A Visit to the Tekke of the Bektashis of Cairo

by Jules Leroy

from Monks and Monasteries of the Near East (1963)


From the desolate arid desert, our next move takes us to a rather more inviting countryside.  Desert places act as an incentive to a life of introspection and contemplation, but are not absolutely essential to it. In medieval France the Carthusians, whom we now associate only with mountain fastnesses in the Alps, had flourishing monasteries in Paris and just outside Lyons. The life led there was no less fervent than that at La Grande Chartreuse. The monks found peace within themselves, in the “cell of their hearts.”


This seems to have been a view shared by the Bektashis, who built their monastery or, in Turkish, tekke, in the eastern part of the Old Town of Cairo, just in front of the Citadel whose mosque with its slender minarets brings an air of the Ottoman Empire to the former capital city of the Fatimids.


The tekke is a delightful place. With all its palms, vines, flowers, terraces, and arbours, it makes a pleasant change from the bare, arid Muqattam, the limestone hill which rises on the western bank of the Nile to a height of over six hundred feet. For Egypt, it qualifies as a mountain, and at one time, about A.D. 1000, the Christian monastery of Der-el-Kusair stood on its southern flank. Now the monastery has vanished, but thanks to the Bektashis monastic life has not died out completely in Cairo.


Even from the outside their monastery looks attractive. Worn stone steps, with a wrought-iron handrail covered with bougainvillas, lead up to the main entrance. Passing through the gate, you come straight into the middle of a network of courtyards, well-kept kitchen gardens, flower-beds with ditches of running water cutting through them, ponds that mirror the blue sky, Turkish-style summer-houses buried deep in foliage. Coming straight from the monasteries of the Wadi el Natrun to this brilliant oasis of colour, you cannot help feeling the sudden change of atmosphere. Everything is restful, orderly, and clean. The same air of peace envelopes the tekke and the other monasteries we have visited, but here it is almost Franciscan, so earnestly do the Bektashis love nature, just as did the little friar of Assisi. This is the first thing that strikes you; you see it in the well-cared-for look of the trees and animals.


There are only about a dozen monks here now guarding the tomb of Sheik Abdullah el Maghaouri and the tombs of his followers who wished to be buried beside him. The little community lives under the benevolent rule of its leader, the Baba Ahmed Sirri Dede; they spend their time gardening or looking after the farm animals-the hens, turkeys, tame gazelles, clean oxen, the large-uddered cows which although they belong to the monks still follow the Oriental custom and wear round their necks or over their foreheads a string of blue pearls to ward off the Evil Eye. The Baba, who was elected some years ago, is a fine old man; his natural dignity is enhanced by his magnificent costume, a striped green-and-white robe with the white cloak of the Bektashis. Round his waist he has a broad brown cummerbund with the stone amulet called teslim tash attached to it, though it should normally be worn round the neck. He has also a staff with a small double-bladed axe on the top of it. His headdress is the white, usually twelve-sided bonnet which is the uniform of the order, and round it he has a green turban to indicate his rank of Baba. His heavy silver ear-rings shaped like the crescent moon show that he has taken the vow of celibacy.


The Baba is a very easy man to talk to. When he is not taking a siesta he wanders about his fairy gardens and is very willing to talk about the history of the Bektashis. They were founded, so he says, seven hundred years ago, and follow the doctrine of Islam, though they lay more emphasis on prayer and meditation; their doctrines and principles of introspection are preserved in manuscripts which have never been published or translated, "because foreigners would not understand what it was all about." They number to-day about six million members.


All this information is most readily and graciously given, but with the particularly Eastern imprecision and indifference to reliable statistics and accurate historical data which must warn the unwary against taking it at its face-value. If one had only the Baba's information to go on one would still be very much in the dark about the Bektashis and the place they occupy in the Moslem world. Either through ignorance or a desire not to explain too fully the nature of a sect which is reputed to be heretical, the head of the tekke prefers to remain diplomatically silent and let the visitor try to find out for himself. The order of the Bektashis takes its name from Hadji Bektash Khorasani. His life story is told in the Menaqib el 'Arifin (" Biographies of the Mystics"), by Shams ad-Din Mohammed, a fifteenth- century collection of stories which is to the Moslems what the Golden Legend is to the Christians. This book tells that Hadji Bektash was a brilliant teacher, who did not adhere too strictly to the rules laid down by the Prophet. He was born at Nishapur, and was brought up in a community where Sufic mysticism had already appeared. He then went to Anatolia, attracted by the fame of the holy Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the founder of the Dancing Dervishes. His exemplary life, together with the miracles he performed, attracted disciples to him in turn, and they dared openly to call him the Baba Rasul, "the Father sent from God." The story tells how, as soon as he arrived in Anatolia, Bektash visited the Sultan Orkhan and gave him his blessing. Later, when the Sultan founded the regiment of the Janissaries as the mainstay and defence of the Ottoman dynasty, he made Bektash their almoner. It was even due to him that the regiment got its name, for it was he who called them the II new regiment," Yeni Cheri, from which we get the word janissary. He lived on into the reign of Murad I (reigned 1359- 90), and was buried in his adopted country at Qir Shehri, now called Hadji Bektash, near Kayseri, the old Caesarea, in Cappadocia. His tomb became a favourite place of pilgrimage for the faithful, who thought of him as their Pir, or spiritual father.


