Lalish: the Kurds´ hidden treasure in northern Iraq
Safe in the Kurdish haven of northern Iraq, but still only 50 km north of war-torn Mosul, lies Lalish, the Yezidi Kurds´ holiest shrine. Visiting this particular site, tantamount to the Catholics´ Vatican or Muslims’ Mecca, had become an obsession since I first came across Yezidi Kurds back in the summer of 2004. I met them in their Yailas (summer encampments) on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, Armenia’s highest peak, which consisted of a handful of green Soviet Army tents, one for each family, where they spend the summer with their cattle. Despite the temperature climbing above 40 celsius down in Yerevan, the animals were grazing Armenia’s freshest pastures between snow patches; a remarkable example of the so called “Vertical Nomadism”. Like most Armenian Kurds, these shepherds were Yezidi too, descendants of those who had left the hilly north of Iraq several centuries ago escaping from the Arabs’ oppression. They shared their cheese and their knowledge about their religion with me, and it was they who first pointed me in the direction of Lalish.
Summer of 2005 in Northern Iraq wasn’t as cool nor as peaceful as on Mount Aragats. Crossing the border from Turkey at Silopi had taken me a whole day filling out various documents, queuing under the sun and answering lots of questions on the Kurdish side. Anyhow, the city of Dohuk was the perfect place to stay for a few days to get familiarized with the local customs, and moreover, to arrange a visit to the shrine at the Lalish Centre, the meeting point of yezidies in Dohuk.
Only two guys were inside – a sleepy peshmerga with a kalashnikov at the main entrance, who didn’t care much about a foreigner going inside, and Suleyman, a 28 year old architect who happened to be the man in charge of the reconstruction of the Sanctuary. He was leaving for Lalish at that very moment and he would give me a lift and show me around too.
It took us a bit less than two hours to get there due to several peshmerga checkpoints, and a couple of stops we made to shoot some pictures at a humble Christian Kurdish cemetery and some minor Yezidi shrines at Ein Sifni. Quoting Suleyman – the village of Ein Sifni is the place where the Universal Flood started, and thus where Noah built his ark.
Surprisingly enough, there’s no trace of water around nowadays. This whole region called Sheikhan, the “land of the Sheikhs”, looks like a flat, dusty desert where the monotony of the landscape is roughly broken by the small Yezidi conical shrines and the checkpoints along the straight road.
Nevertheless, there’s some greenness once inside the valley of Lalish. Tree cutting is forbidden here, and its biggest peak, Mount Arafat, has sheltered both nature and spirituality, having Lalish perched on its slopes.
According to Yezidi mythology, Lalish was the dwelling place of God (Khuda) and his angels high up in heaven at the beginning of the creation. After the Earth was created and refused to settle down, it became fruitless and barren, so Lalish, the throne of God, descended upon it. Yezidis are monotheist but they also believe in some Divine Heptad, or the Seven Great Angels of God, being Malak Tawus (the peacock angel) the most powerful and hence the most revered too. It’s because of the latter that Yezidi Kurds have long been the pariahs of Kurdish society, where the majority belongs to Sunni Islam. Accusations of Devil-worshiping under the guise of their chief angel are still believed by an astonishing number of Muslims, despite many of them belonging to the so-called educated classes.
The kids gathering with their families outside the temple don’t look evil at all, nor do the Faqras or female servants of the temple who live here. The structure of the Lalish temple is unique in the Middle East. The buildings are like cones, placed over the temples, and seem to be specifically Yezidi in design.
Suleyman and I take off our shoes before crossing the main entrance. It consists on a wooden door crowned by a fabulous arch, which is guarded to the right by a coal-blackened snake, sculpted on stone. Suleyman kisses it with great respect and invites me to do the same.
Once inside, the darkness of the place contrasts with the colourful display of cloth hanging on the walls; one for each wish of the pilgrims, who come here throughout the year. The traditional Kurdish taste for colour is also present at the holiest room, which hosts Sheikh Adi´s tomb, buried here 900 years ago. Admittedly of Arab descent, from Lebanon, he introduced Sufi elements into Yezidism to such a degree that the evolution of this ancient belief can be clearly divided into two stages: one before and one after Sheikh Adi.
From the tomb of Sheikh Adi open several caverns, one after the other, where olive oil from the holy groves, used for the lighting of the consecrated torches, is stored along with a number of sacred garments. There is also a “wishing rock”: if a person manages to throw a piece of cloth on top of it three times, it is believed that their wishes will come true.
A smaller and more intriguing spot is the cavern of the Zemzem spring. Only Yezidi pilgrims are allowed inside, after crouching low through a narrow tunnel. Suleyman was happy for me to go inside, but we thought it might offend some of the older visitors, so instead we wait outside.
Zemzen isn’t the only sacred spring in Lalish. Once outside the temple Suleyman took me to the White Spring. A small stone building shelters the round pond where Yezidi children are baptised, and another guard, this time an old lady, watches to ensure that nobody misuses the sacred water.
Unfortunately, more worrying than the misuse of sacred water, is the future of the whole sanctuary. “All the Kurds were Yezidi in ancient times”, says Suleyman, “but the current Kurdish government only earmarks funds for mosques, and we receive no money at all for the conservation of Lalish. We, who have kept alive the Kurdish ancient belief for thousands of years, are still the pariahs among our own people.”