Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Discover: Bulgaria's Sufi Heritage


Discover: Bulgaria's Sufi Heritage

For the Record: 10 December 2005, Saturday. Sofia News Agency

By Albena Shkodrova*

I almost bump into the three young women in front of me as they stop suddenly in the middle of the flight of stairs. "For luck!" they smile apologetically, while one of them pulls a bunch of colourful fabric strips from her bag. The three start patiently tying the rags on nearby branches, adding more shades to the multicoloured chaos of the forest around us. Hordes of pilgrims have turned the area into an enormous tapestry, decorating it with rags, ribbons, socks and even lingerie and shirts.

Another hundred meters down the open stairway is the Demir Baba Tekke, the tomb of a famous Muslim dervish who lived in contemporary northeast Bulgaria in the 16th century. His grave is now a holy place for Muslims in Bulgaria, especially the Alevi, one of several Sufi orders that established themselves in the Balkans during the Middle Ages.

Built near the northern town of Isperih, the Demir Baba Tekke is about 400 kilometres east of Sofia. Due to the literally decomposing road leading to it, the tomb is almost unreachable from other parts of the country. As a result, most visitors are from the local villages. But while it is considered a destination for Alevi pilgrims, other Muslims, Christians and atheists visit it as well - out of curiosity, or just to spend some time in the countryside.

Accomplishing their task, the three women continue their slow walk down to the tekke. It is Sunday and they are wearing their best clothes: cheap but brightly coloured long skirts, long-sleeved blouses and headscarves. Although they are ethnic Turks, and Alevi, one can hardly tell the difference between them and the ethnic Bulgarians who live in this poor area. Most of them dress exactly like Bulgarians, including even the headscarves used by local village women to protect themselves from the sun and cold.

Reaching the bottom of the dramatic cliff, under which the tekke stands, the women enter the yard. I follow them into the tomb, taking off my shoes. One doesn't have to cover one's head when entering Alevi sacred places, nor are there any rules against visitors who hold different beliefs. Like other Sufi orders, this one is utterly liberal. Its followers neglect traditional Muslim rituals and, unlike some other Islamic sects, confess complete equality between the sexes.

It comes as little surprise that Bulgarian Alevi are considered by some Muslims to be heretics. Their tolerance towards other religions allows them to assimilate easily into any society. The esoteric nature of their beliefs, on the other hand, makes them almost unrecognizable to strangers.

The women sit around the tomb in the middle of the yard and put their hands on the colourful carpets and blankets covering it. This type of holy place is not considered a temple by the Alevi. They venerate their saints, but their most important rituals are held in the houses of their chieftains, the leaders of their small communities, which are usually comprised of several families.

Like most Sufi denominations, Alevism is esoteric and, while it is known that its rituals aim to help individuals reach unification with God, little is known about the details of these practices. Unlike the followers of Mevlyana -- the whirling dervishes, who have become a tourist attraction in Turkey -- the Alevi have managed to keep their traditions secret.

This obscurity makes them completely unknown to Bulgarians and provokes wild speculation amongst other local Muslim denominations, who accuse them of all kinds of evil, including orgies. "They use some Christian paraphernalia such as wine and candles and pronounce the name of God," says Velin Belev, an expert in Oriental studies.

Belev denounces any ominous speculation about the nature of Alevi rituals. "Their traditions are eclectic, incorporating elements from other beliefs such as Manichaeism, Ismaelism, Orthodox Christianity."

Sufis first arrived in the Balkans in the 15th century, when Sultan Selim I sent them to keep the spirit of the Ottoman Empire's army high and to integrate newly conquered nations into the empire. A number of denominations settled on the peninsula. Many of them have preserved their traditions into the present day.

Alevi, known also as "Aliani" in Bulgarian, are only one of several groups of Sufis in the country, who, according to experts, have left a rich heritage here. The bulk of their culture remains unstudied and unknown due to a lack of local expertise and restrictions imposed by the former socialist regime on foreign scholars who might have studied them.

"There is a treasure of documents inherited from Sufis living on the
land of contemporary Bulgaria during the last five centuries," Belev says. "It is kept in the National Library's archive. Written in old Turkish or old Arabic, the documents are difficult to study. We are only in the beginning of finding out what their thousands of pages contain."

The Alevi, who found a patron in the 13th century in the Anatolian mystic Hadzhi Bektash Veli, have not developed a rich religious literature. Their beliefs have mostly been rooted in verbal traditions, especially in Bulgaria.

