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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04 November 2012

A Return to Sinjar: Yezidi Temples - Part I

In Iraqi Kurdistan there are many Yezidi temples, the most famous collection being at Lalish, the Yezidis' most venerated site. But because of the isolation of the Sinjar, the temples and shrines are the least known to the occasional contemporary visitor. Being less confident of my continued access to the region, sooner has become more of an imperative, and so the journey continues.

Sheikh Abdul Qader Temple
26 October 2012 - We jankle along the rutted tracks through the apron of low hills at the foot of Sinjar Mountain, looking for the Yezidi temple Sheikh Abdul Qader.  Soon we see its squat spire gleaming white on the autumnal brown landscape, at once dramatic and humble, as we later find its keeper, Sheikh Mijo Seado Uso.

Sheikh Mijo Seado Uso
I am once again in the Sinjar, called Shangal locally, an isolated region in northwest Iraq, fully defined by the 60-mile long mountain of the same name. From space the mountain looks like the ridged back of an enormous science fiction creature emerging from the featureless Mesopotamian plains, heading due west to the nearby Syrian border. My goal is to visit more Yezidi temples and shrines – mazar – that grace this traditional and sometimes forgotten heartland. (Please visit "Yezidi Faqirs and Sheikhs in Sinjar", March 2012, and multiple other posts in this blog.)

Sheikh Ezid Temple
Although many are flat-roofed, the Yezidi temples are generally known for their domed tops or conical spires, the latter often fluted. They commemorate both holy and historical persons, as well as angels from Yezidi cosmology, sometimes being one and the same. In the Sinjar they are most often found in the foothills, close to where the traditional villages were located before Saddam Hussein forced their abandonment; others are tucked deep in the mountain.

Sheikh Abu Bakir Shrine
The shrines are much much smaller and often appear spontaneous with stacked rock walls. They denote natural features such as trees, rocks, caves, and springs that are sacred to the Yezidis.  They too are given names like the temples. All mazar are the object of devotion and the destination of pilgrimage.

Sheikh Suliman Baxri Xider, mejewer
Each temple has a keeper, or mejewer, responsible for maintaining the temple, lighting the candles (wicks soaked in olive oil), and accepting the donations from visitors.  It is a duty passed down through generations and often shared by members of the family.  Usually, but not always, mejewers are members of the sheikh class.

Sheikh Shems Temple interior
The inner chamber of all temples is festooned with tangles of colorful silk cloth hanging from the walls.  Upon entering shoeless, Yezidis tie knots into the cloth for good fortune, and untie knots of others thereby fulfilling the wishes of those who preceded them.  Also common to the inner sanctums is a pillar in the center upon which the olive oil fires are lit, and round rocks are placed waiting to be stacked, again for good luck or the granting of wishes.

Sheikh Romi Temple

Once again I owe my deepest of gratitude to my dear friend Sheikh Gharbi, without whom my visits to the Sinjar would be impossible.

A Return to Sinjar: Yezidi Temples - Part II

24 October 2012 - The Yezidi temple of Sheikh Chilmira is surrounded by razor wire and soaked in clouds, the former from the hastily constructed American military base now manned by four Iraqi Army soldiers; the latter because we are on the crest of Sinjar Mountain in western Iraq. As Sheikh Gharbi, brother Bobir, son Faisel, and I approach, thin, matted-hair dogs bark our arrival. A soldier named Daud, a Yezidi himself, warmly welcomes us. Visitors and pilgrams are few these days.

Daud leads us to the passage through the razor wire; intermittent winds lead us to the temple's east side where we join hundreds of fingernail-sized black beetles plastered on the walls, they too seeking refuge from the west wind. The clouds briefly part and we gather at the edge of the crest looking to the north.  Five hundred meters below and 15 kilometers distant the sun is shining on Sherif al Din, perhaps the most well-known temple in the Sinjar, where we will visit later in the day.


