Yezidi village in Sinjar, 1960-1962.GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, Staatliche K

Lothar Stein

Lothar Stein visited the Yezidis of Sinjar between 1960 and 1962. His photos  are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and Lothar Stein himself.

Never before have I seen such a strange town as Sindjar. It is in the north-west of the Republic of Iraq, less than forty kilometres from the Syrian border; it is over a thousand kilometres from here to the Arabian Gulf, which we left a week ago. Chance brought me here, because my original destination was Mosul; there I wanted to make the necessary preparations for the Bedouin expedition. But these things could be done within two days. I met with the chief of the Shammar tribes, explained my plans and wishes to him and received an invitation for my wife and for me to live with the Bedouins of his tribe for a few weeks.

His clan - former Tai Bedouins - has been living there for several generations. The writer gives me a letter to his younger brother, whom I have now sought out here in Sindjar and in whose house I have been welcomed with open arms. There is neither hotel nor restaurant here, and a stranger is solely dependent on the hospitality of the inhabitants. So I have the opportunity to get to know this unique mountain settlement and its inhabitants. Such a mixture of ethnic groups and denominations in a relatively small place like Sindjar is unlikely to be found again. Muslim Arabs and Kurds, Chaldean Christians, Protestants, Syrian Orthodox Catholics and - for me the most interesting of all - Yezidis live here.

Their houses nestle against the bare, gently rising ridge of the Sindjar mountain range. They are built of rock, windowless in the lower part, only on the upper floor do small latticed openings face the street. Pointed arched gates, arcades and stair-shaped alleys give the town a peculiar character. Fortress-like structures are built on the highest elevations of the town, one of which is Isma'il Beg Castle, inhabited by Yezidis. On the eastern flank of the mountain town, the now abandoned fort "Sitt Zainab" stands out majestically against the horizon, built here by the Romans when their legions penetrated deep into the Near East at the turn of the last century. Sindjar is very backward in many respects: the electricity for the settlement is generated by a generator that often breaks down; the drinking water is taken from a mountain stream. Economic life is based exclusively on manufactures. However, there is already a small post and telegraph station, and there is also a telephone connection to the district capital Mosul, 160 kilometres away. The charm of this settlement with its idiosyncratic architecture, the lowlands at its feet covered by fertile fields and shady olive groves exerts such an attraction on me that I change my travel plans and stay here for several days. Every day brings new experiences and encounters; the inhabitants literally outdo each other with invitations for me. 

I first meet them on the road between Tell 'Afer, a mountain town inhabited by Turks, and Sindjar. A group of women and men comes towards us. They are driving donkeys loaded with flour sacks. The men have long moustaches hanging over their heads, plaits coming out from under their felt caps, reaching down to their shoulders. Wide ankle-length robes and knitted shoes complete the exotic impression. The Yezidi women are predominantly dressed in white, their faces are unveiled. They walk freely and upright. Their hair is covered by a powerful wheel-shaped turban made of white cloth. Some wear long-sleeved quilted jackets of brown or black velvet.

Oass Georgis, a Christian priest with whom I share the front seat of the taxi, greets the group through the car window, to which they politely return his Arabic greeting. 

A few days later, I learn details about their existence from a reputable source from their chief priest in Sindjar, Sheikh Sa'id el-Khidhr. I meet him by chance in the office of the Qaimaqam of Sindjar, to whom I pay a courtesy call one morning. A monk dressed all in black is already sitting in one of the armchairs when I enter the room. His stern face with its full, bluish beard somehow reminds me of the bronze portraits of Assyrian kings. He speaks to me in fluent French, although he also speaks Arabic. Perhaps he wants to shine in front of the government officials with his knowledge. When he hears where I come from, he becomes visibly reserved. He cannot hide the origin of his education: he is a student of the Catholic Pères Dominicains, who also run a convent school in Mosul. I have repeatedly experienced such reactions, often even more blatant, especially in the Mosul region: for some time now, democratic forces have been persecuted so severely here that they cannot dare to go public and many inhabitants have had to leave their city. Mosul became a stronghold of nationalist-reactionary elements whose organised and armed gangs constantly terrorise the population. I am glad when the door opens and Sheikh Sa'id enters, a stocky, broad-shouldered man in Arab dress, with a long white beard. Only the moustache still shows its original black colouring. Somewhere I read that the full beard is a sign of clergy among the Yezidis. For his age, he may be in his late sixties, he is extremely vital. His conversation is unusually lively, witty and open-minded. Only when we start talking about the Yezidi religion, he suddenly starts talking about the weather. I get to know his exuberant hospitality the same afternoon when I visit him in his house. Through a large iron gate, Sheikh Sa'id leads me into a wide courtyard where two white-clad women sit under a walnut tree, whom he introduces to me as his two wives. 

While we sit in the guest room and talk - I record the conversation on tape - the wooden door keeps squeaking open and his wives take turns passing in trays: Arabic coffee, refreshing sour milk, delicious candied figs and, several times, tea. He overhears my protest against this flood of bodily delights with a smile. Instead, he praises the fertility of Sindjar's soil:


"Everything that agriculture produces in this area, fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and milk, is better here than anywhere else. This is because the air, soil and water in Sindjar are of unsurpassed quality."

"How many Yezidis are there actually here?" I want to know.
"About sixty thousand, but by no means all live in Sindjar itself. Many inhabit the villages down on the edge of the Djezira. Others live above the city in Djebel Sindjar. They raise sheep and goats there and live in tents like Bedouins during the summer. Other Yezidi tribes live in settlements north of Mosul, in Bahsani and Basheika. We also have a larger community of Yezidis in Sheikhan. Tahsin Beg, our chief emir, lives in Sheikhan. He lives near the Sheikh Adi shrine. There are also Yezidis across the border in Syrian territory. In total, we count 85 000 to 90 000 people.

"And how do they all live?"
"Some of them raise cattle, I already told you that. Most are engaged in agriculture and keep some cattle on the side. We also have gardens with figs, apricots, nuts and olives, especially in the mountain valleys. But the harvests here are always dependent on the rain, and since there has been very little rain in the last few years, there has been one bad harvest after another, so our people have become very poor." 

A ray of hope in their joyless existence is the opportunity to attend school that has arisen after the Iraqi revolution. The government of the Republic of Iraq also induced the Yezidis to send their children to school. There, they receive free school meals and one suit per year, in addition to specialised instruction. In order to learn more about this problem from Sheikh Sa'id, I ask him: "Yesterday I visited the boys' school in Sindjar and saw quite a few Yezidi boys there. They are easy to recognise by their plaits. Do all Yezidi children actually go to school?"

"Well," he begins hesitantly, "in the past very few Yezidis could read and write, but after the establishment of our republic we got schools and teachers, and now we send our children to classes, at least those who live near schools. They will get great benefits for their later life from it."
"Do girls also attend school?"
"No, At least not yet, the fathers are generally still against it. You must understand, this is a completely new thing for us, but in the future..."
"So not a single Yezidi girl goes to school?" I ask again.
"No. That is to say, one does," he laughs to himself, as if he wants to show off a successful prank. "My little daughter is eagerly studying at school ... She's studying hard at school. one of them has to make a start."

Interestingly, the Yezidi Catechism, written in 1908 by their spiritual leader Sheikh Miran Ismail Beg, includes as its thirtieth commandment: "The Yezidis must establish schools and instruct their children in the sciences and languages." This demand, which was revolutionary at the time, was not realised until more than fifty years later. 

Sheikh Said with his children

Sheikh Said with his children

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