Cecil J. Edmonds

A visit to the Yezidis between 1925 and 1945

„(...) a most attractive but grievously misunderstood and misrepresented people.“

Cecil J. Edmonds (26 October 1889 – 11 June 1979) was a British political officer who served with the British Expeditionary Forces in Mesopotamia. He visited the Yezidis in Iraq a several times between 1925 and 1945.

Some of the photographs he took during his visits to the Yezidis are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Edmonds family and the Middle East Centre Archive, St Antony’s College, Oxford.

First visit to Sinjar

From Sheikhan I drove to Balad Sinjar. Sheep farming was the most important occupation of the population as a whole, but the Yezidis of the mountain villages in particular were industrious and skilful gardeners as the remarkable terracing of the slopes bore witness. The principal products not consumed locally were wool, hides, dried figs (for which Sinjar was justly famous), and a low grade of cotton. Other agricultural produce sufficed for their own needs. The traditional grazing grounds extend on the north to the Radd, and on the south about the same distance into the Jazira desert. The most westerly Yezidi tribe, the Samoqa, lived in tents for three quarters of the year, camping in the Jariba and the plains on both sides. At certain seasons of the year when the Radd and other wadis draining to the Khabur river are too boggy for sheep, pastoral elements from the Arab Tay and Jubiir tribes from Syria were accustomed to come over and camp near or even among the Yezidis.

My first day I had little time to do more than visit two tombs. The visit over, the two guardians invited me to drink coffee with them. The Government serai, where I spent the night, was in the lower part of the town. While I was inspecting the police station Naif Beg, Mir Said Beg’s cousin, was brought in under arrest to be charged with instigating the theft of the Sinjar Peacock-Standard. I also saw there the formidable Mayan Khatun, who, as they had already told me at Ba’idhra, had herself come to prosecute the complaint. A few minutes later Ismail Beg came down from his house on the high western outskirts of the town to invite me in to coffee. He can perhaps best be described as un original. He had visited the Caucasus and had served for a time under British command as an officer in the Iraq Levies. He had sent his son Abd al-Karim to Baghdad to be trained as a school teacher,·and was having his daughter Wansa, a pretty little thing to judge by the photograph he showed me, educated by the American missionaries in Mosul, both strange departures from the normal for a Yezidi.

A man of about forty, with a black straggly beard and the sad, pained expression often worn by leading Yezidis at any rate when approaching persons in authority, Ismail Beg presented an extraordinary spectacle in khaki riding breeches and stockings, grey British army shirt, khaki waistcoat, white head-cloth worn Arab fashion, and black ‘aqal. When we reached the house he changed into a long cossack-type coat, with a revolver and a straight Caucasian dagger slung over the shoulders. The guest-room floor was heavily carpeted, and the walls were draped with pildess galims to a height of about five feet. Above these was hung a multiplicity of bric-a-brac, cheap coloured prints of the royal families of Europe, biscuit advertisements, a banner representing the crucifixion with a legend in Armenian, three old European prints of the shrine of Sheikh Adi and another of his father and grandfather, various photographs including one of himself with his wife and two children, a Caucasian dagger with a ‘peacock’ engraved on the scabbard, a sword, a sporting rifle with telescopic sights, two or three revolvers, and finally, towards a corner, a bag of striped galim-like material with about twenty-six brass rings sewn on the front in rows of six or seven.

Photos taken between 1925 and 1932

Balad Sinjar, Sinuni, Karsi, Lalish

Visit during the 1940s

The valley of Lalish, which is only about two miles long, is enclosed: at the upper, or western end by the 4,000-foot peak of Hiztat or, as one of my informants called it, Judi; the ridge on the north is Ziyarat (with a minor feature above the shrine named Arafat); that on the south Mishat.

My tent had been pitched in an olive grove some distance short of the shrine, just by a single-arched bridge of dressed stone called the Ancient Bridge or the Bridge of Prayer, which marks the boundary of the sacred area within which all Yezidis go bare foot. New arrivals must run across the bridge, run back, and then over again, before going down to the stream to refresh themselves after the fatigues of the way and to make their good resolutions.

The bridge and a niche in a large rock close by are two of the seventy holy stations which the pilgrims circumambulate once or more during the seven days. Those I saw generally came down in little groups of three or four, men and women or boys and girls. As they crossed the bridge each would bend down and kiss a coping stone, or touch it with the right hand and then lift the hand to the lips, before going on to the rock and then down to the water out of sight for a few moments. This done, some of them would pick a sprig of olive to wear in the turban.

A few minutes after my arrival Tahsin Beg, the new Mir, a small boy of about twelve, came down with other members of the princely family to call. He was followed by the Baba Sheikh and his attendant Kochaks, dignified bearded figures, each clad in flowing robes of white, with white turban and cloak, and a woven scarf of orange, or orange and black, thrown over the shoulder and across the breast, in the manner of a deacon’s stole.

After an interval for lunch and a rest I walked up to the shrine. 

I was welcomed onto the terrace of Sheikh Assin by the Mir and his party, which included his grandmother, Mayan Khatun. Mixed dancing was in progress in a square, paved ‘well’, open onto the road but enclosed on three sides by the flight of steps leading up onto the terrace and two walls. Music was provided by a double flute and a drum – with each dancer holding his or her neighbour’s hand, with fingers interlocked, down at the full length of the arm but pressed backwards so as to bring their shoulders together.

 

There were a few high conical felt caps (qim) and long white gowns from Sinjar among the men; but most of them were Sheikhanis in white drawers, coloured zouave jackets, and turbans generally of red and white check but some all white, and one or two head-cloths worn Arab fashion. Many had a white bandage tied over the turban; this is issued by the administrator of Sheikh Shams’s to the votary for his ritual visits to two sacred springs, the White Spring which feeds the baptistry, and Zamzam which rises inside the sanctuary; after dipping it into the water the recipient wears it until he reaches home after the festival, when it is deposited with the family treasures.

Similarly most if not all the women in the line were Sheikhanis. Most of them wore a white skirt, a coloured zouave jacket, a woven ‘shawl’ of white homespun wool draped over one shoulder, a small turban of dark silk with a solid crown of silver coins arranged in spirals showing above and more coins strung round it, a necklace of large beads mostly amber and red, as well as other gold and silver ornaments hanging down over the chest; some wore over the right temple a curious gilt ornament like a small old-fashioned ear-trumpet; some had their eyes darkened and enlarged with kohl.

Several times during the afternoon the report of a rifle-shot from the hill above announced the arrival of a belated pilgrim. At one point the dance was interrupted to make way for the Baba Sheikh, the Kochaks and the Chawush as, in the course of their circumambulation before returning to the shrine for other ceremonies to be performed after sunset, they entered the well in solemn procession to ‘visit’ one of the stations, a stone, black with the soot left by the little olive-oil flares regularly lit there, in one of the side walls.

Finally the dancing ceased and I returned to my tent. It was resumed after dark and I could hear singing in the direction of the shrine. But I had so much to record while my impressions of all I had seen and heard were fresh that I felt it would be wise to stifle my curiosity.

Days later on an aftemoon there was a steady stream of pilgrims moving homewards down the road, most of them stopping at the bridge for a final act of piety. After a leisurey breakfast, interrupted several times by callers coming in to say good-bye as they passed, I joined the stream – on foot at first and turning constantly for just one more glimpse of those pale cool, gleaming, spires and the lovely valley of Lalish, the Mecca of a most attractive but grievously misunderstood and misrepresented people.

– A pilgrimage to Lalish

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