We enter the open courtyard, and taking off our shoes, stoop to pass through the Hobbit-sized arched passage to the inner chamber, taking care not step on the threshold. Gharbi and the others kiss the stone wall before entering. The windowless room is small, but domed ceiling high.

After our eyes adjust to the darkness we see a few swaths of brightly colored silk hanging on the walls, damp and languid.  As tradition holds, we tie and untie knots to make our wishes and to release those of others before. In the floor there is a hole, just large enough for an arm. Gharbi kneels and reaches down to his shoulder bringing up some soil in his fingertips. He dabs some on his forehead – to cure illness he says. Feeling a the beginnings of a cold, I do the same while thinking about the holy dirt at the Catholic Sanctuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico. The Yezidis do not have a monopoly on such practices.

It starts to rain.  Large drops. We hastily say our goodbyes over Daud's repeated invitations to stay for tea, and race back to the truck picking our way through the concrete barriers and razor wire, a chorus of barking cheering our every step.

As we drive off of the mountain crest, a covey of partridge flush from the roadside. “This is a symbol,” says Gharbi smiling.  "Today will be a good day."  And so it was.

A Return to Sinjar: Yezidi Temples - Part III

26 October 2012 - There is an annual celebration – a tawaaf – held at every Yezidi temple. It is an occasion to celebrate not only the Yezidi religion, but the community as well, remembering that the Yezidis remain a marginalized, if not persecuted, hyper-minority among the Kurds and in the “middle east.”

Gharbi, Xider, and I had just driven across the west end of Sinjar Mountain, paralleling the Iraq-Syrian border. Gharbi had been told that the tawaaf at Sheikh Ali Shemsa temple is to be today, and we hastened our pace to attend.

Not but 3 kilometers off the main road we see the scrum of cars; Xider turns and follows the pot-holed tracks bumpling through the parchment. I can see the temple's spire, and as we got closer, I notice with measured attention, human figures not only on the temple's roof, but up the fluted spire as well. Experiences at Lalish's annual gathering, jemaiyaii, have taught me that Yezidis can have an exuberant attitude towards their religious sites, some would say irreverent in appearances, but to climb the spire?

Xider parks the car in the helter skelter and we walk towards the temple. There is a rickety scaffolding upon which the young men perch precariously. They are replastering the entire structure in a gleaming white plaster; only the top quarter of the spire remains earthen brown.  Mixed one dish at time, the lime paste is passed hand-to-hand from base of the temple, up the ladder, and into the hands of a square man cutting an imposing figure in his red-and-white checkered kaffiya against the blue sky. He raises the dish each time received, makes a proclamation to which the crowd joyfully responds, and passes it up the human chain to the one teetering at the top who spreads the paste with his hand. When in the day they began this herculean effort I do not know, but it is not until 2 hours later that it is completed to a roar of approval.

All the while, crowds stream into the small temple, littering their shoes outside of the doorway. The mejewer and other men commanding religious respect, sit on cushions in the outer chamber, smoking cigarettes and talking as the faithful squeeze through. As the pilgrims enter the inner sanctum, they leave a gift of money on the threshhold which the mejewer deftly scrapes up and tucks in his robe in a single motion. The pieces of brightly colored silk cloth endure thousands of knots tied and untied. Many wishes should be fulfilled today. 

A short distance away a larger throng of Yezidis compress under the deafening din of live music powered by a generator in the back of a pick-up truck. The young musicians sit on lime green plastic chairs, their traditional rhythmic music screeching and squawking as the surrounding circle of 200 dancers hold hands straight-armed and move their feet in united restraint. A cluster of women in the traditional dress of white robes and black jackets, topped by white head scarves or oversized buns, watch impassively.

As I think that the tawaaf is complete in its relentless energy, a parade of Yezidis approach from another direction. It is the pari sewarkeren (the carrying of the fabric) ceremony. The silk cloth in the temple is replaced during the tawaaf at each temple. Even fabric can only grant so many wishes.

