a sec­ond un­for­tu­nate ca­su­alty of the pub­lisher’s ap­par­ent tight bud­get. All the same, the reader feels she is very much meet­ing a liv­ing cul­ture rather than a his­tor­i­cal relic.

In this spirit, the in­tro­duc­tion sets the tone of a trav­el­ogue and one hears echoes of Gertrude Bell’s great work “The Thou­sand and One Churches.” Like Bell, Açıkyıldız has im­mersed her­self in her sub­ject mat­ter. De­mon­strat­ing her pas­sion, she speaks Kur­dish, trav­el­ing deeply in Yezidi ter­ri­to­ries and in­ves­ti­gat­ing Yezidi sites, though skip­ping Bell’s spy­ing-for-the-Bri­tish bit. Like Bell’s 1907 work, which emerged from her ex­pe­di­tions in Asia Mi­nor and re­mains a stan­dard text on Mid­dle Byzan­tine ar­chi­tec­ture, Açıkyıldız’s study will no doubt re­main a foun­da­tional work on the Yezidis.

The first chap­ter ex­am­ines the ori­gins, history and de­vel­op­ment of the Yezidis in Me­sopotamia, Ana­to­lia, Syria and Tran­scau­ca­sia. Here, we are re­minded in par­tic­u­lar of the oral trans­mis­sion of Yezidism, many years be­fore cer­tain sa­cred texts were pub­lished in the early 20th cen­tury (the ear­li­est writ­ten sources on the Yezidi faith are in me­dieval Ara­bic and Syr­iac). The ab­sence of writ­ten ev­i­dence on the early Yezidis has el­e­vated myths, folk le­gends and hymns as trans­mit­ters of their ex­pe­ri­ence. This chap­ter also high­lights chal­lenges faced by the Yezidis, start­ing with the Mid­dle Ages, liv­ing as mi­nori­ties liv­ing un­der the Mon­gols, Safavids and Ot­tomans -and later in the na­tion-states of Ar­me­nia, Iraq, Syria and Tur­key.

The sec­ond chap­ter dis­cusses the Yezidi re­li­gious belief sys­tem, high­light­ing el­e­ments such as the

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