1909: Letter, dated May 7, from Gertrude Bell
Friday May 7. [7 May 1909] I am this evening the guest of the High Priest of the Devil Worshippers, Ali Beg. (They aren't really Devil Worshippers, you know, though unfriendly people have so named them.) We reached his house at 10.30 this morning and he received me with the greatest affability, ordered coffee and insisted that I must stay with him. So firm was he on this head that I saw no way out of it, though I prefer my own tents once the season of fleas has begun. But Fattuh saved the situation with his usual tact and good manners. For having seen the room in which Ali Beg designed to place me, and found it to be hopping with fleas, he came back and explained with the best turned compliments that the tents were already in process of being pitched and if his Excellency didn't mind, it would save trouble if we might sleep in them, and being at his door we should still be his Highness's most grateful guests. Whereat Ali Beg replied that our pleasure was his and all was well. He and some of his people have long pointed curly beards; they look exactly like the heads on the Assyrian reliefs. The Yezidi religion is secret and I believe the learned consider them to be a remnant of the Sabaeans who were, if I remember rightly, supposed to be followers of John the Baptist. It is more likely however that the Sabaeans were an older sect and that John was to some extent preaching their doctrines. Some kind of worship of springs must certainly form part of the Yezidi faith, as you will presently see, and I suppose their respectful fear of the principle of evil, which gives them the repute of being devil worshippers, connects them with Zoroastrianism. I have seen Yezidis before, in the mountains N of Aleppo [Halab] and told Ali Beg that they had spoken to me of him as being the ruler of them all. "The ruler of us all" he said gravely "is God." He took me then to see his wife, a very attractive woman. The Yezidi women are not veiled or secluded; she was dressed in a purple cotton robe, with a white muslin veil wrapped round her head and chin (but not over her face) and a little black velvet cap holding it in its place. On her wrists were heavy gold bracelets set with turquoises. Unfortunately she talked nothing but Kurdish, which is the universal language here. Ali Beg talks Arabic, but badly. He sent me an enormous tray of lunch to my tents, rice and mutton and semolina pudding and excellent sour curds; there was enough for me and all my servants and soldiers. Then he gave me 2 guides and I rode with them and my 4 soldiers into the mountains to see the shrine of Sheikh Adi, which is the Yezidi holy place. (The reason I have 4 soldiers is that these mountains are very much disturbed, owing to the constant raids of the nomad Kurds. Two days ago an outlying Kurdish village of underground caves was stormed by soldiers, several people killed and others taken and sent prisoners to Mosul [Mawsil, Al].) We rode for 2 hours up into the rocky hills and in and out over the folds of them, between oak trees and bushes of flowering hawthorn, and at last we dropped down into a deep valley, at the head of which, embosomed in mulberry and fig, is the tiny village and the shrine of Sheikh Adi. Ali Beg's sister received and welcomed me and led me through the outer courts to the shrine. As she stood at the door in her long white robes and white veil she looked like some strange priestess; she kissed the door posts and murmured a prayer to Sheikh Adi before we entered. By the door a great snake is carved in relief upon the wall and painted black so that it catches your eye the moment you enter the peaceful little court. But I asked no questions. So we went into the shrine which was like a church with 2 aisles and no nave; and then she took me into a high chamber, pitch dark, in which stands the tomb of Sheikh Adi - I lighted it up with magnesian wire while she murmured prayers. Then we went into some underground chambers, through which a stream flows from basin to basin, passing through the wall of one room into another and finally out into a little court behind the sanctuary. The water flowed indiscriminately over the floor of the chamber and I took off my stockings - my boots I had taken off when I entered the shrine - and paddled about over sharp pebbles following my priestess with her oil lamp. She turned to me in the middle and said "Aren't you afraid? I am afraid." But I wasn't, probably because I did not know how holy it all was. She was very anxious to kill a lamb and make me a feast, but I succeeded in dissuading her and we compromised by my accepting bowls of milk and piles of bread which my guides and I shared between us. So we rode back over the mountains and got into camp at 6 o'clock. Ali Beg sent me out a dinner as ample as the lunch and then his little son, Sa'ad Beg, a charming boy, came and fetched me and I sat with them for an hour and came back to bed.
1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History Archives