In the remote mountains of Albania, followers of a mystical Sufi order are reemerging from the shadows of communism—and inviting the world in. National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Mehves Lelic reports in words and photos.
Days With Derwish
On the dewy morning of January 24, the fog has finally lifted and we can see the pear and apple orchards that belong to Baba Ismaili’s tekke, or lodge, in the mountains near Albania’s border with Macedonia. Baba Ismaili is elderly, yet quite energetic; he has, by 8 a.m., supervised most of the morning’s farmwork. On this day, the very lively Derwish Salu (whom Baba Ismaili calls the “butterfly derwish” for his fluttering movements and quick and agile thinking) has chosen to visit Baba Ismaili, something he has been meaning to do for a while, he says—and he has indeed come a long way for it. Derwish Salu usually lives and serves at the Bektashi headquarters in Tirana, taking care of the tekke, welcoming and helping visitors around, and of course, serving them the ceremonial coffee, rakija, and candy. Such service is at times taken as a form of worship in the Bektashi tradition.
The Bektashis are a Sufi order that originated in the 13th century in Anatolia and quickly gained influence. The mystical (and in general terms, unwritten) doctrine of the order required a figurative interpretation of Islamic texts and tradition, which set the order apart somewhat quickly, and which to this day distinguishes its followers from those of mainstream Sunni Islam, at times garnering the hostility of more radical groups. The latest conflict between Bektashis and a Salafi group over the management of a tekke in Macedonia—culminating in arson—is just another installation of the cycles of slating, banishment, and return.
A Dam for a Landslide
Suddenly Baba Ismaili calls everyone near the orchards and points to the fields between the two snowy peaks. Then he proudly and casually recalls that one time he blew up the dam that had been there.
Baba Ismaili (baba meaning “father”) is a well-respected spiritual figure within the Bektashi order, one who resonates a unique energy that belongs to a past age: People who come to see him, people who work for him, and people who follow him love him, obey him, and seem to fear him at the same time. So it wasn’t that he had gone ahead and damaged public property by blowing up the dam. It was that the mayor of the few villages in this remote area wanted to be reelected, and so he came to see Baba Ismaili to ask for his advice and his endorsement—a guarantee for a landslide victory. Baba Ismaili required one act of kindness in return: to have the already dysfunctional dam blown up and the water drained from the lodge’s humble valley. The mayor said, “Yes,” and the rest is history. Now the fields that were formerly the bed of the lake can be worked and are full of orchards.
The tekke is a very modest, two-story building that is nearly invisible from the winding, 25-mile mud road. One first comes across the graveyard where past spiritual leaders of the tekke are buried. Baba Ismaili has already commissioned his own gravestone in this cemetery: a heart-shaped marble block. He doesn’t think he’ll see the next century, so he’s already put down the first two digits of the year of his death: 20–. Past the graveyard is a little mountain trail down to the lodge. When visitors from the village come to see him, they follow this road into the tekke, where they are received generously. The humbling hospitality of Bektashis to their guests is famous across this part of the world.
Seek and Find
During the decades-long communist rule of Enver Hoxha, Bektashi activity was strictly forbidden, as was any other religious following in Albania. It was common practice to tear down tekkes and mosques, churches and graveyards. In Baba Ismaili’s bedroom, among depictions of the twelve Imams, Jesus, Mary, and the Qaba’, hangs a photo of his teenage son, who at school was told to take part in the demolishing of a tekke. He refused and promptly disappeared.
Today the Bektashi order enjoys a steady flurry of activity in Albania. They have reclaimed most of their land and a few historic tekkes that have escaped the watchful eye of Hoxa’s rule. The rest have been rebuilt. Some have plans to expand into larger complexes with restaurants and hotels to allow greater engagement between visitors and the spiritual energy of the environment. Some, like Baba Ismaili, wish to remain incredibly remote but always leave their doors wide open for whoever can manage the winding treks through the mountain to seek advice and spiritual advancement.