Franz Babinger:

Among the Dervishes in Kruja

The German historian, Franz Babinger (1891-1967) finished his habilitation in 1921 at the University of Berlin where he was then professor, but he was forced to resign in 1934 out of differences with the Nazi regime in power and emigrated to Romania. In 1948, he was appointed to the new chair for the history and culture of the Middle East and Turkology at the University of Munich where he remained until retirement in 1958. As a scholar, Babinger specialized in Ottoman history and culture and in the history of the early Renaissance. His many articles on southeastern Europe were published in the two-volume “Aufsätze und Abhandlungen zur Geschichte Südost- europas und der Levante” (Articles and Treatises on the History of Southeastern Europe and the Levant). Munich 1953, 1959. Best known of his other works is “Mehmet der Eroberer und seine Zeit,” Munich 1953, translated into English as “Mehmet the Conqueror and his Time,” Princeton 1978. Of particular interest to Albanian studies is his book, “Das Ende der Arianiten” (The End of the Arianiti), Munich 1960. Babinger drowned accidentally during a stay in Albania, while at the beach in Durrës. His visit to the Bektashi teqe (monastery) of Fushë Kruja and to the town of Kruja in 1929 is recorded in the following piece. If you approach the Albanian capital, Tirana, from the north or the west, you will see up on the slope in the distance, high above the plains that descend gradually from Tirana in a northwardly direction, a curious eyrie, from which the Kruja mountain range takes its name. This is the town of Kruja with the famous fortress of Scanderbeg, known in Turkish as Akçe Hisar. You can easily visit it on a day’s outing from Tirana for it is no more than 35 kilometres away. The main road that leads initially towards Durazzo [Durrës] is rutty and worn out from all the Italian trucks plying it, but it is otherwise in satisfactory condition when the weather is dry. From the junction where the road leads northwards to Alessio [Lezha] and Scutari [Shkodra], the tracks of the field railway laid by Austrian troops during the war are still intact. Overturned railway cars and large piles of scrap iron convey the impression that a mere few weeks have passed since the railway was in operation instead of years. We departed early in the morning and had left behind us the straight, broad street from the main square of Tirana and the inquisitive police checkpoint at the start of it. To our left stretched open fields and to our right rose hills, from some of which we caught glimpses of the estates of the landed gentry, the beys. The road was lined with little huts. Gone were the minarets and mosques of Tirana, and the farther we drove, the scarcer the huts became, until they disappeared altogether. To the northeast we could now see the white houses of Kruja. On the left side of the road there was a little coffee shop and the workshop of a blacksmith. Several trucks were stopped there in front of the wretched building that marked the turnoff of the road up into the Kruja mountains. We had another twelve kilometres to go. Baba Mehmet Çeno (1882-1934) and the Bektashi dervishes at the teqe (monastery) of Fushë Kruja, Albania, probably in the late 1920s. Not far from the post road on the low ground to the right, hidden in among the trees and surrounded by verdant meadows, lay the famed monastery of the Bektashi dervishes, Fushë Kruja. This was to be our first destination. When you get close to the group of spaced-out, irregular, whitewashed buildings surrounded by a high wall, you would think you were entering the property of a wealthy landowner rather than a site of monastic contemplation. We entered the yard in which all sorts of animals were roaming about and came upon a modest, one-storey building with an open courtyard. There was not a person in sight. On the walls, in shiny green paint, we could read the name of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet who is idolized by the Bektashi. The trunks of the cypress trees were also painted in this colour. Our servant hastened off to inform the monks of our arrival who were busy building an addition behind a second wall. The main building of the monastery which, as we later learned, had burned down, was rebuilt and almost finished. A dervish soon appeared, wearing the colourful turban of the Bektashi, a high, twelve-furrowed cylindrical headpiece of white felt, though he was otherwise dressed in normal clothes. He informed us that the Sheikh of the monastery would be with us shortly. We climbed a rickety wooden staircase to reach the veranda and were told to sit down. We were then given tobacco and coffee, the usual offerings made to visitors. Our conversation was conducted in Turkish, which, in addition to the national language, Albanian, is still used as