The afternoon grows late. Gharbi, Xider, and I retreat to the car for the hour longdrive back to Gharbi's home. I sit tiredly in the back seat, smiling. It  has been a good return to the Sinjar; a good journey indeed.

01 September 2012

In Ibrahim's Garden

April 3, 2012.  Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan

 We were sitting in the garden when 67-year old Ibrahim came out of his home, one hand draped through the arm of his son Mohammed, the other hand gripping his hoop-handled cane.   He wore the traditionaI Kurdish black-and-white head scarf and high-waisted loose-fitting pants, topped by a white shirt and black sports coat.  He was freshly shaved, skin radiant and without blemish; his glasses flashed the afternoon sun.  I rose from the white plastic chair and walked across the yard entering into the dance of Kurdish greetings as I heartily shook his hand.

Ibrahim Agha Bersirini

Piawy!  Piawy! (You are a man!),”  Ibrahim Agha Bersirini exclaimed through his perpetual grin returning the handshake with surprising firmness.  I still do not know why I was afforded this prolonged and exuberant welcome, but its sincerity quickly evaporated embarrassment.

The Bersirini home is tucked in the Brayaty ("Fraternity") neighborhood in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.  As is the case for all homes the high-walled garden area is a sanctuary from the charmless concrete-block urban landscape.  The patch of lawn was green; the pansies, scarlet ranunculus, and Gebera daisies bloomed in the warmth of the Mesopotamian spring.
Ibrahim suffered a debilitating stroke in 1987.  It struck as the family was visiting Ibrahim’s father-in-law to celebrate Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.  In the night of the 4th day of the celebration the family rushed an unconscious Ibrahim to the Erbil hospital, some 20 km distant.  A month later, after additional treatment in Mosul, Ibrahim returned home to Brayaty to complete his recovery that never would be complete.

The stroke had paralyzed Ibrahim’s right side, and he needs assistance for the simplest of tasks.  As evidenced by his clear and sparkling eyes his mind remains sharp.  His speech, however, is largely reduced to aspirated vowels from deep in his chest, a frustration endured by him and the family for 25 years.

Sadiq, Ibrahim’s second oldest son, later told me, All that we wanted since he had the stroke was that my father would come home to live with us and not to die. For the sake of this we went through a hard time that cannot be described.”   It was obvious that this absolute devotion continues
When I and Serwan Sirini (“Landslide at Mawaliyah,” October 2009), Ibrahim’s nephew and mayor of the Rawanduz District, arrived an hour earlier, Ibrahim was resting.  We sat in the garden with three of Ibrahim’s sons, Sadiq, Mohammed, and Ismail - all whom spoke English - enjoying the hospitality of tea, cold drinks, and conversation.

Sadiq, Mohammed and Ismail with Ibrahim

It was then, and in subsequent correspondence with Sadiq, that I learned some of Ibrahim’s story,  which is yet another small window into the story of the Kurds, and an intimate peek into the story of the man and his family.

In the Name

Ibrahim Agha Bersirini - so much in a name.   As used by the Kurds, agha can be roughly translated as “chieftan.”  The Kurds are traditionally a tribal society, with allegiance and tribute bestowed to its leader.  Tribal loyalty was and is superseded only by loyalty to family and clan.  As the Kurds gradually adopted more sedentary agriculture through the millennia, the relationship between aghas and tribal members also became feudal, a trait that has been consistently exploited by a parade of dominant political powers.   Ibrahim’s father Aziz Agha held the stature of a traditional agha, but modernity has eroded the economic and social fidelity .  Ibrahim has none of the duties or authority of a traditional agha, but he continues to bear the title as a sign of respect and affection.  His name in conversation is a union with this prestige  -  “Braimagha.”

