Europe's Last Dervishes

by Thomas Schmidt, Berliner Zeitung, August 14th, 1999

Translated by Ashik Huso

Mount Tomori has one of the highest peaks in southern Albania. Falcons can still be found nesting here as well as wolves. An aura of sacred silence prevails in this isolated area. However far below the summit resounds a clamor of the thousands who have come from all over the country on foot, on mules, in trucks or jeeps. Men with shouldered lambs tramp up the stony pathway. They bought the animals from one of the many shepherds who have set up shop here. Hundreds of lambs will be slaughtered at the end of August. For four days every year Bektashis celebrate this festival on Mount Tomori.

Haji Bektash was a dervish, an Islamic mystic, who lived in the 13th century in central-Anatolia not far from present-day Ankara. That his followers are to be found in Albania has a lot to do with the Janissaries. In 1826 Sultan Mahmud II destroyed these elite troops of the Ottoman Empire as they had become a threat to stability. The Bektashis were firmly attached to the Janissaries, and as a result were exposed to prosecution. They escaped to Albania, which at that time was on the outskirts of the empire. When Kemal Atatürk, (founder of modern Turkey) prohibited all dervish brotherhoods 1925 then, the Bektashis transferred their headquarters from Turkey to Tirana. In the tekke, a type of cloister or prayer house, the dedebaba, the head of all Bektashis, makes his seat.


Nevertheless the current dedebaba, Haji Reshat Bardhi sits on a carpet in the small tekke at the base of Mount Tomori. People expecting all kinds of advice from him wait facing the prayer house. His long, white beard only enhances the dignity of this 65-year old man. In his khirka, the white ankle-length skirt, over which is worn a deep green mantle, and with the white taj, the distinctive dervish headgear which has a green turban wrapped around it base, Dedebaba Reshat is quite conspicuous among all the farmers wearing their t-shirts and sweat pants. He is seen not only as a Bektashi saint, but also a kind of martyr. For ten long years (1958 to 1968) he was held in a prison camp during the time when Albania was under the Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. His only crime: being a Bektashi baba, a member of the higher clergy, and one of directors of a Bektashi organization. When he finished his sentence he was bound after his release to compulsory labor for the rest of the life. When the communist regime collapsed in 1991 Haji Reshat had spent 23 years of slave labor in street-construction and in quarries.


The Bektashis were one of the four official religious communities in Albania. One normally belonged to them via familial relationships. Today there is no dependable statistics regarding the strength of the religious communities in the most impoverished country in Europe. Its citizens are not especially religious today and were not it either before Enver Hoxha outlawed religion in 1967 and turned Albania’s churches, mosques and tekkes into fields or museums. At the beginning of World War II was over 15% of the Albanian were Bektashis. Approximately 70% of the population was Muslim (both Sunni and Bektashi, while 20% were Orthodox and 10% Roman Catholic.


The veiled elucidations of Islam and the inner search for God are more important for Bektashis than compliance to the Shari’at, Islamic religious rulings. Women and men sit together in the Muhabets, the meetings that take place in the tekkes, in which the baba explains the finer points of faith to the believers. During the discussion rakija, an Albanian brandy, is imbibed in minute quantities. Conversely, there is a clear hierarchical structure within Bektashism. The regular members are called Muhibs (Arabic for “devotees”), followed by the Dervishes (Persian for "humble ones"), then babas (Turkish for "father") and finally the dede (Turkish for “grandfather”). The Bektashi way is paved initiations and sacred rites.


Only the most energetic climb up from the Kulmak Pass to the peak of Tomori. For the Bektashi, the tomb of the Abbas Aliu (Abbas ibn Ali) is the goal. The monument stands on the very summit of the mountain. One after the other, visitors lower their heads and kiss the entrance of the tomb. Within is the flower-covered sarcophagus of the half-brother of Imam Hussein. Candles, money and wish lists are laid down.


On the outside wall of the tomb a sign announces that Abbas Aliu of Karbala once traveled here. Of course Karbala lies in the present-day Iraq and is one of the sacred places for Shi’ites worldwide. Similar to Shi’ites, the Bektashis admire Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed. Bektashi ladies are, however, different than the Shi’ites of the Middle East in that they never veil. Bektashism preaches religious tolerance and it is said to unify not only elements of Shi’ism and mystical Islam, but also Christianity and paganism.


In Albanian history, the Bektashis played an important role. Abdyl Frashëri, the head of the League of Prizren which fought for the rights of the Albanians in the Ottoman Empire, was a Bektashi. After it had demanded autonomy for Albania at the Berlin congress of 1878, the League convinced many Bektashi babas to support rebellions against the central-power.


Salih Nijazi
Ali Riza

Kanber Ali

Xhafer Sadik

Abbas Hilmi





With the prohibition Islamic mysitical brotherhoods in Turkey and the shutting down of the Pir Evi (the Tekke of Haji Bektash, which contains the grave of the admired mystic) the third Bektashi congress, which represented approximately seven millions members, decided to transfer the headquarters of the order from Anatolia to Albania. Salih Nijazi, an Albanian, and who lived in Turkey, was chosen to the first dedebaba in 1930. He moved to the tekke in Tirana and established the world-center of Bektashism. However he later was murdered during the World War II. The second dedebaba, Ali Riza, was very controversial because of his lack knowledge of the doctrine. He resigned from his appointment shortly thereafter. His successor, Kamber Ali Prishta, was little more than two years in the office. The Communist partisans, who occupied Tirana after the Germans evacuated in 1944, threw him into the prison, where he died soon after. Enver Hoxha soon began his fight against religion. In February of 1945, the communist government installed Xhafer Sadik Baba as the new dedebaba of the Bektashis. However he died few months later.


It is certain that Bektashis who have come to Mount Tomori today would hardly know the names of the first three dedebabas who once held the highest rank in Bektashim during the Second World War. However everyone proudly knows the story of Abbas Hilmi, the fifth dedebaba. In 1947 he was visited by two pro-communist babas who demanded that all dervishes and babas be allowed permission to shave, wear civilian clothes clothing in the public and to marry. If he did not grant these demands, he would be labeled an opponent of Enver Hoxha. Abbas Hilmi Dedebaba answered them with two fatal shots from his pistol. Afterwards, it is said he turn the gun on himself.


Ahmed Myftar, dedebaba number six, was little more than a government stooge and he goaded the believers to the hate the Anglo-American imperialists and in love communist party, the party of the "Ashure", that the ten-day mourning-period for Imam Husain. Fehmi, dedebaba number seven, hung a gigantic portrait Stalin in the main tekke in Tirana. But such concessions were of no use. In 1967, Enver Hoxha (often called the “red god”) proclaimed Albania to the first atheistic state of the world. The tekke of Tirana was turned into an old-folks home. The gatherings on Mount Tomori were prohibited.


On the road up to the Kulmak Pass, one passes a neglected heliport. Within view are two tunnels were drilled into the mountain; one for the politburo, and the other the chief of staff of the military in the case of an invasion. These bunkers were built in vain, for the regime collapsed. Since then, Mount Tomori hosts the Bektashis in August once again. However the few dervishes that have appeared on slopes are all elderly. A younger generation of enthusiasts is hardly in sight. Nevertheless it takes only a few Bektashi dervishes to give the atmosphere its flavor. More importantly, the people have met and the roast lamb is exquisite.






Dedebaba Reshat and the faithful make the Ziyaret up Mount Tomori, 1996

Bektashi Cloud

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