Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sarmoung's Way/7 - LALISH (Irak)

Original Italian Text here

Finding the abode of angels is much easier than looking for the Land of Sarmoung. No need to engage lethal tests such as climbing the Armenian volcano Azhdahak, or getting lost in old tomes full of allusions. 

Just rent a car in Duhok, busy Iraqi town a few kilometres from the Turkish border, and make a beeline to the leafy hills of Lalish

After one hour of rough plains, populated by the last descendants of the Assyrian shepherds, and eternal flames signaling remote refineries, anyone will be able to indicate where Melek Taus rests, the demiurge araised by God’s emanation.

In the unfortunate coincidence passersby were floored by the question, it would be clear that they are not Yazidi at least. Indeed, if one of them argued that the searched destination isn’t Melek Taus’ abode, but the most dangerous hideout of Satan, there would be a good chance he is an Islamic fundamentalist, or even one of the terrorists who occasionally open fire on Kurdish heretics.

Prejudices die hard and, despite the followers of Melek Taus have made serious steps forward to raise awareness of their complicated cult, it is more convenient to point the finger or the trigger than to untap ears: due to a booming economy and lakes of oil buried under the hotels of international brands, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan is a juicy mouthful, tempting too many in the confused scenery of post-Saddam Hussein.

"On my Facebook profile I’ve started to post some pictures dedicated to our temple - confides Brown Ayas, 20 years old student in charge of welcoming the rare visitors to Lalish - but I would like to open a website to collect more shots, including those dedicated to the celebrations for  Yazidis new year, the ritual of the Sacred Peacock circulation and, above all, the great festival of the Assembly, that we organise here in town every October. Perhaps, in this way, it will become clear to everyone that we do not worship the devil, but the favorite angel of the Lord”.

The fact that often it is being referred to by the epithet Shaytan, same name used in the Koran to indicate Satan, actually it does not facilitate the task.

Nor does it help the Book of Revelation, or the Black Book, when they refer to Melek Taus as the only angel who refused God's order to bow down in front of the man. "How can I subordinate myself to another being? - he snapped in the beginning - I come from your illumination, while Adam is made of dust”.

The beloved Shaytan had his own reasons and, not surprisingly, God got him to rule the world after the witty trial invented to awaken in him, the eldest of the seven archangels, the awareness of who he really was.

In the eyes of Bible followers, however, some doubt always remains, especially when the faithful Yazidi go near the entrance to the most sacred temple of their cult and, bowing obsequiously, rub their hand on the sculpture of a black snake, or even approaching their lips to kiss him full of gratitude. A gesture that could easily join them to their Mesopotamian ancestors, for which the snake was nothing but a metamorphosis adopted by the Sumerian god of wisdom, Enki, in order to manifest itself better and help man to advance on his way to civilisation. Thanks to its simple homes built in limestone blocks, the abundant sources used to baptise the believers, Kaniya Sipi and Kaniya Zimzim, in addition to the intense scent of peach and walnut trees, Lalish actually resembles an oasis in the desert, rather than a burning circle.

Each day it welcomes pilgrims of the Yazidi Diaspora, coming not only from Turkey, Syria and the Caucasus, but also from Germany or Sweden, where the followers of the Peacock Angel have sought refuge since the time of Saddam's regime, if not very before: life has never been easy for them, in the grip of Chaldean Christians proselytism and of countless Islamic currents, without forgetting Zoroastrianism preachers passing by Iran, or the snipes of Hebrew prophets confined in the nearby Nineveh. Not least, today, the scimitar of the Islamic State.

They have strived to learn each one’s lesson, to the point that they have created a syncretic cult full of taboos and precepts, but half ways never honoured anyone: defining themselves Yazata, divine beings, it doesn’t look like the most popular gesture of pious humility, especially if you insist on considering yourself  the one and only Adam’ son, as the pot in which Eve had laid her seeds was able to generate nothing more than swarming insects. Marring not Kurdish people? Completely excluded. Living alongside people of other faiths? Yes, but, perhaps. In any case, the minimum, and provided that you keep much water on hand: a prolonged proximity inevitably corrupts, so to require endless bathrooms for cleansing their moral filth. Woe, then, if a spit or a drop of boiling water ends up on the ground: the souls of people who live down there would immediately avenge themselves against the entire community. Finally, forget to dress blue clothing: Heaven forbid that disturbing colour would awake God's wrath and flood the Earth with a new Deluge.

"Caution, please! Attention!"- Brown screams at the passing of the threshold to the temple. "You can not tread on the gap”. Here's another one. Moving through Lalish temple requires extreme caution: no one can enter without being accompanied by a Yazidi, the one and only who decides what is affordable and what is not. What showing and what hiding. In short, a grace, more than an invitation. 

And always if you are trustworthy: in the heart of the weird conical structure, where light barely penetrates and only the lamps provide the flame of vision, feeling imbued with a strong sense of disorientation is almost inevitable, just as Adi ibn Musafir warned, the Sheikh in which Melek Taus was incarnated in the eleventh century and who now lies buried in the basement of the temple. 

"I was present when Adam lived in Paradise - he used to say to his followers - and also when Nemrud threw Abraham into the fire. I was present when God said to me: You are the governor and the lord of the Earth. God, the compassionate, gave me seven earths and the throne of Heaven”. Revelations on the edge of the faith, whose followers respond today with rituals equally unusual: to untie knots and assemble them three times, fulfilling a wish for every grip of the drapes hanging in the temple, may appear a mere superstitious gesture.