Even if the whole of this story is not a fabrication it has to be taken with a pinch of salt, for it now seems as though it all may have been concocted later as a justification of the policy of the Bektashis towards the Janissaries, and through them towards the Sublime Porte, the Turkish imperial government. The real founder of the order, the man who gave it its rules and doctrine, was Balim Baba, who died in 1516. Although the religious movement they represent was older than this, it was only in the sixteenth century that the Bektashis actually appeared, and only from then onward are we able to find accurate information about their beliefs or activities.


Their doctrines show many signs of the Sufic ideas of the equality of all religions and the uselessness of external rites. They profess to be Sunnites-that is, orthodox Moslems whose faith is based on the Koran which God gave to Mohammed, and on the Sunna, the written gospel which contains the utterances of the Prophet and his early companions. In reality though they are Shiites, and believe that the caliphate cannot be elective, but that it is reserved solely for the descendants of Fatima. They are followers, practically worshippers, of Ali, and only grant Mohammed and his earliest successors a small place in their worship. They lavish particular devotion on the tombs of saints to the point that prayers addressed to them have taken the place of those required by the ritual. This is why the Bektashis so often built their monasteries near cemeteries, which are popular pilgrim centres. This is the case with the tekke on the Jebel Muqattam. There, not only are there tombs grouped together in grottoes, but also more elaborate sepulchers scattered about the gardens, often with cupolas, so large that one could easily mistake them for mosques. Bektashis, being generally ready wits as well as of a liberal turn of mind, like to poke fun, albeit gently, at this exaggerated cult of the dead, and some of the irreverent stories which are in circulation among them might put some devout people off if they were not simply expressions of that caustic humor which is to be found in all religions. Take, for example, the story of the donkey and his son who founded two great Anatolian monasteries and became venerated as saints. . . .


A Bektashi Baba who was worried by the increasing poverty of his monastery one day sent out a young monk to ask for alms. With many a solemn injunction to be careful he entrusted him with the monastery donkey. Unfortunately on the way the animal died, and after burying it the Bektashi monk sat by its tomb and wept because he did not know what was to become of him. At that moment the governor of the province passed by, having been summoned by the Sultan to account for his exactions and maladministration. He saw the Bektashi and without listening for any explanation told him to pray to the saint whose tomb it was to intercede for him with the Sultan. A short while later the governor came back from Constantinople far more satisfied with the outcome of his trip than he had ever expected, and promised to repay the saint who had thus helped him in his hour of need. He therefore built a rich monastery round the tomb, miracles began to take place, and crowds flocked to the holy place, while the old monastery fell further and further into decay. Its Baba decided to pay a visit to the monastery of the younger and luckier monk; they greeted each other effusively, wept on each other's necks, and the old Baba was shown the wonder-working tomb. Here the young Bektashi was a little embarrassed, not wanting to deceive his former superior, and started in a roundabout way to explain what had happened. "Oh, I shouldn't worry about that," said the old Baba; "your saint is the grandson of the holy protector of our monastery."


Some elements in the doctrine and rites of the Bektashis suggest that originally they may have been Christians who only took on the exterior forms of Islamic belief. They believe in a Trinity, in which Ali takes the place of Jesus, and in their meetings, which are held in the main hall (Maidan Odasi) of their monastery, they celebrate a sort of communion where they share bread, wine, and cheese. They also confess their sins to their superiors and receive absolution from them.


They are not strict as regards adherence to the Koran. The ritual use of wine is a direct infringement of its prohibition among strict Moslems. Bektashi women do not wear the veil, and some Bektashis are celibate. All this suggests a non-Moslem origin, as do their mystical numbers and belief in the transmigration of souls.


Their past organization shows clearly the 'monastic' nature of their origin. At the time when the Ottoman dynasty was at the height of its power all the Bektashis were under the command of a Grand Master who lived in the parent-house at Hadji Bektash. This office, though not originally hereditary, was in the end handed down from father to son. Each community of Bektashis sent a representative to the Grand Master and was also under the supervision of a Baba, who was resident among them. In this way the monarchic organization of the order was established. After the revolution of Kemal Atatürk all this changed. There are now no longer any Bektashis in the former Ottoman Empire, or even in their original country of Anatolia. All were expelled, and if, as Baba Serri Dede says, there are a great many of them left in Albania they are certainly not monks. Bektashism has become just another of the many Islamic sects. Apart from the tekke at Cairo and maybe another in Jerusalem (though one no longer hears it mentioned), the order has no monasteries.


The ostracism shown the Bektashis even in our own time is not solely due to Atatürk’s policy of secularization; it can equally be attributed to the bad reputation the order acquired from their intrusion into the government of the Sultans. Their official position in the regiment of Janissaries enabled them to take part in several palace revolutions which the soldiers organized. So the fate of the Bektashis was to some extent linked to that of the Janissaries, and when the latter were exterminated in 1826 by Mahmud II all the Bektashi monasteries in Constantinople were destroyed and several of their superiors were executed. Since that date the order has never regained its former power, though it did manage to get back, bit by bit, its property in the capital. The charge of meddling in politics still stuck to them, and even nowadays they are reputed not to confine their actions merely to spiritual matters, which renders them suspect to the Egyptian Government. If they really do still have political aims they cannot be very revolutionary ones; it is somehow difficult to imagine plots against the state being hatched in the calm of their enchanting monastery-oasis, which no one who goes to see the Ottoman Citadel across the road should fail to visit.

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