a normal means of communication throughout the country. A few minutes later, the abbot himself arrived in slow and measured steps, dressed in a fine white robe and with a cylindrical felt headpiece wrapped in green cloth on his head. He was a venerable figure with his long flowing beard and a curious arabesque- shaped earring of thick silver wire in his left ear, a sign of his status. Hanging from a thick cord around his neck and around the necks of his brothers in faith, was a shiny carnelian star, the so- called teslim tash, that signified that he had finished his training as an initiate. As head of the monastery, he greeted us warmly and made us welcome. We soon got talking. It was evident from the start that Mehmet Baba was an intelligent man of liberal-minded judgment who had endeavoured to see and experience as much of the world as circumstances allowed. When I began talking about the creation of the Bektashi Order and its founder, Haji Bektash of Khorasan, he looked very surprised, but took up the subject with lively interest, though without any excessive religious zeal. When our conversation then turned to the greatest holy man of the Kruja region, Sari Saltik Dede, the legend and miracles of whom I had earlier studied, he became very talkative and went on and on in praise of the holy man. Baba Mehmet Çeno (1882-1934) surrounded by the Bektashi dervishes of the teqe (monastery) of Fushë Kruja, Albania (photo: Dayrell Oakley-Hill, ca. 1934). After another round of refreshments, Mehmet Baba invited us to pay a visit to the holy tombs in his monastery. We walked through the central courtyard with its stables and new building and reached a tiny doorway leading to a large lawn, in the middle of which rose a huge, splendid cypress tree surrounded by a wooden fence. Around it on all sides were whitewashed tyrbes, the mausoleums of the holy men of the monastery that was said to have been founded by one Ali Baba in 1562 (970 A.H.). The looming cypress tree, allegedly stemming from the time of the founder, is said to have grown of its own accord out of the boarding he had used to make his hut. This legend stems no doubt from the curious form of the tree’s branches, which were large and flat, like boards. In actual fact, the tree was probably much older. Particularly venerated, in addition to the chapel of Ali Baba, was the chapel of Jelaladdin Ibrahim Shemimi Baba who finished his days as sheikh of the monastery in 1807 (1222 A.H.). He was a well remembered and much revered figure, not only as a sheikh but also as a poet. Through the opaque panes of the grated windows of the tyrbe we could see the sarcophagus of the saint, piled high with colourful towels as votive offerings. The third holy man to be venerated here was Haji Huseyn Baba who died in 1890. But the current head of the monastery was also held in great esteem. Several hours passed and, since we also wanted to visit Kruja, we were forced to take leave of Mehmet Baba and his four dervishes. We took pictures of the dervish group and of the individual objects in the monastery and departed, together with the school principal of Kruja who had offered to accompany us. The road was initially straight but then continued in endless hairpins up the mountainside. Around us were beautiful groves of old olive trees. Soon we could see all of the plain stretching out below us, right to the Adriatic Sea shining in the distance. But our attention was diverted by the town of Kruja which was more attractive than anyone could possibly describe. The domes of the Bektashi sanctuaries and monasteries arose through the forest of splendid olive and dark cypress trees. Between them in picturesque groups were the houses of the town, crowned by the fortress girded by high walls. The only construction to have survived the years was a lonely clock tower rising from the ruins into the azure heavens. Behind the town were the steep, almost vertical cliffs of Mali i Krujës [Mount Kruja], on top of which lay the greatest sanctuary of Kruja, the grave of Sari Saltik Dede. By now, our car had reached the entrance of the market, and we found a modest little restaurant that welcomed us. We were lucky to have brought food with us, because it had little to offer. Coffee, eggs, bread and yoghourt was all that the proprietor could give us on a Friday. Guided by our new acquaintance, we proceeded through the centre of the town, through what appeared to be a very old market street with wooden roofs. Most of the shops were, alas, closed because of the holiday so that we experienced nothing of the usual hustle and bustle that make market streets in the Orient so fascinating. Cats in great numbers skittered over the rotten boards and children nagged at us as beggars. Here and there, there were a few shopkeepers and handicraftsmen sitting on the stoops of their open shops. Otherwise