Red Wednesday: The Yazidi New Year’s Ritual
By Lazghine Ya’qoube
As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is drawing to a close, and as Muslims are preparing to break the fast and celebrate Eid al-Fitr, followers of a much smaller, yet far more ancient faith are also celebrating a new year, popularly called “Red Wednesday” too. This is a rare coincidence that fundamentally represents the authentic diversity which has marked Mesopotamia historically.
“Red Wednesday” (Çarşema Sor) marks the Yazidi (Êzidî) New Year where followers of the faith adorned in traditional clothes, holding candles and paraffin lamps – commemorate the creation of the universe and celebrate nature and fertility. This year, April 19, 2023, marks the year 6773 in the Yazidi calendar, one of the oldest in history.
Yazidis are an ethno-religious Kurdish minority who gained global attention in the aftermath of the genocidal campaign perpetrated by fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar (Şingal) in 2014. Here, an introduction to the ancient celebration of Red Wednesday, along with the specific traditions practiced that mark the day as unique to the faith, will be presented. The Yazidis are one of the most ancient and least understood faiths in the world and require global support and attention to preserve their unique identity, especially following the devastating attacks of 2014 by ISIS.
The Origins of the Yazidis
With the bulk of their traditions and culture still conveyed orally and owing to long years of relentless persecution and oppression, little Yazidi literature has been committed to publishing and physical documentation. The surviving oral tradition primarily consists of hymns (qawls) recited and transmitted by qawwals (bards). However, parts of the Yazidi tradition have been transcribed in the Yazidi Book of Revelation (Kitêba Cilwe), and Yazidi Black Book (Mishefa Reş) – both holy texts originally written in Kurdish.
As public information about the faith is sparse – owing to their insular nature to ensure self-preservation, the outside world knows little about Yazidi history in general and their creed in particular. Yet, Yazidis are one of the most ancient indigenous peoples of the region, whose precise existence remains shrouded in mystery. Surviving the two Kurdish Mitanni and Median empires, Yazidism is present today throughout all four regions of Greater Kurdistan, as well as Armenia, Russia, and India among other countries. In Rojava, Yazidi populations are centered around Hasaka, and previously thrived around Afrin – prior to being ethnically cleansed by Turkey’s 2018 occupation.
But the largest community of Yazidis live in the Nineveh Plain of Iraq / Southern Kurdistan, primarily in the Sinjar and Shaikhan districts. Available, yet rare sources mostly written by orientalists, do not penetrate deep into the core of the Yazidi creed. Yazidism shares elements with Mithraism, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Sabeans-Mandaeans, and Islam. In a predominantly Muslim region, and owing to its distinctive features, members of the faith have been subject to persecution, with the most brutal and recent one taking place in 2014.
That was when on August 3, 2014, the world was astounded by the pre-dawn attack mounted by fighters of the extremist and puritanical terror group ISIS, who converged on the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar in the Nineveh Province. While the group killed thousands of Yazidis on the spot, many more (largely young women and girls) were taken as hostages to be used first as sex slaves, and second sold in slave markets in the lands of the self-styled Caliphate. However, while Sinjar was hard hit, the district of Shekhan averted the violence unleashed by ISIS due to its fortified position in a mountainous area.
Yazidis see themselves as adherents of the oldest religion on earth, with the majority of them arguing that they are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically Kurdish, and that all Muslim Kurds were once Yazidis, before many converted to Islam with the passage of time under overwhelming waves of Islamization. Yet, unlike Islam which is less than 1,400 years-old, Yazidism has been present in Kurdistan for thousands of years.
Yazidis celebrate a number of religious holidays and cultural festivals observed in different seasons and for separate occasions throughout the year. However, the celebration in April is very special and symbolic. April enjoys a special sanctity for adherents of Yazidism, a month where they do not plow the land, do not cut trees, and marriages are not allowed since the month itself is a bride. In Kurdish, April is known as Nisan, the first day of which “Çarşema Serê Nîsanê”.
According to the Yazidi author and researcher Suleiman Ja’far, up to 612 B.C., Red Wednesday used to be celebrated as a religious holiday. “However”, argues Ja’far:
“Following the Kurdish victory attained over the formidable Assyrian Empire and owing to the mass number of casualties, and blood spilled until the victory was attained, the day was called Red Wednesday and therein it became a national- religious celebration.”
Furthermore, Ja’far argues that since Monday was the holy day of the ancient Greeks, Tuesday of the Persians, and Egyptians had Thursday as theirs, Wednesday was chosen as the holy day of the Kurds since antiquity.
Ja’far says Adi bin Musafer blessed Red Wednesday to be both a national (Kurdistan) and religious (Yazidi) occasion, following deliberations with Sheikh Shams al-Din who is buried next to Adi in the sacred valley of Lalish. On Thursday the following day, Yazidis presume their everyday activities hoping the New Year brings blessing for all humanity.
