Wine and Divine

The partying pilgrims of Mount Tomorr

The slaughter of lambs is one of the few actual rituals performed at the Tomorr pilgrimage. rodolfo contreras / alamy
01 March, 2020

The Bektashi, a Sufi order in the Balkans, have a joke. A Bektashi man is praying at a mosque. While others pray for grace and faith, he prays for plenty of wine. The imam hears him and rebukes him for asking god for something sinful. The Bektashi replies, “Well, everyone asks for what they don’t have.”

Atop Albania’s Mount Tomorr last summer, I contemplated buying a bottle of wine labelled with the face of the early Muslim martyr Abbas ibn Ali. The bottle, which cost 700 lek—around four hundred and fifty rupees—seemed, to me, an incredible provocation, collapsing the sacred and the profane. It was late August, around 1 am on the second night of the annual Bektashi pilgrimage up the mountain. Almost two thousand metres above sea level, in a pop-up pilgrimage town strewn with makeshift sheds, groups of Albanians were dancing. Clusters of memorial candles that had been lit earlier in the night glowed in the distance.

The Bektashi Order—named after Haji Bektash Veli, a thirteenth-century imam from what is today Iran—was consolidated in the fifteenth century in the Ottoman Empire, spreading through its territories, including Albania. After the empire’s collapse, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the new secular president of Turkey, shut down the country’s Sufi orders, in 1925. The Bektashi shifted base to Tirana, the capital of Albania. Trouble followed them there: in 1967, Albania’s communist government banned all religions, creating the world’s first atheist state. It was only after 1990 that the Bektashi Order was once again allowed to worship openly in the country. Its clerics reopened the Bektashi World Centre at Tirana, in 1992, and started the modern Tomorr pilgrimage three years later.

The order has absorbed Shia, Sufi, Christian, animist and ancient Turkic elements, and has few behavioural prohibitions or prescriptions. Many members of the Bektashi I spoke to said that they were representatives of a “European Islam.” “We drink wine; we don’t separate men and women; we don’t even pray!” Arben Sulejmani, the order’s head of foreign affairs, who had invited me to accompany his family to Tomorr, told me. I asked him whether the Bektashi were Shia. No, he said, but they revere the 12 Shia imams, love the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, and mourn his death at the ninth-century Battle of Karbala. Sulejmani told me that the Bektashi fast during the month of Muharram, eating only vegan food and drinking only plum juice. They do not maintain mosques, but have shrines and modest tekkes—dervish lodges. Despite their devotion to Ali, they also speak of a “holy trinity” of Allah, Muhammad and Ali. The vast majority of Albanian Bektashi do not pray and consider the Tomorr pilgrimage primarily a fun social event.