Northern Iraq is littered with religious sects, many of them early Christian traditions almost unknown in the West. Most are leftovers from empires that swept through Mesopotamia and later collapsed. None is more enigmatic than the Yezidis.
They worship the devil, we are told. But don't ask them about it -- it could get you killed. And don't use words with "sh," because it sounds like Satan, or "shatan."
On a trip from Baghdad to the town of Basiqa, famous for its olive oil that the Yezidis use to light their sacred candles, the Muslims who accompany us -- government minders who follow journalists everywhere -- dismiss them as dirty and suspect. Unlike Christians and Muslims, Yezidis are not "people of the book" and have resisted conversion. They perform Zoroastrian fire rituals and pray to the sun. Even their taboos sound strange, almost quaint: an aversion to blue and a refusal to eat lettuce.
We drive north of the Biblical city of Nineveh past soldiers digging foxholes and fresh ramparts for artillery emplacements.
Across the al Zab river, Kurdish troops protected by American and British planes control their own independent enclave. If the war starts, the Kurds say they will move on Baghdad.
Straddling the Arab plain and the Kurdish mountains, the Yezidis have survived hundreds of years of massacres by Ottoman Turks and later attempts at assimilation. Their origins are obscure, probably dating from the time of a Zoroastrian empire in Iran.
Approaching Basiqa, a minaret and the bell towers of churches can be seen rising above a forest of olive trees. From a small hill, three square limestone buildings with strange conical spires overlook the town. These are the Mazar, Yezidi churches. They look vaguely Masonic, like the Old Testament temples in illustrations from a children's Bible.
At the gates of a white-washed Mazar, Sheik Amir Khaluf, wearing a black cloak and a red-and-white chequered Arab head scarf, motions for us to remove our shoes. He invites us into the courtyard, ignoring my blue Gore-Tex jacket. Perhaps he is being polite.
Inside a hall to the left of the temple, men are sitting on the ground in a long row. Some wear the tightly wound turban and balloon pants of the Kurds while others have white headscarves and robes of desert Arabs.
In the corner, Saddam Hussein looks down from his portrait in a business suit.
"It is a funeral," Sheik Amir explains. "Please sit down."
Tin bowls of tobacco and rolling papers rest on small red plastic stools. Boys pass trays holding a dozen packs of different cigarettes. Our government minders refuse the sweet, cardamom-flavoured tea and water but one takes a smoke from a pack of black and gold "Business Class."
"This is the first day of the funeral," Sheik Amir says. "It lasts for three days and people from Basiqa, even the Muslims and Christian priests, come to visit."
Basiqa is religiously diverse, surprisingly so for a town of 20,000. More than half are Yezidis living among Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as Chaldean Catholics and Syrian Orthodox Christians. Sheik Amir asks us to a lunch of chicken and rice eaten with pieces of bread ripped from round, flat loaves. We sit on the floor in two rows with the other guests while our government minders watch from plush green armchairs.
One of them, a Shia, explained to us earlier that the Yezidis are descendants of the Umayyad caliph Yazid ibn Muawiyya, who killed Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and his followers on "the Plain of Sorrow and Misfortune" in southern Iraq.
The massacre divided orthodox Sunni from the dissenting Shia, creating a fault line in Islam. The Iraqi government, along with Syria, has encouraged this belief in order to claim the Yezidis as "Umayyad Arabs."
But like much about the Yezidis, it is a convenient misunderstanding, in this case based on an etymological confusion. "The name Yezidi can be seen in the ruins of the Sumerians -- it means 'the group of the right way,' " Sheik Amir says.
Although the Yezidis are said to be Kurds, they speak Arabic as well. They consider themselves not only a religion but a distinct people. Some say their name comes from an old Iranian word for angel, "yezad," and call them "angelicans."
"A Yezidi cannot marry a Christian or a Muslim -- only ourselves," Sheik Amir says. "If someone becomes a Christian or a Muslim, we dismiss them."
He acknowledges that if there is war between the Kurdish north and the Arab south, the Yezidis will be caught in the middle.
