Georgia’s Yazidis: Religion as Identity

Author: Elene Shengelia , Rana Aghayeva

Set in the sprawling, outlying Tbilisi neighborhood of Varketili, it might almost be mistaken for just another earth-colored office building. Its cone-shaped dome suggests another purpose, but few outsiders venture inside to learn that this squat structure, bordered by scraggly grass, is a Yazidi temple.

The Yazidis, ethnic kin to the Kurds, live predominantly in northern Iraq, northern Syria and eastern Turkey, and follow a monotheistic faith. Known in the Caucasus for their presence in Armenia – soon to be the site of the world’s largest Yazidi temple – they are believed to have inhabited Georgia since the beginning of the 19th century.

But despite that history in Georgia, this ethno-religious community, some members say, faces challenges. At about 12, 000 people, the number of Yazidi Georgians has shrunk by a third since 2002, according to official data. Overall, they currently account for well under 1 percent of the country’s 3.7-million population.

Labor migration to Russia and Turkey plays a large role in that decline; Yazidis who fled ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria a few years ago have reportedly since left Georgia for a lack of jobs.  

But assimilation within the country’s predominantly Orthodox Christian society has also had an effect, asserts Dimitri Pirbari, head of the Spiritual Council of Yazidis in Georgia.

Many younger Yazidis do not want to be different from their urban peers, he says, and often convert to other religions.

That trend concerns Piribari. For Yazidis, ethnic identity and religion are synonymous.

“They have only their memory reminding them of their Yazidi origin,” he says of converted Yazidis. “They lose all the rest: [their] identity, religion.”

“A true Yazidi is supposed to practice his or her religion,” underlines Sheikh Nuri, 59,  the Tbilisi temple’s Russia-born, main priest.

In Tbilisi’s Yazidi temple, prayers to saints and angels are said near candelabras, whose light symbolizes divine power.

Sheikh Nuri is the main priest in the Yazidi temple in the Tbilisi district of Varketili.

Sheikh Nuri estimates that 10–15 people visit Tbilisi’s Yazidi temple daily to talk to him, share their concerns, ask for advice or how to practice the Yazidi religion. He works in the temple from 9am until 9pm each day.

Typical Yazidi carvings surround the entrance to the Tbilisi temple, built to resemble the main Yazidi temple in Lalish, Iraq.

The walls of Tbilisi’s Yazidi temple are decorated with written prayers.

Yazidis pray twice a day -- at daybreak and sunset -- for the welfare of humankind and for peace throughout the world. On Tuesdays, the temple’s main priest presides at a special prayer ceremony followed by a sermon.

Yazidis see God in the sun’s rays, which their grooved temple dome, based on the main Yazidi temple in Iraq, symbolizes.  Seven angels represent this supreme being; the most revered is the so-called Peacock Angel, or Melek Taus, who, they say, mediates between God and human beings. This angel’s peacock sign can be seen throughout the Tbilisi temple – behind the altar, in the garden and on books.

A dispute over the angel’s name and role has prompted some outsiders – most notoriously, ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria -- to deem the Yazidis devil-worshippers.

But Sheikh Nuri emphasizes that Yazidis, unlike other monotheistic religions, do not believe in such a presence. Evil is the work of humans alone, he says.

In Georgia, Sheikh Nuri asserts that the group has not suffered any discrimination for these beliefs and regularly interacts with other religious communities. “We invite each other to our religious holidays. Muslims invite us to celebrate Ramadan; Christians invite us to celebrate Easter. We invite them to our own religious holidays.”

“Here in Georgia, we all live in peace,” he adds.

Sheikh Nuri and fellow priest Sheikh Rostom outside the Tbilisi temple. A Yazidi cultural center next to the sanctuary offers classes on Yazidi religion and history as well in Kurmanji Kurdish, the Yazidi language.

Sheikh Rostom 29, is a Yazidi priest and a senior member of the Spiritual Council of Yazidis in Georgia, which oversees various religious, educational and cultural activities for the country’s tiny Yazidi community.

Shoes should be taken off when entering the Yazidi temple in Tbilisi. It is forbidden to step on the doorstep, Sheikh Nuri, the temple’s main priest, explains.

As do many Georgian Orthodox women inside a church, Yazidi females cover their heads inside their Tbilisi temple.

A prayer service is usually held in the Tbilisi temple on Tuesdays when Yazidis gather and declare thanks to God; in their faith, a passive supreme being. Yazidis teach that everyone must live prepared for an afterlife (akhirat) where he or she will have to appear before God.

An image in Tbilisi’s Yazidi temple depicts the Peacock Angel (Melek Taus), the most revered of seven archangels in the Yazidi belief system, on the tree of life.

The grooves in the dome of Tbilisi’s Yazidi temple represent rays of the sun, seen as a manifestation of God.

Still, limits exist for that interaction. Proselytism does not occur.  A person is considered Yazidi only if both his or her father and mother are Yazidis. For this reason, marriage with other ethnicities is not encouraged.

Sheikh Teimur Babayan, a Yazidi priest, states plainly that “I have no desire to integrate.”

Aside from religion, that also has to do with language. Preserving the Yazidi language, Kurmanji Kurdish, depends on using it at home. It is taught in the Tbilisi temple and a neighboring Yazidi cultural center, but not in public schools.  

“We speak our language only at home,” says 60-year-old Babayan, a member of the Spiritual Council of Yazidis in Georgia. “I send my grandchildren to the temple where Pirbari teaches them Kurdish twice a week when he has time.” Babayan, whose family originally hails from Armenia, cannot write in Kurdish, though says his wife, Zozan, and grandchildren can.

Despite the language connection, Pirbari fears that too many people misrepresent Yazidis as Kurds, an Islamic people.   

Though he does not consider himself Georgian -- like many in the Caucasus, he equates citizenship with ethnicity -- he does desire direct financial support from the Georgian government. In the past, Georgia’s Yazidis received land from the government at a symbolic price for their cultural center.

Nothing indicates that regular financial assistance will be forthcoming, but the Yazidis’ sense of identity is none the weaker. Says Sheikh Babayan, “I am a Yazidi and always will be.”

Georgia’s Yazidis: Religion as Identity

          A wedding in Tbilisi's Yazidi temple

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