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