Lalish is a small mountain valley village situated in the Shekhan District of Dihuk Governate of Northern Iraq. It contains the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith, and the complex on which it stands is thought to date back to the times of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Later it became the location of the tomb of Sheik Adi ibn Musafir, a central figure of the Yazidi faith.
The village is above the town of Shekhan, which is the political centre of the Yazidis. Prior to the grotesque persecution of Yazidis by ISIL, when those who survived were forced to leave, Shekhan had housed the second largest population of Yazidi in the world. Only Sinjar had more. The current ISIL stronghold of Mosul is about 36 miles northeast of here.
All Yazidis are expected to make a six-day pilgrimage to Lalish at least once in their lifetime, to visit the tomb of Şêx Adî and other sacred places.
So this small mountain village is of huge historic and religious significance to the Yazidi people. Today, at the height of the ISIL conflict, I am in Northern Iraq, and with two of my colleagues, have been invited to meet Baba Sheik (or Baba Shaweash), the spiritual leader of the world’s two million Yazidis.
As providers of emergency relief, my employers are primarily working in nearby refugee camps. However, we are also supplying a new water system to this village, and today I am travelling with our Country Director. This opens a door for me to the temple and its leaders. In fact, as we are passing through the area, protocols dictate that we really should visit.
We arrived at the distinctive temple, its conical towers making it look somewhere between a religious shrine and a malt or oast house. After a slightly strained disagreement between my travelling companions as to where in the courtyard protocol dictated we should leave our shoes, we climbed some twisting steps and shuffled our way along a tiny, claustrophobic corridor, until we found ourselves in the small windowless reception office of Baba Shiek and Baba #2 (who will succeed him). We were invited to sit, and Baba Sheik offered us cigarettes, which I declined. I slowly settled into our unique and rather intense surroundings. Sipping tea helped me relax, and before long we were comfortably discussing the nuances of the Yazidi religion. We learned about the Sheik’s appointment (“I am selected only by the will of the previous Baba”), of the fact that they are not allowed to marry, of the Shiek, Pir and Marul family groups within the Yazidi community, and how intermarriage is not allowed between these groups. As these two spiritual leaders talked us through even more complex subdivisions and strict protocols, I silently wondered how, with all these rules, restrictions and conditions on life, relationships, and practice, the Yazidi people had managed to avoid extinction.
All their holy books were taken by the Turks during some of the ‘73 genocides’ that Yazidis have suffered throughout the centuries. “If I ever found out who stole our holy books, I would kill them,” said Baba. “But we have Awals who are trained to recite the content of the holy books, and so their truths are not lost. And what is more, even now our present Prince Hazam is preparing our Holy Book for print once more. Only he can authorise its publication”.
Yazidis make pilgrimage to Lalish from all over the world, and Baba told us that other visitors such as tourists are always welcome.
We spent about an hour with Baba and his apprentice, before being invited to explore the temple for ourselves. To me our tour was a slightly uncomfortable mix of the fascinating, the creepy and the bizarre. In our socks, and being very careful not to stand on any thresholds (which apparently would have been the most dreadful faux pas), we made our way through various darkened rooms: one where baptisms take place, another where cloth is repeatedly tied and then untied whilst prayers are offered, and a third where lay the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir (Şêx Adî), who died in 1162. It felt as though the whole temple, dimly lit and damp, and steeped in symbolism, had been hewed out of the rock on which it stood. Finally this darkened maize led us through two rooms where incredibly ancient oil jars are stored, our stockinged feet feeling the spongey effect of centuries of spilled oil on the greasy floor.
Eventually we emerged into the sunlight, and found our shoes waiting patiently where we had left them. I reflected on what for me was yet another surreal and phantasmagorical experience: one which seemed totally alien to anything I had previously experienced, and indeed, with the twenty-first century itself. I recalled my final question to Baba. I had asked him his thoughts on globalisation, and its impact upon traditional Yazidi families potentially leaving their faith after they emigrated. “That is a very sore point,” he replied. “You are right. This is happening all the time. We don’t know what to do about it.”
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...has visited 108 countries and territories around the world, and always jumps at the chance of adding to that list.