Yazidism: A Heterodox Kurdish Religion

The article below by Christine Allison was first published in the CAIS website. Kindly note that the pictures/illustrations and accompanying captions written by Kavehfarrokh.com inserted in the article below do not appear in the original CAIS posting.

Introduction

Yazidis, a heterodox Kurdish religious minority living predominantly in northern Iraq, Syria and south-east Turkey, with well-established communities in the Caucasus and a growing European diaspora. Anecdotal evidence of the existence of Yazidi groups in North-Western Persia has not yet been proven. There are probably some 200,000-300,000 Yazidis worldwide. The Yazidis have long been the object of fascination among Orientalists, largely due to their erroneous description by outsiders as ‘devil-worshippers’ (see below). The literature devoted to their religion is disproportionately large, considering how few they are in number by comparison with the large majority of Kurdish Muslims. Their name for themselves is usually, Êzdi, Êzidi, or, in some areas, Dâsini (the last, strictly speaking a tribal name). Some scholars have derived the name Yazidi from Old Iranian yazata (divine being), though the current consensus among Western academics is a derivation from Yazid b. Mo‘âwiya, revered by the Yazidis as an incarnation of the divine figure Sultan Êzi. (Kreyenbroek, 1995, p. 3).

Yezidi Kurds-4-Meleke Tawus

Metalwork representing the spiritual entity Malak Tawous (Saradistribution.com); For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

Origins

The Yazidis’ cultural practices are observably Kurdish, and almost all speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish), with the exception of the villages of Ba’æiqa and Baházânê in Northern Iraq, where Arabic is spoken. Kurmanji is the language of almost all the orally transmitted religious traditions of the Yazidis. Religious origins are somewhat complex. The religion of the Yazidis is a highly syncretistic one: Sufi influence and imagery can be seen in their religious vocabulary, especially in the terminology of their esoteric literature, but much of the mythology is non-Islamic, and their cosmogonies apparently have many points in common with those of ancient Iranian religions. Early writers attempted to describe Yazidi origins, broadly speaking, in terms of ‘Islam’, or ‘Iranian,’ or sometimes even ‘pagan’ religions; however, publications since the 1990s have shown such an approach to be over-simplistic. The origin of the Yazidi religion is now usually seen by scholars as a complex process of syncretism, whereby the belief-system and practices of a local faith had a profound influence on the religiosity of adherents of the ‘Adawiyya sufi order living in the Kurdish mountains, and caused it to deviate from Islamic norms relatively soon after the death of its founder, Shaikh ‘Adi b. Mosâfer.

Yezidi Kurds-8-plan of lales

Detailed architectural plan of the Mausoleum at the Temple at Lalesh (Saradistribution.com); For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

History and Development

‘Adi b. Mosâfer, who was of Omayyad descent, was born c. 1075 CE in the Beka‚a valley. After studying in Baghdad under Abu’l-Khayr Hammâd al-Dabbâs and alongside ‘Abd-al-Qâdir al-Jilâni, he settled in the valley of Lâleæ (some thirty-six miles north-east of Mosul) in the early 12th century. Groups who venerated Yazid b. Mo’âwiya and the Omayyads–already known as Yazidis–had existed for some time in the area; beliefs and practices which were apparently part of an ancient Iranian religion were also retained by some of the local tribes. Shaikh ‘Adi himself, a figure of undoubted orthodoxy, enjoyed widespread influence; he died in 1162 and his tomb at Lâleæ is a focal point of Yazidi pilgrimage. His name, pronounced Âdi or even Hâdi, passed into Yazidi oral tradition, though full knowledge of his identity was lost within the community. Yazidism grew during the period of Atabeg and Mongol rule. Only two generations later, led by Hasan b. ‘Adi, the community had grown large and powerful enough to come into open conflict with the Atabeg of Mosul, who killed Hasan in 1246. At about the same point, it seems, the community began to incur the opprobrium of more orthodox Muslims for its excessive veneration of both Shaikh ‘Adi and Yazid b. Mo’âwiya. During the fourteenth century, important Kurdish tribes whose sphere of influence stretched well into what is now Turkey (including, for a period, the rulers of the principality of Jazira) are cited in historical sources as Yazidi. (Guest, p. 45) Muslim leaders clearly perceived Yazidis as a threat; a significant battle took place in 1414, during which Shaikh ‘Adi’s tomb was razed. After the battle of Ùâlderân (1514; q.v.), Yazidi influence at first remained considerable; a Yazidi was appointed ’emir of the Kurds’ by the Ottomans, and, in the 1530s, Yazidi emirs ruled the province of Sorân for a time. The current family of Yazidi mirs (emirs), claiming Omayyad origins, replaced the descendants of Shaikh Hasan in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. However, as time passed, conversions to Islam became increasingly common and Yazidi power declined. By the end of the Ottoman Empire many important tribes and confederations still had sizeable Yazidi sections, and the dynasty of Yazidi mirs remained dominant within a limited geographical area, but Yazidis had suffered enormously from religious persecution. Until 1849, when provision for their protection was made under Ottoman law, they had not had the status of ‘People of the Book’ (Guest, pp. 103-107; Edmonds, pp. 59-60). In the 19th century complex social and political changes, many related to the Tanzimat reforms, produced an environment of increasing religious intolerance culminating in large-scale massacres of the Christian minorities. The Yazidis, also targets of militant Sunnism, suffered at the hands of Kurdish tribal leaders such as Moháammed Beg of Rowanduz (1832) and Bedir Khan Beg (1840s), as well as Ottoman officials, such as ‘Omar Wahbi Pasha (1893; Guest, pp. 96-97, 134-9; Edmonds, p. 60). There was some co-operation between the minorities; Yazidis of Mount Senjâr sheltered Armenians during the massacres of 1915-16. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century many Yazidis fled to Georgia and Armenia. In the second half of the twentieth century, most of Turkey’s Yazidis, who still lived in fear of religious persecution, emigrated to Germany, and in the 1990s many of Iraq’s Yazidi intelligentsia arrived there, where they play an active role in diaspora affairs, maintaining contact with co-religionists in Iraq and the Caucasus (Guest, pp. 193-203, Ackermann, forthcoming).

Geographical Distribution and Identity

The Yazidi heartland is in Northern Iraq. A substantial community known for its conservatism lives on Mount Senjâr some 80km west of Mosul on the border with Syria. A collection of farming villages and small towns lies in the Šaikân area, in the foothills north-east of Mosul; this area is adjacent to the shrine of Lâleæ and contains the home of the mir and the settlements of Ba’æiqa and Baházânê, home of the qawwâls, reciters of sacred texts. In the 20th century both Šaikani and Senjâri communities struggled for religious dominance. In Syria there are also two main groupings, in the Jazira and the Kurd Dâg@ areas (the latter including the Sem’ân and ‘Afrin communities). However, these are much smaller, probably totaling only about 15,000. In Turkey some Yazidis still live in the villages of the Tur ‘Abdin, south-east of Diyarbakir, remnants of a much more widespread community. The Transcaucasian communities, which once numbered some 60,000, have also declined due to economic and political factors, though accurate statistics remain unavailable. During the 1990s the population in Georgia decreased from some 30,000 to under 5,000, though numbers in Armenia have apparently remained more constant. Diaspora communities have increased correspondingly; most importantly, some 40,000 Yazidis now live in Germany, mainly in the Western provinces of Niedersachsen and Nordrhein-Westfalen. Most are from Turkey, with arrivals during the 1990s from Iraq including some influential figures. This profile may change as the situation in Iraq evolves following the fall of the Saddam regime. A much smaller community exists in the Netherlands. Other groups of Yazidis, in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and in the USA, Canada and Australia, are extremely small, and probably total well under 5,000.

