Sacred Trees in Kurdish Culture & Mythology
By Himdad Mustafa
In various cultures and mythologies around the world, nature in its multifaceted forms, including trees, rivers, or mountains, are considered sacred and believed to embody deities, spirits, or even the souls of ancestors. Such beliefs are also found in Kurdish culture and mythology, which attribute spiritual or supernatural qualities to all natural objects, including stones, water, plants, and animals.
In a recent study, Gianfilippo Terribili shows that in present-day Kurdistan from the late antiquity to modern times, along with other recurrent constituents (i.e. sacred mountains, healing sources, natural caves), the sacred tree was part of the local religious complex and its sacred landscape. The popular beliefs and practices associated with sacred trees persisted in this region until the current era, especially within native religious traditions (i.e. Yazidism or Yarsanism). T. F. Aristova points out that until fairly recently many Muslim rites and beliefs among Kurds coexisted with pre-Islamic cults associated with lakes, stones, graves, trees, fire, and an ancestor cult.
In the mid-19th century, there were entire tribes in the mountains of Kurdistan who worshipped the trees of their forests and had altars formed of blocks of stone, like dolmens or menhirs, in the secret recesses of their country. The Armenian writer and priest Hovhannes Muradian in the 1860s observed that “in Kurdistan the worship of trees and water is immeasurable.” Some Kurds also believed if they protested to sacred trees, all the houses of their enemies would be destroyed. Such trees were believed to have the power of life and death, and that if someone kills a bird perched on a holy tree, they would soon die. Van-Lennep noted that Kurds performed certain rites around large and ancient trees, which sometimes became “positive idolatry.” They believed that these trees were endowed with miraculous influence, and rags tied to their branches were thought, after a while, to become imbibed with healing powers.
These customs and practices survived well into the 20th century. The Christian missionary William Ainger Wigram wrote in 1914 that “the oldest faith of the land, the aboriginal tree-worship, still lingers in the villages and indeed is only despised by the townsfolk when the foreigner is within hearing.” Gilbert Ernest Hubbard in 1916 reported that “veneration of sacred places is a particularly marked feature among the Kurds. In the barest districts, you will often come upon a single tree, or, it may be a bunch of trees, evidently of great age, spared on account of some pious association.” The French orientalist Thomas Bois, who traveled through Kurdistan in the mid-20th century, noted that nature worship among the Kurds and the ancient beliefs that the guardian spirits, whether good or bad, haunted certain trees and springs had not altogether disappeared; and many trees and springs were considered sacred. The veneration of animals and trees, as Bois points out, is also reflected in the designs of traditional Kurdish clothes, “the designs are varied and colors singularly fresh and bright. Among the motifs of decoration, animals, and trees, more or less stylized, figure largely. Trees and spiders frequently appear.” Likewise, trees are often featured in Kurdish folk tales. In a mysterious Kurdish tale, the Zay tree and Tay falcon restore the King’s sight, after they had been obtained in the distant land of fairies and demons. This tale reflects the belief in the spiritual and healing power of trees and animals.
Dafni recognized at least three categories of sacred trees in the cultures around the world. First, a tree-god whose worship became organized into a definite religion. Second, sacred trees which are considered the abode of “tree spirits”, that is, supernatural agents like spirits, demons, and jinns. Dafni defines the “sacred trees” as “trees that are subjected to practical manifestations of worship, adoration, and/or veneration that are not practiced with ordinary trees.” Third, metaphysical trees such as “tree of life”, “sky tree”, “cosmic trees”, “tree of wisdom”, and “tree of knowledge.” Some of these “spiritual trees” are identified with specific species: The Indo-European cosmic and tree of life with oak, the Indian “sky tree” with Ficus religiose, while the Egyptian “tree of life” is identified as a date or as sycamore.
Following Dafni, the following research explores the mythological motifs of trees in Kurdish culture and the beliefs associated with the cult of tree.
