Sunday 23 August 2015

Slaughtering lambs on the holy mountain


Today was a really astonishing day which makes me feel I am living in a 19th century lithograph. This is, of course, the ideal for which one travels but which one so rarely attains in our day. The English scholar-gentleman-gypsy. 

Tomi Luzati and Osman drove me from Berat to the annual Bektashi festival on Mount Tomori, where tens of thousands of families of Bektashis come, camp out, sacrifice and eat lambs and pray on the holy mountain. Some bring dead lambs, some buy them live from butchers who slaughter them. Once they climbed or came on horseback, now they come by car. On top of the mountain, the second highest in Albania,  a very holy man is buried. 

Bektashis are Sufis, devoted to the memory of Haji Bektash, a dervish who lived in thirteenth century Asia Minor. His cult was very popular with the Janissaries who were the equivalent in Ottoman Turkey of the Praetorian Guard in the Roman Empire. Like the Praetorian Guard chose emperors the Janissaries chose sultans and in 1827 the Sultan Mahmud II disbanded them. Many of the Janissaries were taken as boys from Albanian families and they sought refuge in Albania. Almost a century later another moderniser, Kemal, expelled the dervish brotherhood (think Greenmantle) from Turkey and they made Albania their headquarters. Albania seemed a natural choice until the Communists took over and in the Cultural Revolution (Albania was Mao's ally) made religious practices illegal.

Tomi, who is one, says Bektashis like rakia, pork meat and enjoying the life. This is his philosophy but another Bektashi confirmed this. Sufism is the mysticism of Islam and it seems in every way more attractive than the dour Calvinism of orthodox Mahometanism. I am sorry to say that there have been no whirling dances in Albania since the Communists took over. Bektashis are Alawites, like President Assad of Syria, although not all Alawites are Bektashis. Their religion is secret in part. A Turkish friend told me that the Alawis have a secret, passed from one to another orally but not written down and my friend had an Alawite friend who revealed it to him: Ali is God.

This, if it is true, and the role of alcohol in their religious rite, might be the reasosn that Sunnis sometimes call the Bektashis 'little Christians'. 

Several years ago an English journalist friend, living in Belgrade, posted on Facebook a picture he took at the festival of a young boy, his cheeks smeared with blood, eating raw lamb. My friend told me that the festival was this weekend but there was nothing about it on the net in English. The travel agency in Tirana said it was not an organised festival, it was not official and they couldn't help me with it or confirm even when it took place. Luckily I found Tomi, friend of a friend, instead.

Tomi, Osman and I drove for an hour through idyllic countryside, the countryside of Greek gods and wood nymphs, till we left the made road and spiralled up the mountain on a track which took another hour of vertiginour views, Tomi told me that in other years the cars get jammed and people have to walk to the plateau where the festival happens. However the Albanian police had said on the radio that there should be no problems this year and we made it all the way. The policemen we met were smiling broadly and wore sunglasses. This year there were no problems.

Lambs, hundreds of them, herded, being slaughtered, being cut open, cooked and eaten. I couldn't help remembering Paul Potter's lines

All over London

There are chickens on spits

And this, say the chickens,

Is their Auschwitz.

I didn't see anyone eating raw lamb, not did the people I spoke to know about this, though the Bradt guide mentions it. Bektashis' foreheads are smeared with the blood of the lamb. I think Armenians sacrifice lambs in a similar way for Easter.

Almost everyone rests content with staying on the plateau where they camp out. Today was the first day but thousands had camped out last night. The more determined used to climb to the summit and this would take some hours. Tomi who has never done this himself had told me this is what I should have to do and I was on for it, though rather dreading it as I am not fit. Instead I got talking to a charming Albanian from islington who works as a beautician in Harrod's and she and her family  took me up in their four wheel drives to the very top. There stands a little hermitage and I was blessed by their charming imam. 

I was happy because I thought I was a traveller not a tourist, a man of letters even, but quite a few of the Albanians lived in Greece, Italy or North London.This is not the hermit kingdom of Hoxha. I missed that.

For primitive man man seeking the transcendent without a revelation, mountains were always very sacred. This religion is much older than Islam of course or any religion that was written down.


  1. You really were lucky to have this experience Paul!

  2. Paul - I am sure you read Edith Durham's writings.

  3. You have discovered a gem. Well done. I saw a cookery programme about Albania from the comfort of my home in London and was pretty mesmerized by the culture and people of the original Ilyrians. There is something dour about the slavs and their organized culture, and Romanians and Albanians share a pre-Slavic heritage. I think it is hilarious the way Hoxha banned fishing. Must have been wonderful for keeping stocks of all types of delicious crustaceans healthy. On the sacredness of mountains in all religions, Eliade has written extensively. You should definitely read Sacred and Profane, and the Myth of Eternal Return…

    1. I never found the Slavs to be dour!