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Cecil J. Edmonds

Cecil J. Edmonds (26 October 1889 – 11 June 1979) was a British political officer who served with the British Expeditionary Forces in Mesopotamia. He visited the Yezidis in Iraq several times between 1925 and 1945.

The photographs he took during his visits to the Yezidis are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Edmonds family and the Middle East Centre Archive, St Antony's College, Oxford. All rights reserved.

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A most attractive but grievously misunderstood and misrepresented people

From Sheikhan I drove to Balad Sinjar. Sheep farming was the most important occupation of the population as a whole, but the Yezidis of the mountain villages in particular were industrious and skilful gardeners as the remarkable terracing of the slopes bore witness. The principal products not consumed locally were wool, hides, dried figs (for which Sinjar was justly famous), and a low grade of cotton. Other agricultural produce sufficed for their own needs. The traditional grazing grounds extend on the north to the Radd, and on the south about the same distance into the Jazira desert. The most westerly Yezidi tribe, the Samoqa, lived in tents for three quarters of the year, camping in the Jariba and the plains on both sides. At certain seasons of the year when the Radd and other wadis draining to the Khabur river are too boggy for sheep, pastoral elements from the Arab Tay and Jubiir tribes from Syria were accustomed to come over and camp near or even among the Yezidis.

Ismail Beg came down from his house on the high western outskirts of the town to invite me in to coffee. He can perhaps best be described as an original. He had visited the Caucasus and had served for a time under British command as an officer in the Iraq Levies. 

A man of about forty, with a black straggly beard and the sad, pained expression often worn by leading Yezidis at any rate when approaching persons in authority, Ismail Beg presented an extraordinary spectacle in khaki riding breeches and stockings, grey British army shirt, khaki waistcoat, white head-cloth worn Arab fashion, and black aqal. When we reached the house he changed into a long cossack-type coat, with a revolver and a straight Caucasian dagger slung over the shoulders.

 

The situation of the Yezidis in an Islamic state differed fundamentally from that of the Christians of the various denominations and of the Jews, whose presence as religious minorities entitled to certain privileges was recognized by law. They tended to be regarded, rather, as apostates and were thus always exposed to the danger that persons in authority, high or low, with a streak of fanaticism in their make-up might think it not only legitimate but even meritorious to maltreat them.

My tent had been pitched in an olive grove some distance short of the shrine, just by a single-arched bridge of dressed stone called the Ancient Bridge or the Bridge of Prayer, which marks the boundary of the sacred area within which all Yezidis go bare foot. New arrivals must run across the bridge, run back, and then over again, before going down to the stream to refresh themselves after the fatigues of the way and to make their good resolutions. The bridge and a niche in a large rock close by are two of the seventy holy stations which the pilgrims circumambulate once or more during the seven days. Those I saw generally came down in little groups of three or four, men and women or boys and girls. As they crossed the bridge each would bend down and kiss a coping stone, or touch it with the right hand and then lift the hand to the lips, before going on to the rock and then down to the water out of sight for a few moments. This done, some of them would pick a sprig of olive to wear in the turban.

There were a few high conical felt caps (qim) and long white gowns from Sinjar among the men; but most of them were Shaykhinis in white drawers, coloured zouave jackets, and turbans generally of red and white check but some all white, and one or two head-cloths worn Arab fashion. Many had a white bandage tied over the turban.

Most of the women wore a white skirt, a coloured zouave jacket, a woven 'shawl' (mêzer) of white homespun wool draped over one shoulder, a small turban of dark silk with a solid crown of silver coins arranged in spirals showing above and more coins strung round it, a necklace of large beads mostly amber and red, as well as other gold and silver ornaments hanging down over the chest; some wore over the right temple a curious gilt ornament like a small old-fashioned ear-trumpet; some had their eyes darkened and enlarged with kohl. Married women were distinguished by a narrow white scarf (lechek) involved in the turban and brought down to be wound round the neck or the mouth. The women tended to join the line in fours or fives together, but not invariably. Most of them wore the most solemn expressions as they danced, but here and there I noticed eyes twinkling with excitement.

Several times during the afternoon the report of a rifle-shot from the hill above announced the arrival of a belated pilgrim.

Finally the dancing ceased and I returned to my tent. It was resumed after dark and I could hear singing in the direction of the shrine. But I had so much to record while my impressions of all I had seen and heard were fresh that I felt it would be wise to stifle my curiosity. (C. J. Edmonds: A pilgrimage to Lalish)

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Group of Yezidis in Shingal, 1925

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Hamo Shero in Shingal, 1932

Photo of Hamo Shero in Shingal, 1932. His son Khudeda is to his left. ⁣

Hamo Shero (1850 – 1933), the “old man on the mountain”, as he was also called, became famous through his successful resistance fight against the Ottomans and Kurdish and Arab tribes in Iraq. He shaped life in Shingal for several decades and became the most powerful leader there.⠀⠀

From the 1920s onwards, his son Khudeda Hamo Shero slowly took over his father’s affairs. All contemporary observers and reports confirm the competence and political acumen of Khudeda. After the death of his father in 1933, he became his successor and tried to form a unity among the Yezidis as best he could. He was very diplomatic with the government to promote the Yezidis’ interests.

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