Gertrude Bell

A visit to the Yezidis in Syria and Iraq

„For their sake the Yezidi race shall hold hereafter a large place in esteem.“

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell,  (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist.

Among others, she visited the Yezidis in Syria and in Iraq between 1905 and 1911. Photographs, diary entries and letters of Gertrude Bell are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University.

Syria

At lunch time there appeared upon the scene a man, so engaging and intelligent that I immediately selected him to be my guide during the next few days, the district I proposed to visit being blank on the map, stony and roadless. Musa was the name of my new friend, and as we rode together in the afternoon he confided to my private ear that he was a Yezidi, whom the Muslims call Devil Worshippers, though I fancy they are a harmless and well-meaning people. The upper parts of Mesopotamia are their home, and from thence Musa’s family had originally migrated. We talked of beliefs as we went, guardedly, since our acquaintance was as yet young, and Musa admitted that the Yezidis woshipped the sun.

Musa’s home is at Basufan; we met his father in the cornfields as we came up, and:
God strengthen your body, cried Musa, giving the salutation proper to one working in the fields. And your body! he answered, lifting his dim eyes to us. He is old, explained Musa as we rode on, and trouble has fallen on him, but once he was the finest man in the Jebel Sim’an, and the best shot.
What trouble?, said I.
My brother was slain by a blood enemy a few months ago, he answered. We do not know who it was that killed him, but perhaps it was one of his bride’s family, for he took her without their consent.
And what happened to the bride?, I asked.
She has gone back to her own family, said he. But she wept bitterly.

Basufan is used as a summer retreat by certain Jews and Christians of Aleppo, who come out and live in the houses of the Yezidis during the hot months, the owners being at that season in tents.

The Yezidis used to grow tobacco on the neighbouring slopes, and the quality of the leafs was much esteemed so that the crop found a ready sale, till the Government régie was established and paid the Yezidis such miserable prices that they were unable to make a profit. As there was no other market, the industry ceased altogether, and the fields have passed out of cultivation except for the raising of a little corn: “and now we are all poor.” said Musa in conclusion.

With Musa I had contracted, during the three days we had passed together, a firm friendship, based on my side on gratitude for the services he had rendered me, coupled with warm appreciation of the beaming smile that accompanied them. We had reached the point of familiarity where I thought I might fairly except him to enlighten me on the Yezidi doctrines, for, whatever may be the custom in Europe, in Asia it is not polite to ask a man what he believes unless he regards you as an intimate. Nor is it expedient; it awakes suspicion without evoking a satisfactory answer. I began delicately as we sat in the doorway of the little church at Kefr Lab by asking whether the Yezidis possessed mosque or church. No, replied Musa. We worship under the open sky. Every day at dawn we worship the sun.

Image: Yezidi girl in doorway, Basufan, April 1905 (C_034) Colourised by the Yezidi Photo Archive

Have you, said I, an imam who leads the prayer?
On feast days, said he, the sheikh leads the prayer, but on the other days every man worships for himself. We count some days lucky days and some unlucky. Wednesday, Friday and Sunday are our lucky days, but Thursday is unlucky.
Why is that? said I.
I do not know, said Musa. It is so.
Are you friends with the Muslims or are you foes?, I asked.
He answered: Here in the country round Aleppo, where we are a few, they do not fear us, and we live at peace with them; but every year there comes to us from Mosul a very learned sheikh who collects tribute among us, and he wonders to see us like brothers withe Muslims, for in Mosul, where the Yezidis are many, there is bitter feud. In Mosul our people will not serve in the army, but here we serve like any other – I myself have been a soldier.

Do you consider all the four faiths [Yezidis, Jews, Christians and Muslims] to be equal?, I asked. Musa replied (diplomatically perhaps): The Christians and the Jews we think equal to us.
And the Muslims?, I inquired.
We think them to be swine, said Musa.

As we reached Basufan Musa asked whether his sister Wardeh (the Rose) might honour herself by paying her respects to me.
And will you, he added, persuade her to marry?
To marry? said I. Whom should she marry?
Anyone, said Musa imperturbably. She has declared that marriage is hateful to her, and that she will remain in our father’s house, and we cannot move her. Yet she is a young maid and fair. She looked very fair, and modest besides, as she stood at the door of my tent in the pretty dress of the Yezidi women, with a bowl of kaimak in her hands, a propitiatory gift to me; and I confess I did not insist upon the marriage question, thinking that she could best manage her own affairs. She brought me new bread for breakfast next morning, and begged me to come and visit her father’s house before I left. This I did, and found the whole family, sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren, assembled to welcome me; and though I had but recently breakfasted, the old father insisted on setting bread and bowls of cream before me, that the bond of hospitality may be between us. Fine, well-built people were they all, with beatiful faces, illumined by the smile that was Musa’s chief attraction. For their sake the Yezidi race shall hold hereafter a large place in esteem.