"I cannot answer political questions, but we will defend our land against the Americans," he says.
Apart from a few sacred texts, Yezidi theology is transmitted orally and the Yezidis are wary of outsiders who try to interpret it. They are said to incorporate Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam and various pagan beliefs.
"There are 32 million Yezedis in India," says Sheik Amir, referring to India's Parsi or Zoroastrian minority. "But they are different -- like Shia and Sunni in Islam."
Sheik Amir calls over a man in a suit who speaks English to explain their religion. Mirza Suleyman, an agricultural engineer, tells us to ignore everything we have heard about the Yezidis, suggesting it is all just been bad PR. The Ottoman Turks called them pagans so they could take their land. The Yezidis resisted and were massacred more than 20 times between 1640 and 1910 when they refused to convert. Many migrated to Armenia and Georgia to escape persecution.
The Yezidis are spread over northern Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus. Some have settled in Germany. There are between 250,000 and one million in Iraq, mostly north of Mosul.
"You cannot convert and become a Yezidi," Mirza explains. "For Yezidis, our blood is pure and we cannot accept other blood."
Yezidis are divided into three castes, each marrying within its own level. The sheiks at the top guide the religion.
"We believe Allah is one, like Christians and Muslims, and that there are seven angels," Mirza says. "In the past we had many kinds of books, but the people forgot the traditions and now we rely on memory. This happened 600 years ago when the Mongols attacked; 200 years ago, the whole north was Yezidi but the Turkish army killed them and pretended that we believed Allah was not one."
Until 1991, the Iraqi government outlawed Yezidi schools but, short of Kurdish allies, relented after the Gulf War. Sheik Amir lists the seven angels who govern the world. God himself is said to have lost interest after the Creation. And why do others say they worship bad things?
"We worship Allah and his angels -- but the greatest is Taus Malak," Mirza says. It means the "ancient one."
Contrary to their reputation as devil worshippers, the Yezidis deny the existence of evil. Taus Malak, represented in the form of a peacock, is said to be Lucifer, who repented and now governs the world with the other angels.
"The main difference with Christians and Muslims is that they think Taus Malak is bad -- but he is good. The Christian and Muslim writers have written many things against the Yezidis -- so do not depend on them. You cannot understand the Yezidis because there is no information. In the past, they killed us because they did not understand."
In the courtyard, Sheik Amir points to the spire above the shrine with its corrugated sides, like stone rays, that fall to a circular base. At the top, thin, faded strips of cloth in various colours hang from a bulbous crown.
"We regard the sun as a big power and this building represents the world," he says. "At the top is the sun. The tower shows rays of light that come down to the earth so it is round at the bottom. The cloths you see are all the colours of nature except black because it is darkness and against the light."
Below the spire, a low door less than a metre tall leads to the shrine. "Allah" is carved above the entrance and two peacocks representing Taus Malak are carved into either side of the marble door frame. "The door is low so that we bow to Allah," Sheik Amir says.
Inside, the shrine is whitewashed and surprisingly simple. On the wall below the high vaulted ceiling is a rough relief of the sun, moon and a star lit by a fluorescent light. A small amplifier is stacked in the corner near a blackened metal box holding plastic bottles of olive oil and bags of wicks. Two chest-high holy boxes are draped in coloured cloths waiting to be uncovered by a sheik during ceremonies.
In the centre of the floor, a lamp is floating in a small square marble basin of oil. Sheik Amir kneels on the oil-stained floor and lights four wicks he has placed in the corners of the lamp.
"It has four corners so that it points in every direction toward Allah," Mirza says. "It is not that we think fire is holy -- but it is a symbol of Allah. We make our own oil and it is sacred."
In the morning, the Yezidis pray to the rising sun and in the evening they pray to the west. The Mazar, he says, is new but built on a place where a religious sheik named Mohammed taught 800 years ago.
"My brother, you didn't drink tea, you didn't have any water," says one of the Yezidis to our Shia government minder on our way back to the car. "What's up?"
As we drive off, our translator, who told us the Yezidis worship the devil, says: "You see, they did not talk about Satan."