History

The Yazidis are a religious community living mainly in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, while small communities are present in Armenia (Fig. 3). They are related to the Kurdish ethnic group, in fact their language is mainly Kurdish, although in some centres they speak Arabic but use Kurdish for religious purposes, i.e. prayers and ceremonies. They call themselves ÊzidÊzî or Izid, which may come from Yazad in Middle Persian and Kurdish and means God or Angel in New Persian (Açıkyıldız 2015: 35).

Their original heartland is northern Iraq, where their religion was born and developed (Fig. 4). The most ancient Yazidi settlement, Sheikhan, is in this region and more precisely in the Ninawa Governorate (Fig. 5). They are also widespread in northern Syria, the Tur ‘Abdin region, south-eastern Turkey, the Serhat region (eastern Turkey), and Iran.

The earliest source mentioning the Yazidis is the Kitāb al-Ansāb of ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Sam‘ānī (12th century), who was a contemporary of Sheikh ‘Adī (1078-1162), the founder of the Yazidi religion. He mentions a community called al-Yazīdiyya in the region of Ḥulwān, situated between the Tigris and Greater Zab rivers, near the Jebel Maqloub, to the north of Mosul (Açıkyıldız 2015: 37). According to this source, the community al-Yazīdiyya already existed when Sheikh ‘Adī arrived in that region of northern Iraq, moving from Baghdad: it was his presence in the region that established proper Yazidism, as it is known nowadays. Sheikh ‘Adī was a Muslim intellectual who studied with famous mystics in Baghdad: among them, there were scholars from the Kurdish region, and this may explain the reason why Sheikh ‘Adī decided to travel to this region. Here, he established his zawiya (convent of dervishes) at Lalish and thereafter Yazidism as a religion, a syncretism of other religious beliefs attested in the area, and ruled the Yazidi people.

Amongst the successors of Sheikh ‘Adī, Sheikh Ḥasan (1196/97-1249/54), the son of ‘Adī II, is the second most important figure in Yazidi history. He was the author of the Kitāb al-Jilwa li-Arbāb al Khalwa, a mystical test, and under his rule many new disciples adhered to Yazidism, thus the religion expanded in the Kurdish tribal milieu. For this reason, he was considered a threat by Muslim neighbours, especially by the Atabeg of Mosul, Badr al-Dīn Lu’lu’ (1211-1259), who ruled Mosul following the recognition of the Abbassid Caliph (Fig. 6). In this period, the Yazidis took advantage of the rivalry between the Zangids and Ayyubids, and occupied Sinjar, which was under Zangid rule. Their conquest did not last for long; Sheikh Ḥasan was arrested, imprisoned in Mosul and decapitated in 1254.

His son Sheikh Sharaf al-Dīn (1215-1257) succeeded him. According to Yazidi tradition, the region of Sinjar became important during his reign: he was able to convert people in the Sinjar province to the Yazidi faith (Açıkyıldız 2015: 43). After Sheikh Adi, Sheikh Sharaf al-Dīn is the most popular figure among Yazidis in the Sinjar region.

After the death of Sheikh Sharaf al-Dīn, the Yazidi community had to face the first massacre in its history. During the Mongol invasion of the Near East, the Mongol chief Hulagu Khan invaded Hakkari (south-eastern Turkey) after passing through Mosul and killed all its Yazidi inhabitants and destroyed their settlement in Sinjar in 1261-1262. The reason for this massacre was revenge for the Yazidis collaboration with the Turks, enemies of the Mongols (Açıkyıldız 2015: 43). The period between this first massacre and the end of the 13th century was a time of turmoil for the Yazidis. Due to the Mongol presence, members of the ruling dynasty moved to Syria and Egypt, that were both home to Yazidi communities.

By the 14th century Yazidism reached as far east as Suleimaniyah and as far west as Antioch and became the official religion of the semi-independent principality of Jezirah (Fig. 7). The political strength of the Yazidis grew in the early 15th century; this was a reason for the Muslims to begin a persecution against them, considering them apostates: organised pogroms were accomplished by Arab, Persian and Ottoman authorities. One of the most bloody massacres occurred in 1414, when a holy war against Yazidis was declared by the Kurdish tribal leader Jalal al-Dīn Muḥammad; Sheikhan, the centre of the community, was invaded by him together with other local tribes, and the grave of Sheikh ‘Adī was desecrated. After these attacks they survived as small tribal groups and as local enclaves (Açıkyıldız 2015: 48).

