The holiest place in the Yezidi (Ezidi) religion, the tucked-away valley of Lalish is imbued with a sacred manmade and natural landscape. Lalish is located in the Duhok governorate, at the edge of Nineveh and anchoring the Ezidi heartland area.
Walking through and learning about the valley is a crucial step in understanding Ezidism’s deeply powerful and spiritual syncretic beliefs. The religion is grounded in nature worship, with an array of traditions related to Zoroastrianism, Mesopotamian practices, and Abrahamic religions. It is worth noting that for many Ezidis, their rituals are culturally significant beyond being solely miraculous and sacred.
There are two traditions for pilgrims to always remember. Shoes are forbidden, even outdoors, due to the sanctity of the whole valley. People go barefoot from the point where they park their cars.
The other is doorways. They are sacred, and most are marked by large stone sills which pilgrims will kiss and bless. Step through the doorway but never set foot on the sill, or on the threshold of any doorway at all, as it is forbidden.
Aside from the chapels and springs, which are immediately noticeable, another dimension to Lalish’s sacred geography is fire. Throughout the whole valley are niches and altars where oil lamps or mere wicks are lit in a sanctioned order every day, beginning once the sun has set on the mountain top.
Upon entering Lalish, the first point of assembly is a courtyard of shops. Although the shops are no longer in use, this large space is still the social center where crowds gather during holidays.
There is a recent mural depicting the Ezidi legend where Noah nearly perished when the Ark sprung a leak but a black snake plugged the hole, thus saving the Ark. This unique version of the traditional biblical and Quranic legend is the basis for Ezidi respect toward black snakes.
Adjacent to the courtyard is Kani Spi (the White Spring), which feeds the baptismal pool to which all Ezidis must be brought shortly after birth. There is a chapel over the pool, and it is forbidden for non-Ezidis to enter. Outside the chapel is a pool which any pilgrim may use to wash their hands and feet. The pool flows into a channel which continues underground to the main temple.
Next to the gate of the main temple is a carving that resembles the Jewish 'Magen David,' but Ottoman Muslims frequently used this symbol for shrines and madrasas. At the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman governor ordered Lalish to be converted into a madrasa (Islamic school). The carving likely dates to this era. Lalish continued to be defiled until 1904 when the Ezidi community regained dominion over the site and rebuilt their monuments and shrines.
There are additional carvings and inscriptions throughout the site. The meaning of many has been lost over time, but some are archetypal for the region. The sun and the moon are symbols of Ezidism as there is a deep spiritual connection to the natural world and in particular the sun. Other common symbols include: the cane, representing the power of a leader such as the Baba Sheikh, the religious leader; the sword, representing the military acumen of a knight or Mir (prince) who is the political leader; and the comb, representing the wisdom of an elder whose long beard must be combed.
Passing through the gate, one enters the forecourt of the main temple. Remember to step over the sill. The white spring flows from the baptismal chapel and goes under the courtyard on its way into the nave of the main temple. There is a drinking fountain where pilgrims taste its water.
Baba Cewish, the steward of the temple, makes himself available at the vestibule next to the temple’s main door. However, except during holidays when pilgrims expect him to be at his post, he is usually busy tending to the temple and its environs.
Baba Sheikh, the religious leader of the Ezidis, presides over gatherings at his own covered reception area.
Although Baba Sheikh handles religious edicts, the Emir of the Ezidis is responsible for political decisions. Overlooking Baba Sheikh’s platform is a recent proclamation by the current Emir Tahseen Said Ali, which states that all donations given to the temple will go toward needy families.
The doorway to the temple was renovated in the 20th century with beautifully carved gray marble sourced from Mosul. The building has been built and rebuilt numerous times, usually following destruction by conquerors. However, the Ezidis have also done renovations under benevolent circumstances.
To the right of the doorway is an image of the black snake, revered for its role in saving Noah’s Ark as described earlier.
Entering the temple, remember to not step on the threshold. Pilgrims often kiss the doorway, say a prayer, and leave some money.
Upon entering the doorway is the grand nave of the temple. It contains seven columns, one for each of the seven angels of Ezidism.
The columns are draped with prayer cloths, and pilgrims may make their wishes by first untying a knot, thus releasing the previous pilgrim's wish to be granted, then tying and retying the knot three times while reflecting on their own wish. On the third turn, they tie it tight, having made their wish.
The next chamber contains the shrine of Sheikh Hassan and the small entrance to the cave containing Kani Zim Zim (Zim Zim Spring). It is forbidden for non-Ezidis to enter this cave, which notably is directly under the tomb of Sheikh Adi. In this cave, the Ezidi pilgrims navigate tight confines and wade through the waters to reach a pool and perform a ritual.
Going onward from the Zim Zim Spring and the shrine of Sheikh Hassan, the next room is the grand shrine of Sheikh Adi himself, the principal and most revered prophet of the Ezidis who passed away in the 12th century. The tallest dome in the complex, this chamber is a remarkably large but fairly bare except for the draped grave site.
After the shrine of Sheikh Adi, the following room contains rows of jars filled with olive oil pressed from the groves at Lalish. To the immediate left upon entering is a rocky pillar. Pilgrims toss a cloth onto the top of it and make a wish. If the cloth stays put atop the pillar, then their wish is granted.
The next chamber contains more olive oil reserves, and at the far end is a platform where a caretaker will light the first of the daily candles at sunset. There are two holes in the platform: the larger hole symbolizes heaven, and the smaller hole symbolizes hell.
The final room is the shrine of Sheikh Obakr, said to have been one of Sheikh Adi’s brothers. The black cloth over his grave monument is made from wool coloured black using natural dye. When pilgrims go up to kiss the wool, they should retreat backwards so as not to turn their back on the shrine until they reach the bottom of the steps. A more obscure custom is to do so with hands tucked behind one's back so as to never profane the wool with one’s fingers.
Taking the same path out, there are always more details to notice. Look up to sense the scale of the towering domes. Study the walls to observe sacred inscriptions. Find the two tombs in the central nave: one made conspicuous by draped fabrics, and the other only marked by some raised tiles. There is also a small pool in the nave which is fed by the White Spring.
Continuing around the outside of the temple, one will eventually reach a military tower. It perhaps dates to the Ottoman era, and the construction techniques seem close to the towering ruins of the mid-19th-century castle of the Emir in Baadre.
Lalish is more than just the main temple and the White Spring. These two sites are just the beginning of a journey for pilgrims to follow and learn.
Editing by G.H. Renaud