The People of the Cave

by Fayza Hasan

Al-Ahram Weekly, 7 -13 December 2000, Issue No.511


Despite the fact that this article contains misconceptions of Bektashi beliefs and rites as well as historical information contradicted by Ahmed Sirri Dede’s writings, it nevertheless provides a great deal of detail on the once thriving tekke of Kaygusuz Sultan in Cairo. -editor (


Over a year ago, leafing through an old tourist magazine, I chanced upon an article entitled "The Monastery of the Bektashis." As I read further, my curiosity was so aroused by these Muslim recluses of the Muqattam Hills that I went in search of their story:




The article described the circumstances of the arrival of the first Bektashis in Egypt, dating back to the 13th century, when some 40 members of this religious order (originally from Anatolia), came to Egypt to visit the great spiritual guide Sayyid ‘Ayni. They presented themselves each with a dressing covering one of their eyes. When one of ‘Ayni's murids asked the reason for the bandage, they replied that, having known that ‘Ayni was blind, they thought it unseemly to use both their eyes in his presence. ‘Ayni was so moved by this answer that he put his own palace at their disposal.


This is where the small group stayed temporarily, but when their leader felt his end coming, he expressed the desire to be buried in the Muqattam Hills. His wish was granted and a vast area at the foot of the hills was presented to the Bektashis who left Qasr al-‘Ayni and established their tekke (or takiya, hospice) around his grave. This first Bektashi shaykh had a difficult Turkish name [Kaygusuz]that Arabic speakers found impossible to pronounce. They therefore referred to him as Shaykh ‘Abdallah al-Maghawri (of the cave), and this is how he is known popularly to this day.




There is some controversy as to exactly when the order was granted the right to occupy the old quarry A and caves at the foot of the hills. Most written sources place the move at the time of Sheikh Al-Maghawri's death. The Blue Guide dates the move to the Muqattam to the beginning of Khedive Ismail's rule. Following

the 1826 massacre of the Janissaries in Turkey, they were allowed to reform in 1839 and flocked to Egypt, where the rulers gave them protection. Oral history, on the other hand, indicates that the Bektashis moved to the Muqattam later, after the order was driven out of Turkey by Ataturk (in 1925); led by their spiritual

father, Sirri Baba, many settled definitively in Egypt.




“The Bektashis,” says Ahmad Sultan, a Sufi scholar and prominent calligrapher whose family was well-acquainted with the order, “were different from other religious orders in that their members were prmarily warriors. Of course they followed the basic concepts of Sufism, which can be defined in a simplified way as

the attempt to bring about the development of the whole being through enlightenment, based on the discipline of body and mind; but while most Sufi orders concentrate on spiritual development, Bektashis stressed physical strength equally, through the practice of martial arts. They exercised strenuously and constantly and achieved a degree of control of all their faculties so great that they became superior warriors, instrumental in giving the Ottoman armies their reputation for courage as well as ruthlessness. They contributed in a major way to the Ottomans' successes in building their empire.” After the Ottoman collapse, of course, adds Sultan, “the Bektashis abandoned martial arts and became a contemplative order of celibate dervishes whose dwindling membership had no wish to meddle in the affairs of the world. This is how they were known in Egypt.” Commenting on the religious practices of the order, the Blue Guide describes the

Bektashi dogma as an amalgam of Sunni and Shi'i but with the added imposition on the initiates of the practices of asceticism and celibacy inspired by Christian monasticism.




According to Ibrahim Yagli, counselor at the embassy of Turkey, the Bektashi order is said to have drawn its inspiration from the religio-social Baba'i movement, which distressed the Turcoman regions of Anatolia a few years before the Mongol invasion, and which seems to have been of great importance in the general

history and cultural development of the Turkish people. The Bektashi order attracted the masses in Turkey rather than the aristocracy and was perceived as heretic by the dominant Sunni establishment.


Retracing the history of the order in the Encyclopedia of Islam, I discovered that by the 13th century, the Seljuk state of the Rum had developed a strong administrative and cultural framework, based on the Sunni population of the towns. In the countryside and the frontier lands, on the other hand, the Turcoman element had remained more faithful to the old Turkish traditions and was becoming more and more isolated from the influence of the state while being exposed at the same time to doctrines from Central Asia imported by Turcoman refugees fleeing the Mongols. In this troubled atmosphere, by 1240, the scene seemed to have been set for the appearance of a popular preacher (baba) named Ishaq, who came from the Kafarsud region on the Syrian border and began preaching to the Turcomans both of the region south of the eastern Taurus and of Amasya. Taking advantage of the weakening of the regime caused by internecine rifts, Baba Ishaq raised the banner of revolt; having successfully defied several large Seljuk armies, he himself was eventually defeated and captured by Frankish mercenaries hired by the state for this purpose. The movement, however, was not entirely suppressed.