At the beginning of the 16th century the Yazidis were drawn into conflicts between the Persian Safavid empire and the Ottoman empire (Fig. 8). In 1514 they were united in the province of Diyarbakir, which was established by the Ottomans in 1515: all the Kurdish chiefdoms were united within this province, including the regions where the Yazidis were the majority, such as Sinjar (Açıkyıldız 2015: 48). According to Sharaf Khan Bidlisī, the Muslim emir of Bitlis and author of the earliest chronicles of Kurdish history, there were six Yazidi Kurdish tribes in the 16th century: Dasinis (Hakkari), Mahmudis (Lake Urmiya), Dunbelis (Khoshāb/Hoşav), Khalitis (Batman), Bicianes (Silvan) and Bakhtis. The Dasinis were originally from the Sheikhan region and occupied the area north-east of Mosul and south-west of Amadiya, and today they are still Yazidi. Sinjar and Sheikhan were the two main Yazidi strongholds, struggling to stay out of the main political games between Ottomans and Safavids. Yazidis were considered brigands and tax evaders by the Ottomans, and also reluctant to serve in the Ottoman army. In 1715 they suffered another massacre: the Vali of Baghdad attacked them in Sinjar and entrusted the government of the area to the Tayy Bedouin. In 1794 Suleiman Pasha of Baghdad raided Sinjar, kidnapping women and raiding cattle. Other attacks were perpetrated in the Sheikhan region in the 19th century (Açıkyıldız 2015: 52). According to Layard (Layard 1867: 25), who visited the Sinjar region and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 1839-40, the Yazidis were very powerful, and he refers to them as a tribe (Fig. 9-10). He mentions the Jebel Sinjar as one of their main strongholds. The last independent Yazidi chief was Ali Bey, the father of Hussein Bey, who was the first political chief after the Yazidis lost their independence (Layard 1867: 78). Under the rule of Ali Bey, Mir Muhammad (McDowall 2010: 42), the Bey of Rowanduz who had reunited most of the Kurdish tribes, attacked Sheikhan as part of his plan to conquer the northern region of Kurdistan (McDowall 2010: 42). The inhabitants of Sheikhan fled to Sinjar through Mosul, where the inhabitants helped them, whilst Ali Bey was killed by the Bey of Rowanduz (Layard 1867: 180).

In the second half of the 19th century, after the turmoil of the Mir Muhammad conquest, the Yazidis were a distinct ethnic and religious community and were not recognized as People of the Book, their legal status was not defined by the Ottoman administration, and they were placed on the lowest rung of Ottoman society. Nevertheless, they fought to have rights equal to those of Christians and Jews, i.e. exemption from the payment of taxes and from serving in the army. The requests were articulated in a petition, presented in 1872 to the Ottoman court and signed by the prince of the Yazidis, their political guide Mîr Hussein, and their spiritual chief Sheikh Nassir. They were successful and exempted from all taxes in 1875.

In 1885 the Ottomans changed the regulation, forcing the Yazidis to pay the same taxes as the Muslims. They refused in the province of Sinjar, with the result that Yazidis were forced to convert to Islam, and Sheikhan and Sinjar were invaded and their inhabitants massacred. The sanctuary of Sheikh Adī was converted into an Islamic school for 12 years; many Yazidi shrines were destroyed. Moreover, sultan Abdülhamid II established the Hamidiya Cavalry, well-armed, irregular and mainly Sunni Kurdish, but also TurkishCircassianTurkmenYörük and Arab cavalry formations that operated in the eastern provinces of the empire with the aim of protecting its eastern frontier from Russian incursions, constantly guarding the Armenians. The Cavalry attacked hundreds of Yazidi villages and a large part of the Yazidi population in south-eastern Turkey fled to Transcaucasia to escape from these attacks (Açıkyıldız 2015: 57). Nevertheless, these events provoked a widespread religious revival in Sinjar.

