Some Yezidi people lived in Kurdistan, in north-east Iraq, and some at Sinjar Mountain in north Iraq, near Syria. It is a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving in spring and autumn. After persecution by ISIS religious fanatics, they had to flee, leaving their sacred places; unfortunately, without a written tradition, their religious practice is closely related to these sites.
Eszter Spät is a researcher of the Yezidi tradition and the role it plays in the Kurdish national movement. She gained her PHD in the department of medieval studies at Central European University in Budapest in 2009. The university is showing her photo exhibition about the Yezidis until 24 October.
Its aim is to draw attention to the crisis. The photos were taken between 2002 and 2014, mostly by Spät during her field research. The recent events have spotlighted the problem of the Yezidis. Can one of the most ancient Middle East religious groups survive the exile from its holy land?
Spät has been presenting her documentary about Yezidi life and religious tradition, “Following the Peacock”, including at the CEU. The film follows the path of the Yezidi’s most sacred object, the Standard of the Peacock, through the villages of Sinjar Mountain. Her aim is to preserve some of the tradition that is changing and disappearing due to the violent political and social transformations brought on by the attacks of the Islamic State.
The Yezidi religion is a unique blend of Sufism, a kind of Islamic mysticism mixed with earlier beliefs. The Yezidis, as the documentary shows, have an oral tradition. It is a monotheistic religious group, who believe that God created the world and placed it in the care of seven “holy beings”, The Seven Great Angels.
The Peacock – Tawsi Melek – is the leader, a form of archangel. The religion shares similar ideas to Christianity and Islam. Apart from the belief in one almighty God and his angels to Earth, they consider themselves descendants of Adam but not Eve.
There are different theories about heaven and hell: some believe that hell is where the souls of evil people go while others believe that the fires of hell were extinguished due to the intercession of Tawsi Melek. A segment of their belief preserved from their Indian past is the faith in reincarnation. Similar to Hinduism, a soul migrates into new bodies until it reaches a pure form that can reach eternal salvation in Heaven. The greatest punishment is if a Yezidi is reincarnated into another religion, thus is evicted from Yezidism.
The Yezidis don’t write down the rules of their religion, so according to Islamic law they are not considered “people of the book”. Therefore, they have often been accused of devil worshipping by Muslims.
Spät said ISIS is suddenly attacking Yezidi people because the group is in the way of establishing a Sunni caliphate in Iraq and part of Syria. Some Yezidis live in Kurdistan and speak Kurdish, and since the Kurds are considered enemies of the Islamic State, so are the Yezidis. Further, fundamentalist Wahhabism declares that a nation which is not the “man of the book” must be either converted or killed.
The Yezidis at Sinjar Mountain are close neighbours to Arabs and thus greatly influenced by Arabic culture. The relationship is so close that they often invite Arabic people to be the kiriv, the godfather of the child. It is a bond that obliges the kiriv to protect the family. This is why the attack of the Arabs was so traumatic for them, and Yezidis still don’t accept it as an Arabic offensive. Instead, they view it as a united Muslim attack.
The world fears the damage the Islamic State can do to the West. But other valuable cultures have been damaged and need to live on and thrive. Eszter Spät’s exhibition is part of this preservation: the more people who are informed about what is happening in the East and the danger of extinction of traditions, the more can be done to save them.