Tom Knox Books

Genesis Secret: the Yezidi

For many readers, this might be the most intriguing material in the book – after the revelations about Gobekli Tepe. Again, I am happy to say it is nearly all true (except they don’t kidnap people, of course); the Yezidi even believe their sacred Black Book was “taken by an Englishman” – something I was delighted to discover, while I was learning about the “cult of angels” – because it fitted my plot perfectly.

I visited the Yezidi community in Germany as part of my research for the book; during my time with them, their community back in Iraq suffered a terrible atrocity. As a result I wrote the following article, first published in the Sunday Telegraph in London; it sums up most of what is relevant about this incredible people and their mind-blowingly ancient religion. The Yezidi are a great survival. Long may they thrive.

The Devil Worshippers of Iraq

I’m in a scruffy community hall, on the outskirts of Celle, a north German town, famous for its cobbled streets and castle.

Schloss at Celle

On the walls of the hall are pictures of dark blue peacocks. Sitting at various tables around the room are dozens of devil worshippers. At least, that’s what some people call them.

Though we don’t know it yet, right now in Iraq, several suicide bombs are going off near Mosul: killing maybe 400. These victims belong to the same faith as those gathered here today.

They are Yezidi. And I’m here to unearth the reality of their fascinating religion. Why do they have such fraught relations with outsiders? Do they really worship the Devil?

The Yezidi of Celle are one of the largest groups of their sect – outside the homeland of Kurdish Iraq. There may be 7000 in this small town. Yezidis across the world number between 400,000 and 800,000.

Today the Yezidi in Celle don’t seem keen to talk. I’m not totally surprised: I have been warned about the Yezidis’ wariness of strangers, born of their centuries of appalling persecution.

Eventually a dark, thickset man turns to me. He points to one of the peacocks on the wall:

Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel

‘That is Melek Taus, the peacock angel. We worship him.’ He sips his tea, and adds: ‘Ours is the oldest religion in the world. Older than Islam; older than Christianity.’

After this cryptic statement he returns to his friends.

Luckily there is another Yezidi organisation in Celle who are said to be more forthcoming. On the way to meet their spokesman, I go through the bizarre beliefs of the Yezidi.

It’s an impressive list. The Yezidi honour sacred trees. Women must not cut their hair. Marriage is forbidden in April. They refuse to eat lettuce, pumpkins, and gazelles. They avoid wearing dark blue because it is “too holy”.

They are divided strictly into castes, who cannot marry each other. The upper castes are polygamous. Anyone of the faith who marries a non-Yezidi risks ostracism, or worse. Some weeks ago a young girl was stoned to death by her Yezidi menfolk, in Iraq; she had fallen in love with a Muslim and was trying to convert. The sickening murder was filmed, and beamed around the Net, adding to the Yezidis’ unhappy reputation.

Yezidism is syncretistic: it combines elements of many faiths. Like Hindus, they believe in reincarnation. Like ancient Mithraists, they sacrifice bulls. They practise baptism, like Christians. When they pray they face the sun, like Zoroastrians. They profess to revile Islam, but there are strong links with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.

It’s a remarkably confusing picture. And I still haven’t got an answer to the main question: do they worship “Satan”?

Yezidi women in Celle; they REALLY didn't want to be photographed, so I took a surreptitious shot. Sorry, ladies

In the centre of town I am greeted by Halil Savucu, a westernised spokesman for the Yezidi; also with us is Uta Tolle, a German scholar of Yezidism.
Yezidi women in Celle; they really didn’t want to be photographed, so I took a surreptitious shot. Sorry, ladies
In Halil’s Mercedes we drive into the suburbs. On the way, the two of them give me their view of the faith.

‘Yezidi is oral, not literary,’ says Uta. ‘This is why is it sometimes hard to pin down precise beliefs. There are religious texts, like the Black Book, but they are not crucial. The faith is really handed down by kawwas, sort of musical preachers.’

And who is Melek Taus? Halil looks slightly uncomfortable: ‘We believe he is a proud angel, who rebelled and was thrown into Hell by God.

He stayed there forty thousand years, until his tears quenched the fires of the underworld. Now he is reconciled to God.’

But is he good or evil? ‘He is both. Like fire. Flames can cook but they can also burn. The world is good and bad.’

For a Yezidi to say they worship the devil is understandably difficult. It is their reputation as infidels – as genuine “devil worshippers” – which has led to their fierce persecution over time, especially by Muslims. Saddam Hussein intensified this suppression.

But some Yezidi do claim that Melek Taus is “the devil”. One hereditary leader of the Yezidi, Mir Hazem, said in 2005: ‘I cannot say this word [devil] out loud because it is sacred. It’s the chief of angels. We believe in the chief of angels.’

There are further indications that Melek Taus is “the devil”. The parallels between the story of the peacock angel’s rebellion, and the story of Lucifer, cast into Hell by the Christian God, are surely too close to be coincidence. The very word “Melek” is cognate with “Moloch”, the name of a Biblical demon – who demanded human sacrifice.

The avian imagery of Melek Taus also indicates a demonic aspect. The Yezidi land of Kurdistan was once home to the Sumerians and Assyrians. Sumerian gods were often cruel: and equipped with beaks and wings. Birdlike. Three thousand years ago the Assyrians worshipped flying demons, spirits of the desert wind. Such as Pazuzu, the demon from The Exorcist.

The Sumerian wind-demon: Pazuzu

Taking all this evidence into account, a fair guess is that Yezidism is a remnant of Sumerian bird-worship: a faith that could date back six thousand years. Or more. Over the centuries, new and powerful creeds, like Islam and Christianity, have swept through Yezidi Kurdistan, threatening to destroy the “angelicans”. But Yezidism has adapted, by incorporating aspects of these other religions: like a species that survives by blending into the landscape.

We’ve reached Halil’s house. ‘Look at this’. He is showing me a picture of the peacock angel, and also a copper sanjak – another representation of Melek Taus. When I have taken some photos, we all sit down to spaghetti bolognaise, with Halil’s wife and their chatty kids. It suddenly seems a long way from the weirdness of devil-worship.

‘We Yezidi are not saints’, says Halil, ‘but we are a peaceful people. All we want is tolerance. We do not worship evil, we just see that the world contains darkness as well as light.’

Halil with Sanjak

His words are timely. While we eat our pasta, the news comes through from Iraq: of the bloody slaughter of Yezidi near Mosul.

Halil is deeply distraught. ‘I feel absolute shock and horror, I feel sick to my stomach. All Yezidi are my family. But we are so alone in the world. We need friends. Many Yezidi would like to leave Iraq, but no one will give us visas.’

He sighs, and adds: ‘The Yezidi have been persecuted for thousands of years, we are used to it. But we thought the new Iraq would protect minorities. We thought that things would get better when the Americans came…’ And then he turns, and stares at the serene blue image, of the great peacock angel.