Yazd, A Kurdish Tree Deity
Woolnough Empson, who visited Kurdistan in the 1910s, wrote that “Yazid, a deity of the Tarhoya tribe of the Kurds, who are not devil-worshippers, is supposed to be identified with the worship of trees.” The Tarhoya, originally called Tirahaye (Tirahaites), were described as “a race of the Kurds who were in the mountains of Media” by the 13th century Syriac historian Bar Hebraeus, adding that they were not Muslims but had adopted “the primitive paganism [of their country] and Magianism.”
The Syriac author does not give any information regarding their pantheon, and Magianism could well be a reference to any Iranian religion, including but not limited to Zoroastrianism, hence we do not know whether they were already worshipping Yazd, or if they had incorporated it into their pantheon in later periods. However, the Kurdish group Izdādūxtiyya ‘daughter of Izdā/Yazdā’, mentioned by al-Maqdisī in the 10th century, probably testifies to the presence of Yazd worshippers, or the relics of its worship, among Kurds in this period. The theophoric element yazd is also extant in some medieval Kurdish male and female names such as Yazdād and Yazdā, meaning ‘created by Yazd.’ The latter was reportedly the mother of Sheikh Adi al-Kurdī, the founder of Yazidism.
Writing in 1923, Ethel Drower identified “The god Yazid, the tutelary deity of the Tarhoya Kurds” with the tree god Yazd worshipped by the inhabitants of Balāshagān (Mūghān) in the 9th century. Similarly, the Syriac author Thomas of Marga, relates that in the year 800 CE, the bishop Eliya appointed to preach the gospel in Mūghān, found there a population given to the worship of a god by the name of Yazd who resided in an oak tree called “King of the Forest”; the bushes that surrounded this tree were called “children of Yazd.” The local population claimed to have received this god from their ancestors.
The inhabitants of Balāshagān were Kurds according to Muslim historians like al-Balāḍūrī, Ibn al-Faqīh, al-Ḥamawī, and Ibn Khaldūn. They report that in about 645 CE, after conquering Arrān, Salmān b. Rabīʿa al-Bāhlī summoned the Kurds of Balāsagān to Islam, but they decided to fight the Arabs, he defeated them and imposed the jizya on some of them; similarly, when Hūḍayfa b. Yamān made a peace treaty with the Sasanian marzbān of Azerbaijan, one of the provisions was that Arabs “should not confront the Kurds of Balāsajān, Sātrūdān and the Sabalān mountains.” Later sources show that although the Tatars and Turkoman nomads, following their expansion into northern Iran after the 11th century, often drove away Kurds from the region, the latter still dominated the area until the 19th century. These Kurds were the Shakākī tribe according to Maftūn Dunbulī, writing around 1820s, and Butkov, who reports in 1869 that Shakākī lived on the River Araxes on the Mūghān Steppe, after which they were called Mūghānī. John Bell of Antermony crossed the Mūghān plain on his way to Tabriz in 1716, he reports that the plain was inhabited by Kurds and was called “Kurdistan”, adding that “The river Kure divides the province of Shirvan from Kurdistan [i.e. Mūghān].”
According to Dunbulī, in 1797 Jaʿfar Qulī Khān recruited the ‘Yazdī’ Shakāk tribesmen in his war against Qajar troops, this testifies to the survival of the cult of Yazd among the Shakāk in late 18th century. They were probably the same ‘fire-worshipping Kurds’ who considered the rivers Kur and Araxes as their river-mothers. Further to the west, tree worship also lingered among the Kizilibash ‘Alevi’ Kurds, “they hold many pantheistic notions, supposing, among other things, that the divinity resides in a certain tree, to which their enemies, the Turks, say that they pay divine honors.” In another account we are told that deified trees were visited by ‘pious pilgrims’ who worshipped these trees and tied offerings to it, their neighbors claimed that the Kurds “fear the trees even more than Allah.” Some people sought healing from the leaves of these sacred trees, they called them manasap. Most of these trees were feared and, therefore, were protected. In a village near Hewlêr (Erbil), a deified tree, that was believed to perform miracles, had attracted pilgrims from across Kurdistan. The villagers said they fought for it several times with the Turks and the British, losing tens of men to protect the tree, “our village could be destroyed, our children slaughtered, but the Nail Tree would be safe.” Some villagers, who had attested the power of the tree, recounted one tale in which a shepherd tried to set fire to the tree, and the next day he lost many sheep when they were attacked by wolves. The shepherd later died of a strange abdominal pain.
