Albania's Bektashis slowly find place in the world again


ALBANIA: A Sufi Muslim group blending elements of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism was nearly wiped out in Albania, writes Kieran Cooke in Tirana

The dervish passes round a plate of nougat, sprinkled with sherbet. From a nearby prayer room comes the sound of chanting. His Holiness Haxhi Dede Reshat Bardhi, the grandfather or "Baba" of the Bektashi religion, adjusts his white fez, an ornate bright green ribbon hanging down over his deeply lined face.

"You are very welcome to the world headquarters of the Bektashis," the Baba says. It is like entering an ornate, mysterious world of long ago.

In 1967 the communist dictator Enver Hoxha declared Albania the world's first atheistic state. In a cultural revolution which mirrored events in China, the mosques of Albania's majority Muslim population were ransacked and turned into storage depots or army barracks. Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, were torched.

The Bektashis are a Sufi Muslim group, blending elements of Islam, Christianity and even Buddhism in what is an esoteric, mystical mixture. The stormtroopers of Enver Hoxha's cultural revolution - mostly schoolchildren and students - were encouraged to destroy the Bektashi tekkes or monasteries. Valuable libraries were burned.

Dervishes - the priests of the order - were imprisoned or killed. The Baba, head of the Bektashis, was put to work digging ditches. "Now we are trying to rebuild our religion but it is very hard," he says.

Bektashism is believed to have been founded by a Persian, Haji Bektash Veli, in the 14th century. Over the centuries it moved westwards, through Turkey to the Balkans, particularly to Albania.

In his late 70s, with a white flowing beard, the Baba grows tearful as he reflects on the state of Bektashism. "Most of the sacred texts have gone. The men of learning have disappeared. There are very few of us now able to carry on, to teach and pass our ways to the next generation."

It is thought that up to 40 per cent of Albania's 3.5 million people profess to being Bektashis, though few seem to have much knowledge of its teachings.

"Bektashism is more a philosophy than a religion," Ani Tare (35), an Albanian who works for the Ministry of Culture, says. "It's a liberal, easy-going creed and fits well with the Albanian character. They drink wine, they love poetry, they emphasise man's harmony with nature.

"The trouble is very few know much about it. That's because Hoxha almost wiped it out. It's also due to the nature of Bektashism. There are various circles within it. You have to go through different rites and examinations before you enter the innermost group. In a sense it's like a secret society. This deeply worried the communists, who saw it as a source of potential resistance. Hoxha hit Bektashism hard. So much knowledge and learning has been lost."

In the 11 years since the downfall of communism, Albania's mosques have been renovated and churches rebuilt. These include the Catholic cathedral in Shkodra in the north, the largest in the Balkans. It was turned into a volleyball court during the Hoxha years.

Bektashis are famous in Albanian history as being at the forefront of the struggle against the long period of Ottoman rule. Later, they served in the partisan forces, fighting alongside Hoxha's communists against first Italian and then German occupation.

"Once we were big landowners," the Baba says. "We had hundreds of tekke. We have asked the government to return some of our property seized by the communists, but so far it has refused."

Bektashism's headquarters can be found on the outskirts of Tirana. In the background snowcapped mountains are silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky. People crowd into a meeting room to kiss the Baba's hand.

"Slowly we are finding our place in the world again," the Baba says.

"Bektashism can be a bridge between the Christians and the Muslims. That is our message."