More specifically, Ser (new) Sal (year) is an annual observance that falls on the first Wednesday in April according to the Eastern (Yazidi) calendar, which is thirteen days after the Gregorian calendar. The New Year’s feast is typically the biggest and most venerated celebration in Yazidism. However, for what reasons?
According to the Yazidi mythology, the benevolent God created Man and therefore he must adhere to the rules laid down by Him. These rules seem clearly manifested in Yazidism, where it is God that determines the fate of all human beings, according to the Yazidi creed. Hence, we are all-dependent on Him and must obey the heavenly will. However, Adam – as the first man created – disregarded the rules laid down by an omnipotent God and eventually was punished and expelled from heaven to earth. Tawûsî Melek (The Peacock Angel) was assigned with the heavily mission of accommodating the Yazidis on earth. The day on which the Peacock Angel landed on earth was a Wednesday. It is for this reason that the celebration is annually held by Yazidis on this day.
Furthermore, Yazidi mythology continues to disclose that the creation of earth – in formation since Friday – was completed on Wednesday. That is, the sun’s rays reached the earth for the first time, turning the sky red. The Peacock Angel is the center of the seven archangels, so it represents Wednesday, the middle of the week or the center of the seven archangels. The Peacock Angel comes second to God in veneration and deification. As a result, images of peacocks adorn Yazidi houses, shrines, and places of worship.
Additionally, when God inflated spirit into Adam from his own breath and commanded the archangels to bow to him, all the archangels obeyed, except for Tawûsî Melek, who disobeyed adamantly. In answer to God, Tawûsî Melek replied, “How can I submit to another being! I am from your illumination while Adam is made of dust.” Then God praised him and made him the leader of all angels and his aide on Earth. Furthermore, God created Yazidis differently from the rest of humankind; as they descend from the progeny of Adam’s son Shahid bin Jarr, but not from Eve, according to their mythology.
Located in the Shekhan District, Lalish (Lalişa Nûranî) is the ‘Mecca’ for Yazidis, where adherents of the faith visit in pilgrimage. Lalish consists of several shrines and temples decorated with images of the Sun, the Black Serpent, and the Peacock Angel. Lalish is a topographic copy of Mecca in the sense that it has its own Zam Zam spring and Mount Arafat. Shaikhan is home to the tomb of Adi ibn Musafer a central and highly esteemed religious figure in the Yazidi faith, and regarded as the avatar and worldly embodiment of the Peacock Angel.
Remarkably, Yazidism revolves around the personality of Sheikh Adi, who incarnates the Peacock Angel. However, Adi himself is a debatable figure. While Muslim scholars (including the Kurdish Traditionalist Ibn Tayymiyyah, the spiritual father of Salafism) highly applaud and venerate him and maintain that Adi – a Muslim Sufi – is a descendant of the last Umayyad caliph Marwan II, Yazidis, however, categorically deny such claims asserting Sheikh Adi descends from a Kurdish family that used to live in Hakkari (Colemêrg) in Northern Kurdistan. Surprisingly, Marwan’s mother was a Kurd from Harran. Whatever the case, both hypotheses agree that Sheikh Adi was born in the village of Beit Far located in the Bekaa Valley of today’s Lebanon in 1075.
Additionally, Yazidis believe in the Great Flood and in Noah’s Ark, which lays on Mount Judi in Northern Kurdistan. Yazidis claim that the water of the flood fountained first from Ain (spring) Sifni (ship) an area close to Lalish. However, the flood also dispersed them onto a number of countries including India where they established the faith before returning to their ancestral lands in Mesopotamia. A number of Yazidi symbols (including the peacock and the serpent), are found as far away as India.
The Yazidi Religious Structure
Hierarchically speaking, the Yazidi religious structure is made up of three classes. This includes the Sheikhs (made up of the three sub-classes of Adani, Shamsani, and Qatani), the Pirs, and the Murdis (commoners). There is also the Faqirs and the Kochaks, who have more a communally-oriented mission in the Yazidi society. Yazidi Sheikhs have established a good reputation among the population. By a holy lineage, they descend from and are successors of the Sheikhly line in the Shekhan District. Yazidis pray in the direction of the sun, except for the noon prayer, which is in the direction of Lalish. They believe in reincarnation of the angels (except for the Peacock Angel) who have been re-embodied on earth as holy people.
The Mir (hereditary leader) is the highest religious authority (the Yazidi supreme spiritual leader) of his flock. He crowns the religious hierarchy. It is mandatory that the Mir reside in Lalish. Second to the Mir in importance and authority is Baba Sheikh, a descendant of the family of Sheikh Fakhraddin, the family through which the line of spiritual leaders has been inherited for centuries.
It is the Mir, head of the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council, who appoints the Baba Sheikh. The community cannot invalidate the Mir’s decision, while Baba Sheikh is a member onboard the supreme council.
