An English spiritualist’s Yezidi encounters

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John G Bennett (died 1974) travelled widely in the regions now lying between the Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian borders in the early 1950s, visiting tekkes, zawiyas and other sacred sites, later settling in England to establish the Coombe Springs sanctuary for spiritualist studies.

Saturday 31st October 1953

After Nimrud, we had an experience of quite a different order when we went a few miles east to visit the church and convent of St. Behman. Behman was a Christian convert of the fourth century, who, with his sister Sarah and forty other converts, was martyred by the Parthians. [...] The tomb became a centre of pilgrimage, and a monastery was founded to house the monks who wished to settle near the tomb of the saint. The first church was built in the fifth century. Since then the monastery and church have had many vicissitudes, being at one time left unoccupied for over a century. In the twelfth century, the monastery was the scene of an amazing activity. It was the main centre of pilgrimage in the Kurdish highlands, and a school of masons was established that built seven extraordinary doorways. [...] The doors are surrounded by inscriptions in Aramaic script. One door is dated 1148 AD and the latest was built in the thirteenth century, but not completed.

In 1295 AD, when he was making his onslaught on Arabia, which led to the final destruction of the Abbasid caliphate, Halugu reached Nimrud and Nineveh and his army camped on the banks of the Tigris. His nephew, Bedr Khan, was commanding one of the hordes which sacked the  convent of St. Behman. The Abbot went to Bedr Khan to complain and the matter was brought to the notice of Halagu, who ordered that everything should be restored. He himself visited the monastery and with his own had made wakf in its favour. This was carved in stone in the church and we were shown the actual inscription, which is still said to be the only written reocrd of the Mongol invasion. [...] A still more amazing story was told to us by the French-speaking monk who showed us round. This was to the effect that the Yezidis regard this place a specially sacred and come  here regularly to make offerings of sheep and other animals. We said that it was strange that the Yezidis, who believe that the Devil has power over the world, should worship at the shrine of a saint who overcame the Devil. The monk said that the Yezidis will not have it that the shrine is Christian at all, but belongs to one of their saints and founders, the Prophet Elijah, or as they call him, the Miracle Worker Elias – Hodhr Elias. The Yezidis have often tried to take possession of the shrine, and at one time in the twelfth century occupied it twice for several years. Strangely enough, they did not touch or damage any of the Christian relics. [...] The monk assured us that miraculous cures still occurred. Only five years ago, a yung man from Mosul, who had been paralysed since childhood, was carried to the tomb and left there overnight. In the morning he had completely recovered. He is still living in Mosul, and we were invited to look him up.

[...] When I heard about the Yezidis, I noticed the remarkable fact that Jews, Christians, Moslems, Druzes and Yezidis, in spite of all other differences, agree in venerating the Prophet Elijah, the Miracle Worker. The Yezidis, who believe in reincarnation, regard Elijah as the second or third Avatar of the founder of their religion.

Sunday 1st November 

This day is memorable for my visit to the sacred shrine of the Yezidis at Sheikh Adi. [...] We went through Khorsabad, and then up into the hills past Junahiye, the road, for most part, being a toprah yolu made very comfortable by the recent rain that had laid the dust without making it muddy. We had to cross two or three streams and we passengers were a little nervous for the car, but the driver, took them with confidence. At Ayn Sifri, we stopped to call on the Kaimakam of the Qaza where we were entertained with coffee and mint tea. After this, the road grew steeper and the country quite deserted. We climbed up a narrow valley, flanked by limestone rocks, until we reached a thickly wooded hillside. [...] the Yezidi religion forbids the cutting of live trees [...]. Indeed the trees on the way to Sheikh Adi are remarkable. There were several varieties of maple and of oak, figs, mulberries, olive, ilex and many others. I realised here how different all these countries must have been before the destruction of the forests.

[...] The shrine has the typical conical towers of early Arab tombs, and as we came round the final bend we were met by the priest in charge, or sheikh [....] called Kemal (and) is a youngish man with very gently eyes. He has the quietness and relaxation I am accustomed to associate with inner work. [...] We were permitted to enter the sanctuary, which must be approached barefooted. It is a rule of the Yezidis that one must not step on the threshold stone. The sanctuary door is new, but beside it there is a very old wall with a large black serpent engraved on it and many symbols cut in stone. The black snake is sacred for the Yezidis and they will never kill one.

