KurdishMedia: Yezidi social life in the CIS


Yezidi social life in the Commonwealth of Independent States
01 November 2004

KurdishMedia.com – By Lamara Pashaeva

Mrs. Lamara Pashaeva is a Yezidi Kurdish anthropologist who works in the
Institute of Ethnology in Tbilisi, the capital of Republic of Georgia.
Her academic field covers all ethnic and religious minorities peacefully
co-existing in Georgia – Kurds (both Muslim and Yezidi), Greeks,
Assyrians, Azeris, Armenians, Ossets and others. Lamara Pashaeva’s
family had for centuries been inhabiting the Wan region of Northern
Kurdistan, but after the World War 1 escaped the notorious genocide and
moved to Georgia. This paper has been presented at the 1999 Conference
in Berlin dedicated to Yezidi and Alevi religious communities. The
conference was sponsored by the French Institute in Berlin and the
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

The confessional belonging is always an important factor in the social
life. This is also the case with the Kurdish society in which religious
diversity contributed to political division. However, the main obstacle
for Kurdish integration and consolidation is the fact that the Kurds
have no independent state of their own, although being an indigenous
population of the Middle Eastern region and although still massively
residing on a territory which politically belongs to four states. In
such a situation the Kurds are deprived of the right for
self-determination and fight a battle for independence with
overwhelmingly superior forces. As is known, in the past, the states
which divided Kurdistan used religion as a tool to involve the Kurds
into international disputes. Thus, during the Ottoman-Sefevid wars, the
Kurds became a part of Sunni-Shi’a discord. Frequently, religious calls
were intended against the so-called “infidels” including the Christians
and the Yezidi Kurds. At the same time, it must be noted that history
has enough evidence for how the Kurds protected and saved the Christian

Few Kurdish tribes, who were Yezidi in terms of religion, appeared in
Transcacuasia as early as in the 18th century. In 1770s, the Georgian
King Irakli II made a try to establish contacts with the Yezidis and
used the Assyrian Archbishop Isaya as a mediator. Irakli II sent via
Isaya a letter to the Yezidi leader Choban-Agha in which he proposed a
coalition with the Yezidi, Armenians and Assyrians against the Turkish
Sultan. In response, Choban-Agha showed his willingness and requested,
in case of success, a fortress called Xoshab.

A larger group of Yezidi migration to Transcaucasia took place during
and after the Crimean War (1853-1956) and the Russian-Turkish War of
1877-1878. During the second half of the 19th century, the Yezidi Kurds
lived in the following vilages of Armenia: Mirek, Kurabogaz, Djardjaris,
Chobanmaz, Kurdish Pamb, Big and Small Djamushlu and Korubulagh. The
population of those villages mostly came from the Ottoman Empire between
1830 and 1877. It is known that in 1875, the two Yezidi villages –
Baysiz and Sichalu – had 41 families.

However, the majority of the modern Yezidi Kurds settled in Armenia and
Georgia in the beginning of the 20th century as a result of religious
persecutions from the Otoman authorities and some pan-Islamic Kurdish
forces. These Yezidis came from districts of Van, Bayazid, Kars and
Surmalu. Since the Yezidi Kurds were a rural population, they mostly
settled in abandoned and deserted villages in Armenia, although in
Georgia they found refuge in cities – first in Tbilisi and later also in
Telavi. The migrants from one village normally would settle in a village
together, while in cities the members of one congener group would reside
on one street. In majority of cases, the spiritual group of Pirs would
settle with their Murids.

At present, the main group of the Kurds in Georgia lives in cities of
Tbilisi as well as in Telavi, Rustavi and Batumi. A part of them
migrated to Georgia in 1930s and after the World War 2 from their
villages in Armenia. Thus, in general we can say that the Yezidi Kurds
of Georgia are city dwellers. They chiefly work in the service sphere.
More and more young Yezidi Kurds become students and increase the number
and level of the intelligentsia. According to my data, in Georgia and
Armenia there live more than 80,000 Yezidis.

There are more around 80 patronimy groups – qebil of the Sheykhs and
90-92 groups of Pirs. The Southern Caucasian Yezidi Kurds use the terms
qebîl and bar in the same meaning. We know that in the Kurdish
tradition, alongside patronimies named after their leader and founder
(Mixaîlî, Anqosî etc.), there are some that bear geographic names. The
geographic patronimies reflected a relatively later stage of the
commencement of the social structure.