At the end of the 19th century Sinjar was pacified, and Yazidis were allowed to practice their religion (Fig. 11). Since 1921 the Yazidis have been linked to the Iraqi State and to the Kurdish Region of Iraq, therefore they were part of the officially recognized Kurdish community, whose cultural specificity was recognized in 1931 by the Iraqi government. It was in this time that the power of the mîr’s family, i.e. the Çol family, was definitively established. After struggles with Sinjar tribal chiefs and Sinjar inhabitants for more authority in the religious affairs of the Yazidi community, the mîr’sfamily was able to define its rights and authority in the ‘Sheikhan Memorial’, a document written and signed by the Baba Sheikh, who is the religious chief of the Yazidi community, and the heads of other religious orders of Sheikhan and declared at a conference in Mosul. The document dealt with the fundamental Yazidi rules, and was important for the consolidation of the mîr’s family power. With the independence of Iraq in 1932, the mîr’s family exerted religious control over the Yazidi community of Sheikhan and Sinjar. In the course of history of the Iraqi State, Yazidis living outside the Kurdistan Region underwent the Arabisation carried out by the Ba’ath regime from 1965 to 1989: they were forced to leave their own villages and settle in collective villages (mujamma’at), with the aim of making them dependent on the government and easier to control. The collective villages in the Kurdistan Region were in Ba’adre, Khanke and Shari’ia; in the Sinjar region they were spread on the plain north and south of Mount Sinjar and villagers living in the mountain’s valleys were forced to leave to be settled in the collective villages.

In their very recent history, Yazidis have been targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose militants invaded the Sinjar and Ba’shîqe region in August 2014 (Figs. 12-13). Members of the Yazidi community who lived in these areas were forced to abandon their religious faith and convert to Islam, those who refused were threatened with death. It is estimated that 50.000 persons fled from the Sinjar area (Roberts 2016: 56), those who could not escape were abducted as slaves or killed, especially children and women. ISIS conducted their massacre in a very systematic way, as Nadia Murad explains (Murad 2017). They attacked village after village, both in the Sinjar and in the Ba’shîqe region, separating men from women and children. In the Sinjar region they started by occupying the main town, Sinjar, on 3 August 2014 (Human Rights Council 2016: 6). When advancing, ISIS fighters used abandoned checkpoints to control the movements of Yazidi families, in order to prevent their escape to safer territories. Hundreds of Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped and laid siege to by ISIS. They sought refuge on the mountain without the possibility of shelter, without water and without food: many people died during this siege, before the Iraqi and allied authorities were able to organize rescue operations on 7 August. These were jointly organized by the American army, with British, French and Australian forces, after a request by the Iraqi Government. Rape and violence are attested against women, as well as the existence of mass graves (Fig. 14), which were found in great numbers in the Sinjar region and in the area between Mosul and Jebel Sinjar itself (http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/210320193?keyword=mass%20grave). These facts have been considered as genocide, a systematic succession of actions with the intent of eliminating a group of people (United Nations Office Guidance Note #1: 2). The hypothesis of genocide was formulated for the first time in 2015 (https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15720), and the work of the UN International Investigation team has the aim of collecting proof in order to have official recognition.

Besides the violence to people, ISIS militants destroyed many Yazidi religious buildings and therefore broke the link between the people and their territories. The way that ISIS conducted the massacre of Yazidis was as follows: they seized villages, collected the inhabitants in a public building (usually in the village school), and divided the women and men. The men were taken to excavated pits and killed. The women were brought to important ISIS-controlled urban centres, such as Mosul, and sold as sabaya (slaves), raped and taken as wives by ISIS militants. These programmatic passages were repeated, thus revealing a precise plan in their actions. This is very vividly described by Nadia Murad in her book The Last Girl (2017), showing how ISIS was planning the systematic suppression of Yazidis by annihilating them in body, mind and spirituality, and by destroying the places tied to their religious beliefs. Survivors who were able to flee reached the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, where they were placed in refugee camps, located mostly in the Dohuk province. According to a UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) report of May 2019 (UNHCR 2019: 2, footnote 10), nearly 200 families live in the Erbil Governorate outside camps, 1025 families live in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate both in camps and outside them; in the Duhok governorate 222,968 persons reside outside camps, while c.167,000 stay in various camps.