LALISH, Iraq—Pir Said stood reverently barefoot, like all those in the inner temple sanctuary, on the warm inner stone courtyard of the holiest shrine in the Yazidi faith, the tomb of Sheikh Adi in the town of Lalish.
Lalish, in Iraq's northern Kurdish mountains, is to the Yazidis what Mecca is to Muslims, or what Jerusalem is to followers of the three great monotheistic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
It is the holiest site of an ancient Kurdish minority faith whose members have been in flight since early August, scattered by the tempestuous advance of Islamic State (IS) insurgents into Sinjar, a majority Yazidi town in northwestern Iraq, and its surroundings.
The Yazidis were propelled into the international spotlight last month, when tens of thousands fled on foot, climbing into the imposing but largely barren Sinjar Mountain range to escape IS militants besieging them at its base.
The United Nations doesn't have a specific figure for the number of displaced Yazidis, because it is considering Iraqis as a whole and not differentiating among the country's various religious communities, a spokesperson said. But it's clear from talking with displaced Yazidis that entire villages have been emptied of their inhabitants.
Their plight prompted U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to try to prevent a humanitarian crisis by delivering food and water via airdrops by the Iraqi and U.S. air forces, a strategy that was combined with U.S. airstrikes against IS positions around the mountain.
Most of the Yazidis who were on the mountain are now in makeshift camps in the governorate of Dahuk and other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. Some 450 displaced families are staying in Lalish.
With the initial emergency over, the news cycle has moved on from the tragedy of the Yazidis, as it invariably does. But the fate of this community remains uncertain.
Entire villages have been emptied, their residents left to ponder if or when they can safely return. Some are contemplating migration, severing ties to a land they deem holy. Others are determined to stay and protect their shrines.
Lalish is safe for now, tucked away in a lush valley enclosed by gently undulating hills, some sparsely forested, others carpeted in a dry grass that makes them look like sun-kissed golden waves.
The place is so inconspicuous that it's easy to miss from the main ribbon of asphalt running alongside it. A left turn takes you to a small checkpoint manned by Kurdish peshmerga forces guarding the entrance to the town. On the right, there's a gas flare, its bright orange flame signposting the energy riches below the soil.
But it's the riches above the soil—the many religious shrines—that most concern adherents of this ancient faith, which according to their lore, is at least 6,700 years old.
Pir Said, a black-bearded 37-year-old dressed in baggy white pants and a loose long-sleeved white shirt, is a "servant of the house," dedicated to the temple sanctuary. He is one of only 25 people traditionally permitted to live permanently in this holy town.
He stood in the shade of one of the few mulberry trees—their thick, gnarled trunks sprouting from the stone floor—whose sprawling branches shield pilgrims from a merciless sun.
Several children rushed past him, kissing the stone archway before entering the cool cavernous interior of Sheikh Adi's tomb, carefully stepping over, but not on, the threshold as tradition dictates.
"I cannot leave Lalish, or live without it," Pir Said said. "People, whoever they might be, are most present in their own land. When they leave it, they disappear—they melt into other communities. We're present here as a community in Lalish. If we leave, we think we will be weakened."
As with Muslims and Mecca, Yazidis must undertake a pilgrimage to Lalish at least once in their lifetime if they can, and those who live in Iraq should do so at least once a year.
The Yazidis are no strangers to persecution. They've endured it at least 72 times in their history, they say. This episode marks number 73. Estimates of their numbers range from a million to 700,000 to a few hundred thousand. There's a large Yazidi community in Germany, and others in North America, Turkey, and Syria, but most Yazidis live in northern Iraq, in an area radiating from Lalish.
A Rigid Belief System
Theirs is not an inclusive community. Yazidis forbid converts and abide by a strict caste system–a vestige, along with a belief in reincarnation, of their time in India thousands of years ago—that prohibits not only marriage with non-Yazidis but also intermarriage between the castes. (According to some accounts, the Yazidis fled from Kurdistan to India long ago, whereas others claim they originated from there.)
Like the IS adherents who are tormenting them, Yazidis declare followers they perceive to have strayed from their rigid belief system to be infidels.
Yazidi religion, which blends Zoroastrianism and Mesopotamian rituals with Christian, Jewish, and Sufi influences, centers around seven great angels led by Malik Taus (or Tawsi Malik), also known as the Peacock Angel or, less charitably, Shaytan—Satan.
Unlike members of the three great monotheistic faiths that consider Satan a fallen angel, the Yazidis believe that he was forgiven, his tears of redemption so voluminous that they extinguished the fires of hell.
And in the same way that Muslims turn to Mecca to pray, Yazidis face the sun.
It is for these reasons that IS followers, and others before them, consider Yazidis devil- and sun-worshipping apostates.