It is remarkable that the Yezidis in Georgia, to a certain degree,
continue to follow prohibitions in food. The food taboo includes:
lettuce, because once on Sunday in Mosul Sheykh Hasan was stoned by
lettuce; cabbage, because Shaykh Shams was thrown cabbage in Halab
(Aleppo) and the vegetable became damned (although there are other
legends connected with taboo on cabbage which are linked to Tausi
Melek). The Yezidis are also forbidden to eat hemp (qirqirk) and pork.
The pigs blocked the way of six disciples of Shaykh Adi who were coming
from Jerusalem.

The spiritual group of the Shaykhs have animal taboos. Thus, members of
the family of Shaykh Hasan are not allowed to kill rabbits. The Shaykhs
from the family of Sidjaddin Shams have control over mice: if in
villages someone noticed the rodents, they would ask the Shaykhs of
Sidjaddin Shams to pray in order to get rid of mice. Snakes are believed
to be obedient to the family of Shaykh Made Farkh. You may know that
snake is carved on the door of Shaykh Adi’s grave in Lalish, together
with figures of lion, axe, man and comb.

As is widely known, the only holy place of the Yezidis is Lalish in
Iraqi Kurdistan. Since the Caucasian Yezidis lived far from their
historical holy land, they had to find a solution. Therefore, they
performed their religious duties in the houses of their Shaykhs, who, in
turn, were visiting their Murids during religious holidays. In Armenia,
the Yezidi Kurds had settled 80 years before they did in Georgia. They
lived in rural areas either separately (the case of the tribe of Zurbai)
or together with the Armenian Christians. Not surprisingly, their life
and habits have experienced a certain Armenian influence: for instance,
the Yezidis started to visit Churches and local Armenian sacred places
including the Ziyaret against barrenness (Dêra Qaltixçî).

The Yezidi Kurds in Georgia primarily live in cities. They visit the
Churches, lighted candles before the icons of Virgin Mary, but they
never cross themselves. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
Yezidi communities of Georgia and Armenia were in close contacts. As it
has been already mentioned, in late 1930s and after the World War 2,
many Armenian Yezidis moved to Georgia. However, as early as in the
Soviet era, a group of the Yezidis from Elegez (Aragats), Armenia, had
migrated to the city of Novosibirsk to create a rather powerful
community there.

After the break-up of t he USSR, the economic situation of the Yezidis
and non-Yezidis alike rapidly worsened. Many Yezidis started to look for
jobs in Russia, Ukraine, and conequently migrated abroad. This has
widened our research possibilities, since the Yezidi communities can be
now found in West Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia. Sticking to
Russia, the groups of the Yezidi Kurds live in Moscow, Saint Petersburg
and Yaroslavl. It is interesting to note that in Yaroslavl, a Yezidi
cultural-religious centre came into existence. Some of the Yezidis
constitute big communities in the rural areas of Krasnodar, Stavropol,
Rostov and Volgograd districts of the Russian Federation and in around
the city of Anapa. There, the Yezidis work in agriculture.

In addition to what has been said, there are quite numerous Yezidi
colonies in the Ukraine: in the Crimea, near the city of Kharkov and
possibly in some other locations, which I have no data sofar. In places
where the Murids settle, their Shaykhs and Pirs also join them. It must
be highlighted that there are many Shaykhs in the city of Saint
Petersburg. As a result of disperse settlements, ethnic and religious
ties somehow weaken. However, some try to overcome this difficulty by
the means of marriage.

The Yezidis display a very active pan-Kurdish activity as well: they
make financial and moral contributions to the Kurdish
national-liberation movement. The majority of the Soviet Kurdish
intelligentsia were Yezidis, who worked in their villages and cities as
well as in the scholarly centres of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yerevan
and Tbilisi. Nowadays, there is a Kurdish theatre and radio in Tbilisi.
The Georgian Yezidi scholar, Karame Anqosî, has translated and edited
the Yezidi sacred books into Georgian. Throughout last decades we have
had Yezidi Kurdish members of the Georgian parliament.

The Yezidi Kurds of Armenia, Georgia and now also Russia and Ukraine
have survived during 80 years of their life in exile in countries with
overwhelming non-Kurdish ethnic and religious majorities. They succeeded
to retain their identity and cultural elements by resisting natural
assimilation. Certainly, their everyday life and social settings were
going through certain changes, but their major ethnic and religious
specificities remained immutable. To the beast of my understanding, the
Transcaucasian Yezidi Kurds, before the destruction of the USSR, were a
successful example of ethnic and cultural diaspora. Its history and
experience must be better investigated and analysed. To demonstrate a
real, that is, non-partisan picture, I would suggest to organise
expeditions to the remaining islands of the Yezidi Kurds in the
Commonwealth of Independent States.

Translated by Dr. Zorab Aloian