Eugen Wirth

A visit to the Yezidis in 1953

„The people in Sinjar and the cultural landscape they created fascinated me so much that I wanted to capture it all.“

Eugen Wirth (12 May 1925 – 15 May 2012) was a German geographer. His main field of research was the cultural geography of the Middle East.

His travel report, translated by the Yezidi Photo Archive, and some of his photographs are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Fränkische Geographische Gesellschaft.


When I was preparing my one-year research stay in Iraq in 1952, I occasionally came across hints in the literature that aroused my curiosity: In the north of the country, in the middle of desert steppes, there is an isolated mountain range that not only stands out morphologically from its surroundings – the Jebel Sinjar. Austen Henry Layard, who was able to pay a short visit to Jebel Sinjar over 150 years ago, praised in his travel report the Yezidis living there that were quite different from the Arab and Kurdish inhabitants of the rest of Mesopotamia.

What I saw there impressed me – precisely because it did not fit into the picture I had of Iraqi villages. It is noted in my diary:

Clean and very well-kept village houses made of limestone in dry masonry, carefully plastered with lime mortar. One house is cleaner and fresher plastered than the other!

In those days I had a high film consumption. While in most other regions of Iraq I only documented photographically what seemed scientifically interesting to me, the people in Jebel Sinjar and the cultural landscape they created fascinated me so much that I wanted to capture it all as adequately as possible.

The people there know from occasional experience that Europeans have a quirk to photograph everything. Well, if they do, the children enthusiastically jump in front of the camera with their hands raised. The adults, on the other hand, stand stiffly in position, make as serious and solemn a face as possible, and thus appear in the picture like frozen monuments.

Also in their clothing the Yezidis are fundamentally different. The most striking features of Yezidis are the white cloth, the knitted wool jackets decorated with beautiful embroidery patterns and the very solid, homemade shoes. 

The men braid their main hair into six plaits, wear a long beard and use a strangely shaped felt cap as headgear, which looks like half an olive. Women are on an equal footing with men; they can move freely and even talk to strangers. Once married, they wear a large white turban wrapped around their heads. The children’s heads are shaved except for three funny little bobs left standing for religious reasons.

The Yezidis like to make music. Their songs are peculiarly monotonous, but melodic and for European ears much more appealing than Arabic music. A long, narrow lute-like instrument with three strings is used for the musical accompaniment of their songs. The melody is played on one string, while the other two are used to pluck the same bass tones. A small goat made of glass beads is mounted on a board in front of the lute player. It is made to dance by a cord attached to the head, which the musician holds in his hand and pulls rhythmically.

This ethnic group, which in every respect is very different from its environment, has created a cultural landscape of its own in Jebel Sinjar. 

The friendly settlements of the Yezidi, unbelievably well-kept for oriental conditions, are now situated in perfect harmony in the middle of an equally well-kept corridor: Everywhere where the relief allows, small gullies are diverted from the small rivers of the valleys in artistic lines, which lead the water to the irrigation. The fields are divided into small to very small parcels, which are carefully separated by rock walls and which rise up the slope in many terraces.

Every day the farmers work on their land from early to late to weed or loosen the soil. Tobacco is the predominant crop: in addition, almost all vegetables native to Iraq are grown for self-sufficiency. Where irrigation is no longer possible, terraced fruit groves join this small-parcel tobacco field uphill. The fig is by far the most important fruit tree: but besides it one also finds the olive tree, almond, apricot and pistachio – all those Mediterranean fruit trees that manage without additional irrigation with the precipitation of the mountains.

The cultural landscape of the Yezidis is unique and completely independent in the midst of a completely different environment. Created by a free and hardworking peasantry, it testifies everywhere to tidiness, cleanliness, artistry and craftsmanship. For this very reason, however, it is still entirely traditional, without all the influences of modern Western civilization and technology.

For many centuries, the Yezidis had little contact with their environment: away from the major trade routes and international routes, they were able to preserve their old, original peasant culture and thus their cultural landscape to this day. Even today, they are self-sufficient and independent of the outside world; most Yezidis never leave the confines of their village. Only the development since the Second World War brought with increasing traffic development also modern influences into the Jebel. It is to be feared that this old culture, its way of life and the man-made landscape that belongs to it will soon lose much of its originality.

In the mid-1970s, however, the large state resettlement campaigns, with which the population was deliberately driven out of their ancestral settlements and settled in easily controllable large villages, turned out to be a catastrophe for them.

During a stay in Iraq in the spring of 1980 I had the opportunity to visit the Jebel Sinjar again – for the first time since my trip in 1953. It was like a shock for me: The formerly so fertile, densely populated high valleys were deserted, the houses of the settlements began to decay and were overgrown by spontaneous vegetation, the network of irrigation channels already had gaps and leaks everywhere, and the walls of the terraces began to collapse.

One of the greatest peasant cultures and an agricultural landscape created by a hard-working peasant people in centuries of laborious work are irretrievably lost and destroyed.

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