During the heyday of Yazidi life, between the 14th and 19th centuries, the Yazidi elite built up an intra-religious and political administrative apparatus. In this article, we discuss the administrative structure of the Yazidi-inhabited areas marked on the map, with the aim of providing our readers with an overview of the Yazidi social structure.

by Sarkis Agojan and Gohdar Alkaidy

Settlement areas and religious administrative structures

From the 14th to the 19th century, the areas inhabited by Yazidis were divided into seven religious administrative regions (highlighted in green on the map). For each of these seven settlement areas, there existed a unique sincaq that served as a symbol of power for each region.

On the map, we have marked the borders of the seven regions with red dashed lines for orientation. This map was developed specifically for this article by Sarkis Agojan with the assistance of ethnologists, Yazidi historians, and theologians. It is a preliminary version of a more detailed map that is currently being developed with the assistance of an experienced cartographer and will be published in due course.

Click here for a large view of the map.

Sincaqs, called tawis by the Yazidis, are bronze standards with a peacock decoration at the top. They were administrative idols for the Laliş (Lalish) religious and political center and differed from one another in terms of their shape. Each of these sincaqs was meticulously cared for and protected with life and limb by its entrusted, the representatives of the seven administrative districts. Trained Yazidi hymn preachers, so-called qewals, were regularly sent out from the central power structure and the spiritual center of Laliş to the Yazidi-inhabited areas every six months with military protection. In this way, they fulfilled their duty of religious instruction to the Yazidi people. Also, this tradition served to maintain the Yazidi customs and their culture. The service of the hymn preachers was financed exclusively by voluntary alms from the faithful. The preachers or delegates carried at their head a sincaq intended for the respective settlement area through the Yazidi localities and territories to symbolize authorization by Laliş. These standards are also called Tawisa Şîxadî because the iron banners symbolized the rightful authority of the Mîr, the head of the Yeshidi princely family, who are now deputies of Sheikh Adi.

The seven iron flags were named as follows and intended for named regions:

  1. Tawisa Enzel: Welatşêx – Laliş
  2. Tawisa Şingalê: Greater Shingal region.
  3. Tawisa Hekkarê sometimes also called Tawisa Zozana: today’s tri-border corner of Iraq, Iran, Turkey
  4. Tawisa Welatê Xalta: region around Siirt, Batman, Diyarbakir, Mardin etc.
  5. Tawisa Helebê: Aleppo and Afrin (these areas were under the rule of the family of Şêx Mend)
  6. Tawisa Tewrêzê: the city of Tabriz, located in present-day Iran (Yazidis lived in the western hinterland in the Khoy region)
  7. Tawisa Misqofa: formerly Tawisa Serhedê (after the Yazidis fled Serhed to the Russian Tsarist Empire, the name, which has been in use for about 200 years, was adapted in reference to Moscow)

Political princedoms

Apart from the religious administrative zones, five political princedoms existed in the history of the Yazidis, which were governed by independent local princes. The princedoms of Bahdinan, Botan, Hekkari, and Heleb were politically independent of the central Yazidi principality of Şêxan (Sheikhan). The princedom of Heleb (Aleppo) was ruled for a long time by the family of Şêx Mend from the Şêx group of Şemsanîs (Shemsanis). Politically intact is only the princedom of Şêxan (Welatşêx) with its princely seat in the village of Eyn Sifnî (Ain Sifni) in the immediate vicinity of the temple city and the spiritual center of Laliş. The other princedoms disintegrated in the course of the changeable centuries marked by war and persecution and reached their peak at the end of the 16th century.

The only princedom still in existence today is Şêxan, with the Mîr as its head. The title Mîr is derived from the Arabic word emir – prince. The figure of the Mîr has a dichotomous role in the Yazidi theocracy: as the religious-administrative head of all Yazidis worldwide and as the political head of the princedom of Şêxan.

Yazidi social model

In the face of growing religious and political tensions between the Yazidis and the Muslim rulers in the region and violent conflicts that broke out again and again, the Yazidi elite initiated a social restructuring of the community. This social structuring, with special endogamous rules as its foundation, provided for the systematic preservation of religion, the preservation of the overall society and culture, and aimed to strengthen the community’s defensibility. Central to these measures was the expansion of the so-called hereditary groups-mistakenly referred to by many non-Yesidic scholars as castes-to enable the continuation of the Yesidi religion and the transmission of beliefs independent of a public organization.

By embedding these hereditary groups in the teachings of Yazidism, religious philosophers in the 13th century solidified a form of social structure that existed in parts before. The hereditary groups divide the Yazidis into three main groups, whose existence is to be secured by strict endogamy and to which a member belongs from his birth until his death: one group consists of three lineages of Şêx (sheikh), who are not allowed to marry among themselves. The second group consists of two endogamous groups called the Pîr (Pir). The members of the Pîr group are allowed to marry among themselves, with few exceptions. The third and largest group is that of the laymen, called Mirîd (Mirid). The laymen may marry only among themselves. The Şêx and the Pîrs have the special task of caring for the laity, instructing them in religious teachings and performing social functions. The responsibility of the hereditary groups, however, extends exclusively to religious matters and explicitly not to secular-hierarchical functions. Therefore, hereditary groups in Yazidiism must not be confused with the caste system in Hinduism.

It is the conviction of many Yazidis that this hereditary group structuring has contributed substantially to the fact that their small faith community continues to exist today despite repeated persecutions. Since a member can only be born into the respective hereditary group and a change between the hereditary groups is excluded, there has been a clear division of tasks among the different families for centuries. This strict separation is also intended to prevent power struggles between the groups and to promote a coordinated coexistence of all Yazidis. The individual priestly groups of the Şêxs and Pîrs are called Ocax.

Şêx (Sheikh, from Arabic for “old”, “wise”, “master”)

  • Adanî (Adani)
  • Qatani (Katani)
  • Şemsanî (Shamsani)

Pîr (Pir, from the Persian for “old,” “wise,” “master”)

  • Dozens of groups with complex endogamous rules

Mirîd (Murid, group without religious role)

  • Many separate tribes (Eşîr/Haşîr)
  • Organized into large tribal confederation

Axa

The title Agha, Aga – also Turkish. Ağa and spelled Axa in Kurmanci – is an honorific title originally borrowed from the Mongolian language that is still in use in the Near and Middle East and beyond. While the meaning of the Mongolian origin was “elder brother” or the designation for an older family member to whom respect was due, it transformed into an honorific title (aḫy) for scholars in early times of the Ottoman Empire.

Among the Ottomans, this honorific title evolved from the civilian sphere toward the military. Thus, the term also appropriated the meaning “leader,” which, however, ceased to be used at the latest with the end of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. As an honorary title for civilians with the meaning “lord,” “master,” “feudal lord” or “landowner,” it has survived to this day in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Beg

The next highest title is Beg, Bek, or Bag-derived from Middle Persian bag (Old Iranian baga)-meaning “lord” or “master.” In Old Turkic, the meaning then changed to “chieftain,” becoming “governor” (of a sub-province: beylik) with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. To this day, the term has survived as an honorific title for tribal leaders and large landowners from the Middle East to Central Asia.

In Yazidi society, the axas and begs held elite ruling positions comparable to European medieval nobility; in their capacity, they were leaders of tribes and tribal confederations. A Yazidi tribe (Eşîr/Haşîr) was organized into a tribal confederation (Êl). This confederation system allowed for rapid military organization in the event of conflict. Yazidi tribes were less frequently organized in Muslim-dominated tribal confederations.