Bersirin (“Heroes Arrive Unexpectedly,” October 2010) is a village deep in the Zagros Mountains, close to the Iranian border.  Up until 1975, Ibrahim lived there with his wife, owning a small restaurant and renting out farmland and pasturage to Kurdish farmers.   Ibrahim was also an early member of Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and had been a peshmergha  (armed Kurdish fighter), wounded in a 1973 air attack in a nearby village. 
This known life, as tumultuous as it had been, came to an end in the spring of 1975 when Iran and Iraq signed the U.S.-brokered Algiers Agreement.   The immediate result was that with no advance notice, Iran and the U.S. abruptly ended their support for Barzani’s war for independence against Iraq’s Baathist central government, leaving the Kurds effectively defenseless against Saddam Hussein’s military onslaught.  It was a familiar situation for the Kurds.  Following Barzani's lead, Ibrahim and his family joined upwards of 250,000 Iraqi Kurds who fled as refugees to Iran.  He would remain in the Sawa refugee camp for 4 years before returning to Iraq, but not to Bersirin.

Ibrahim with children, Iran 1979
Even before 1975, among the Kurds in his own village, Ibrahim had not been safe.  During this period of the evolution of Kurdish political parties, Ibrahim was the sole member of the KDP in Bersirin.  His  efforts to recruit others to join the KDP resulted in three Kurdish assassination attempts by rival political interests. 
His return to Iraq offered little relief from fraternal enmity.  Kurdish politics in northern Iraq were ruthless, especially after the 1992 establishment of the “no-fly” zone in the wake of the first Gulf War.   The rivalry between Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) resulted in a savage 4-year internecine civil war and unholy alliances with erstwhile enemies such as Saddam Hussein.  A result was that homes and lands of many early loyalists were confiscated by others within the political structure, including Ibrahim’s holdings in Bersirin.  His petitions for reparation remain unanswered to this day.

In the Garden

As Serwan and Sadiq were engaged in a private conversation, I sat next to Ibrahim answering his questions divined by Mohammed.  Leleekhan, Ibrahim’s wife, quietly joined us in the garden wearing a black chador and beatific smile. We all rose to in greetings, and I vacated my seat for her.  Her face carried the patience and endurance of caring for her husband and raising a family.


Leleekhan bore Ibrahim seven children – an oldest daughter and six boys.  All have pursued higher education ranging from biology to engineering to Sharia law.  One was studying in Australia at the time of my visit.
Serwan stood up, signaling that it was time to leave.  He still had several visits to make in Erbil before we drove to Rawanduz later that evening.   Ismail helped his father to his feet.  Ibrahim took my hand in the two of his, the left still loosely holding plastic prayer beads.  I promised I would try to return.  I was once again being humbled by the graceful tenacity and loyalty of the Kurds who have routinely endured hardships that would defeat others.

In the Heart

“We never let [my father] feel weak because he is paralyzed.  That is why he always acted with us in normal way. We share jokes and he often smiles and laughs when we remind him of his past life as often we try to bring joy to him. We serve him not as a task but as fun. We love him. We always feel our father has a particular charm [that] made him lucky and make us feel happy and proud to have such father. “  Sadiq Bersirin

[I give special thanks to Sadiq Bersirini  for his kindnesses and patience in responding to my many emailed questions, and to Serwan Sirini for his years of friendship.]
Serwan & Sadiq


07 May 2012

A Phoenix Rises, but Embers Still Glow

April 14, 2012 – Bakhtmy, Iraqi Kurdistan

For 3 years in the late-1980’s, Saddam Houssein honed his despotic talents by executing his al Anfal campaign in northern Iraq. Although the Kurds numerically bore the brunt of al Anfal, all minorities, including the Assyrians, Yezidi Kurds, Shabaks, Jews, and others, felt the wrath of another tyrant gone mad. Through his infamous cousin, unfortunately dubbed in comic book fashion “Chemical Ali”, Saddam created a devil’s stew of horror which still leaves a toxic aftertaste: Chemical attacks on civilian populations; brutal military operations against the Kurdish peshmergha; the destruction of at least 4,000 villages with forced resettlement of populations to collectives; the relabeling of ethnicities; the involuntary wholesale relocations of other ethnic groups into unfamiliar terrains; and, mass disappearances and executions.

