The footage taken by Reverend Jefferson and Helen Glessner between the late 1940s and early 1950s offers a fascinating insight into the life of the Yezidis. The lengthy recordings are shot across various locations in Iraq and offer viewers an insight into Yezidis and their customs. These visuals are aided further by the missionaries' comments, which need to be explained separately.
Published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Despite immersing themselves in Yezidi life and culture, the missionaries misunderstood key aspects of Yezidi society and beliefs, accepting too readily widespread and erroneous depictions and caricatures of them held by neighbouring peoples'. Considering their background with Yezidis and the literature about them at that time, some misunderstandings could have been avoided. On this evidence, the missionaries seemed less interested in building a more precise picture of the Yezidi religion. Summarily, they bought into the most famous and unfounded allegation against Yezidis, namely that they would worship evil.
The video is divided into different parts for a more precise description and edited to better explain the respective customs, places and ceremonies. There is also hope that in the future, with the help of inscribed photographs of Yezidis, as well as literature, the people in the recordings, and in other recordings like them, can be identified. For example, the Yezidi Photo Archive was able to successfully identify the secular head of the Yezidis of that time, Mir Tahsin Beg, through a photograph taken by Anthony Kersting a few years before this footage was taken.
Jimaya Sheikh Adi Festival
The footage begins during the "Jimaya Sheikh Adi", a major seven-day festival of the Yezidis, which begins on September 23rd according to the Julian calendar, which corresponds to October 6th according to the Gregorian calendar. This festival is held in the central sanctuary of Lalish. During this period, Yezidi pilgrims come to Lalish even from distant lands.
It is astonishing that almost all the main customs and ceremonies of this festival have been recorded. It is the oldest video recording of Jimaya Sheikh Adi so far.
As normal, many men are armed, which is also immediately mentioned by Mrs. Glessner. The armed men serve as escorts for the Yezidi pilgrims and clergymen as well as general security during the festival.
The dance Dîlana mila (Dance of the Shoulders), which is danced together by the pilgrims during this period, was captured here beautifully. In this dance the men and women are hand in hand and dance a little wilder with their shoulders. Since this dance is especially popular in Shingal, it is also called Dîlana Şingaliya (Dance of the Shingalis). The music for this dance is mostly played by ordinary musicians, but also often by the Yezidi Qewals, who play on their Def (tambourine) and Şibab (flute). These instruments are sacred to Yezidis. This dance, as it can be seen in the footage, is danced especially in Sûka Merîfatê in Lalish.
A particularly old tradition was also recorded involving a group of pilgrims, accompanied by a qewal, on their way to Lalish. The group and the dignitaries are led by a woman. Also included are the customs Berê Şibakê and Qepax. Berê Şibakê, which is the seat of Sheikh Adi and is called his throne, is led to Lalish and blessed with the holy water in the sanctuary. In the footage, however, one can only watch as it is led through Lalish and not further. The second is a tradition according to which a bull is led through Lalish and then sacrificed. The meat is then used to prepare the sacred food Simat for the pilgrims, specially prepared for this feast. In the end, the Glessner family also eat from this dish.
It is interesting to note some of the comments made by the missionaries during this footage. These comments attempt to go beyond what they were observing and reach deeper into the question of Yezidi origins and identity. In the footage it is stated that the Yezidis are also "racially; Kurds or a mixture", however, Yezidis are an ethno-religious people, which means that their religious and ethnic identity is the same. Furthermore, the Yezidis neither worship a peacock nor do they believe in any peacock, which they encounter in their everyday life. However, Yezidis believe in Tawisi Melek, who is symbolized in the form of a peacock. Tawisi Melek is one of the seven angels (or mysteries) in their religion and at the same time it belongs to the Yezidi trinity. Thus they do not think that God has given the control of the earth to the devil as it is erroneously stated in the footage. In Yezidi religion there is no evil power; all power belongs to God.
Yezidi religion has indeed been kept secret due to the persecution they have faced and the misunderstandings by others regarding it. Due to persecution throughout centuries of Ottoman rule, illiteracy has been normalised among them.
Tiwaf festival of Sheikh Mehmed in Bashiqa
In this part of the footage one can see a Tiwaf festival in the village of Bashiq. It is the Tiwaf festival in honour of the Yezidi saint Sheikh Mehmed in Bashiqa. It is one of the most well-known festivals associated with the village. The Tiwaf festivals take place every year in the Yezidi villages, which are celebrated in front of a sanctuary called Qub in honour of a Yezidi saint. Each village has its own date for the Tiwaf festival. During the festival, all villagers gather in front of the sanctuary, and Yezidis from other villages often join them. Together a large dance begins, in which men and women participate hand in hand. Musicians play on the zurna and the dav, as can be seen in this recording.
Unlike to Jimaya Sheikh Adi, in Bashiqa the dance Debka êzîdiya cobî (Yezidi Debka) is danced, which is distinctive for the Yezidis in this village, and was especially well recorded in this footage. Older photographs in the book of the Iraqi historian Abbas al-Azzawi, published in 1935, also showcase this dance and match with the footage.
Towards the end of the footage, the visit of the young Mir Tahsin Beg, the former secular head of the Yezidis, who appeared together with other scholars for this celebration, can be seen. The Yezidi Photo Archive was able to identify Mir Tahsin Beg with certainty thanks to a photograph taken by Anthony Kersting a few years before this footage was taken.
The diversity of the traditional attire of the Yezidi men and women stands out. A hairstyle that is typical for Yezidis is particularly well observed. With this hairstyle the boys' head is shaved bald except for three spots.