The legendary patron of the Bektashi order is Hajj Bektash Veli, whose biography, as passed on by his followers (the first version of the biography dates from the beginning of the 15th century), attempts to bring together the holy man with famous and more legitimate religious figures and draws attention to the importance of the Bektashiyyah by flaunting the political role of their alleged founder.


Documents do indicate the appearance in the 13th century of a Hajj Bektash of Khorasan among the dervishes of Anatolia who may have been a disciple of Baba Ishaq and who is referred to frequently in the writings of the aristocratic entourage of the rival Mevlevi order. There is, however, precious little in the  Maqalat of Hajj Bektash, originally written in Arabic and translated into Turkish, of the secret rites and doctrine of the order as they were known at a later stage, and it is believed that it is only at the end of the 16th century that the grand master Balim Sultan gave this doctrine its definitive form.




The Bektashiyyah, like many Turkish institutions, received their characteristic features in western Turkistan from Ahmad Yesevi (d. 1166). Expanding in Anatolia, where the order absorbed Muslims as well as Christians, it came to include a large part of the population, especially in Albania, where there arose an amalgam of Islamic and Christian elements. The attitude of the Bektashis toward Islam is marked by popular mysticism and an almost total disregard for rituals -- hence the hostility they have encountered among Sunni Muslims. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam: “In their secret doctrines they are Shi'is,

acknowledging the 12 Imams and, in particular, holding Ja'far Al-Saddiq in high esteem. The centre of their worship is Ali; they unite Ali with Allah and Muhammad into a sort of trinity. In Muharram they celebrate the nights of mourning... Furthermore they believe in the migration of souls.” In the 15th century they became interested in the cabbalistic speculations of the Hurufis, while the “Turkish exposition of the doctrines of the sect, written by Farishtazadeh under the title
Ashqnama, have canonical authority with them.”


It is possible that many of the Christian elements incorporated in the doctrine belonged to the Bektashis' Anatolian predecessors and that more were taken over from the Christian groups who joined later. On the occasion of the induction of new members, there is a distribution of wine, bread and cheese, which is probably a survival of the Holy Communion as practiced by the Artotyrites. The Bektashis also make a confession of sins before their spiritual chiefs, who have the power to grant them absolution. Women take part in these rites without veiling their faces. A group among the Bektashis vow themselves to celibacy and wear earrings as a distinctive sign. It is thought that celibacy was introduced for the first time in the order by Balim Sultan.


The celibates have their own grand master, called dede. The head of a single monastery or hospice (tekke) is called baba, the fully initiated member dervish, the member who has taken his first vows muhib (in Egypt, they are referred to as murid) while adherents who have not yet been initiated are ‘ashiqs.


The discipline is governed by the relation of the murshid (guide) to his disciples and novices. The Bektashis wear a white cap, consisting of four or 12 folds. The number four symbolizes the four gates: Shari’ah (law), Tariqat (sect or order), Ma’rifat (knowledge), Haqiqat (truth) and the four corresponding classes of people: ‘Abid (worshipper), Zahid (free people), ‘Arif (knowledgeable), Muhibb (sympathizer); the number 12 refers to the 12 imams. Other symbols are the twelve-fluted shawl (taslim tashi) which is worn around the neck and the teber, a sort of double axe.




Bernard Lewis writes that, from the 13th century on, “Sufism became the binding force of Islamic unity, the main expression of religious sentiment and loyalty. In time it became a source also of intellectual culture, and sometimes even of political power. The dynasties that ruled in Turkey and Iran... were both deeply

affected in their origins by Sufi ideals and organizations.” Before the second half of the 16th century, the janissaries, who were recruited exclusively from Christian captives and slaves, joined the mystical brotherhood of the Bektashiyyah with which this corps had been associated since its foundation. It is therefore not surprising, comments Lewis, that the fortunes of the brotherhood remained closely linked to the rise and decline of their patrons. According to him, by 1570 the Bektashis had three
tekkes in Egypt. The only one that survived until the early 1950s, however, was in the caves surrounding Sheikh al-Maghawri's grave.