Yezidi Kurds-2-Yezidi-khatun

Excellent depiction of a Khatoun at an ingress into the Temple in 1907 (Saradistribution.com). The term Khatoun in this cultural context designates a matriarch; ancient cults such as Mazdakism, Yazdanism, Yazdism as well as the ancient Zoroastrian faith, have often held men and women in equal regard, especially with regard to learning and leadership roles (for more see here).

Many attempts to define the Yazidis’ ethnic identity (notably the policies of the Ba’athist government in Iraq, which designated them as Arabs) have been politically motivated. Apart from a few Arabic-speaking clans, Yazidi communities speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) as their first language, and their cultural practices are Kurdish. Most Yazidis claim Kurdish identity; in Iraq, this view has had the support of the government in the Kurdish Autonomous Region since 1991. In the Caucasus however, particularly in Armenia, to be ‘Kurdish’ is often popularly associated with an Islamic (and thus pro-Azari) identity. Many Caucasian Yazidis, therefore, claim to belong to a separate ethnie, though the politicization of the Kurdish question in Turkey and the influence of the PKK have reportedly caused a number in Armenia to redefine themselves as Kurds. In the diaspora, the Yazidis’ status as Kurds is not debated so much as their religious origin. In nationalist discourse, the Yazidi religion is seen as the ‘original’ Kurdish faith, a view that distinguishes the Kurds from Arabs and Turks. It is sometimes inaccurately presented as a form of Zoroastrianism or, spuriously, as a ‘Cult of Angels.’ In the Caucasus, a hypothesis of Babylonian origins is favored. Such different interpretations of the Yazidis’ origins are closely interlinked with expressions of identity, and tend to be explicable in terms of the prevailing political climate.

Religious Belief and Practice

Contemporary Yazidism is a religion of orthopraxy. Practice, in terms of careful adherence to rules governing all aspects of life, is more important than the role of scriptural text, dogma and professions of personal belief. Two key and interrelated features of Yazidism are: a) a preoccupation with religious purity and b) a belief in metempsychosis. The first of these is expressed in the system of caste, the food laws, the traditional preferences for living in Yazidi communities, and the variety of taboos governing many aspects of life. The second is crucial; Yazidis traditionally believe that the Seven Holy Beings (see below) are periodically reincarnated in human form, called a kâss. Not only does this reinforce the caste system, as the members of the dominant religious castes are the descendants of the most recent manifestations of the Holy Beings in Shaikh ‘Adi and his companions, but it also provides a mechanism for syncretism, as figures from other traditions can be said to be earlier manifestations of the kâss. A belief in the reincarnation of lesser Yazidi souls also exists; like the Ahl-e Haqq (q.v.), the Yazidis use the metaphor of a change of garment to describe the process, which they call kirâs gehorrin, ‘changing the shirt.’ Alongside this, Yazidi mythology also includes descriptions of heaven and hell, and other traditions attempting to reconcile these ideas with the belief-system of reincarnation.

In the Yazidi worldview, God created the world, which is now in the care of a Heptad of seven Holy Beings, often known as ‘Angels’ or haft serr (the Seven Mysteries.) Pre-eminent among these is Tâ’us-ê Malak or Malak Tâ’us, the Peacock Angel, who is equated with Satan by outsiders. Most Yazidis find this identification highly offensive; however, it is clear that Malak Tâ’us is an ambiguous figure. The Ketêbâ Jelwa ‘Book of Illumination” which claims to be the words of Malak Tâ’us, and which presumably represents Yazidi belief (see below), states that he allocates responsibilities, blessings and misfortunes as he sees fit and that it is not for the race of Adam to question him. The Yazidi taboo against the word Š, and on words containing æ and t/t that might (to their ears) recall it, may indicate some perceived connection between this figure and Malak Tâ’us. The reasons for the connection remain unclear. Although some Sufi traditions have presented Satan as a redeemed or holy figure, Shaikh ‘Adi b. Mosâfer was apparently orthodox on the matter. However, pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition indicates some link between Ahriman and the peacock, and this ambiguity may predate Islam. Yazidi accounts of creation, which have much in common with those of the Ahl-e Haqq (q.v.) state that the world created by God was at first ‘a pearl’. It remained in this very small and enclosed state for some time (often a magic number such as forty or forty thousand years) before being remade in its current state; during this period the Heptad were called into existence, God made a covenant with them and entrusted the world to them. It has been suggested, on the evidence of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian cosmogony and its similarity to Yazidi cosmogonies, that if the Yazidis’ ancestors venerated a benign demiurge who set the world (in its current state) in motion, the role of this figure may have become ambiguous when they came into contact with Zoroastrians, whose cosmogony was essentially similar, but whose demiurge was Ahriman, who polluted the world. Thus Yazidism would be, not a form of Zoroastrianism, but a religion possessing an Iranian belief-system akin to it.

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Entrance portal to the Temple of the Yazdis or Yazidis at Lalesh (Saradistribution.com); For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

Besides Malak Tâ’us, members of the Heptad (the Seven), who were called into existence by God at the beginning of all things, include Shaikh ‘Âdi, his companion Shaikh Hasan, and a group known as the ‘four Mysteries’, Šamsadin, Fakradin, Sajâdin and Nâsáerdin. These latter, according to oral tradition, were the sons of an Êzdinâ Mir, whom Shaikh ‘Âdi met at Lâleæ. All these figures are eponyms of clans of Âdâni shaikhs (see below); in Yazidi accounts of the cosmogony they tend to have other names, and they are also identified in other incarnations, such as Hasan al-Bâsári as an incarnation of Shaikh Hasan. Not all listings of the Seven are identical; sometimes, for instance, Shaikh ‘Âdi himself is identified with Malak Tâ’us, and Shaikh Obakr is added.

The kâss and other holy beings are the focus of frequent veneration. The Heptad, under the names of the families of Shaikh ‘Âdi and his companions, are objects of devotion, but so also are numerous lesser figures, also usually eponyms of clans of shaikhs or pirs (see below), who are requested for help on practical matters. Shaikh Mand, for instance, is believed to cure snakebites, and his descendants may handle snakes safely; the family of Pir Jarwân has power over scorpions. A female figure, Khâtuna Fakra, is associated with help in childbirth. Help from such beings may be sought by consultation with their descendants, or by veneration of a sacred site associated with them–occasionally a tomb, but more often a shrine consisting of a room with a spire, a small votive altar, a sacred tree, or a pool or cave. Many people who know little of the higher-status sacred texts make offerings at such places. Some of these cults appear to be very localized, but others are respected by members of other religions, and Yazidis also solicit help from local saints associated with other religions, especially Christianity (Kreyenbroek, 1995, pp. 91-123, 145-68; Drower, pp. 24-29, 51-60).

Pilgrimage

The holiest Yazidi site is the valley of Lâleæ, site of the tomb of Shaikh ‘Âdi. A sacred microcosm of the world, as it were, it contains not only many shrines dedicated to the kâss, but a number of other landmarks corresponding to other sites or symbols of significance in other faiths, including pirrâ selât (SerâtÂÂ Bridge) and a mountain called Mt. ‘Arafât. The two sacred springs are called Zamzam and Kâniyâ spi ‘The White Spring’. The former rises in a cave below the sanctuary of Shaikh ‘Âdi, the heart of the holy place. Water from the springs is mixed with earth from the holy valley to make barât, little molded balls that are taken away and treated with reverence; they play a part in some rites of passage such as marriage and funerary rites. If possible, Yazidis make at least one pilgrimage to Lâleæ during their lifetime, and those living in the region try to attend at least once a year for the autumn ‘Feast of the Assembly” (see below). As for Lâleæ, pilgrimages to lesser sites may also be undertaken, to seek intercession, in gratitude for prayers answered, or as a vow.