As among the Tirahaites, Yazid (Ēzīd, Ēzī) is an important divine figure in the Yazidi belief system and the eponym of the religion. He is commemorated through the Feast of Yazid (or Ēzīd, Ēzī) that takes place on the Friday before winter solstice. Apparently, the influence of heretic Islamic movements known as Yazīdiyyah in the region led to the conflation of Yazd (the eponym of Yazdīs) and Yazīd (eponyms of Yazīdiyyah movements) to the extent that this divine figure has often been erroneously identified with the Umayyad Caliph Yazīd b. Muʿāwiyyah. Ainsworth plausibly traced the name of Yazidis back to the tree deity Yazd. This identification is supported by other observations. Atchley remarks that the Yazidis “designate their god by the names of Yezd, and Shekh Adi.” Tweedie goes on to say that the ancient Iranian name “Yazd” represents for the Yazidis the “good god.” In addition, the original name of the religion, Yazdī, continued to be used as recorded in historical accounts in various spellings such as Yezdi, Yezdia, Yesdi etc.
Etymologically, Yazd signifies ‘God’ in Iranian languages, from Old Iranian yazata- ‘being worthy of worship.’ However, among the Kurds Yazd denotes both infernal and heavenly deities, both God and the Devil. This dual meaning was already observed by d’Anville, Volney, Buckingham, and Empson. In addition, in the Kurdish milieu, Yazd was clearly a tree deity whose name could signify both the Devil and God. This shows perfect agreement with Thomas of Marga’s description of the cult of tree in the district of the Salakh and among the Shērwāns (Syr. Bēth Shirwānāyē ‘home of the Shirwāns,’ a Kurdish tribe) in northern areas of present-day Sōrān district in the 9th century, where the people believed that their deity inhabited certain trees and was called the “devil” which is none other than god Yazd:
“That country [Salakh] abounded in Magianism, and not only in the worship of the sun, moon and stars, but … also of trees of beautiful foliage, and this worship of trees existed even in the days of the old man from whom I learned this. And Jacob, my father… related to me… that [in Bēth Shirwānāyē] there was a great old oak which was called the ‘King of the Forest’; and in the villages round about it there were heathen who used to burn incense to it, and who worshipped before it, and we wished to cut it down, but we were afraid of the heathen who worshipped it, and of the devil which appeared in it.”
As in many cultures around the world, cosmic tree plays a significant role in the cosmogonies of Kurdish religions, especially Yazidism. In a number of creation myths, the three holy beings (God, Tawûsî Melek, and Ēzīd) before the World’s Creation perched on the branches of the Dārā Mazin ‘The Big Tree’, which is obviously the Tree of Life in the center of the world, and the rose-bush, which were grown in the Big Primordial Sea.
Many conventional features of Near Eastern world tree motifs are found in Kurdish rug designs. Hawley had in possession rare old Kurdish pieces “with field completely covered with drawings of the tree of life and strange floral conceits.” Similarly, Cornelia Sage describes a Royal Kurdistan rug made in Sine (Sanandaj) by the special order of the Shah in the 1870s, this rug had a field occupied by “palm leaves” enclosing the “Tree of Life.”
Based on available sources, two specific Kurdish forms of the tree of life are identified. First, a four-petal rose, this was recorded by Lewis in 1911, remarking that this form, which appears in Kurdish rugs in several different forms, is considered as the Kurdish representation of the trees of life. The other form, recorded by George Lechler in 1937, consists of ten branches equally divided on the right and left sides of the stem, with each branch having one leaf in the shape of a six-petal rose, and one leaf on the apex of the tree in the shape of a five petal rose.
