Freya Stark

A visit to the Yezidis in 1930 and 1957

„They are a peaceful and agricultural people.“

Dame Freya Madeline Stark (31 January 1893 – 9 May 1993), was an Anglo-Italian explorer and travel writer. She became one of the most important explorers of her time. 

On a visit in Iraq in 1930 she was introduced to a visiting Yezidi sheikh. Freya Stark then visited Yezidi villages and captured some unique photos. Some of her photographs are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Middle East Centre Archive, St Antony’s College, Oxford.


The Yezidis probably belong to some very old pre-Islamic and pre-Christian worship, and as we climb up by one fold after another into deeper and more rocky recesses of the valley and into greater solitude, we feel that we are visiting the original dwellers of the land in their last inaccessible home. It is not all inaccessible, as a matter of fact, but only looks so. The car goes to within twenty minutes of the tombs of Sheikh Adi itself; we see the white steeples through leafless wood of March well above us in the little mountain valley. There is something pleasantly northern in its bare look after perpetual dusty green of palms in the plain below. The twigs are plum-coloured like March woods in England: the trees are varied  – fig and oak and many other kinds growing all together: they keep to the neighbourhood of the water, covering it with shadow as it falls in brown pools full of dead autumn leaves. Brambles and bushes close it in below: and where the ground opens out towards grey boulders which stick over all this landscape as thick as pins in pincushion, we see that it is all carpeted with yellow flowers, and anemones, and scillas.

It is as peaceful a little valley as you could find in the Maritime Alps, with the same stony nakedness around it. And it is strange to think that the tiny hamlet nestling there with its two steeples should be reverenced as far north as Russia and as far west as Aleppo, wherever Yezidis are found.

When you get, however, to Ain Sifneh – which is one of the places where the ark is supposed to have rested – the road really becomes obviously intended for mules. Here the soil is rock; alluvial Iraq is below us; and the water runs grey as the tumbled steepness around it, but clear, with transparent pools.

All this is Yezidi country, and the first of their peculiar tombs, with the squat, white-fluted steeple, is on a ridge near Ain Sifneh. 

We have seen their men on the plain below, dressed voluminously in white, with red turbans on their heads, and loose locks that give a witchlike expression to the long face and pointed chin of the race.

The Sheikh of the place at Sheikh Adi was dressed in white with a turban a little wider and shallower than those worn by Muslims. He took us to the temple. His sister, also in white, with her mouth covered and her head swathed like a nun, waited under the vines outside with two tall Fakirs in black.

We saw as much of their temple as they wished to show us. The interior of the temple is a gloomy place, with a floor of damp earth on which oil drips from square metal dishes suspended here and there, with floating wick sticking out at one corner. Bythis dim fight we saw in bare alcoves the tattered draperies of the tombs, and wondered, as one often does in this land, what fervour of imagination can clothe such naked relics with galmour: like a child with its doll of sticks and rage, they need no external help of beauty to dress their holy things.

It is always better to step over and not on to a threshold in the East, and our guide asked us particularly not to tread on this one: the weight of two rupees was not considered a desercration. As we performed the gymnastic carefully – for me threshold is high – and came out of the gloomy dullness of this temple, the peace of the little valley again fell upon us. The white sister and the two black Fakirs and several small Yezidis were waiting in a group by the well under the vines. We sat there with them chatting under the sun, asking about the life of the sanctuary and explaining our own social status in return. My two friends both possess husbands in the Civil Service, which inspired respect: but I was unexpectedly exalted by the fact of not having a husband at all. 

When, after some doubt, this phenomenon was finally accepted as true, the three holy men and the white sister admired me with wonder as one who has obtained peace in this world and all sorts of advantages in the next. You are a nun as I am, said the white lady, looking across to me with the kind and quiet eyes that come to old age in the hills.

It was altogether monastic round the temple and very like some of those remote sanctuaries in the Italian hills which sleep peacefully through the year until the week or so their pilgrimage comes round. So the priests of Sheikh Adi wait for their spring and autumn festivals, when the pilgrims come up over the passes and the ancient rites are held.

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