This lack of codified beliefs is partly why ethnic Bulgarian society now threatens to absorb them completely.

"In an urban environment it is virtually impossible to maintain our traditions and, as more and more young people leave for cities, our culture is falling into oblivion," says Veisal Bayram, founder of the "Dzhem" foundation, which aims to preserve Alevi cultural heritage.

Even if the new generation is interested in their parents' beliefs, Bayram says, they can't find any literature in Bulgarian to learn more about it. The only way they can learn is from their chieftains, but the average young person, working in a town nearby, has little time to return to his or her native village to listen to an elder's stories.

In many areas, however, including the Bulgarian towns of Isperih, Razgrad and Silistra, Alevism is still alive. The colourful rags and the three young women in front of me seem proof of this fact.

Back out of the tomb, they walk around the building and mix with the crowd of ethnic Turks and Bulgarians in front of the big stone next to the tekke's wall. It is believed that Demir Baba's tomb was built over an ancient Thracian temple dedicated to the worship of the sun and that the large rock remains from that time.

One can always see someone climbing the stone and laying on its inclined surface with his or her feet up. According to local legend, the stone helps pregnant women in childbirth and gives strength to men - especially if they are able to stand on it without using their hands for support.

In the 500 square meters surrounding the tekke, one can see several layers of history, traces of five religions and up to three ethnic groups. This small area, with its fusion of influences and cultures, may seem surprising to some, but in fact it is a typical representation of contemporary Bulgaria.


*Albena Shkodrova is Balkan Investigative Research Network (BIRN) Bulgaria country director and editor from Bulgaria for Balkan Insight. Balkan Insight is BIRN's internet publication.

4 comments:

Sadiq M. Alam said...

can we have some accompanying picture of the places...it would be wonderful.

good job done here.

Dr. Alan Godlas said...

Great idea. It motivated me to look for a picture, and I found another article with picture, which I will post today, Dec. 27, just in case the article goes off line at some point. Here is the url:
http://www.alewiten.com/nevenavilayetname.htm

S said...

Lacks research and tends to dramatize the few unproven facts. I happen to be an alevi living in the area and I like reading academic articles on the subject regularly so I should know.

Dr. Alan Godlas said...

See Sufi News December 27, 2005 for an academic article on Demir Baba.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Discover: Bulgaria's Sufi Heritage


Discover: Bulgaria's Sufi Heritage

For the Record: 10 December 2005, Saturday. Sofia News Agency

By Albena Shkodrova*

I almost bump into the three young women in front of me as they stop suddenly in the middle of the flight of stairs. "For luck!" they smile apologetically, while one of them pulls a bunch of colourful fabric strips from her bag. The three start patiently tying the rags on nearby branches, adding more shades to the multicoloured chaos of the forest around us. Hordes of pilgrims have turned the area into an enormous tapestry, decorating it with rags, ribbons, socks and even lingerie and shirts.

Another hundred meters down the open stairway is the Demir Baba Tekke, the tomb of a famous Muslim dervish who lived in contemporary northeast Bulgaria in the 16th century. His grave is now a holy place for Muslims in Bulgaria, especially the Alevi, one of several Sufi orders that established themselves in the Balkans during the Middle Ages.

Built near the northern town of Isperih, the Demir Baba Tekke is about 400 kilometres east of Sofia. Due to the literally decomposing road leading to it, the tomb is almost unreachable from other parts of the country. As a result, most visitors are from the local villages. But while it is considered a destination for Alevi pilgrims, other Muslims, Christians and atheists visit it as well - out of curiosity, or just to spend some time in the countryside.

Accomplishing their task, the three women continue their slow walk down to the tekke. It is Sunday and they are wearing their best clothes: cheap but brightly coloured long skirts, long-sleeved blouses and headscarves. Although they are ethnic Turks, and Alevi, one can hardly tell the difference between them and the ethnic Bulgarians who live in this poor area. Most of them dress exactly like Bulgarians, including even the headscarves used by local village women to protect themselves from the sun and cold.

Reaching the bottom of the dramatic cliff, under which the tekke stands, the women enter the yard. I follow them into the tomb, taking off my shoes. One doesn't have to cover one's head when entering Alevi sacred places, nor are there any rules against visitors who hold different beliefs. Like other Sufi orders, this one is utterly liberal. Its followers neglect traditional Muslim rituals and, unlike some other Islamic sects, confess complete equality between the sexes.

