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.