Eugen Wirth

Eugen Wirth (12 May 1925 - 15 May 2012) was a German geographer. His main field of research was the cultural geography of the Middle East. His photos of Yezidis are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Wirth family and the Fränkischen Geographischen Gesellschaft.

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When I was preparing for my one-year research stay in Iraq in 1952, I came across isolated references in the literature that made me curious: In the north of the country, in the midst of desert steppes, there would be an isolated mountain range that not only stood out morphologically from its surroundings - the Jebel Sinjar. Austen Henry Layard, who was able to pay a short visit to Jebel Sinjar about 150 years ago, praised the Yezidis living there in his travelogue as sedentary farmers who were quite different from the Arab and Kurdish fellahs and semi-nomads of the rest of Mesopotamia.

What I saw there again inspired me - precisely because it did not fit at all into the picture I had previously had of Iraqi villages. In my diary it says:


"Spotlessly clean and very well-kept village. Houses made of dry-stone masonry, carefully plastered with lime mortar and often even whitewashed in bright colours. One house cleaner and fresher plastered than the other!"

In those days I had a high consumption of film. While in most other regions of Iraq I only documented what seemed scientifically interesting, the people of Jebel Sinjar and the cultural landscape they had created fascinated me so much that I wanted to capture it all as adequately as possible.

The people there know from occasional experience that Europeans have a tendency to want to photograph everything. Well, if anything: the children jump enthusiastically into the camera's field of vision with their hands up, they make funny movements or grimace. The adults, on the other hand, stand stock-still in pose, make as serious and solemn a face as possible and thus look like frozen monuments in the picture.

In their clothing, too, the Yezidis are fundamentally different from the people living in the wider area around Jebel Sinjar. The first thing that catches the eye is the white washed cloth, the knitted woollen jackets decorated with beautiful embroidery patterns and the very solid, self-made shoes.

The men braid their hair into six plaits, wear a long beard and use a strangely shaped felt cap that looks like half an olive. The women are quite equal to the men; they can move freely and even talk to strangers. Once married, they wear a large white turban wrapped around their heads. The children's heads are shaved except for three funny little heads, which are left standing for religious reasons.

The Yezidis like to make music. Their songs are peculiarly monotonous, but melodic and much more appealing to European ears than Arabic music. The musical accompaniment to their songs is a long, narrow lute-like instrument with three strings. The melody is played on one string, while the other two are used to pluck the same bass notes. In front of the lute player, a small goat made of glass beads is mounted on a board. It is made to dance by a string attached to its head, which the musician holds in his lute-playing hand and pulls rhythmically.

In Jebel Sinjar, this ethnic group of the Yezidis, which is in every respect very distinct from its environment, has created a cultural landscape of its own.

The friendly settlements of the Yezidis, unbelievably well-kept by oriental standards, are now situated in perfect harmony in the midst of an equally well-kept landscape: wherever the relief allows, small streams have been artfully diverted from the valleys to bring in water for irrigation. The fields are divided into small to very small plots of land, which are carefully divided by stone walls and rise up the slope in many terraces. Every day, the farmers work on their land from dawn to dusk with hoe and spade to weed or loosen the soil. Tobacco is the predominant crop: in addition, almost all vegetables native to Iraq are grown for self-sufficiency. Where irrigation is no longer possible, terraced fruit groves are planted uphill from the small tobacco fields. The fig is by far the most important fruit tree, but there are also olive trees, almonds, apricots and pistachios - in other words, all those Mediterranean fruit trees that can survive the rainfall of the mountains without additional irrigation.

The cultural landscape of the Yezidis is unique and completely independent in the midst of a very different environment. Created by a free and industrious farming people, it bears witness everywhere to a love of order, cleanliness, a sense of art and craftsmanship. For this very reason, however, it is still entirely traditional, without all the influences of modern Western civilisation and technology.

For many centuries, the Yezidis had hardly any contact with their environment: away from the major trade routes and international roads, they were able to preserve their old, original farming culture and thus also their cultural landscape until today. Even today, they are self-sufficient and independent of the outside world; most Yezidis never leave the confines of their village. It was only development since the Second World War that brought modern influences to the Jebel with increasing transport links. It is to be feared that this ancient culture, its way of life and the associated landscape shaped by humans will soon lose much of its originality.

In the mid-1970s, the large-scale state resettlement campaigns became a catastrophe for them, with which the population of the mountainous areas was deliberately expelled from their ancestral settlements and settled in easily controllable large villages.

During a stay in Iraq in the spring of 1980, I had the opportunity to visit Jebel Sinjar again - for the first time since my trip in 1953. It was like a shock for me:

The formerly so fertile, densely populated high valleys were deserted, the houses of the settlements began to decay and were overgrown by spontaneous vegetation, the network of irrigation canals already had gaps and leaks everywhere, and the walls of the farming terraces began to collapse. Where there had been well-tended, intensive tobacco crops in 1953, wild ruderal vegetation had now spread, and the former grain fields were overgrown with weeds. The paths on the slope were already dishevelled or covered with debris here and there, and on steeper parts of the slope they had already slid down.

One of the most magnificent farming cultures and an agricultural landscape, created by an industrious farming people through centuries of arduous work, has been irretrievably lost and destroyed.