It was time, I thought, to find out what had happened to the last Egyptian home of the Bektashis. Because of their shape and their closeness to the city, the Muqattam Hills have always been one of the most remarkable landmarks of Cairo. Their strategic importance is well known; the lives and deeds of the various residents who have dwelt in the quarries and caves that scar their stony flanks form the stuff of legends. One can observe several of these pockmarks fleetingly and from afar while negotiating the improbable potholes on the thoroughfare smugly baptized the Autostrad. All along the base of the cliffs and higher, round black holes form mysterious clusters, “the first and northernmost of them (at present occupied by the army) surround[ing] the Kahf al-Sudan (Cave of the Blacks), a Fatimid mashhad of unknown purpose built in 1013,” the Blue Guide informs us. “This is the site where once stood the khalwat (hermitage) of the Bektashi order, a religious brotherhood who arrived from the wilds of central Anatolia to settle in Egypt around half a century before the Ottoman conquest.”


Inquiring about the site, I was immediately told that I could harbor no hope of visiting the khalwat, since the whole area was now occupied by the Egyptian Air Defense forces. Besides, nothing was left of the monastery except two domes, one ornate, the other plain, which could be observed from the road. Although few people know it, these surmount the graves of Sirri Baba and that of the sister of King Zog of Albania respectively.



According to Ahmad Sultan, the official history of the Bektashis in Egypt has never been fully documented, but apparently, before the 1952 Revolution, Ahmed Sirri Baba, the last of the Bektashi spiritual leaders in  this country, received countless visitors to the monastery who were curious to know more about the brotherhood. The old shaykh complied graciously, showing his guests (who included heads of state, writers and journalists) the many remarkable features of the tekke on the mountain: the walls of the oratory covered with Qur'anic inscriptions; the richly framed pictures of his predecessors; the hall hewn in the rock-face and hung with Albanian weapons, such as spears, swords and pikes, banner-heads, shields and spiked helmets, as well as ancient nargilas and strange musical instruments. He delighted in recounting the many marvelous tales attached to each of the artifacts. He would then lead his visitors up some steps, through a gateway and into a large open courtyard surrounded by the rock-hewn cells of the initiates and show them the vast cave containing the graves of the dervishes. At the far end, enclosed by a grille, Shaykh al-Sayyid Abdallah al-Maghawri, the first leader of the Bektashis in Egypt, lay buried. Bypassing his own house, the large kitchen, the bakery and the women's quarters, he would take them to a terrace with a magnificent view, at the far end of which, inside a smaller cave, stood the tomb of Prince Kamaluddin (1874-1932), eldest son of Sultan Husayn Kamal. On his father's death in 1919, Prince Kamaluddin renounced the succession, preferring to continue the pursuits of archaeology and art collecting. It is said that he was a frequent visitor to the tekke, enjoying the quiet of the surroundings and the beautiful view.




Mr. Sultan recounts that at the outset of the 1952 Revolution, it seemed that the dervishes on the mountain would not be disturbed in their retreat, but some time later, Sirri Baba and his followers were suddenly stigmatized as foreigners (it was conveniently remembered that many members of the brotherhood were

Albanians and that they had been protected by the royal family) and therefore branded persona non grata on the Muqattam, where they were occupying a site that the military deemed vital. Sultan says many of the artifacts contained in the monastery were lost when Sirri Baba was forced to relinquish his retreat in the hills. The Free Officers however, taking pity on the old dervish, gave him the use of Prince Omar Ibrahim's sequestrated villa in Ma’adi, as well as the adjoining plot of land (which had also belonged to the prince) for Sirri Baba's herd of goats and sheep.




Still according to Ahmad Sultan, while in Ma’adi, Sirri Baba spent his remaining years writing a little-known book about the Egyptian journey of the Bektashis. In it he mentions that he moved the monastery's library of precious illuminated manuscripts and religious texts -- some dating from the 14 century -- to the Ma’adi villa. At his death, however, there was no mention of this invaluable collection. Luckier with another endeavor, before leaving his beloved Muqattam, Sirri Baba gathered the bones of all the members of the brotherhood who had died and were buried in individual graves and placed them in a common tomb in Bassatin, where they remained for many years. The marble plaques on which their names were carved lay gathering dust.