Tied Closely to the Land
The Yazidis' esoteric faith is intricately tied to their land, which is why their displacement and the prospect of mass migration cuts deeper even than the pain of losing one's home. Exile threatens to dilute an ancient way of life and the traditions that underpin the Yazidi faith.
Every Yazidi, for instance, must be baptized in the water of one of two sacred springs (which non-Yazidis are forbidden to see), even if it warrants traveling from overseas, Yazidis say.
Water from the springs is mixed with soil from Lalish to make balls of mud that are key components of rituals around marriage and death. During funerals, the soil and water mix is placed in the eyes, ears, and mouth of the deceased.
A small copper pot full of dirt sits just inside the stone archway of Sheikh Adi's shrine. It is said that the dirt is collected from the large marble room with a domed roof where Sheikh Adi lies in a sarcophagus. Every Yazidi should possess some of the sacred dirt, according to custom, and carry it with him or her like a talisman.
The coffin is covered in green velvet, and like those of two other sheikhs in the same enclosure, it is ringed with colorful knotted scarves, each knot representing a prayer a pilgrim has offered. Yazidis believe that untying a knot an earlier pilgrim has made will grant that person his or her wish.
Other rituals too are tied to Lalish and its surroundings, mainly revolving around festivals, including the new year, which is celebrated in spring.
Without sacred books, the Yazidis have a rich oral tradition, and they believe they're descendants of Adam but not of Eve. Some castes, like the Pirs, are endowed with spiritual healing powers, they say. The members of Pir Said's family, for instance, are considered headache healers.
"Faith is in your heart. You don't need to be close to here to have it, but for sure if you're closer to these areas, you feel it more strongly," said Zaid Jamah, a 33-year-old sitting in the shade on the stone floor in another part of the shrine complex.
A Refuge for the Displaced
Like the several dozen men lounging around him, Jamah had been displaced from the villages of Bashika and Bahzani, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Lalish and just 15 miles (25 kilometers) from IS-controlled Mosul.
He and his family used to visit the shrine at Lalish every week, but now they find themselves temporarily living there. Like many of those around him, Jamah is contemplating his next move. Should he stay in an Iraq that is fragmenting along ethno-sectarian lines, in which small minorities like his are feeling squeezed out and persecuted? Or should he join his two sisters and their families in Germany?
"It's bitter. Exodus is bitter, and I'm saying that from here, from a holy place in Iraq," he said. "I still can't believe that I've left my village. Sometimes I wonder: Have I dreamed all this? Has it really happened?"
Jamah said he doesn't want to live what he considers will be a difficult life in a non-Yazidi community. "I'd rather be here, living in a pile of garbage, than overseas. It's exile, a bitter word. Our land, what can I tell you?" He touched the ground. "Our land is blessed. It is holy. The prophets walked here. Prophet Adam walked here. This implores us to stay, even if we don't want to."
Not all of the displaced people gathered around him shared his views. The IS was a foe that would not easily or soon leave them in peace, some said. "They kill anybody, even Muslims!" one man said. "They blow up shrines," said another. "It's not like they're a party, where you can talk to them."
Madina, a woman in her 40s who had been listening nearby, interjected: "I'm sorry—I want to leave. What did we see in Iraq except war and difficulties and terror?" she said. "Our religion is dear to us. We don't want to lose ourselves in larger, different communities far from here," she continued, but "we haven't been at peace here."
"We cannot forsake our shrines," said Safa Sumoo, 40. "If I was offered all of Europe, even now with this situation we're in, I wouldn't swap it for a meter of land in Iraq, especially in Bahzani and Bashika—not a meter. That's how much it means to us."
The Yazidis have sustained shattering losses before. At least several dozen villages, by some accounts many more, were resettled under former leader Saddam Hussein's Arabization program, in which he displaced Kurds from their lands and replaced them with transplanted Arab communities.
"He took our lands not because we were Yazidis but because we were also Kurds," said Hadi Baba Sheikh, 52, younger brother of Baba Sheikh, a cleric in his 80s who's the spiritual leader of the Yazidis. "He took areas that were on the hills. He wanted people on the plains, where he could see them, not in the hills, where they could hide."
Kurdish forces reclaimed those Yazidi territories after the fall of Saddam's regime, in 2003, Hadi Baba Sheikh said.
He knows the dilemma facing his people and the difficulties of living far from Lalish. He spent 20 years in Germany with his wife and six children, returning frequently for religious rituals.
He came back to Iraq several years ago because, he said, he didn't want to lose his children to a foreign way of life.
"The next generation would not stay Yazidi," he said. "When a Yazidi migrates, he loses. Yes, my family was far from war, but when a Yazidi leaves his land..." He paused. "To us, land is part of God, and I am part of this land, and the land here is blessed. We will not last without it."