Red Wednesday Traditions
On Red Wednesday, people rise early and pray facing the sun. Women wear special clothes and visit cemeteries. Preparations for the ‘Eid’ begin on Tuesday evening where every family must boil eggs in large numbers. The eggs are often colored red, green, and yellow (which also coincides with the ‘Kurdish colors’).
The colored eggs are a symbol for the renewal of nature. The yolk is symbolic of the sun. It represents fertility on earth and symbolizes a setting sun on the horizon. Highly venerated by the Kurds historically, Yazidis hold prayers to the sun three times a day. The chief festival celebrated by the Kurdish Hurrian kingdom of Mitannis, which ruled northern Mesopotamia (including Syria) for about 300 years (1600-1260 BCE), was solstice.
Furthermore, names of Mitanni Kings were associated with the Sun, for instance the names of Sutarna I (Good Sun), and Paratarṇa I (Great Sun). The Sun represents the source of energy and the ultimate truth. When used to confirm the truth, the Kurds used to say “I swear to the Sun.” This is in line with Yazidi beliefs and culture. Of note, the flags of the Kurdistan Regional Government (Alaya Rengîn) and Kurdistan Communities Union both feature suns as well.
The mythology recounts that when the universe was first created it was foggy and dark. God commissioned the Peacock Angel on Wednesday to give life to the earth, and since earth was covered with a layer of ice, the Peacock Angel landed on a branch of a tree known as “Herher” in the Lalish valley. By a heavenly will, the ice melted away because of the heat produced by the Sun. A new shape which commenced from Lalish was given to earth. This marks the beginning of spring.
On this day, while women are preoccupied with tasks at home in preparing food and adorning houses with flowers and poppy anemone, among others, girls and young men boil and color 12 eggs. With every three eggs representing a season. The egg represents the globe. At sunset on Tuesday, a fuse made out of 366 wicks is lit at Lalish. Each wick represents a day of the year. In the Yazidi’s holiest place (Lalish), Baba Sheikh attends the sacred temple.
People then have lunch at cemeteries in a collective shared meal. Yazidis say every year on this day the Peacock Angel lands on earth to repossess it from evil. One this day too, people visit each other and put aside their disputes ushering in a new era of their lives.
After the celebrations end, the shells of the colored eggs are broken and dispersed onto the cultivated lands to increase blessings and production. The eggshell represents the layer of ice that covered the earth before the Peacock Angel landed in Lalish. The egg implies that the earth is spherical, a later-known scientific fact that could first be attributed to the Yazidi faith.
Historically, Yazidi’s have faced more than 74 genocides. Since Yazidis are endogamous (the custom of marrying only within the faith), and the faith is a non-missionary one (no converts to the faith are allowed), their numbers have been in continual decline. Today, the number of adherents is estimated to be around 1 million worldwide.
Prior to 2014, thousands of Yazidis from across the world could flock to the sacred valley of Lalish in the Shaikhan district of the Duhok Governorate in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) to observe and participate in the feast firsthand and perform their pilgrimages. However, since then many things have changed.
Following the 2014 attack, nearly 150,000 Yazidis have left their ancestral homelands heading towards Europe, Canada, Australia, and other countries. The vast majority are living in Internally Displaced Camps (IDP) in the KRI. The combination of these factors seems to have heavily encroached upon the closed minority and diluted and dismantled the previous uniformity that also preserved their faith.
In Iraq, the second Article of the Iraqi Constitution declares Islam as the official state religion and Yazidis are not recognized as a separate ethnicity. Yazidis also face continual attacks by the Turkish Air Force against their Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), which were formed to ensure another genocide was never committed against them again. In Armenia, where there is a considerable community, Yazidis were recognized as a non-Kurdish group. Elsewhere in Syria (Rojava), and in the aftermath of the false dawn of the so-called Arab Spring, Syria’s Yazidis were given political representation under the de facto egalitarian Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), thanks to Article 32 of the Social Contract of Rojava, which distinguished Yazidism as an independent faith for the very first time in history.
In 2022, and for the very first time, non-Yazidis (Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, and Assyrians), were invited to celebrate Red Wednesday. For instance, among others, a mass and open ceremony was held in the village of Qazlachokh in the southern countryside of Amuda in Rojava’s Jazira Region. Qazlachokh is one of the oldest Yazidi villages in the entire region.
Yazidism is a unique culture, which needs protection, especially following the horrific events of 2014. Enslaved and kidnapped women and children are still being recovered from the crumbling remnants of the ISIS Caliphate. Many more are still lost and yet to be found. Yet, the Yazidis, especially in Iraq, face significant marginalization and discrimination – which has contributed to their desire to leave their ancient lands for the relative safety of the West. However, this process only further endangers, dilutes, and fractures the long-held unity of the Yazidi community. In response, all Kurds most do their part and recognize that Yazidis practice a profoundly beautiful, ancient, and deep religious tradition that deserves respect. Throughout Kurdistan, there also must be more of a commitment to defend and honor the Yazidis, who likely represent a mirror looking far into the past, of what all Kurdish people once were.