Armenia may be the world’s first Christian country, but today people with an even older religion are celebrating
In the town of Aknalich, the Yazidi people are marking the New Year, as their calendar turns to 6771.
That is the traditional date of the birth of the world in their belief, which hails from modern-day Iraq where about half of the world’s one million Yazidis live.
Aknalich has always been a centre of Armenia’s Yazidi people who, with a population of about 35,000, are the country’s largest ethnic minority.
But it took on new significance in 2019 when the largest Yazidi temple in the world was unveiled there.
“Before Christianity, everyone worshipped the sun, like we do,” says Jon Namoyan, 35, a resident of the Yazidi-populated village of Shamiram.
“When the sun peers through the clouds, it’s like God looking down on his children."
Cacophonous traditional music blasts continuously from a group on the stage.
The main temple, known as Quba Mere Diwane, towers off to one side.
A regular procession moves through it, removing their shoes at the entrance before entering to pray at the altar of Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, who is the primary deity in the Yazidis’ unique cosmology.
Many also stop to pay respects at the grave of Mirza Sloyan, an Armenian Yazidi businessman who paid for the temple’s construction before dying just a month after its opening.
Behind the day’s upbeat artistic performances, though, there is a palpable melancholy.
Along with everyone else in the country, members of the Yazidi community fought in last year’s war between Armenia and its neighbour, Azerbaijan, over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In 44 days, at least 16 local Yazidis were killed.
“It’s different this year,” says Amad Shaykh, 36. "Coronavirus prevented many of our foreign friends from visiting and many families are at home, in mourning.
“The speeches were dedicated to seven local families who lost their sons and husbands [in the war]."
The Yazidi people are no strangers to tragedy. Their histories hold that they have been the victims of 74 genocides, most recently at the hands of ISIS in 2014, in northern Iraq.
Of the survivors, a few made their way through Armenia. Some settled with distant relatives, but “only a handful", Mr Shaykh says.
Another of those genocides came at the same time as that of the Armenians, in 1915.
At the same time that Armenian villages in eastern Anatolia were being systematically killed by Ottoman troops, the nearby Yazidi populace was also suffering reprisals.
Many sought refuge in the lands that now form Armenia, laying the basis for much of today’s community.
The parallels between the two peoples are not lost on Mr Namoyan.
“When the Turks were slaughtering Armenians, they slaughtered us, too,” he says.
“They tried to force us to convert to Islam but we didn’t accept. Last year they tried it again."
For the Yazidis last year, there was no question as to whether they would stand beside their Armenian neighbours on the battlefield.
“Of course we served in the army,” says Vital Sloyan, 48, another Shamiram resident.
“Armenia is our country too and it was under attack. We were proud to stand with our Armenian brothers."
The Yazidi members of Armenia’s army and associated volunteer militias were well publicised during the war, and well organised.
Temur Khudoyan, 28, director of the Yazidi TV channel Lalish TV, says that local Yazidis fought in their own units and in the Armenian army.
“When the war started, Yazidi community leaders started to organise those who wished to fight,” Mr Khudoyan says.
That was partly co-ordinated by Rustam Bakoyan, an Armenian MP who holds the Parliament seat reserved for the minority.
In all, three Yazidi volunteer detachments served on the front lines in Karabakh. Many fought in areas hardest hit by the fighting, including those captured by Azerbaijan.
The losses have not affected the local community’s appreciation for their homeland.
“We are an ancient people but we don’t have a state,” Mr Shaykh says.
“In the 2014 genocide (in Iraq), over 100,000 Yazidis became refugees. It makes you appreciate safe places like Armenia.”
Mr Khudoyan agrees.
“This is the only country in the world where Yazidis are taught at school in their own language,” he says.
“All our rights are protected here. We can preserve our culture, our religion, our identity. We have a future in Armenia.
As the festivities wind down, Mr Namoyan delivers the most optimistic outlook yet.
“There’s a story about a prophet in Greece,” he says. “This prophet foresaw that Constantinople would one day be Christian again.
"Turkey will be divided into three or four parts. The Greeks will take one part, the Armenians another, and we Yazidis will take ours. Everything will be great.”