Younan stood by a pile of concrete-and-rebar rubble, the remains of the Assyrian village of Bakhtmy’s once largest church, St. George (Aita Mar Guargis).

“On May first, 1987, the Iraqi army destroyed our village of Bakhtmy. I was 25 years old. I will never forget it. They came to the village in the morning and gave us 3 hours to gather what we could and leave. They blew up the church with TNT.” “Did you watch?” “Yes, the entire village watched from over there,” Younan said pointing to a knoll a short distance away. “And they also blew-up the smaller church, St. Maria right over there. And over here is where our family home was. Like all of the other homes, they destroyed ours with a bulldozer. Bakhtmy was gone in one day.”

With the help of Younan and his brother I was able to imagine that what they still saw so vividly 25 years ago. Without them it would have been difficult, for Bakhtmy was rebuilt by the Kurdish Regional Government in 2007. Many many other villages wait in the queue..

It was Holy Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter, which was to be celebrated that night at the new St. George church. Younan, visiting from Germany where he now lives, had returned to northern Iraq as he does every year. He invited me to spend the afternoon in the village with him and his brother, Yusef.

Ten minutes outside of the city of Dohuk, just past a heavily armed checkpoint, a prematurely weathered sign announcing the village, written in Arabic, Kurdish, and Assyrian, pointed west. We turned onto a narrow asphalt road casually draped over the rolling countryside and passed an area punctuated by mounds of rubble patiently being reclaimed by spring-green grass. “This was a Kurdish village,” said Younan.  Ahead lay the new Bakhtmy. A new St. George church stood at the entryway to the village, and a white Assyrian flag with its red and blue lines rippling from its center lazed against a brushed blue sky.

Younan continued as two of his young nephews scampered nearby among the piles.  Although he too experienced it all, Yusef was content to listen. “We took only what we could carry and began to walk to the north towards the town of Semel, where we lived in tents for 2 months before we could start building new homes. It was very hard.”

Eventually Bakhtmy and 9 other Assyrian villages became the collective village of Monsoria on the outskirts of Semel. The history of Semel itself is like holding up a small vanity mirror to the history of the upper Mesopotamian region over the past two millennia: Christian, competing Christian, Yezidi, Arab, Kurdish – each era wheeling about the other, each having its own intrigue, tragedy, violence, and death, and sometimes, resurrection. 

Upon our arrival to the 150-home village, we wended through brightly colored houses on orderly unpaved streets. Passing through the lavender gate, Yusef’s wife and manicured garden welcomed us. Soon we were sitting at the kitchen table having lunch as Yusef’s wife continued to work in the kitchen, chatting with us all the while. This all had a sense of the mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes.

(Having just returned from spending time with the Yezidi Kurds in the Sinjar region several days prior, I could not help but think that their Phoenix remained buried in cold ashes.)

We finished our leisurely tour on a low hill a kilometer from the village - the site the St. Daniel chapel, also destroyed 25 years ago. Atop a tidy pile of rock rested a stone with a cross with “Aita Mar Daniel” in Assyrian script chiseled in. While lighting a devotional candle retrieved from a can secreted away in the rubble, Younan explained, “When we came back to St. Daniel’s, everything was destroyed except for this stone that stood over the doorway. We believe it was a miracle.”

Nearby was the grave of their grandfather who was the caretaker of the chapel. Yusef and Younan shared a wordless moment.

On December 2, 2011, Yusef’s liquor store in Semel was looted and burned. He lost everything and is still awaiting financial restitution from the government.

On that day a flash of religious tensions dimmed the skies in Iraqi Kurdistan. In several cities, including Semel, mobs of young Muslim Kurds targeted Christian and Yezidi establishments – primarily liquor stores, but homes and social clubs as well – burning and looting them, ostensibly for being in violation of Qoranic law. Other explanations are offered, but the result is the same: The embers of religious and ethnic strife continue to glow.