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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19 April 2014

The Place of Judgement

April 16, 2014 – Lalish, Iraqi Kurdistan

The smooth tan stone appears quite ordinary. Its slightly larger size than others in the open-sided courtyard area in front of the Lalish's Sheikh Adi temple draws no attention; nor does its position centered immediately in front of the arched entryway.  It has been trod upon by uncounted bare Yezidian feet entering the temple throughout the centuries, if not longer, the feet that carefully step over, never on, the portal's threshhold. 

Rather it is the throngs of people that draw the eyes; it is the two mirrored peacocks and other symbols chiseled into the stone above the entry that are admired; it is the prospect of visiting Sheikh Adi's tomb within that creates anticipation. Not the stone.
The Courtyard in front of Sheikh Adi Temple on a quieter day
But this stone is not merely a stone in a courtyard. This is the place of judgement.

As with many things Yezidian, there is a oneness of cosmology and place; a distance that is only broached by quantum leaps, if at all, in Western cultures.

This is The Place of Judgement for Yezidis. 

I am once again in Lalish, this time on the eve of the Yezidi new year, sere sal. When evening comes thousands will pack into and around this modest courtyard holding, in one fashion or another, burning cotton wicks. Excitement will mount, the trilling and whistling will rise and fall like summer cicadas as the flickering mass waits in anticipation for the Baba Sheikh and other religious men to emerge from the portal. Their bare feet too will step over the threshhold and on the stone.
The celebration on the eve of Sere Sal
That will be later. Now the crowds are happily assembling in the afternoon sunlight.

“When a Yezidi dies,” Amer Sedo tells me looking down at the stone as a steady crowd flows past us on either side, “he comes here. Right here. This is where he is judged. If he has lived a good life, he goes inside,” pointing to the temple's entryway. “If he did not live a good life he goes … “ pointing abstractly in other directions. I help him find the English word hell. “... he goes to hell.”

Passing through the Temple's entry passage
Amer points out some of the small shrines (nishangah) that surround the courtyard - all within immediate sight and most being the diminuative white-washed cones with blacked niches where the olive oil soaked wicks are burned. “He is judged by the six angels,” pairing names with shrines, “And by xwede [God].” pointing to the sky. I try reconcile six versus the seven Yezedian angels, and it is only later that I surmise that the archangel Meleke Tawus is included with xwede.

“Here? Right here?” “Yes, right here.”

Amer Sedo standing on The Place of Judgement
I pause to think of the tempest of other-dimensional activity passing through me as I stand on the stone. I quickly let go of the thoughts and step off the stone.

This is The Place of Judgement.

Amer is happy to have taught me another lesson, and I to have learned.
April 16, 2014
I will never be able to adequately express my deepest gratitude to Amer for his years of devoted friendship and patient teaching.  "Robert.  Why don't you remember!?"


13 April 2014

Where the Insane Are Cured

Pir Zêdo cradles the egg in his cupped hand, and with eyes closed softly intones a prayer as a young man in his tight fitting T-shirt stands to the side.  When done, they walk down the steps into the courtyard, Pir Zêdo guiding the man to the one spot where sun shines through the leafing mulberry tree.  He gently circles the top of the man's head with the egg, again murmuring prayer.

I watch transfixed.  Pir Zêdo suddenly drops the egg to the concrete; its yoke is deep orange.  With no fanfare, it is over.  The man gives Pir Zêdo's wife some money and he leaves.  “He will wake up tomorrow and the yellowness in his face will be gone,” Pir Zêdo tells me. Although the young man is not insane, the faith for the cure of his jaundiced face and fatigue is as complete.

I am in the town of Ba'adre in (Iraqi) Kurdistan visiting perhaps my best friend among the Yezidis, Amer Sedo.  It is the town of the Yezidian Prince's family, although the current prince, Tahseen Beg, has long since moved to the town of 'Eyn Sifni to the southeast.  Ba'adre is one of a string of Yezidian towns and villages that border the eastern edge of the Mesopotamian Plains, most hugging the gentle foothills of the increasingly rugged Zagros Mountains.

We are taking a leisurely afternoon walk below Amer's home built on the hill overlooking the town.  It abuts a teetering high stonewall, all that remains of Palace of the Prince.  After photographing the nishangah (shrine) of Sultan Eyzi, we wander on.