Dārī Mirāzān: ‘The Tree of Wishes’
One of the manifestations of the cult of trees in Kurdish culture is the Dārī Mirāzān or Dārā Mirāzā “The Tree of Wishes.” Women would visit these trees believing that such visits could bestow blessing on barren women and help them get pregnant. Others visited them believing that they have spiritual or physical healing powers. Or anyone who wishes their desires fulfilled, would resort to the tree of wishes. They would tie a piece of personal cloth onto the tree, with the idea that now the person has tied a part of themselves onto the tree for blessing or healing. Those struggling with illnesses would tie a rag on the tree, believing that they had attached their pain to the tree. At the same time they would make a request and vow that they will perform some meritorious act if the request is granted.
The tree of wishes are believed to be the abode of spirits, jinns, or dēws (demons) who are associated with fertility, guidance, power, and protection – as well as bad luck and misfortune. The veneration of the trees is, therefore, often accompanied by sacrifices to the spirits under the trees as votive offerings or to ward off evil forces and bad luck. These trees are either single units or groves, their sacred character depends on their location (sacred places), size, and age, rather than the type of tree species.
Hansen describes a type of tree of wishes adorned not only by rags, but also by a ram’s horn, with a wooden holy hand set up beside it, stood inside the grating that protected a sacred grave. The holy hand was probably Ḥamsa (meaning “five” in Arabic), a symbolic hand which represents protection in both Jewish and Islamic cultures. In Islamic tradition, it symbolizes the “hand of Fāṭimah,” the daughter of the Prophet Muḥammad. Østrup, who saw rag trees in the Taurus mountains of Kurdistan, believed that in this custom we find crippled remnants of the ancient resurrection ceremony that were still preserved in his time in their entirety by a few Indian tribes.
In some areas nails are hammered to a sacred tree to transfer the pain or illness into the tree, these type of wishing trees are called Dāra Bizmār ‘Nail Tree’ in Kurdish. Hammering nails as well as hanging clothes are “tying” rituals, whereby the person seeks healing or a solution to problems by transferring his or her illness or problems onto the tree.
Rain rituals are also often performed around the tree of wishes. In Silemani and Kirkuk, Thomas Bois describes one example of magical rites in which the Kurds engaged to bring rain or on the other hand to cause it to cease:
“The women having donned their finest clothes, go together in a band into the country to an ancient and venerable tree in the shade of which they install themselves. Having taken with them the necessary kitchen utensils and provisions they dance round the saucepan until the meal is ready. After the meal they pour water over the prettiest dress of the company and await the rain. If no rain falls before it is time to return, they pour water over one another’s clothes and go back to their homes completely soaked.”
The tree of wishes are highly venerated in Kurdish culture. In occupied Northern Kurdistan the Turkish regime often cuts the sacred trees as a form of psychological warfare against the Kurds. Likewise, since the occupation of Afrin in Rojava by Turkey in 2018, as part of their ethnic cleansing campaigns against Kurds, Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries have been cut down over 1.5 million trees, including the trees of wishes that were over 100 years-old.
Dār Awūs ‘Pregnant Tree’ Rituals among Kurdish Jews
A wonderful example of the use of trees in fertility rituals can be found in the Kurdish Jewish women’s rituals for the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish ‘New Year for the Trees’ celebrated on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat.
According to Erich Brauer, who visited the Jews of Kurdistan in the 1930s, before their expulsion by the Iraqi government in the 1950s, among the Kurdish Jews Tu bi’Shvat was a feast of fertility and rebirth, and many magical customs were practiced on this day. Jewish women performed a number of fertility rituals called Dar Awus ‘pregnant tree’ in Kurdish, in many of which the theme was that the fate of women is connected to that of trees. If it rained or snowed, the women declared that the trees had dipped in the mikveh ritual bath, and so could now become pregnant. This would be interpreted as a good omen for their own fertility. Infertile women would hug fruit trees at night to encourage the fertility of the tree to pass on to them. They used to scatter raisins and sweets around the trees to enhance their own fertility and that of the trees, and recite a special poem as follows:
Pregnant tree, you shall not conceive.