Prayer

Formalized prayer is largely a matter of personal preference and is not obligatory. The practice of praying facing the rising, noonday, and setting sun which is described by travelers seems not to have been universal and is now seen as an ideal rather than a norm. Such prayer should be accompanied by certain gestures, including kissing the rounded neck (gerivân) of the sacred shirt (kerâs). Those who wear the girdle–the black resta for certain dignitaries, the white æutik for other Yazidis–say a prayer when putting it on. Prayers have almost exclusively been transmitted orally; their texts have themes in common but vary in details.

Festivals

Apart from individual rites of passage, such as marriage, baptism, circumcision, and death, Yazidis observe a number of communal festivals, some more widespread than others. The Yazidi New Year falls in Spring (somewhat later than Nowruz). There is some lamentation by women in the cemeteries, to the accompaniment of the music of the qawwâls (see below), but the festival is generally characterized by joyous events: the music of dahol (drum) and zornâ (shawm), communal dancing and meals, the decorating of eggs. Similarly the village tÂewaf (Ar. tÂawâf), a festival held in the spring in honor of the patron of the local shrine, has secular music, dance and meals in addition to the performance of sacred music. Another important festival is the tâwusgerrân (circulation of the peacock) where qawwâls and other religious dignitaries visit Yazidi villages, bringing the senjâq, sacred images representing the peacock and associated with Malak Tâ’us. These are venerated, taxes are collected from the pious, sermons are preached, and holy water distributed. The greatest festival of the year for ordinary Yazidis is the Je‘nâ Jamâ’iya (Feast of the Assembly) at Lâleæ, a seven-day occasion. A focus of widespread pilgrimage, this is an important time for social contact and affirmation of identity. The religious center of the event is the belief in an annual gathering of the Heptad in the holy place at this time; rituals practiced include the sacrifice of a bull at the shrine of Shaikh Šams, the washing of the ‘bier of Shaikh ‘Âdi,’ the practice of samâ’ (see below). Other festivals are more likely to be kept by the few than the many. Religious leaders observe forty-day fasts in summer and winter; a three-day winter fast culminating in the celebration of the birth of the kâssÊzid is kept more widely. The Ùêlkân, a tribe originating in the border areas of Turkey and Syria, keep a winter festival called Bâtizmiya. For some Yazidis at least, the kâss have their feast-days. Counterparts to certain Islamic feasts, including , ‘Id al-fetâr, and Laylat al-barâ’a are also observed by some.

Yezidi Kurds-12-Youths 1950s

Yazdi or Yazidi youth in the 1950s in Lalesh (Saradistribution.com); For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

Purity and Taboos

The Yazidis’ concern with religious purity, and their reluctance to mix elements perceived to be incompatible, is shown not only in their caste system, but also in various taboos affecting everyday life. Some of these, such as those on exogamy or on insulting or offending men of religion, are widely respected. Others, such as the prohibition of eating lettuce or wearing the color blue, are often ignored when men of religion are not present. Others still are less widely known and may be localized. The purity of the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, is protected by a number of taboos–against spitting on earth, water, or fire, for instance. These may reflect ancient Iranian preoccupations, as apparently do the taboos concerning bodily refuse, hair, and menstrual blood. Too much contact with non-Yazidis is also polluting; in the past Yazidis avoided military service which would have led them to live among Muslims, and were forbidden to share such items as cups or razors with outsiders. The mixing with others brought about by formal education may be a major reason behind the well-known Yazidi taboo on learning to read and write. In the past, only Shaikhs of the Âdâni lineage group had the right to do so. Certain words are the subject of taboos, such as those dealing with cursing or stoning, or those which are felt to sound like the name Š, whose utterance is an unforgivable insult to Malak Tâ’us, obliging any Yazidi who heard it (in the past at any rate) to slay the speaker. Auditory resemblance may lie behind the taboo against eating lettuce, whose name kâs resembles Kurdish pronunciations of kâss. The taboo against eating pork appears to be a custom which follows Islam rather than a specifically Yazidi edict. Prohibitions are also attested, in certain areas at least, against fish, cockerel, gazelle, and various vegetables including okra, cauliflower, and pumpkin.

A widespread myth about the Yazidis’ origin which gives them a distinctive ancestry expresses their feelings of difference from other races. Adam and Eve quarreled about which of them provided the creative element in the begetting of children. Each stored their seed in a jar which was then sealed. When Eve’s was opened it was full of insects and other unpleasant creatures, but inside Adam’s jar was a beautiful boy-child. This lovely child, known as Š (Šahed, son of Jar) grew up to marry a houri and became the ancestor of the Yazidis.

Social and religious groups

The Yazidis divide themselves into three endogamous major castes, with religious orders also playing an important role. Most Yazidis belong to the morid (layman; literally ‘disciple’]) group, which is endogamous, but, within the group, marriage is not restricted. Every morid must have a shaikh and a pir; the lineage of these is determined by the morid’s own heredity. The Shaikhs are divided into three endogamous lineage groups, the Šamsâni, Âdâni and Qâtâni, the latter of which also shares its ancestry with the family of the mir. The pirs are divided into four main groups, and forty clans, most of whom may intermarry. Both groups receive alms from their morids. Tithes paid to the Shaikh are more substantial; however, the difference between the two groups lies not in the nature of their religious tasks, but rather in ancestry (the shaikhs apparently associated with non-Kurdish companions or relations of Shaikh ‘Âdi, and the pirs with his Kurdish companions). At puberty, each morid should also choose a ‘brother’ or ‘sister of the Hereafter’, berâyê or k, normally a Shaikh, who performs certain important rituals at transitional points such as marriage and death.

The Qawwâls or reciters constitute a different class, and come from two clans, the Kurmanji-speaking Dimli and the Arabic-speaking Tazhi, settled in the villages of Ba’æiqa and Beházânê, in the Šaik an area. They specialize in the playing of religious music on sacred instruments, the daf (frame-drum) and æebâb (flute), and in the recital of the sacred hymns or qawls. They also carry out the tâwusgerrân; these were severely curtailed in the twentieth century when crossing international frontiers became more difficult; the Transcaucasian communities in particular were effectively cut off from the Yazidi religious centers.

Yezidi Kurds-18-Ceremony

The Yazidi faithful engaging in their “Festival of Eid al-Jamma” (photo taken on 7 October, 2010 & displayed the International Business Times); For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

There are also religious ‘orders’ whose members may come from different castes. The Faqirs become members of their order by an initiation which was once open to all, but as time has passed have become in effect a hereditary group, with initiation undergone almost exclusively by members of faqir families. They are expected to lead a life of piety and abstinence, by fasting, refraining from drinking and smoking, avoiding any violent behavior. Their clothes, especially their black woolen k or tunic that recalls that of Shaikh ‘Âdi, are considered to be sacred, and their persons must not be harmed. Some are very learned in religious lore. The Kochaks are a small non-hereditary group charged with outdoor labor for Shaikh ‘Âdi, such as cutting wood and drawing water for the shrine. Some in the past have been clairvoyants, miracle workers and interpreters of dreams; a few have acquired political influence in this way, such as the nineteenth-century Kochak Mirzâ of Mount Senjâr, who predicted the fall of Islam.

