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The Discovery of a Religious Minority in the Middle East: Changing Perception of the Yezidis from Western Missionaries to Kurdish Nationalism and Modern Scholarship

The CEU Campus
Wednesday, February 14, 2018, 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm

Yezidis, a Kurdish-speaking community following their own religion, first attracted the attention of Western travelers and missionaries in the eighteenth-nineteenth century. Baffled by the peculiar nature of a religion based on oral tradition, these Westerners displayed little interest in studying Yezidi religion. Instead they focused on the possible origins of the Yezidis, intent on tracing them to the ancient cultures of the Middle East, recently rediscovered at the time. Some of their theories had a great impact on the nascent Kurdish nationalism of the twentieth century, which depicted Yezidism as the survival of Zoroastrianism – the alleged original religion of Kurds. Both, the works of Western travelers (as well as of later researchers) and Kurdish nationalist mythology have had a profound impact on Yezidis, influencing their identity construction and through it the very content of their religious tradition. The attempts to depict themselves as the “original Kurds” while at the same time emphasizing their direct links to the ancient cultures of the region serve to secure Yezidis a prestigious position not only in Kurdish society, but within the framework of “global history” as well. 

Eszter Spät defended her doctoral thesis at the Central European University in 2009. After her defense she continued her research of Yezidi religious tradition and oral history with the support of research grants from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the Hungarian OTKA and the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. Presently she is a visiting professor at the Cultural Heritage Studies Program of CEU. She has been carrying out field research in the Kurdish Region of Iraq since 2002. Her most recent field research was between October – December 2017. She has published two books, numerous articles and produced a film on the Yezidis.