Tom Holland

Don’t forget the Yazidis

Iraq’s religious minority were deliberately targeted for extermination

As the floodwaters subsided, the Ark drifted across northern Iraq. Finally, with a crunching jolt, it hit dry land. Its timbers had scraped the peak of a mountain range called Sinjar. Water began to pour in. Fortunately, a black serpent, its coils as thick as an arm, moved to plug the breach. The Ark did not sink. Noah, his family, and all the various animals on board survived to repopulate the earth. This story, so familiar, so strange, can be seen illustrated in a shady courtyard that also boasts, just for good measure, the very spot where Adam is claimed to have been fashioned from dust. Lalish, a magical compound of domes, towers and stairways, stands in a valley in Iraqi Kurdistan.

To the Yazidis, a religious minority whose population straddles both the Kurdish region of Iraq and, to the south, the plain of Nineveh and the peaks of Sinjar, it is quite simply the holiest place in the world. Certainly, there is nowhere else in the Middle East which so seamlessly or mysteriously fuses the many cultural traditions of the region. Like Zoroastrians, the Yazidis tend sacred fires; like Christians, they practise baptism; like Muslims, they practise yearly fasts and daily prayers. One shrine at Lalish commemorates a sheikh who was once, very possibly, the Babylonian god of the sun. The Yazidis are charged with the palpable trace elements of antiquity.

Yet what makes people different can also make them hated. This is a lesson we hardly need teaching — it was Europeans who incubated ancient prejudices to such a monstrous pitch that our continent came to witness, within living memory, the most genocidal crime in history; it was Europeans, in the wake of Kristallnacht and Auschwitz, who vowed most fervently: ‘Never again.’

The ambition to wipe out an entire people, though, did not die with the Nazis.

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