There are a number of important offices in the Yazidi hierarchy. The Mir (prince) is both temporal and spiritual head of the community; his person is sacred, and in theory all Yazidis owe him spiritual allegiance. In practice the temporal influence of the family, based in Bâ’drê in Šaikân, has declined since the late 18th century, though it remains a substantial landowner, and is active in Kurdish politics. Members of this family are linked to the Qâtâni Shaikhs. The Prince, along with other dignitaries, is a member of the Yazidi Majlesi Roháâni ‘Religious Council’. The Bâbâ Shaikh (Father Shaikh), is the leader of the Shaikhs and must come from the Šamsâni branch. He must lead a pious life; regarded by many as the spiritual leader of the Yazidis, he supervises the Kochaks and many of the ceremonies at Lâleæ cannot take place without his presence. The functions of the Piæ-imâm (Foremost Imam) are less clear; a representative of the Âdâni Shaikhs, he leads certain rituals. The Bâbâ Ùâwuæ, (Father Guardian), guardian of the shrine at Lâleæ, leads a life of piety and celibacy. He lives there permanently and has authority over what happens there; he is assisted by the feqrayyât, (celibate ‘nuns’) who are unmarried or widowed and also care for the sanctuaries. These are very few in number. Successive families of faqirs living there on a temporary basis also look after the fabric of the shrine and take care of guests.

The institution of karâfat, whereby a relationship of sponsorship is created with a man on whose knees a boy is circumcised, exists among Yazidis as for other groups. This often creates close relationships with other communities; since the family of the child may not intermarry with that of the kariv for seven generations, the kariv himself is usually not a Yazidi, and the institution serves to make useful alliances with neighbors. Yazidis in Northern Iraq may also have a mirabbi (literally ‘teacher’), chosen from any caste by rules of heredity.

Yezidi Kurds-16-Kurdish dance

Local Yezidis engage in the traditional Kurdish dance outside the Lalesh temple (photo displayed theInternational Business Times); For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

Textual traditions

Most Yazidi religious texts have been passed on exclusively by oral tradition, and many features characteristic of oral literature can be seen in them. It is now generally accepted that the manuscripts of the Yazidi Sacred Books, the Masháafâ Reæ and Ketêbâ Jelwa, published in 1911 and 1913, were ‘forgeries’ in the sense that they were written by non-Yazidis in response to Western travelers’ and scholars’ interest in the Yazidi religion, amid a general environment of trading in ancient manuscripts. However, the material within these manuscripts is consistent with the contents of the Yazidi oral traditions, and to that extent they may be considered authentic. Nevertheless, it seems that written texts with the titles Masháefâ Reæ and Ketêbâ Jelwa were known among the Yazidis long before this date, though they have remained unseen even by the vast majority of the community. The latter title is a shortened form of the title of a work by Hasan b. ‘Adi, but it currently seems to denote manuscripts used for divination, which are still kept by certain Âdâni Shaikhs. Other written texts were known; meæur, kept by Pirs, giving accounts of lineages and attached morid families, and kaækul, which included prayers, religious history and some Qawls. These collections may also have included some of the Arabic odes (qasáidas) attributed to Shaikh ‘Âdi which are used in the community. However, there is no evidence that the large corpus of sacred texts once existed in the form of a book.

The core religious texts are the qawls, hymns in Kurmanji which are often dedicated to a kâssand which make frequent allusions to events and persons not explained in the texts. These have, for most of their history, been orally transmitted, though there is some evidence that not all were orally composed. Knowledge and recitation of the qawls has traditionally been the province of the Qawwâl, though their training school no longer exists in their home villages. Few members of the Qawwâl families now learn either sacred texts or sacred instruments and those with the widest knowledge of the Qawls and their interpretation are now from other classes. In 1979 two young Yazidi intellectuals published a number of the qawls, provoking considerable controversy within the community. (A few had been published in the Soviet Union the previous year, but were presented as part of a folklore anthology and largely ignored). By the beginning of the 21st century more had been published in Armenia and a research program in Germany was almost complete. With the assent of the community, this latter aimed to collect and transcribe the many unpublished qawls for use in academic research and the education of Yazidi children, especially in the diaspora. Yazidism is thus being transformed into a scriptural religion.

Yezidi Kurds-15-Ceremony

Yazidis lighting candles outside the Lalesh temple in celebration of the Yazidi New Year (photo taken on April 17, 2007 & displayed the International Business Times). The Yazidis celebrate the ingress of light into the world; For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

The qawls, with their allusions and obscurities, are not easy to understand, and a tradition of interpretation has grown up. Each qawl has a ch or ‘story’ associated with it, which explains its context. Some of these chirôks show signs of having been developed long after the qawl. In general the qawls and the knowledge within them are the province of men of religion, but on certain occasions, a mosáháâbat is given. This is a sermon usually consisting of narrative interspersed with couplets from a qawl, which explains the sacred text, and is aimed at a general audience.

Other types of sacred text exist: the bayt which is difficult to distinguish from the qawl in formal terms, but unlike the secular Kurdish bayt (q.v.) is used to accompany religious events such as tâwusgerrân; the qasáida in Kurdish, often a praise-poem for a holy man which does not formally correspond to the Arabic or Persian qasáida; du’â and dirozâ, prayers for private and public use. There are seven forms of Yazidi samâ’, consisting of music and the singing of hymns, usually a combination of qawl and qasáida; a solemn procession is also often part of these.

Bibliography

A. Ackermann “A Double Minority: Notes on the emerging Yezidi Diaspora” in W. Kokot and Kh. Tölölyan, eds., Religion, Identity and Diaspora. London, forthcoming.

P. Anastase Marie, “La de‚couverte re‚cente des deux livres sacre‚s des Ye‚zîdis,” Anthropos 6, 1911, pp. 1-39.

W. F. Ainsworth, Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Armenia, London, 1841.

M. Bittner, Die Heiligen Bücher der Jeziden oder Teufelsanbeter (Kurdisch und Arabisch), Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Phil.-Hist., Klasse, Band 55, Vienna, 1913.

O. and C. Celil, “Qewl û Beytê ÊEzdiya” in Zargotina K’urda/Kurdskij Folklor, Moscow 1978, pp. 5ff.

S. al- Damlûj^, al-Yaz^diyya, Mosul 1949. E.S. Drower, Peacock Angel, London, 1941.

R.Y. Ebied and M. J. L. Young, “An account of the history and rituals of the Yaz^d^s of Mosul,” Le Muse‚on 85, 1972, pp. 481-522.

C.J. Edmonds, A Pilgrimage to Lalish, London, 1967.

R. H. W. Empson, The Cult of the Peacock Angel, London, 1928.

R. Frank, Scheich ‘Adî, der grosse Heilige der Jezîdîs, Berlin, 1911.

N. Fuccaro, The Other Kurds: Yazidis in Colonial Iraq, London,1999.

G. Furlani, Testi Religiosi dei Yezidi, Testi e Documenti per la Storia delle Religioni 3, Bologna, 1930.

J. S. Guest, The Yezidis: A Study in Survival, New York and London 1987, rev. ed. Survival Among the Kurds: A History of the Yezidis 1993.

M. Guidi, “Origine dei Yazidi e Storia Religiosa dell’Islam e del Dualismo,” RSO 12, 1932, pp. 266-300.

P. G. Kreyenbroek, “Mithra and Ahreman, Binyâm^n and Malak Tâwûs: Traces of an Ancient Myth in the cosmogonies of Two Modern Sects,” in Recurrent Patterns in Iranian Religion, ed. Ph. Gignoux, pp. 57-79, Stud.Ir., Cahier 11, Paris, 1992.

Idem, Yezidism–Its Background, Observances and Textual Tradition, Lampeter, Wales, 1995.

Idem, “On the study of some heterodox sects in Kurdistan,” in Islam des Kurdes, Les Annales de l’Autre Islam no. 5, Paris, 1998, pp. 163-84.

Idem, with Kh. Jindy Rashow, God and Sheykh Adi are Perfect: Sacred Hymns and Religious Narratives of the Yezidis, in the series Iranica, ed. M. Macuch, Berlin, forthcoming.