Mr. Sultan had awakened my interest in the marvelous tombstones, which, he explained, presented rare examples of Arabic calligraphy. He was worried that they might be stolen or destroyed. It is only several months later, however, that we got around to visiting the Bassatin Qarafa on a Friday, after prayer. The cemetery was quiet, the grave-diggers drinking tea with their families in shady courtyards while children played ball in the sandy alleys. Sultan's memory seemed to betray him for a while, and as we turned left, right and then right again in search of “a shrine enclosed by a wrought-iron grille,” we felt quite overwhelmed by the difficulty of our quest. Questions to passersby did not yield any useful information. Obviously no one had heard of Sirri Baba or the Bektashiyyah. But should we give up? Suddenly someone mentioned Shaykh al-Maghawri. The name worked like an Open Sesame. Everyone knew where the tomb was, of course. Why hadn't we said clearly whose tomb we were looking for? Followed by a troop of little boys and girls, we soon arrived at our destination, which, to Sultan's utter surprise, was totally changed. A new wall enclosed a small, neatly paved courtyard, where a number of richly decorated tombs were surmounted by the headstones -- recently painted in a rather unfortunate green -- the loss of which had worried Mr. Sultan so much. Although he whispered that some of the plaques had in fact disappeared, he was overjoyed that the bulk of what he considered unique examples of Arabic calligraphy had been saved.




Who had fixed the tombs, I wanted to know. Could it have been an anonymous benefactor, someone who had frequented the tekke in days gone by? “Hajj Mahmoud Bikdash and his son,” the simple caretaker told us. “These are members of his family,” he added pointing at the tombstones. Mr. Sultan had no idea that there were any Bektashis left in Egypt, but Umm Ibrahim was quite assertive. We could find the hajj in downtown Cairo, where he owned a well-known clothes shop. An appointment was promptly arranged and the following Friday I was led to Hajj Mahmoud Bikdash's tiny but extremely well appointed office, on the mezzanine of his store in the Baehler Passage.




Hajj Mahmoud Bikdash is one of those old-fashioned men to whom courtesy comes naturally. His son ‘Amr combines his father's exquisite manners with a businesslike briskness, acquired during his long stay in the United States. Hajj Mahmoud's wife is the daughter of Sirri Baba's brother. The information I had gathered painstakingly from various sources is well-known family history to him.


Although not a Bektashi himself, his own family was, and he insists that his marriage to Sirri Baba's niece happened unexpectedly. “Sirri Baba,” he says, “was warned of the arrival of Atatürk’s soldiers by friends who helped him escape Turkey before his tekke was attacked. He had time to pack his library, the collection of antique weaponry and his musical instruments on a ship. With his followers and their families, he sailed to Alexandria, where King Fuad met him.” Here, ‘Amr adds that they have a photo of the king kissing the sheikh's hand as he welcomed him aboard the docked vessel. “Sirri Baba was received with the honors due to his rank,” continues Hajj Mahmoud. “One should not forget that the royal family was Albanian and considered him a spiritual leader, not unlike the Pope for the Catholics. The Bektashis practiced a brand of Islam that was very accommodating and drew their tenets from several sources of Islamic thought, peppered with a dash of Christianity. This is why their appeal was so great in Turkey and Albania. They offered a set of beliefs that attracted people from every walk of life. Some of them practiced celibacy, but they were not averse to life's pleasures. Sirri Baba had a beautiful voice and encouraged his entourage to sing and play various instruments.” Incidentally, adds Hajj Mahmoud, “the famous singer Shadiya grew up in the tekke. Sirri Baba also enjoyed the company of the rich and famous, and spent a fortune decorating his retreat in the Muqattam, where he played host to royalty. King Zog of Albania, among others, was a frequent visitor when he was in Egypt and some members of his family who settled permanently in Alexandria called on the old dervish regularly."




The fortunes of Sirri Baba waned with the ousting of the monarchy. When the powder magazines blew up at the Citadel, the tekke was partly destroyed and the shaykh sued the state for E£50,000 in damages. This undoubtedly angered the authorities and hastened his move from the Muqattam to Ma’adi. There he tended his herd on the plot of land adjoining his villa. “The Bektashis,” comments Hajj Mahmoud, “were meat-eaters, and proper hospitality necessarily involved the slaughter of one or more sheep; this, however, wasMa’adi, no longer the Muqattam, and soon a high official who occupied a neighboring villa complained about the practice.” Many unpleasant incidents occurred during that period and the ageing Sirri Baba, who suffered from diabetes, became depressed and ill. Sojourns in hospital were followed, on his return home, by the discovery of burglaries and acts of vandalism on his house. His brother advised him to leave Ma’adi and to move in with him. It is only after his second amputation that Sirri Baba finally heeded his advice. It was too late, however, and the old baba died in 1965 a broken man.




After Sirri Baba's death,Hajj Rexheb his closest follower, gathered the remaining Bektashis and whatever could be saved of their belongings and moved to Taylor, near Detroit, opening a tekke there. Others followed, and the order seems to be thriving in the United States. Says Amr, “still, nothing will ever equal Sirri Baba's retreat in the Muqattam.”

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