[...] I asked the Sheikh Kemal if he could explain the symbols and asked first about the one shaped like a walking stick. He replied that this refers to a personal belonging of Shekih Adi. About (another) he said that it stood for food. It is the ladle that is dipped into the dish at the ceremonial feast and passed around to all the worshippers to share. [...] About another he would say nothing except that they had forgotten its meaning. This may or may not be true, but I guess it is connected with the seven archangels who rule over the world: Gabrail, Michail, Raphael, Azrael, Dedrail, Azraphil and Shembreh. [...] Inside the sanctuary there is a spring of water from which worshippers are given to drink at the Great Festival and in which the children are baptized. [...] The Tomb of Shaikh Adi is like a conventional Moslem catafalque, in a regular stone box, draped with fine embroided silks. All the colours are red, yellow and green – blue being regarded by the Yezidis as an accursed colour and never used in any fabric or painting. Behind the tomb is an entrance that leads into a passage in the rock that were were not allowed to approach. I believe that here is kept the most sacred relic, a silver peacock supposed to represent the Melek Dhegaus, or evil power, that is for the time being in rebellion against God.  It is, of course, the peculiar role assigned by the Yezidis to the Denying Force that has given them the reputation of being worshippers of the Devil. No one, but the pirs and the sheikhs, has ever seen the sacred symbol [...]. It is  not worshipped as an idol, but looked upon as a symbol of the Melek el Kout, or mighty angel, to whose power the earth has, for a season, been delivered. The Melek el Kout, who is the evil force in the world, is now suffering punishment for his rebellion against the divine will, but when his present task is accomplished of testing the fidelity of mankind, he will be pardoned an dwill be the Judge of the world to come. It is also believed that the Melek el Kout rendered great services to Jesus Christ, who has interceded for him with God. But I am not at all sure that this belief is really held by the Yezidis or is a misunderstanding of the Kurdish interpreter (who, by the way, is a devout Moslem).[...] About Sheikh Adi himself, I could learn nothing. He is the supreme saint of the Yazidis, and this place, here he is believed to have been buried, is their most sacred shrine. It is for them what Mecca is to the Moslems or Jerusalem to the Christians. It is interesting to note here that the Yezidis of the Caucasus, of whom Gurdjieff writes in his Second Series, fled to Russia in the nineteenth century to escape the persecution of the Kurdish Chieftains.

[...] the Kurdish interpreter, himself an ex-gendarme who has been to Sheikh Adi on duty hundreds of times, told me that during the week of the [Annual] festival, men and women live apart and maintain a state of the strictest ritual purity. The music and singing are repeated on three successive evenings, and visitors are freely admitted as spectators.[..] The festival lasts only three days, but the Yezidis spend about a week at the sanctuary. When they arrive, there is an elaborate cleansing ritual in the stream below, and when they enter the sanctuary area, they are always barefooted and remain so as long as they are there. The sanctuary area includes the surrounding groves of olive, oak and maple. The olive tree is held sacred, and the olive tree produced at the sanctuary is used only for ritual purposes at the shrine and in the shrines which are in all Yezidi villages. The ceremonial turns upon the ritual slaying of the white bull [...].

It is my belief that they are descended from the ancient Chaldeans. Their own tradition is that they migrated from the South, and they may well be the lost remnants of the Babylonian Magi who disappeared after the time of Alexander of Macedon. Their cult is a hotch potch of Sabean, Christian and Islamic traditions – probably various legends were borrowed from time to time to link up their beliefs with those current in the surrounding world. [...] I have forgotten to mention that when I asked Shiekh Kemal when Sheikh Adi had lived, he said: ‘Thousands of years ago – long before Elias’. So we may have to go back 4,500 years for the origin of these cults, even though their direct affiliation may be with a much later period. The one undoubted fact is that the Yezidis have held their own through centuries of ferocious persecution. They are so faithful to their creed that no one knows of a Yezidi who has been convered either by force of persuasion to Christianity or Islam. Morevover, seeing them in their villages and speaking to their sheikhs, one is quite sure of the presence of some faith that sustains them.

Source: John G. Bennett, Journeys in Islamic Countries, Volume Two, Coombe Springs Press, 1977


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