A. H. Layard, Nineveh and its Remains, 2 vols, London, 1849.

R. Lescot, Enquête sur les Yezidis de Syrie et du Djebel Sindjar, Beirut, 1938.

J. Menant, Les Ye‚zidiz : Épisodes de l’Histoire des Adorateurs du Diable, Paris, 1892.

A. Mingana, “Devil-worshippers; their beliefs and their sacred books,” JRAS, 1916, pp. 505-26.

Idem, “Sacred books of the Yezidis,” in ibid., 1921, pp. 117-19.

F. Nau and J. Tfinkdji, “Receuil de textes et de documents sur les Ye‚zidis,” Revue de l’Orient Chre‚tien, 2nd series, vol. 20, 1915-17, pp. 142-200, 225-75.

N. Siouffi, “Notice sur la secte des Ye‚zidis,” JA, ser. 7, vol. 19, 1882 pp. 252-68.

Idem, “Notice sur le Che‚ikh ‘Adi et la Secte des Ye‚zidis,” JA, ser. 8, vol. 5,1885, pp. 78-100.

Kh. Silêman, and Kh. Jindy, Êezadiyatî liber Ronaya Hindek Têkstêd Aînê ÊEzdiyan, Baghdad, 1979, repr. 1995 in Latin script, n.p.

A Survey and History of the Persian Population of the Caucasus

The article below “A Survey and History of the Persian population of the Caucasus” has been written by Farroukh Jorat. Kindly note that the images and accompanying descriptions do not appear in the original article by Jorat.

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Tats (variants of name: Caucasian Persians, Transcaucasian Persians) are the Iranian ethnos, presently living on the territory of Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation (mainly Southern Dagestan). Variants of self-designation (depending on the region) are Tati, Parsi, Daghli, Lohijon. Tats use Tati language, which together with Persian, Dari and Tajiki relates to the south-western Iranian languages. Azeri Turkic and the Russian language are also spread among Tats. Tats mainly are Shia Moslems, with a little number of Sunni Moslems.

History. Earliest mentioning about the presence of Persians in Transcaucasia relates to the martial expansion of Achaemenids (558-330 BC), during which they annexed Transcaucasia as the X, XI, XVIII and XIX satrapies of their empire [1]. This information has been verified by the archaeological investigations on the territory of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, during which ruins of Achaemenid architecture, pieces of jewelry and crockery have been discovered.

Achaemenid Palace at Qarajamirli

Excavation of the Achaemenid building at Qarajamirli. The researchers Babaev, Gagoshidze, Knauß and Florian in 2007 (An Achaemenid “Palace” at Qarajamirli (Azerbaijan) Preliminary Report on the Excavations in 2006. Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia, Volume 13, Numbers 1-2,, pp. 31-45(15)) discovered the remains of a monumental building as well as fragments of limestone column bases. This follows closely the plan of an Achaemenid palace featuring a symmetrical ground plan for the building as well as architectural sculpture. The pottery found on the floor closely follow Persian models from theAchaemenid era. Similar structures have been excavated from Sary Tepe (Republic of Azerbaijan) and Gumbati (Georgia). The Sary Tepe, Gumbati and Qarajamirli buildings can be interpreted as residences of Persian officials who left the region when Achaemenid Empire collapsed … for more on this topic see here

Nevertheless, there haven’t been more information about numerous and permanent Persian population in Transcaucasia since the Achaemenid period. It’s most likely to suppose that ancestors of modern Tats resettled to Transcaucasia in the time of the dynasty of Sassanids (III-VII CE), who built cities and founded military garrisons to strengthen their positions in this region [3].

Shah Khosrau I Anoushirvan (531-579) had presented a title of the regent of Shirvan (the region in the Eastern Transcaucasia) to a close relative of his, who later became a progenitor of the first Shirvanshah dynasty (about 510- 1538) [4].

Panoramic view of the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

After the region had been conquered by Arabs (VII-VIII) Islamization of the local population began. Since the XI century tribes of Oghuz, led by Seljuq dynasty started to penetrate into that region. A gradual formation of Azeri Turkic started. Apparently in this period an external name «Tat» or «Tati» was assigned to Transcaucasian dialect of the Persian language. This name came of Turkic term «tat», which designated settled farmers (mainly Persians) [5].

Mongols conquered Transcaucasia in the 30s of the XII century and the state of Ilkhanate was founded. Mongolian domination lasted till 60 – 70s of the XIV century, but that didn’t stop culture from developing – prominent poets and scientists lived and worked there during the XIII – XIV centuries.

In the end of the XIV century Transcaucasia was invaded by the army of Tamerlane. By the end the XIV-XV centuries the state of Shirvanshahs had obtained a considerable power, its diplomatic and economic ties had become stronger. By the middle of the XVI century the state of Shirvanshahs had been eliminated, Transcaucasia had been joined to the Safavidian Iran almost completely.

georgia_ii_f2

Map of the Caucasus region during the Safavid era (Source: Encyclopedia Iranica).

In the middle of the XVIII century Russia started to widen its influence over Transcaucasia. In the course of the Russian-Persian wars 1803-1828 Transcaucasian region became a part of the Russian Empire.

Since that time we can use data about quantity and settling of Tats, collected by tsarist authorities. When the city of Baku was occupied in the beginning of the XIX century, the whole population of the city (about 8000 of people) were Tats. This is an official result of the first census of the population of Baku, gained by Tsarist authorities.

According to the «Calendar of Caucasus» of the year 1894 there were 124693 of Tats in Transcaucasia [7]. But because of the gradual spreading of Azeri Turkic, Tati was passing out of use. During the Soviet period, after the official term «Azerbaijani» had been introduced into practice in the end of 1930s, the ethnic self-consciousness of Tats changed greatly. Many of them started to call themselves «azerbaijani», if in 1926 about 28443 of tats had been counted [8], in 1989 only 10239 of people recognized themselves as Tats [9].

In the year 2005 American researches, which carried out investigations in several villages of Guba, Devechi, Khizi, Siyazan, Ismailli and Shemakha districts of the Republic of Azerbaijan, indicated 15553 of Tats in these villages.

Summing up we can draw a conclusion, that there is no precise information about the real number of people speaking Tati, but we can presume, that today there are about several thousand of native speakers of Tati living in some villages of Guba, Devechi, Khizi, Siyazan, Ismailli and Shemakha districts of the Republic of Azerbaijan and also in several villages of Southern Dagestan.

Local self-designation of groups of Tati population. Ethnonym «Tati» has Turkic origin; it has been used in Transcaucasia since Middle Ages for naming local Persian-speaking population. Later Persians of Transcaucasia have started to use this ethnonym for naming themselves. The majority of Tati population of Azerbaijan and Southern Dagestan uses the term «tati» or «tat» as a self-designation. Nevertheless today there are some other self-designations of local groups of «Tati» population in Azerbaijan, like- parsi, daghli, lohuj [11].

Parsi. The term «parsi» has been used by tats of Apsheron (Balakhani, Surakhani villages) till the present day as self-designation and also as an indication of tati language «zuhun parsi». This term relates to Middle Persian self-designation of Persians – pārsīk. It is interesting, that the same term also stood for the Middle Persian language itself; compare with – «pārsīk ut pahlavīk» – Persian and Parthian. During the New Iranian language period the final consonant naturally fell off and New Persian form of ethnonym was supposed to become pārsī. But this form wasn’t used in Iran and was replaced by Arabized (and artificial in certain respects) form – fārs.

An Iranian man of the Russian Empire photographed sometime in 1870-1886 (Source: Alex Q. Arbuckle in Mashable Website).

Most likely that Ethnonym «parsi» had been the original self-designation of Transcaucasian Persians, till it was replaced by Turkic name «tat». It is significant to mention that some groups of Persian-speaking population of Afghanistan together with Zoroastrians of India (so-called Parsi) use the term «Parsi» as a self-designation.

