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Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist. She visited the Yezidis in Iraq and Syria between 1905 and 1909.

 

Her photos are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University. 

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Musa was the name of my new friend, and as we rode together in the afternoon he confided to my private ear that he was by creed a Yezidi.

The upper parts of Mesopotamia are their home, and from thence Musa's family had originally migrated.

Musa's home is at Basufan; we met his father in the cornfields as we came up, and: "God strengthen your body!" cried Musa, giving the salutation proper to one working in the fields. "And your body!" he answered, lifting his dim eyes to us. "He is old," explained Musa as we rode on, "and trouble has fallen on him, but once he was the finest man in the Jebel Sim'an, and the best shot." 

"What trouble?" said I.

 

"My brother was slain by a blood enemy a iew months ago," he answered. "We do not know who it was that killed him, but perhaps it was one of his bride's family, for he took her without their consent." "And what has happened to the bride?" I asked. "She has gone back to her own family," said he. "But she wept bitterly." 

There are a few big trees to the south of the village sheltering a large graveyard, which is occupied mostly by Moslem dead, brought to this spot from many miles round. The valley below boasts a famous spring, a spring that never runs dry even in rainless years when all its sister fountains are exhausted.

We had reached a point of familiarity where I thought I might fairly expect him to enlighten me on the Yezldi doctrines, for, whatever may be the custom in Europe, in Asia it is not polite to ask a man what he believes unless he regards you as an intimate. Nor is it expedient; it awakens suspicion without evoking a  satisfactory answer. I began delicately as we sat in the doorway of the little church at Kefr Lab by asking whether the Yezidis possessed mosque or church.

''No," replied Musa. "We worship under the open sky. Every day at dawn we worship the sun."
"Have you," said I," an imam who leads the prayer?"
"On feast days," said he," the sheikh leads the prayer, but on other days every man worships for himself. We count some days lucky and some unlucky. Wednesday, Friday and Sunday are our lucky days, but Thursday is unlucky."
"Why is that?" said I. "I do not know," said Musa. "It is so."
"Are you," I asked, "friends with the Mohammadans or are you foes?" 
He answered: "Here in the country round Aleppo, where we are few, they do not fear us, and we live at peace with them; but every year there comes to us from Mosul a very learned sheikh who collects tribute among us, and he wonders to see us like brothers with the Muslims, for in Mosul, where the Yezidis are many, there is bitter feud. In Mosul our people will not serve in the army, but here we serve like any other I myself have been a soldier."

As we reached Basufan Musa asked whether his sister Wardeh (the Rose) might honour herself by paying her respects to me. "And will you," he added, "persuade her to marry?"


"To marry?" said I. "Whom should she marry?"


"Any one," said Musa imperturbably. "She has declared that marriage, is hateful to her, and that she will remain in our father's house, and we cannot move her. Yet she is a young maid and fair." She looked very fair, and modest besides, as she stood at that door of my tent in the pretty dress, with a bowl of kaimak in her hands, a propitiatory gift to me; and I confess I did not insist upon the marriage question, thinking that she could best manage her own affairs. She brought me new bread for breakfast next morning, and begged me to come and visit her father's house before I left. This I did, and found the whole family, sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren, assembled to welcome me ; and though I had but recently breakfasted, the old father insisted on setting bread and bowls of cream before me, "that the bond of hospitality may be between us." Fine, well-built people were they all, with beautiful faces, illumined by the smile that was Musa's chief attraction.

(Gertrude Bell, Syria: The Desert and the Sown)

 I have seen Yezidis before, in the mountains N of Aleppo [Halab] and told Ali Beg that they had spoken to me of him as being the ruler of them all. "The ruler of us all" he said gravely "is God." He took me then to see his wife, a very attractive woman. The Yezidi women are not veiled or secluded; she was dressed in a purple cotton robe, with a white muslin veil wrapped round her head and chin (but not over her face) and a little black velvet cap holding it in its place. On her wrists were heavy gold bracelets set with turquoises. Unfortunately she talked nothing but Kurdish, which is the universal language here. Ali Beg talks Arabic, but badly. He sent me an enormous tray of lunch to my tents, rice and mutton and semolina pudding and excellent sour curds; there was enough for me and all my servants and soldiers. Then he gave me 2 guides and I rode with them and my 4 soldiers into the mountains to see the shrine of Sheikh Adi, which is the Yezidi holy place. (The reason I have 4 soldiers is that these mountains are very much disturbed, owing to the constant raids of the nomad Kurds.)

7 May 1909

Letter from/to: Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

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Ali Beg's sister at Sheikh Adi, May 1909

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Ali Beg (seated) - High Priest of the Yezidis, the qewwal stands to the right of him. The figure on the left is the Christian secretary, Fattuh stands directly behind Ali Beg. Published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University. The photo was colourised by the Yezidi Photo Archive.

Five years before this photo was taken, the Yezidis under Mir Ali Beg freed Lalish. The valley and its sanctuary were occupied by Firiq Pasha from 1892 til 1904. Firiq Pasha was the governor of Mosul and the Kurdish commander of the Hamidiye cavalry. The temple was used as a Quran school during the occupation. 

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Portrait of Mir Ismail Beg