I shall conceive with this intent.
This year my body will be filled.
Or another version:
Oh tree, your pregnancy to me and mine to you
This year I shall conceive.
Just as you give fruit
So shall I give fruit.
The Kurdish Jews sent each other bowls containing thirty different kinds of fruit as it was customary to eat as much fruit as possible. Brauer observed that the Muslim Kurds also sent fruit to the Jews, in the hope that the Jewish benedictions may have a favorable effect on the fruit trees. The Jews believed that their benedictions would ‘impregnate’ the trees on this night.
The Tree Pīrs
Among the Muslim Kurds, the spirits that inhabited water, stone, or trees were replaced with Muslim saints called the pīrs ‘spiritual masters’. Accordingly, their burial places were sanctified and revered as pīrs ‘holy places.’ Not only would the graves of saints serve as a place of worship, but also stones, trees, mountains, and caves, where, according to legend, the saints or other revered legendary figures lived or stayed. This reflects the belief that elements, with their longevity, strength, and connection to the earth, are seen as potent symbols of spiritual connection.
Aristova distinguished three types of pīrs (holy places) among Kurds. The first type of stone mounds, formed by the casting of stones at places considered sacred, were revered primarily by the nomadic Kurds. Part of the mound was frequently covered by pieces of fabric hung on bushes or saplings by women. Kurds believed that these pirs would save them from misfortune. The second type, created by sedentary Kurds, was associated with the graves of saints and the cult of the ancestors. On certain days the villagers brought offerings, usually baked bread and sweets, to these graves. The third kind reflected the cults of trees, stones, and water; these cults had devotees among both the sedentary and nomadic population.
The tree pīr could be a single tree or a grove. The place where the pīr is located is called nizirga نزرگە , which functions as a sacred meeting space where individuals or communities can communicate with the spiritual realm. These places are often resorted to as pilgrimage sites ‘ziyārat’ (also called jiare) with the aim of spiritual cleansing, healing, and blessing. According to Kurdish author Mahmoud Bayazidi (1859 CE), the Kurds strongly believed in the miraculous power of ziyārats, which were usually trees or stones. During these ziyārats, the rituals often included animal sacrifice and lighting candles. If someone fell sick, one of the relatives would promise that if the patient recovers, he or she would go barefoot to such and such a ziyārāt where they would make a sacrifice and light a candle. “Those who have been benefited”, Fraser observed, “tear shreds from their shirts or trousers and tie them to the bushes around the site” as tokens of gratitude.
More recently, among Alevi Kurds, Ahmet Gültekin describe rituals at jiares which rely on worshipping nature-based (living or non-living) objects such as trees, forests, mountains, rocks, caves, rivers, lakes, fountains, fire, soil, wild animals, or the sun and moon.
A notable example that sheds light on the cult of pīrs is provided by Frederick Millingen, who lived among the Kurds in 1860s, he noted that they believed in the pīrs as holy protectors in whose power and intercession they trusted. It seems the pīrs were connected with jinns and the perīs ‘fairies’, the malicious and the benign spirits, whose action over mankind was considered to be all-powerful. To these supernatural beings he added sheyts (from Arabic shahīd ‘martyr’) who could perform miracles and whose burial site, including the surrounding rocks and trees, were considered as holy places. It is noteworthy that sheyt also designated ‘devil’, from Arabic shayṭān ‘satan, devil’, as James Bryce observed in 1876 that among the Kurds “the theology of many consists chiefly in a belief in Jinn, Peris, and Sheyts (devils).” Millingen was told by the Kurds that sheyts are “wandering spirits” whose mission is to wander about the valleys and the mountains either “coaxing” or “bullying” people. Furthermore, they believed that sheyts and jinns protect the holy places and would take revenge on anyone who causes harm to these places or the nearby trees or stones.