Nowruz-Baku

(LEFT) Talysh girls from the Republic of Azerbaijan (ancient Arran or Albania) engaged in the Nowruz celebrations of March 21. The Talysh speak an Iranian language akin to those that were spoken throughout Iranian Azarbaijan before the full onset of linguistic Turkification by the 16-17th century CE (RIGHT) Young girls in Baku celebrating the Nowruz.

Lohijon. Citizens of tati settlement Lahij of Ismailli district name themselves after their village «Lohuj» (plural «Lohijon»). Lahij is the most densely populated tati urban village (about 10 thousand citizens). It is situated in the region, which is rather difficult of access; this fact has prevented local population from contacts with outside world and has led to creation of their own isolated self-designation «Lohuj».

Daghli Tats of Khizi district and partly of Devechi and Siyazan districts use another term of Turkic origin – «daghli» («mountaineers») for naming themselves. Obviously, this term has later origin and initially was used by Turki plainsmen of that district for naming tati population living in mountains. In time as a result of spreading of Azeri Turkic, the term «daghli» has strongly come into use and tats of Khizi district started to use it as a self-designation themselves.

At present Tats are making attempts to return to the original self-designation «parsi» together with use of Persian language as a literary standard.

At the 14th of December 1990 during the board of the Ministry of justice of the Azerbaijan SSR the cultural and educational society «Azeri» for studying and development of Tati language, history and ethnography was founded. The primer and the textbook of Tati language together with literary and folklore pieces were published.

Farming Traditional occupations of the Tati population are ploughing agriculture, vegetable-growing, gardening and cattle-breeding. Main cultures are barley, rye, wheat, millet, sunflower, maize, potatoes and peas. Large vineyards and fruit gardens are widespread. Sheep, cows, horses, donkeys, buffalos and rarely camels are kept as domestic cattle.

Blank wall of traditional one- or two-story houses was facing the street. Houses are made of rectangular limestone blocks or river shingles. The roof is flat with an opening for the stone flue pipe of the fireplace. The upper store of the house was used for habitation; household quarters (like kitchen etc.) were situated on the ground floor. One of walls of the living room was provided with several niches for storing of clothes, bed linen and sometimes crockery. Rooms were illuminated by lamps or through the opening in the roof. House furniture consisted of low couches, carpets and mattresses. Fireplaces, braziers and ovens were used for heating.

The closed yard had a garden. There was a verandah (ayvan), a paved drain or a small basin (tendir), covered cattle-pan, stable and hen-house.

Religion Originally Persians, like the majority of other Iranian peoples, were Zoroastrians. After they had been enslaved by Arabian caliphate, Islam became widely spread. Today tats mainly are Shia Moslems, with a little number of Sunni Moslems.

Culture During a long period of time naturalize Persian settlers of Transcaucasia have interacted with surrounding ethnic groups sharing their culture and adopting some elements of other cultures simultaneously. Useful arts like carpet-making, hand-weaving, manufacture of metal fabrics, embossing and incrustation are highly developed. The arts of ornamental design and miniature are also very popular [12].

Spoken folk art of tats is very rich. Genres of national poetry like ruba’is, ghazals, beyts are highly developed. While studying works of Persian medieval poets of Transcaucasia – Khaqani Nezami – some distinctive features peculiar to the Tati language have been revealed.

Baku Fire Temple-UNESCO

The main fire altar at the Atashgah or Atash-kade (Zoroastrian Fire-Temple) of Baku in the Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918) (Picture Source: Panoramio). This site is now registered with UNESCO as a world heritage site. 

As a result of long historical co-existence of tats and Azerbaijani Turkis a lot of common features in the field of farming, housekeeping and culture have developed. Modern Azerbaijani folklore apparently has grown up from Iranian substratum [13].

Traditional women clothes: long shirt, wide trousers worn outside, slim line dress, outer unbuttoned dress, headscarf and morocco stockings, men clothes: Circassian coat, high fur-cap. Great number of Tats live in mountains, work for the industry, social group of intelligentsia has formed.

An elderly Iranian man from the Caucasus as photographed by George Kennan in 1871 (Source: Pinterest).

Tats, Mountain Jews and Armenians

The Tati language was widely spread in Eastern Transcaucasia. It is proved by the fact that down to the XX-th century it had been used by the non-Moslem groups of population: mountain Jews, part of Armenians and Udins [14]. This fact has led to a false idea, that Tats (Moslem), tati-speaking Mountain Jews and tati-speaking Armenians (Christians) are one nation, practicing three different religions.

Tats and Mountain Jews

Mountain Jews belong to the community of Persian-speaking Jews on the basis of the language and some other characteristics. Some groups of this community live in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia (Bukharian Jews). Jews of the Central Asia got the name «Mountain» only in the XIX century, when all Caucasian peoples were named «mountain» in official Russian documentation. Mountain Jews call themselves «Yeudi» («Jews») or «Juhuri» [15].

In the year 1888 A. Sh. Anisimov showing the closeness of languages of mountain Jews and Caucasian Persians (Tats) in his work «Caucasian Jews-Mountaineers» came to a conclusion, that mountain Jews were representatives of «Iranian family of Tats», which had adopted Judaism in Iran and later moved to Transcaucasia.

Ideas of Anisimov were supported during the Soviet period: the popularization of the idea of the mountain Jews «tati» origin started in 30-s. By efforts of several mountain Jews, closely connected with regime, the false idea of mountain Jews being non-jews at all, but «Judaismized» tats became widely spread. Some Mountain Jews started to register themselves as tats because of secret pressure from the direction of authorities.

2-Sergey-Prokudin-Gorsky

A Daghestani couple photographed in 1910 by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (Source: Reorientmag).

As a result of this situation words «tat» and «mountain Jew» became synonyms. The term «tat» was mistakenly used in the research literature as the second or even first naming for Mountain Jews.

This brought to the situation when the whole cultural heritage (literature, theatre, music), created by Mountain Jews during the Soviet period, was arrogated to Tats despite the fact that they had nothing in common with it.

Furthermore, comparing physic-anthropological characteristics of Tats and Mountain Jews together with the information about their languages, we can see that there are no signs of ethnic unity between these two nations.

Grammatical structure of Mountain Jews dialect is much older than the tati language itself. That creates a certain communication gap. [Generally speaking, archaic basis is typical for all «Jewish» languages: for Sephardis language (ladino), which is old-Spanish, for Ashkenazi language (Yiddish) – old-German and etc. At the same time all of these languages are satiated with words of old-Jewish origin.] Having turned to the Persian language, Jews nevertheless kept a layer of adoptions from Aramaic and Old-Jewish languages in their dialect, including those words, which were not connected with Judaic rituals (zoft«resin», nokumi «envy», ghuf «body», keton «linen» etc.) Some word combinations in the language of Mountain Jews have a structure typical for old-Jewish language.

Physic-anthropological types of Caucasian Persians (Tats) and Mountain Jews not only bear no similarities, they are almost opposite to each other.

4-Caucasian-Jews

Two residents of Derbent in the early 20th century (Source: Reorientmag).

In the year 1913 anthropologist K.M. Kurdov carried out measurements of a large group of Tati population of Lahij village and revealed fundamental difference (cephalic index average value is 79,21) of their physic-anthropological type from the type of mountain Jews. Measurements of Tats and Mountain Jews were also made by some other researches.  Cephalic index average value for the Tats of The Republic of Azerbaijan differs from 77,13 to 79,21, for Mountain Jews of Daghestan and The Republic of Azerbaijan  – form 86,1 до 87,433. Some measurements have also showed that, for Tats mesocephalia and dolichocephalia are typical, while extreme brachycephalia is typical for Mountain Jews, hence there are no facts proving that these two nations are related.