Iraq

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

Friday May 7. [7 May 1909] I am this evening the guest of the High Priest of the Devil Worshippers, Ali Beg. (They aren’t really Devil Worshippers, you know, though unfriendly people have so named them.) We reached his house at 10.30 this morning and he received me with the greatest affability, ordered coffee and insisted that I must stay with him. So firm was he on this head that I saw no way out of it, though I prefer my own tents once the season of fleas has begun. But Fattuh saved the situation with his usual tact and good manners. For having seen the room in which Ali Beg designed to place me, and found it to be hopping with fleas, he came back and explained with the best turned compliments that the tents were already in process of being pitched and if his Excellency didn’t mind, it would save trouble if we might sleep in them, and being at his door we should still be his Highness’s most grateful guests. Whereat Ali Beg replied that our pleasure was his and all was well. He and some of his people have long pointed curly beards; they look exactly like the heads on the Assyrian reliefs. 

I have seen Yezidis before, in the mountains N of Aleppo [Halab] and told Ali Beg that they had spoken to me of him as being the ruler of them all. “The ruler of us all” he said gravely “is God.” He took me then to see his wife, a very attractive woman. The Yezidi women are not veiled or secluded; she was dressed in a purple cotton robe, with a white veil wrapped round her head and chin (but not over her face) and a little black velvet cap holding it in its place. On her wrists were heavy gold bracelets set with turquoises. 

 

He sent me an enormous tray of lunch to my tents, rice and mutton and semolina pudding and excellent sour curds; there was enough for me and all my servants and soldiers. Then he gave me 2 guides and I rode with them and my 4 soldiers into the mountains to see the shrine of Sheikh Adi, which is the Yezidi holy place. (The reason I have 4 soldiers is that these mountains are very much disturbed, owing to the constant raids of the nomad Kurds. […]

Image: Mir Ali Beg (seated) – High Priest of the Yezidis, the Qawal stands to the right of him. The figure on the left is the Christian secretary, Fattuh stands directly behind Ali Beg. Colourised by the Yezidi Photo Archive

We rode for 2 hours up into the rocky hills and in and out over the folds of them, between oak trees and bushes of flowering hawthorn, and at last we dropped down into a deep valley, at the head of which, embosomed in mulberry and fig, is the tiny village and the shrine of Sheikh Adi. Ali Beg’s sister received and welcomed me and led me through the outer courts to the shrine. As she stood at the door in her long white robes and white veil she looked like some strange priestess; she kissed the door posts and murmured a prayer to Sheikh Adi before we entered. By the door a great snake is carved in relief upon the wall and painted black so that it catches your eye the moment you enter the peaceful little court. But I asked no questions. So we went into the shrine which was like a church with 2 aisles and no nave; and then she took me into a high chamber, pitch dark, in which stands the tomb of Sheikh Adi – I lighted it up with magnesian wire while she murmured prayers. Then we went into some underground chambers, through which a stream flows from basin to basin, passing through the wall of one room into another and finally out into a little court behind the sanctuary.

The water flowed indiscriminately over the floor of the chamber and I took off my stockings – my boots I had taken off when I entered the shrine – and paddled about over sharp pebbles following my priestess with her oil lamp. She turned to me in the middle and said “Aren’t you afraid? I am afraid.” But I wasn’t, probably because I did not know how holy it all was. She was very anxious to kill a lamb and make me a feast, but I succeeded in dissuading her and we compromised by my accepting bowls of milk and piles of bread which my guides and I shared between us. So we rode back over the mountains and got into camp at 6 o’clock. Ali Beg sent me out a dinner as ample as the lunch and then his little son, Sa’ad Beg, a charming boy, came and fetched me and I sat with them for an hour and came back to bed.

I lighted the place up with magnesian wire. Then into a long vaulted chamber filled with oil jars – all the door posts were oiled and the Khatun kissed them all. Then into a long vaulted corridor which runs along the N side of the inner court. We then went back to the first small domed room and she took me alone down a little way into a chamber running from N to S with water coming out of the rock on the N side and running into a tank at the S end. To the E it was allowed to escape through a hole in the wall into another longish chamber running E and W and so by a winding vaulted passage (all was very dark) into another E and W chamber. It passed through the E wall outside. The Khatun lives to the S of the shrine and here ‘Ali Beg lodges at the ‘Id. We sat under the mulberry trees and drank milk and so rode home.  

Dreadfully hot. Reached Al Kosh at 12.20. Turned up soon after by the Wadi Bel Dewa’i, very charming with a rushing stream in it, and over a pass which brought us out onto a broad green plain between the Jebel Al Kosh and the J. Dohuk. A Yezidi village at the foot of the pass but the plain is almost uninhabited and little cultivated owing to the depredations of the Kurds. ‘Ali Beg gives Sheikh Nuri large sums every year but he will not leave his villages in peace. At 3 we came to Rakabat which was completely looted two years ago by Sheikh Nuri; the people have only just come back. At 3.45 we reached {Tell} Gre Pahn (ie Tell Arid) and found our tents pitched on the broad mound. They had come in an hour ago. 1900. Delicious wind from the E. This village also is Yezidi. They say here, and so said Kas Elyas, that this year the world is aman – he attributed it to the new govt. 

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