Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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02 November 2009

The Yezidian Sa'ama Ceremony at Lalish

Yezidi'ism is a little known religion practiced by a minority of Kurds. With the advent of the information age, their diaspora to western societies, and the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, Yezidis are straddling the threshold between their past and future.

As they attempt to seek their 21st century identity after centuries of brutal repression at the hands of Muslims – Turkic, Arab and Kurdish alike – the debates on their ethnic and religious history are significant. After visiting Yezidians in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, Armenia, and Georgia (almost all Yezidis left Turkey for Europe during the 1984-1999 separatist war), I'm comfortable agreeing with the majority of scholars and many, but by no means all, Yezidians themselves that Yezidis are ethnically Kurdish, and that Yezidi'ism predates Islam by centuries, if not millennia.

Although Yezidians have many many holy sites, THE Yezidi holy site is Lalish - the place of earthly beginnings and home to the tombs and shrines of their most venerated. It is compactly tucked into the upper reaches of a valley and studded with the characteristic fluted spires. This is the third year in a row I have visited Lalish, and the second year I have attended the 8-day Autumn Assembly (Jema'iyye). Yezidians flock to the small site by the thousands, crowding into a space and time of religious and secular celebration. It seems impossible that more can fit, but they do, arriving with bedding and provisions to last for the duration of their stays.

This year I was privileged to watch the Sa'ama Dance, a dramatic religious night ceremony.

“The courtyard in front of Sheikh Adi's Sancutary's courtyard was packed – young and old, men and women – vying for position to watch the ceremony. To take a breath required effort. But now being familiar to many, an American, and the beneficiary of the harsh insistence of my friend Sheikh Gharbi, I was able to crouch on the inner margin of the cleared space. The sitting musicians - three playing flutes and two playing hand-held drums - began to play reedy and rhythmic music. The crowd roared in anticipation. Fakir Hasan lit the ceremonial fires fueled by olive oil on a small metal stanchion, his bearded face dramatically glowing in the darkness.

“Slowly the massive wooden doors to the Sanctuary opened and from the darkness stepped the head fakir, unrecognizable in a black robe and meter-tall conical hat bedecked with long knotted fringes that covered his face. Excitement turned to frenzy. Ever so slowly he took a series of four steps forward, followed by a paired procession of 12 bearded, turbaned, and white-robed holy men. Around the fire they circled three times – four steps with the final leaning forward dragging one foot and placing a hand over their chest – before pausing again. The drama of their glacial pace was accentuated by the frenzied rhythm of the musicians and deafening roar of the crowd. After a half an hour, the procession snaked its way back into the dark maw of the Sanctuary and the cleared circle quickly filled.

“Shortly thereafter the Yezidians were allowed to go inside to pay their respects to the tomb of Sheikh Adi, and the Baba Sheikh retook his place under the open-air roofed area to accept the devotional prostrations and blessings, and donations, from the faithful."

No mention of my visits to Lalish would be complete without thanking my many friends at the Lalish Center in Dohuk, especially my dear friend Qader Saleem Shammo. Thank you.

Robert Leutheuser,

October 2009

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