Moreover, dermatoglyphics characteristics (relief of the inside of the palm) of the Tats and Mountain Jews also exclude ethnic similarity.

It is evident, that speakers of Mountain-Jew dialect and Tati language are representatives of two different nations, each owing its own religion, ethnic consciousness, self-designation, way of life, material and mental values.

Tats and Armenians Some sources and publications of XVIII-XX indicate citizens of several Tati-speaking village of Transcaucasia as Armenian Tats, Armeno-Tats, Christian Tats and Gregorian Tats. Authors of these works offered a hypothesis that a part of Persians of Eastern Transcaucasia had adopted Armenian Apostolic Christianity, but they do not take into consideration the fact that those citizens identify themselves as Armenians.

However, the hypothesis that Tati-speaking Armenians are descended from Persians can’t be called reliable and well-founded for several reasons.

3-Baku-Fire-Temple

An illustration of Baku’s Zoroastrian fire temple (Persian: Atashgah) from John Usher’s 1865 travelogue, A Journey from London to Persepolis (Source: Reorientmag).

Within political situation existing in Transcaucasia in the time of Sassanids and later under Moslem dynasties, Christianity wasn’t a privileged religion. Zoroastrianism dominated in the time of Sassanids, later – Islam. Under such circumstances there were no stimuli for Persian population to reduce their high social status by adopting Christianity.

If Tati-speaking Armenians had been descendant to Persians, they should have used at least some Iranian terms connected with Christian way of life and rituals. But there no such words in their language, which they call themselves «Parseren», i.e. «Persian». All words related to Christianity are exceptionally Armenian: terter «priest» (instead of due Persian kešiš), zam «church» (instead of due Persian kilse), knunk‘ «christening» (instead of due Persian ghosl ta’mid), zatik «Easter» (instead of due Persian fesh),pas «Lent» (instead of due Persian ruze) and etc.

There are evident traces of phonological, lexical, grammatical and calque Armenian substratum in the dialect of Tati-speaking Armenians. Also there are Armenian affricates «ծ», «ց», «ձ» in words of Iranian origin, which do not exist in Tati language. This can only be explained by the influence Armenian substratum.

Regardless the fact that they have lost the language, the group of Armenians managed to preserve their national identity. Important aspect of it is distinct dichotomy «Us-They» with opposition of «Us» («hay») to Moslems («tajik»), Tats and Azeri together with conception of themselves as a suffering part and nation with tragic historical destiny.

Summing up all above-mentioned facts, we can say that «armenian-tats» have always been and now are Armenians, who managed to preserve their Christian religion, but had to accept the Tati language owing to its dominant position and the fact that they were isolated from the centers of Armenian culture.

Photos of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian Fire Temple) in Tbilisi, Georgia

The photos of the Zoroastrian fire temple or Atashgah of Tbilisi in Georgia were provided to kavehfarrokh.com in late 2017 by Dr. Nader Gohari of Durham University, who is an avid researcher and scholar of Iranian Studies.

Panoramic view of the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

Georgia, like ancient Albania (known as Republic of Azerbaijan since May 27, 1918) and Armenia have stood at the crossroads between Anatolia, the civilizations of ancient Persia or Iran and Eastern Europe.

[A, C] Views of the stairway of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi; [B] Plaque at wall to right of bottom stairway providing a short history of the Atashgah and its protected status as a heritage site by the Georgian government (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

Alongside the impact of the major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the Caucasus continues to bear a strong ancient Iranian imprint as witnessed for example by the Kurdish Yezidis who live in both Georgia and Armenia to this day.

Concave structure at one of the top corners of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

As noted by the late British historian Mark Whittow (1957-2017) who taught as a professor at Oxford University:

The oldest outside influence in Trans-Caucasia is that of Persia…many of its populations, including Armenians and Georgians, as well as Persians and Kurds, the Transcaucasus had much closer ties with the former Sassanian world to its south and east than with the world to the west” [1996, pages 203-204; Whittow, M. (1996). The Making of Byzantium: 600-1025. Berkley: University of California Press].

Despite the conversion of Georgia to Christianity in the 4th century CE, Zoroastrianism continued to endure in local culture of the region. Officially, it was King Mirian (Persian: Mehran) who converted to Christianity in 337 CE. Despite this, the name “Ohrmazd” (Ahura Mazda) continued to be invoked by the local peasantry who referred to their deity as “Armazi”.

Platform providing access into the the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

The Locals of ancient Georgia are believed to have provided offerings to Aramzi or Ohrmazd in a locale in close proximity to what is identified as “Bridge of the Magi” (Lang, 1956, pages 22-23; “St. Nino and the Conversion of Georgia,” Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints, translated by D.M. Lang (1956), London: Allen & Unwin).

Mock-up view of the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

Farroukh Jorat: Iranian Elements in the Culture of the Ancient Slavs

The article below has been written by Farroukh Jorat and first appeared in Fravahr.org. Kindly note that the images and accompanying captions do not appear in the original posting in Fravahar.org. For readers interested in articles highlighting links between ancient Iranian civilizations and Europe, consult the link below:

Europa and Eire-An (ancient Persia or Iran)

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In the early Middle Ages (III-X centuries AD) Eastern Slavs contacted with Baltics in the north, with Germans in the west and with Eastern Iranians in the south-east. Interaction of the Eastern Slavs to the Iranians left their mark on the languages and in the religious culture of the East Slavic peoples (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians). Let us consider some of the elements of the ancient culture of the Eastern Slavs with Iranian origin.

Semargl (Simurgh)

In 980 in the “Tale of Bygone Years” (Povest vremennykh let) in the list of gods, which were revered in Kiev, was noted deity Semargl. Researcher Vasily Abaev believed that the name of this deity origin from Zoroastrian Simurg. Word Semargl borrowed into the Old Russian language from the Scythian and had the original form Senmarγ [1].

Simurg is the mythological character, combining the traita of dog and bird (Old Iranian Saena mərəγo, “dog-bird”). Russian historian Boris Rybakov believed that the images of winged hounds in the art of ancient Russia represent the image of Semargl [2].

[LEFT] Coat of Arms of Semargl used by the ancient dukes and leaders of ancient Russia (Sarmatia) [RIGHT] Green and yellow Iranian silk decorated with the Sassanian Senmurv motif – this sample was once used for wrapping the relics of St Lupus of Troyes (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006; Simargl image also available in J.H. in Pinterest – Simurgh image from Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris). After the arrival of Christianity in Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine, the Simargl symbol and its cult was denounced as “evil” and “Satanic”.

In 1873 in Glazov county of Vyatka province was discovered a silver dish with the image of Simurg. It was manufactured in the VIII century AD in Iran or Central Asia. After the adoption of Christianity in Rus in 988 image of Semargl has been replaced and forgotten.

Irey

In the “Instructions” (Pouchenia) of Vladimir Monomakh (1053-1125) is a mention about mythical southern country Irey, where the birds fly away in winter and identified with paradise. The most convincing etymology of the word irey is from Old Iranian *airuā-(dahyu-) “Aryan land”. Apparently, this word was borrowed by the Eastern Slavs from Sarmatian tribes. A similar parallels also observed in the language of the Sami, one of the Finno-Ugric Peoples of Russia: Årjel “south”, år’jān “far to the south”, Old Sami *orja “South”.

A copper-engraved map printed in London (approximately in 1770, unknown publishers) based on ancient Greek sources displaying “Sarmatia Europæa” and “Sarmatia Asiatica” by the River Don (Source: Public domain). Colchis and Iberia are now approximatley in modern-day Georgia, with the region Albania renamed as “Azerbaijan” in May 1918. The historical Azerbaijan (Azarbaijan) has been located in northwest Iran below the Araxes River as seen partly in the region of Media at bottom right of the map.