there was not much life in Kruja, a once bustling and mighty town. What was particularly noticeable was the rarity of mosques. I noticed two, only one of which was in use. According to the inscription on it, it was founded in 1533 (940 A.H.) and was renovated in 1837 (1253 A.H.) by Murad Bey. The other place of worship, built by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror with its splendid and colourfully stained windows was almost in ruins and the interior was in a sorry state. The lack of mosques can be explained by the fact that three-quarters of the people of the town (some 5,000 souls) are followers of the Bektashi, with the rest being Sunni Muslims. Since the Bektashi have no mosques there was no great need to have such places of worship. All the more impressive were the mausoleums, the domes of which rose here and there amidst the sombre cypress trees. Kruja was one of the most important Turkish fortress in the western part of the Empire. According to tradition, Christians were only allowed to enter the town in the daytime, in the company of Muslims. At night there were not permitted to be in town at all, under penalty of death. The once famed fortress on the rock made a sad impression on us. It was pulled down in 1832, but the walls and fortification towers survived to an extent. The interior of the fortress was full of ruins – remains of walls and big stone blocks. In several locations one could still see the remains of the old circular walls of the fortress which were probably very old. The view from the fortress was, however, overwhelming. On our way from the fortress back down to the town, we came across a beautiful old administration building with curious frescos and carvings in a particular architectural style. Near it there was an ornate old but still functioning fountain in rough relief – two leaping lions and wheels. The inscription on it stated that it was donated in 1446 (850 A.H.) by Ghazi Evrenos, the famous Ottoman commander and nobleman. Another inscription stated that it had been renovated in 1834 (1250 A.H.). From this, it is clear that the fortress was in the temporary possession of the Turks before the final Ottoman occupation. We know that an Ottoman governor called Balaban Bey had his headquarters there in 1415. Kruja has no lack of good water, indeed the word kruja in Albanian means ‘spring, fountain.’ Countless streams flow down Mount Kruja that are channelled into fountains throughout the town, providing cool, fresh water at all times. The Ghazi Evrenos Fountain comes right out of the rocks below the fortress, and the inscription on it is the only old inscription to be found. On the outer side of the fortress walls one could clearly see the site of an inscription plate, probably dating from the year of the conquest. It would have been of historical importance. The Turks are said to have removed it when they withdrew from Kruja fifteen year ago. It was now late in the afternoon. We had something to drink at the little restaurant and then departed for Tirana, once again along the hairpin curves of the road. We stopped at a little chapel called Gjurmë i Shejntit (Footstep of the Saint) and had a last look up at Kruja. Soon thereafter, we passed the monastery of Fushë Kruja along the main road. The sky was now heavy with rainclouds and there were a few showers, but after a quarter of an hour, the setting sun came out with an impressive rainbow over the countryside to the east. It was a vision I do not remember ever having seen on my travels in the Orient. Before sinking into the sea, the golden ball of the sun cast its fiery red rays onto the slopes of the Kruja mountains that looked as if they were on fire. It was as if a huge forest fire were spreading from north to south and lighting up the whole countryside. Nature at its best, so beautiful that no pen can describe it and no paintbrush can reproduce it. A few minutes later, darkness spread over that mysterious land. [from: Franz Babinger, Bei den Derwischen von Kruja, published in: Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, Munich, 7 January 1929, p. 3. Translated from the German by Robert Elsie.]
Robert Elsie Texts and Documents of Albanian History
Franz Babinger (1891-1967)
A tyrbe (mausoleum) and an old cypress tree at the Bektashi teqe (monastery) of Fushë Kruja, Albania (photo: Robert Elsie, September 2016).
The grave of the Bektashi religious figure and poet, Shemimi Baba (1748-1803), at  the teqe (monastery) of Fushë Kruja, Albania (photo: Robert Elsie, September 2016).
Ottoman inscription (now destroyed) at the teqe (monastery) of Fushë Kruja, Albania, when it had been turned into an agricultural cooperative under communist  rule (photo: Robert Elsie, May 1988).
Monument to Sari Saltik at the Bektashi cave and sanctuary on Mount Kruja, Albania (photo: Robert Elsie, September 2016).