At dusk, in the remote valley of Lalish, with its cascading springs and ancient mulberry trees, Baba Shaweesh, one of the last ceremonial eunuchs in the Middle East, hobbled up weathered stone steps clutching a string of cotton wicks soaked in olive oil.
Moving from one blackened niche to the next, some carved into rock fronts and others built into stone walls, the 73-year-old monk lit tiny flames before returning to his stone cell for evening prayers.
The evening rituals of the holy man, and the two white-robed nuns who share his cell, have become a desperate struggle to preserve one of the region’s most enigmatic religious sects, the Yazidi.
The Yazidis believe that Satan, whose name they are forbidden to pronounce, is actively malevolent, while God is passively benevolent. To ward off evil, as well as use the powers of the Prince of Darkness to their own advantage, they propitiate Satan’s representative, known as the Peacock Angel, in their religious rites. Cut Off From the World
Because of the conflict between the Government of Saddam Hussein and the Kurds in northern Iraq, the ancient shrine that is the Yazidi religious center is cut off from the outside world and from most of the 150,000 Yazidis who live in areas controlled by Baghdad.
“The modern world has invaded to take away our young, who no longer have time for religion,” Baba Shaweesh said. “And the Iraqis have now taken most of our older believers, who are no longer allowed to come worship. We are fighting to survive.”
Iraqi forces are encamped just a mile away. And the stillness is often broken by the rattle of automatic fire exchanged by Kurdish guerrillas and Government troops.
The 3.5 million Kurds live in a security zone set up after the Persian Gulf war and monitored by a small team of officers and planes set up by the anti-Iraq coalition. Iraqi authorities have pulled out of the northern zone and imposed an embargo on the Kurds.
But the establishment of a Kurdish enclave has also permitted the Yazidis to mount what they say is a final effort to revive their faith. Some of the 30,000 Yazidis in the north opened the sect’s first social center in Dohuk this month. And Yazidi community leaders, despite food shortages and fears of a new Iraqi offensive, have begun interviewing religious elders to compile a record of beliefs and rituals.
Yazidis, branded by many Christians and Muslims as devil worshipers, have often been persecuted. In 1892 Ottoman troops slaughtered hundreds of Yazidis, burned their villages and occupied the Lalish Valley, where they looted and destroyed the shrine.
But the last decade has proved as devastating as any for the Yazidis.
The Yazidis, who are part of Iraq’s Kurdish minority, had 100 of 150 villages demolished during the counterinsurgency operation against the Kurdish rebel movement that reached its peak in 1988. The campaign, which moved hundreds of thousands of people to collective villages, saw 4,000 Kurdish villages dynamited into rubble.
About 10,000 Yazidi men died fighting for Iraq in the eight-year war with Iran. And several hundred Yazidis disappeared at the hands of the Iraqi secret police during the last 15 years.
But it was the intrusion of modernity, with its televisions, radios, educational systems and access to travel that may have done the most damage. No Time for the Faith
“Up until 30 years ago our faith was kept alive by priests and elders, who orally passed on our religious knowledge,” said Khader Suleyman, a 40-year-old high school teacher who is heading the effort to record the traditions, “but the youth no longer have the time or desire to listen.
“Each year more of our religious leaders die, and with them a part of our knowledge. The withdrawal of the Iraqis has given us an opportunity to save the faith.”
The sect follows the teachings of Sheik Adi, a holy man who died in 1162, and whose crypt lies in the shrine in the Lalish Valley, about 15 miles east of Mosul. The shrine’s graceful, fluted spires poke above the trees and dominate the fertile valley.
Yazidis are not allowed to harm plants or animals in the valley. And pilgrims reverently wash themselves in the streams in purification rites before visiting the shrine.
Yazidis have no public places for worship outside of the sacred valley, where believers gather to celebrate the four yearly festivals. No Converts Accepted
Like Zoroastrians they venerate fire, the sun and the mulberry tree. They believe in the transmigration of souls, often into animals. The sect does not accept converts and banishes anyone who marries outside the faith. Yazidis are forbidden to disclose most of their rituals and beliefs to nonbelievers.
In times of trouble, like the abortive Kurdish uprising in March 1991, Yazidis flee to Lalish, living in the stone huts and caves that dot the steep slopes of the valley. But for most of the year only the monk and a few caretakers reside at the shrine.
Baba Shaweesh said he became a eunuch “to resist the temptation of the flesh.” He carried out the operation himself with a knife and the juice from some medicinal plants to heal the wound.
“My parents begged me not to do it,” the monk said, “but I did. And since that day I have looked on all women as either my daughters or my sisters.”
The sanctuary, with its towering conical domes and flagstone courtyards, has channels of sacred water running through it. Sheik Adi’s coffin, draped with green and white silk sheets, rests in a back room built of white marble.
The shrine is filled with symbols and talismans, including the stone carving of a six-foot-high snake on the right side of the front door. The snake is blackened each day with shoe polish and venerated by worshipers.
“We are not allowed to kill black snakes,” the monk said, sprinkling tobacco into a cigarette paper from a cloth pouch. “The snakes have magical powers it is best not to challenge.” ‘Wisdom in My Dreams’
The monk, with his dreadlocks and scraggly beard, helps pilgrims employ sacred power to their advantage.Worshipers, who sometimes appear from the forest unannounced after slipping across Iraqi lines, kiss his hand, bathe in the sacred waters and ask for advice. Most carry back a small ball of earth from the valley.
The monk says that with so much uncertainty in Iraq, he is frequently called upon to divine the future. But he says he does not relate everything he sees to his followers.
“I receive wisdom in my dreams,” he said, a thick cloud of acrid cigarette smoke spilling out with his words. “I see when men will die and days later preside over their funerals. I am visited by Sheik Adi, who tells me what will take place in the weeks and months ahead. But there is a lot I do not tell to others. How much can people accept? It is often best in this world to be ignorant.”
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