Nestled at the foot of Shara Mountain in a typically serene location on the outskirts of the town of Tetovo is the idyllic complex of the Arabati Baba Tekke – the finest Sufi lodge in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). It is also a place shrouded in mystery, legend and controversy.
The oldest part of the tekke, home to one of the world’s most mysterious ‘Islamic’ sects, the Bektashis, dates back to the 16th century. Legend claims it was founded when a wise old Baba – Bektashi spiritual leader – made his way to Tetovo to meditate in seclusion at the foot of the beautiful mountains.
The Baba was, in fact, an Ottoman Vizier called Ali Baba. He was also the brother-in-law of none other than Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The exact reasons for his arrival are mixed up in two quite different narratives. The first claims he had a powerful dream that made him give up the luxurious trappings of palatial life for a monastic one. In this version, Suleiman is angered by Ali Baba’s decision and reportedly tells him “If you will be a ‘sersem’ (fool) then go!” Hence the reason the revered baba is known as Sersem Ali Baba and his lodge as Sersem Tekke – the ‘Fool’s Lodge’.
In the other version, Ali Baba’s sister, who is married to Suleiman, falls foul of the Sultan and as a result, Ali Baba is banished to Tetovo where he starts his tekke. Whatever the truth, Sersem Ali Baba’s tomb sits at the heart of the tekke’s historic centre in a dilapidated round house made of red brick and wood. It is surrounded by the tombs of all the other Bektashi Babas since, including Ali Baba’s disciple Harabati Baba, whom the tekke is named after today. Most of the modern complex is the result of 18th and 19th century additions that were funded by the local governor and dervish, Recep Pasha and his son Abdurrahman Pasha. The result is a unique complex of richly ornamented pavilions, fountains, guest quarters, dining room, dervish dwellings and a mosque, all of which are surrounded by a high wall with gun slits – hinting at the tekke’s need for protection through the ages.
Most recently, the tekke was set on fire by guerrillas in 1948 and again during the communist period in 1992 when all religious activities were banned, and the tekke was used as a tourist complex with parts of it converted into a hotel, restaurant, museum and discotheque. It was returned to the Bektashi community in 1995 following a sit-in by the late Babas, Tayyar Gashi and Tahir Emin, though the controversy didn’t stop there.
In 2002, members of the national Sunni group Islamic Community of Macedonia – ICM – seized the tekke, claiming it belonged to them as custodians of the nation’s Muslim community.
Today the two groups occupy different sections of the beautiful complex, which is home to the following stunning historic monuments: The mosque, which the Sunnis call the Ibadet Hane Mesci, is a beautiful square building with a wide porch. The Bektashis knew it as the Kubeli Meydan – Turkish for ‘domed square’. The dome is a ‘blind’ wooden one, viewed only from the inside, which has ornate vegetal motifs. The entire interior has now been painted a neutral white by the Sunni occupants.
Next to the mosque is the Blue Tower or Fatima’s Tower. This stunning wooden Ottoman structure is said to have been built by Abdurrahman Pasha for his daughter Fatima – hence the name. Fatima was affected by tuberculosis and her father hoped that by living on the grounds of the tekke she might be cured of the affliction. It is an elegant two-storey square structure built on a solid stone base, with the most ornate sections reserved for the wooden upper floor where across the top are delicately painted friezes. Coloured a bright blue, the tower is modelled on a classic chardak – a primitive labourer’s structure that allowed the breeze to flow freely whilst offering shade and splendid views across the land. In all likelihood, it also served as a defensive watchtower for the tekke.
Near the main entrance is another marvellous piece of Ottoman architecture; the Misafir Hane or ‘traveller’s guesthouse’.It is also made of wood and dates from around the early 18th century. With two floors and a quaint wooden terrace covered in beautiful wood carvings of floral motifs, it is one of the finest examples of classic residential Ottoman architecture anywhere in the Balkans.Then there is the Meydan, a decorated open veranda, painted in an explosion of colourful patterns that evoke European baroque styles. This was where the resident Baba would historically receive his guests.
The tekke’s centrepiece, however, is the Sadirvan or fountain. Sitting regally in the middle of the lodge within a beautiful wooden structure that is divided into two parts, this monument embodies the deeply spiritual heart of this monastic space. One section contains the six-sided marble fountain and the other, which is slightly elevated, is reminiscent of a Buddhist meditating platform and is where the dervishes traditionally performed their rituals. The two parts are separated by an exquisitely carved door and sheltered by a richly decorated and gilded ceiling. To sit inside it, in the shade of mountains engulfed in clouds, is to understand why so many wish to lay claim to this stunning lodge.
Where in the world: The Arabati Baba Tekke sits on the western outskirts of the town of Tetovo, off the road R1206, close to where the winding R1209 heads up into the mountains.
In and out: The best way to visit the lodge is to fly into International Airport Skopje and head west past the capital Skopje to Tetovo. By car this journey takes around an hour – there are no public transport options direct from the airport. However, buses run daily from central Skopje to Tetovo and take about 45 minutes.
Top tips: The Arabati Baba Tekke sits at the foot of the mountains where the country’s most popular ski resort is located. Those visiting the tekke shouldn’t miss the opportunity to combine it with some very reasonably priced skiing in Popova Sapka.