Remains of the Prince's Palace
nishangah Sultan Eyzi
Amer stops in front of a narrow tan building of unusual in design, its roof line sweeping like a generous Yezidi handlebar mustache.  But even as such, being tucked away on a tight residential street, it can be noticed and then quickly dismissed.  That would be a mistake, a mistake that Amer will not allow.

This is the Mazar Hajial.  This is where the insane come to be cured.  All are welcome, regardless of faith or ethnicity.

We open the door into the adjacent courtyard and are greeted by Pir Zêdo, a gentle man of soft features, beard, and voice.

Pir Zêdo and Wife
We proceed into the cavernous narrow room, barely noticed by the frenzy of swallows whose nests tucked into the florescent light fixtures above in the vaulted ceiling.  Pir Zêdo's wife brings tea and joins us as we sit on the thin patterned pads that border the room.  The conversation is leisurely and the tea sweet.

The mazar, renovated in 2007, has been here for “more than 1,000 years,” and the mejawar (keeper) has always been from Pir Zêdo's family.  She brings a picture of his father from the house:  Pir Ali, stooped with his hoop-handled cane and long white beard is a vision out of Victorian travels.

Pir Zêdo's father, Pir Ali
At one end of the chamber there is a door.  A locked door.  “May I look in?'”  “No no no.  Only me.”  He and he alone.  He explains that he only goes in to light the oil soaked cotton wicks on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and during the nights when the insane are cured.  Then and only then.

The day the afflicted is treated, a sheep is killed, and the “madman” is taken inside the mazar.  Pir Zêdo ties his hands and feet, softly “beats” the man saying the prayers all the while, lights the candles in the inner chamber, and leaves the afflicted to pass the night alone inside.  In the morning, the insanity is gone.  Done.  Infallible.

“When was the last time you cured someone?”  “Five months ago."

Pir Zêdo gently shakes my hand as we leave.

Pir Zêdo in front of Mazar Hajial

11 April 2014

The Last Temple

My last three visits to the Sinjar (Shingal) region of northern Iraq have focused on visiting and photographing all of the Yezidi temples (mazara) located there. (Please see previous postings.) With the attentive help from my good friend, Sheikh Xarbi, I completed the journey in April. 
Rob Leutheuser 

On Friday we visited what I thought were the last four mazara on the north side of Sinjar Mountain – Sheikh Barakat, Sheikh Shems, Sheikh Mand, and Sheikh Amîn. It being the first day of the Iraqi weekend, all were being visited by enthusiastic Sinjari Yezidis, as much to enjoy the weather and picnic camaraderie as to visit the mazara. The setting of the latter pair – Mand and Amîn – was absolutely spectacular, but the four mazara had been renovated roughly a now-standard design with the spire's capped with tan block stone and sharply fluted. The exceptions were becoming more difficult to find.

Mazar Sheikh Mand
I had considered leaving the Sinjar the following day, but swiftly changed my mind when Sheikh Xarbi said that there was one last small mazar we could visit. And so we did. 

Mazar Sheikh Qurish sits at the very edge of the mountain's northern foothills that mound up from the tapering alluvial fans melting into the Mesopotamian Plain. We drive for a half an hour on the roads of opportunity through the greened winter wheat, and where not planted, the broad fields of either yellow or lavender wildflowers. We pass small herds of sheep and smaller herds of families searching for the wild spring tuber, quma, coveted by all. Nice puffy clouds, not always a feature, drift overhead.

And there the little temple stands, its softly curved and fluted spire rising above a field of yellow that hides slabs of unmarked stone headstones tilting in the ground. Its humble beauty takes the air from my lungs.  I stop for a long moment to absorb. It is visceral. It is entire.

Mazar Sheikh Qurish
A group of women are washing the swaths of bright cloth (perî) that are hung inside of all mazara, the cloth that is kissed, knotted, and unknotted by the Yezidis upon every shoeless visit. Large pieces of red, yellow, green, silver, white, purple, and gold fabric are draped over the enclosing stone wall and on the struggling olive trees, drying in the sun, waiting to be rehung.

Drying Peri
And in the shade of the mazar brewing tea over an open fire sits an amply mustached Yezidi with scarf loosely wrapped around his head. We join him. The day is complete.

Mazar Sheikh Qurish