Div

In the “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” (Slovo o polku Igoreve) (end of XII century) mentioned div as demonic character, sitting on a tree and his whistle presaged the failure of the campaign of Prince Igor at Cumans. The image associated with the Devas — the servants of Ahriman from Zoroastrian mythology.

Dahl VI in his Explanatory dictionary … noted about one of the meanings of Russian word div: “ominous bird, probably an owl”. From this we can conclude that the prototype image of div in the Eastern Slavic culture is owl with a sinister reputation of foreboding.

A reconstruction by Cernenko and Gorelik of the north-Iranian Saka or Scythians in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). The ancient Iranians (those in ancient Persia and the ones in ancient Eastern Europe) often had women warriors and chieftains, a practice not unlike those of the contemporary ancient Celts in ancient Central and Western Europe. While this topic is often ignored in the media, news outlets, education and academic venues, Ancient Iran has had a profound influence on Europeans and their cultural development. For more on this, see the Dissertation of Dr. Sheda Vasseghi (2017), Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England, Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh.

Footnotes

[1] Abayev VI. Scythian-European Isogloss. At the crossroads of East and West. (Skifo-evropeyskie izoglossy. Na styke Vostoka I Zapada). In Russian.

[2] BA Rybakov. Paganism of Old Slavs. (Yazichestvo drevnikh slavian). In Russian

The “Middle East”: An Invented Term from the 20th Century

The Persian Heritage journal recently published an article by Kaveh Farrokh and Sheda Vasseghi (click the link below in Academia.edu for downloading the entire article):

Farrokh, K., & Vasseghi, Sh. (2017). The “Middle East”: An Invented Term from the 20th Century. Persian Heritage, 88, pp.12-14.

Note that Sheda Vasseghi obtained her PhD recently from the University of new England (click the link below in Academia.edu for downloading her Dissertation):

Sheda Vasseghi (2017). Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England, Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh.

As averred to in the initial parts of the Farrokh-Vasseghi article (page 12):

Among one of the 20th century’s most enduring legacies is the invention of the term “The Middle East”. A brief examination of the origins of the “Middle East” term will reveal it to be a contrived geopolitical expression of Anglo-British origin. Despite this the “Middle East” term is often used by scholars, the media and laypersons, as if it were a valid, logical and scientific concept. More specifically the terms “Middle East” and “Middle Eastern” are often assumed to portray a cultural, anthropological and historical unity like the terms “Europe” and “European” for example. In practice the “Middle East” terminology has served to create profound misconceptions with respect to the greater West Asia region. As a simplistic term, the “Middle East” invention has done little to ease growing geopolitical issues at the international level.

The term “Middle East” was first invented by Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914). Mahan’s invention first appeared in the September 1902 issue of London’s monthly “National review” in an article entitled “The Persian Gulf and International Relations”. Specifically, Mahan wrote: “The Middle East, if I may adopt the term which I have not seen…”.  The term – Middle East – when examined in cultural, anthropological and cultural terms makes very little sense. Iran and Turkey for example are not Arab countries and in fact share a long-standing Turco-Iranian or Persianate civilization distinct from the Arabo-Islamic dynamic. Instead, the Turks and Iranians have strong ties to the Caucasus and Central Asia (Image: Encyclopedia Brittanica).

The article discusses the history of how (and why) the “Middle East” term (or myth?) was invented. As noted in the above quote of the article the term [Middle East] is often used by scholars, the media and laypersons, as if it were a valid, logical and scientific concept.

Mahan’s invented term “Middle East” was popularized by Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852-1929), a journalist designated as “a special correspondent from Tehran” by The Times newspaper. Chirol’s seminal article “The Middle Eastern Question” expanded Mahan’s version of the “Middle East” to now include “Persia, Iraq, the east coast of Arabia, Afghanistan, and Tibet”. Surprised? Yes, you read correctly -Tibet! The term Middle East was (and is) a colonial construct used to delineate British (and now West European and US) geopolitical and economic interests. These same interests help promote the usage of terminology such as “Islamic arts and architecture”  (Image: Ria Press).

As expostulated in the article, the term “Middle East” is a geopolitical term. Western media outlets, political platforms and entertainment venues have been using the “Middle East” term since the early 20th century, however the term itself is neither scientific nor historical.

Mahan and Chirol’s invention (Middle East) provided the geopolitical terminology required to rationally organize the expansion of British political, military and economic interests into the Persian Gulf region. After the First World War, Winston Churchill (above –  1874-1965) became the head of the newly established “Middle East Department”.  Churchill’s department redefined Mahan’s original “The Middle East” invention to now include the Suez Canal, the Sinai, the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the newly created states of Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan. Tibet and Afghanistan were now excluded from London’s Middle East grouping. The decision to include non-Arab Iran as a member of the “Middle East” in 1942 was to rationalize the role of British political and Petroleum interests in the country (Image: Wikipedia).

As discussed towards the concluding sections of the Farrokh-Vasseghi article (page 14):

The first and foremost impact of the “Middle East” concept is in how Iranians continue to be classified by the majority of North Americans as an Arab country. Jack Shaheen for example had discovered as far back as the 1980s that over 80 percent of North Americans believe Iranians to be Arabs and Arabic-speaking. Again the term “Muslim” (pronounced /Moozlem/ in North American outlets) appears to be the catalyst for these misconceptions – the notion that if a region is Islamic in religion (regardless of sect or denomination, etc.) then all persons associated with that region must somehow be automatically Arabs and/or share the same language, culture and civilization. However not all Arabs are Islamic in faith as there are also Christian Arabs whose roots go back for centuries before the arrival of the Islamic religion. Thus even the Western conception of Arabs is simplistic and misleading.

Words and terminologies can have a significant impact, especially when these are applied erroneously with respect to the understanding of identity and culture. Put simply, politically invented terminologies such as “Middle East” and “Muslim World” often represent a colonialist-economic power viewpoint. “

The “Middle East” myth has in turn led to the rise of yet more politically-based terminologies. These in turn have entered the domains of scholarship, popular media outlets and political discourse. One such example is noted by Souren Malekian (see full article here …):

“Political bias often leads to absurd categorization. Even so, few among the arbitrary constructs adopted by the West as a result of 19th-century colonial attitudes can beat the meaningless concept of “Islamic art.” Its corrosive effect on academic thinking is matched by its counterproductive effect in the art market. By lumping together works of art that are not remotely related aesthetically or conceptually, it leads to a visual confusion that is unhelpful, to put it mildly. … Orientalism has barely changed its colors…”

The landmark textbook “Orientalism” by the late Edward Said (1935-2003) originally published in 1979 (for more information on this text see – Amazon.com). As noted in the Amazon.com link: This entrenched view [of the “Orient”] continues to dominate western ideas and, because it does not allow the East to represent itself, prevents true understanding.”

Professor Jalal Matini has been addressing concerns with respect to (politically motivated) terminology such as “Islamic Science” and “Islamic Arts” since the early 1980s. Matini was the chief editor of the peer-reviewed Iranshenasi journal which examined and published a review of Kaveh Farrokh’s second text Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا- (click the link below in Academia.edu for downloading a copy of the review of Farrokh’s text by Farhad mafie in the peer-reviewed Iranshenasi journal):

Mafie, Farhad (2010). Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh. Iranshenasi, Volume XXII, No.1, Spring 2010, pp.1-5.

Professor Jalal Matini (standing at podium), the Chief Editor of the Iranshenasi journal  flanked by the late Iranian poet and thinker, Nader Naderpour (seated at left) at UCLA.

The Farrokh-Vasseqhi article endeavors to provide an educational and dispassionate examination of the challenges posed by the invention and application of simplistic terminologies aimed at rationalizing geopolitical interests.