But it is not so: silky stoles hide the graves of other reincarnated angels, whose ears are always stretched to needy persons' prayers and whose draperies, using distinct colours, show their different Eonic nature. 

Similarly, the triple throw of a scarf over a sacred stone, placed in the middle of jars filled with oil for treatments, it is far from a game of ability. Numbers, movements, words are deeply woven to each other in a too complicated esoteric dimension for the profane, although able to reveal itself gradually when you live close to the people of God. 

Believer’s eye is patiently taught to read metaphysical meanings in the evidence, to understand  unknown proportions in what is simply given. 

"The easiest exercise is to observe the cones surmounting the roof of the temple - Brown tries to explain - because they show well 21 flutings to a less hasty look: yes, they indicate the sun rays, but also the solstice days branching off the extreme top in contact with the sun. Only the emirs that guide our community know the signs and their hidden meanings: we can reach the truth through extensive studies and gradual initiations, whether we belong to the caste of the sheiks, or to that of murid or pir, namely to that of “those who trust” and of wise elders. Other routes are not given”.

Aut, aut. Sometimes Yazidi’s exclusivist principles sound surprisingly similar to those of the Jews, which have shared an history of diaspora and research of their Promised Land for centuries. The Kurds had recently gained a large autonomy in both Turkey and Iraq, not without sling weapons for years, but the dream of an independent Kurdistan is today an ace to play on tables so fickle, as dangerous. Sure it would not mind to Israel, increasingly isolated in the Middle Eastern context, and already familiar to the mountainous region of Mesopotamia since the time of the Babylonian captivity. 

Who knows something about is Nahum the prophet, whose writings on the fall of Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire are a biblical admonition for all those people who, even today, have not resigned to redraw the borders of the Middle East: buried in the ruins of Alqosh synagogue, a few kilometres away from Lalish, he really seems the only one capable of showing the essential links between Kurds, Jews, Chaldeans and Arabs. His sarcophagus catches the eye just for the vivid green cloth covering it between crumbling walls, often mistaken for a mere ruin in the heart of the town; but apart from some arch, stained with Hebrew characters, and some oil lamps protruding lopsided from the ceiling, it is all what remains of one of the most revered religious site of Mesopotamia. After the evacuation of the Jewish community, the only one to deal with has been a man of Chaldean faith, called Sami Jajouhana, who had the iron key of the tomb in his hands at that time.

"The synagogue was an operating center of pilgrimage until 1951 - the keeper reminds, dressed in a bizarre military camouflage and with a few more wrinkles now - since they came here to celebrate Shavuot, the Feast of Harvest: thousands of Jews came from Mosul, Kirkuk, as well as from nearby villages, dressed up to the nines and ready to camp in tents all around to Alqosh. They carried the Torah scrolls and read Nahum’s words: a preamble to the staging of the gift of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, before moving to the representation of the battle between Gog and Magog". 

"Yes, it’s true: the Kurds of Soran Emirate wanted to eradicate their cult already in 1835, destroying the city and the same grave of the Prophet, but now that reprisal is condemned by them. Indeed, they consider that leader a traitor of their cause. And thanks to their help if, little by little, the site was rebuilt remaining operative until the birth of Israel; since then, though, everyone has chosen to close himself within boundaries that say nothing of this long history of common life. An history of centuries, if not millennia”. 

The fact that the one who deals with the old synagogue is just a member of the Chaldean Church, whose epicentre stands on the mountain just behind Alqosh, is indicative of how cultural distances appear equally labile than the geographical ones.

Dug into the rock around 640 AD, the monastery of Rabban Hermiz is hardly noticed to naked eye: it seems camouflaged in the folds of the Jebel Bayhidhra, despite its arches and majestic walls let you think of a real fortress.

Attacks from the valley are never missed, but the monastery has always managed to escape the worst reprisals thanks to the nearby caves used by his ascetics. Nothing, however, it could in front of Soran’s devastating campaign in 1838, when over ten thousand Christians were slain: for centuries the monastery had been the official residence of the patriarchs of Elijah’s line, but in the nineteenth century, partly as a result of incursions, Rome returned finally owner of its walls thanks to the Chaldean Church.

"We are a few - Father Joseph Abdul Sater confides, the apostolic delegate in charge of safeguarding the local Christian community - five, six monks housed in the new buildings of the below monastery and a few others passing by”. 

We're trying to preserve many Syrian manuscripts gathered here, in addition to accept some pilgrims on visit, but the political balance in the Middle East has finally cracked after Saddam Hussein’s fall. The Shiites have overflowed the country and today Iraq is split into four different state entities at least. We have Kurds in the north, ready to resist the attacks of the Islamic State invaders, Shiites in the middle and Sunni in the south. The cells of Rabban Hermiz have never been so silent”.

Forced to live in the below detachment of the monastery, much more manageable by the few remaining, the Chaldean monks pray hard, but Nehud or Melek Taus are the only ones who hear them now. You must try yourself in an harsh staircase to reach Rabban Hermiz, burned by the summer sun, or beaten by the cold winds of winter, when the peak is snow-covered.

But beyond the church extracted from a blood-coloured rock, the monastery seems a maze of claustrophobic and completely empty cells, without doors or windows, rarely fitted out with flat niches to rest.

No trace of fires to heat. A few cross carved on the entryway, just to be strong, not to give in to despair. The monastery continues to collect rainwater in natural cisterns, yet no ascetic drinks it. History has turned its eyes away and here there are only the remains of a too far memory. A memory that matches no one. No more.

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