Some Kurdish communities sanctified trees or other elements of nature because of their connection with saints or prophets. A traveler in his account on “Kuzulbash Koords”, i.e. Alevi Kurds, noted that:
“They are known to worship stones and especially old trees. They say that some prophet or saint has doubtless sat beneath that tree, and therefore it’s sacred, and with their remarkable notions of defied prophets, it would not be strange if they fancy that by contact, they actually impart of their celestial nature to the old tree. I have been assured also that they worship the sun, and even the moon and stars.”
Others believed that trees embody saints or function as intermediaries between them and the people; in times of need, those who sought help from the saint for whatever they needed had to go to a tree and invoke the saint’s name, who would provide help through the tree. In Islamic contexts these supernatural acts, though rooted in paganism, were considered as karāmāt ‘dignities, miracles’ bestowed unto these saints since they were regarded as the awliyā, that is, the chosen or favorites of Allah.
Nature as a Means of Resistance
The Turkish and Iranian regimes have for decades been destroying the nature of Kurdistan including many of the sacred trees, rivers, and springs through the construction of dams, diverting rivers, and deforestation in order to eliminate the cultural memory of Kurds and their strong feelings of attachment to their land.
In response to these attempts, as Hunt observes, we find within the Kurdish freedom movement a creative, revolutionary dialectic in which new meaning is infused into age-old nature-affirming values by contemporary social and ecological struggles. Gultekin quotes Bilgin’s observation that a “new understanding of nature is being forged in the Kurdish Alevis’ struggles against incursions by dam projects, mining companies, tourism policies, and other threats.” As Gultekin notes, in these struggles, the Kurds’ confrontation with the long-standing threat of genocide is being expanded into a profound social ecological understanding of the threat to both the land and people posed by ecocide.
Three kinds of sacred trees could be distinguished in Kurdish mythology and religious beliefs. First, a tree god called Yazd whose worship had survived until the early 20th century, although not necessarily as an organized religion. The tree which was believed to be inhabited by Yazd was regarded as the King of the Forest. The trees or bushes that enclosed the sacred tree were highly revered for they were regarded as the Children of Yazd.
The second type of sacred trees are considered the abode of spirits, lending them their supernatural attributes. These tree spirits may be ancestral beings, jinns, demons and other supernatural entities. They are seen as guardians, protectors, sources of wisdom and guidance. This is best evident in rituals associated with the tree pīrs and Dārī Mirāzān/ Dārā Mirāzā. The third type of sacred tree, is the Tree of Life.
This study shows that in Kurdish culture, trees are revered as sacred, wise beings and sources of power. They are often seen as the dwelling places of gods and spirits, therefore, they are honored through rituals, offerings, and prayers. This belief stems from the idea that trees possess a unique spiritual essence, and are seen as a conduit between the earthly and divine realms. This reflects the deep connection between Kurdish culture and the natural world, as well as the reverence and respect that Kurdish society holds for trees and their spiritual significance.
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- Ibid. pp.158-60. ↑
- For ḥamsa pendants made in Kurdistan in the 19th century, see link
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- Баязиди, М. (1963). Нравы и обычаи курдов. 1963, p.34
- Fraser, J. B. (1840). Travels in Kurdistan and Mesopotamia, etc Including an Account of Parts of Those Countries Hitherto Unvisited by Europeans. With Sketches of the Character and Manners of the Koordish and Arab Tribes, v.i. London: R. Bentley. pp.165-166. link ↑
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- Karakaya-Stump, A. (2020). Reflections on the 19th Century Missionary Reports as Sources for the History of the (Kurdish) Kizilbash. Kurdish Studies 8 (1), 43-70. link ↑
- For a story on this ritual, see Al- Nabhānī (2014). Jāmiʻ karāmāt al-awliyāʾ, v.i. Beirut: Dār al-Kutūb al-ʿIlmiyyah. p.467.
- Hunt, S. E. (2021). Ecological Solidarity and the Kurdish Freedom Movement: Thought, Practice, Challenges, and Opportunities. London: Lexington Books. p.xviii. link ↑