It comes as little surprise that Bulgarian Alevi are considered by some Muslims to be heretics. Their tolerance towards other religions allows them to assimilate easily into any society. The esoteric nature of their beliefs, on the other hand, makes them almost unrecognizable to strangers.

The women sit around the tomb in the middle of the yard and put their hands on the colourful carpets and blankets covering it. This type of holy place is not considered a temple by the Alevi. They venerate their saints, but their most important rituals are held in the houses of their chieftains, the leaders of their small communities, which are usually comprised of several families.

Like most Sufi denominations, Alevism is esoteric and, while it is known that its rituals aim to help individuals reach unification with God, little is known about the details of these practices. Unlike the followers of Mevlyana -- the whirling dervishes, who have become a tourist attraction in Turkey -- the Alevi have managed to keep their traditions secret.

This obscurity makes them completely unknown to Bulgarians and provokes wild speculation amongst other local Muslim denominations, who accuse them of all kinds of evil, including orgies. "They use some Christian paraphernalia such as wine and candles and pronounce the name of God," says Velin Belev, an expert in Oriental studies.

Belev denounces any ominous speculation about the nature of Alevi rituals. "Their traditions are eclectic, incorporating elements from other beliefs such as Manichaeism, Ismaelism, Orthodox Christianity."

Sufis first arrived in the Balkans in the 15th century, when Sultan Selim I sent them to keep the spirit of the Ottoman Empire's army high and to integrate newly conquered nations into the empire. A number of denominations settled on the peninsula. Many of them have preserved their traditions into the present day.

Alevi, known also as "Aliani" in Bulgarian, are only one of several groups of Sufis in the country, who, according to experts, have left a rich heritage here. The bulk of their culture remains unstudied and unknown due to a lack of local expertise and restrictions imposed by the former socialist regime on foreign scholars who might have studied them.

"There is a treasure of documents inherited from Sufis living on the
land of contemporary Bulgaria during the last five centuries," Belev says. "It is kept in the National Library's archive. Written in old Turkish or old Arabic, the documents are difficult to study. We are only in the beginning of finding out what their thousands of pages contain."

The Alevi, who found a patron in the 13th century in the Anatolian mystic Hadzhi Bektash Veli, have not developed a rich religious literature. Their beliefs have mostly been rooted in verbal traditions, especially in Bulgaria.

This lack of codified beliefs is partly why ethnic Bulgarian society now threatens to absorb them completely.

"In an urban environment it is virtually impossible to maintain our traditions and, as more and more young people leave for cities, our culture is falling into oblivion," says Veisal Bayram, founder of the "Dzhem" foundation, which aims to preserve Alevi cultural heritage.

Even if the new generation is interested in their parents' beliefs, Bayram says, they can't find any literature in Bulgarian to learn more about it. The only way they can learn is from their chieftains, but the average young person, working in a town nearby, has little time to return to his or her native village to listen to an elder's stories.

In many areas, however, including the Bulgarian towns of Isperih, Razgrad and Silistra, Alevism is still alive. The colourful rags and the three young women in front of me seem proof of this fact.

Back out of the tomb, they walk around the building and mix with the crowd of ethnic Turks and Bulgarians in front of the big stone next to the tekke's wall. It is believed that Demir Baba's tomb was built over an ancient Thracian temple dedicated to the worship of the sun and that the large rock remains from that time.

One can always see someone climbing the stone and laying on its inclined surface with his or her feet up. According to local legend, the stone helps pregnant women in childbirth and gives strength to men - especially if they are able to stand on it without using their hands for support.

In the 500 square meters surrounding the tekke, one can see several layers of history, traces of five religions and up to three ethnic groups. This small area, with its fusion of influences and cultures, may seem surprising to some, but in fact it is a typical representation of contemporary Bulgaria.


*Albena Shkodrova is Balkan Investigative Research Network (BIRN) Bulgaria country director and editor from Bulgaria for Balkan Insight. Balkan Insight is BIRN's internet publication.

4 comments:

Sadiq M. Alam said...

can we have some accompanying picture of the places...it would be wonderful.

good job done here.

Dr. Alan Godlas said...

Great idea. It motivated me to look for a picture, and I found another article with picture, which I will post today, Dec. 27, just in case the article goes off line at some point. Here is the url:
http://www.alewiten.com/nevenavilayetname.htm

S said...

Lacks research and tends to dramatize the few unproven facts. I happen to be an alevi living in the area and I like reading academic articles on the subject regularly so I should know.

Dr. Alan Godlas said...

See Sufi News December 27, 2005 for an academic article on Demir Baba.