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Max von Oppenheim (1860 – 1946) was a German civil servant, Orientalist and archaeologist.

His photographs of the Yezidis, which he has taken in 1939, are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Foundation.
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“Just when I was in Mesopotamia, the garrison of Mosul started a new campaign against the Singar [Shingal; Sinjar]. The Yezidis of the north [Sheikhan, northern Iraq], who were again harshly persecuted by the Muhammadan Kurds and who now believed that this time the war of annihilation should seriously begin against them, fled, as already mentioned, over the Tigris through the Mesopotamian steppe towards the Singar in order to defend themselves together with their fellow believers.”

This quote by Oppenheim summarizes in its entirety the situation of the Yezidis during his first contact with them in the 1890s, which he described in his two-part work “Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf”. Since 1892, the Yezidis in Sheikhan and Shingal were exposed to a war of extermination waged by the Ottoman-Kurdish governor Omar Wahbi Pasha of Mosul. For this reason, the Yezidis were not accessible to him during this early visit to Iraq, so that he could only record what he had partly reproduced in summary by earlier authors and what he experienced as an eyewitness. The result was a sad testimony of the brutal persecution of the Yezidis. However, four decades later he reported in much more detail in his four-part work “Die Beduinen”. The photographs on our website were taken during his stay with the Yezidis in 1939. This work is not yet accessible to us, so this page is limited to his earlier work and will be expanded in the future.

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The focus of his descriptions is Omar Wahbi Pasha’s war of extermination of 1892-3, which continued even after that time. During his journey, he was with the Arab tribes that participated in the persecution of the Yezidis. He described how the governor of Mosul commanded his regular troops as well as all the Kurdish and Arab tribes in the region against the Yezidis. He described the Yezidis as a brave people who desperately defended themselves against this superiority.

Since von Oppenheim was unable to visit the Yezidis during his first stay, he sought information from Richarz C., the German consul in Baghdad. His information gives a small insight into the life of the Yezidis during the 1890s:

“According to a communication from my friend, the German Consul Richarz in Bardad [Baghdad], these villages are said to consist of mud huts covered with a weave of branches. The mud huts are said to contain a single large, semi-subterranean room, which is used for all work activities as well as a kitchen and sleeping chamber. The ceiling is supported by unhewn, often crooked tree trunks. Raw clay troughs take the place of chests and suitcases for storing the household utensils. When the entire population or individual inhabitants of a Yezidi village temporarily leave their homes to seek other pastures for their livestock, the only door of the house is simply bricked up with clay. The Yezidi villages in the Singar usually are stuck on the slope of the mountains like nests. They are very difficult to recognize from a distance, as their color cannot be distinguished from the surrounding rock.”

Yezidis in Shingal, Iraq, 1939
Yezidis in Shingal, Iraq, 1939

Published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Foundation.

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Yezidis in Shingal, Iraq, 1939
Yezidis in Shingal, Iraq, 1939

Published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Foundation.

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A Yezidi with his horse in Shingal, Iraq, 1939
A Yezidi with his horse in Shingal, Iraq, 1939

Published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Foundation.

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Yezidis in Shingal, Iraq, 1939
Yezidis in Shingal, Iraq, 1939

Published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Foundation.

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He summarized the religion of the Yezidis from the scarce literature on them at the time and, in addition to a few correct statements, adopted widespread prejudices, such as that the Yezidis would worship evil. However, he had a good understanding of the history of the Yezidi persecution. With his contemporary account, he himself is a witness to one of the most brutal wars of annihilation against the Yezidis.


Since his report on this is very important and fairly accurate, it is quoted here:


“Not long before my journey, a special representative of the High Gate, the Ferik (Divisional General) ‘Omar Wehbi Pasha was sent to Mesopotamia with the order to introduce various reforms in the Wilajets Mosul, Bardad and Basra and to collect back taxes. The pasha seems to have been confused by his task. He had emissaries tell the Yezidis that only the Ahl el Kitab could be tolerated in the Ottoman Empire. They would have to decide immediately whether they wanted to recognize the holy books of the Jews, Christians or Muhammadans, otherwise they would have to face extermination by fire and sword. Of course, this was the call to accept Islam in all its form and to bear all the consequences, including the repeated demands for military service in the regular army. Omar Pasha gave the Yezidi-Shekhs a short period of time to think it over, and at the end of this period he is said to have shot down with revolvers a number of the most influential Yezidi of the Singar and Gebel Tor in the Serai of Mosul and to have buried their bodies in a mass grave after their declaration that they would rather die than deny their ancestral faith. Immediately afterwards, Omar Pasha’s son launched a full-scale war against the Yezidis, and at the same time the Ferik incited the Muhammadan Kurds as well as the Shammar and other surrounding Bedouins to attack the unfortunate Yezidis, who were attacked with the greatest cruelty by their enemies, who were aware of the government’s support, both in the Gebel Gate and in the Singar. The Yezidis sought protection from the European consuls and Christian clergy in Mosul, and these, and at the same time high Turkish officials themselves, turned in protest against Omar Pasha to Constantinople. He was also recalled soon after, in the spring of 1893. 


Omar Pasha is also said to have issued the strange order that in the mosques of Mosul, in the chutbe, the pulpit prayer, his own name was mentioned next to the name of the Sultan. The hostilities against the Yezidis now rested, but were soon resumed, especially since they refused to pay the backward tribute. Just when I was in Mesopotamia, the garrison of Mosul began a new campaign against the Singar. The Yezidis of the North, who were again harshly persecuted by the Muhammadan Kurds and who now believed that this time the war of annihilation should seriously begin against them, fled, as already mentioned, over the Tigris through the Mesopotamian steppe towards the Singar in order to defend themselves together with their fellow believers. On the way, they had to fight with the Bedouins without interruption, of course, which were led with changing luck.
The outcome of the fight was easy to foresee. After all, it lasted several weeks after I had left Mesopotamia. The Yezidis fought back valiantly, but were defeated by the superiority of the enemy. The Gate then struck a softer blow; it contented itself with a portion of the guilty tribute, and at present all is quiet again in Singar and the rest of the Yezidi lands. It seems that the Yezidis have retained their old freedoms.”