Deep in the forests of northeast Bulgaria, where green, grassy hills come tumbling down from the Romanian border, there lays an intriguing holy man revered by both Muslims and Christians.
The Demir Baba Tekke, is in woodland close to the village of Sveshtari, about 40 minutes’ drive from the nearest town, Razgrad. On my last visit there, I was led by British archaeologist Chris Fenton who lives with his wife in a nearby village and regularly takes people on tours to historical sites across this mysteriously fascinating corner of Bulgaria.
It was a warm and sunny August morning when Chris turned his 4×4 off a narrow country lane and into a rather crude looking parking lot close to thick forest. “Here we are,” he announced, switching off the diesel engine.
The car park was covered by asphalt that was crumbling at the edges. A few rusting bins overflowed with rubbish and two picnic benches sat under the shade of a tree. We headed towards them. Behind benches, hidden by some large bushes, was the trail – a set of steep, winding concrete steps that descended into the heart of the woodland.
As we made our way down, colourful pieces of material tied to branches arched overhead creating a canopy of tiny rainbows, I noticed an Ottoman-era tombstone on the hillside. It was at an angle and the words had worn away with age, but the carved headstone – shaped like a turban – was still easy to make out.
Bulgaria’s Muslim history began in the 14th century when the Ottomans conquered the lands just a short sail across from their native Turkey. The Turkish Empire remained in power over Bulgaria until 1913, leaving the country with nearly six centuries of Muslim heritage. Much of this is in the shape of Ottoman monuments that can still be found scattered across the central Balkan nation. They range from crumbling mosques, stunning bridges and bedestans to forgotten tombs.
The Demir Baba Tekke actually sits on an ancient Thracian site, which dates right back to the fourth century BC and is probably connected to the nearby royal Thracian tombs that were discovered under a mound in the 1980s,” explained Chris.
We were near the bottom of the steps now and the thick greenery gave way to a vast clearing where the turbe – Turkish for ‘tomb’ – sat surrounded by steep, hills and more trees. It was an impressive heptagonal stone structure with typical Ottoman architectural features. The entrance had a cone-shaped lead roof, whilst the main compartment was covered by a lead dome. A perimeter wall of locally quarried stones ran around the edge and in one corner of the complex, under a shelter was ‘Basparmak’ – a ‘holy’ water source believed to have miraculously appeared to the saint buried inside the tomb.
Visitors to the shrine still observe the age old ritual of taking three sips and washing their faces at Basparmak.
Local Muslims believe the man buried inside is Demir Baba, an Alevi warrior saint. When the current structure was built in the 16th century, it quickly became a site of religious pilgrimage. This led to the construction of a mosque, lodgings and an imarat (soup kitchen) around the tomb. Today, only a small museum stands next to the tekke. “But it’s not just Muslims that come down here. Christians also visit the tomb. They don’t believe it contains the body of Demir Baba though, they think it is the body of Saint George,” said Chris, walking over to the entrance of the tomb.
Unbeknown to many, Bulgaria’s Ottoman period was also a period of religious diversity and pluralism. Historical accounts show that Muslims, Christians and Jews often lived harmoniously side by side, and in some instances, adapted each other’s beliefs and practices.
As we stepped into the cool, heptagonal mausoleum, we were greeted with a sacred space, carefully and respectfully divided down the middle. On one side, arranged neatly were Christian icons, candles, rosary beads and crucifixes. Opposite, images of Shiite Imams, Hasan and Husayn hung alongside Arabic inscriptions on the wall. Underneath were piles of prayer beads, rugs and more of the colourful ties we had seen outside. And above us, in reds, greens and blues were mystical calligraphic patterns.
“They say, the followers of the order know the secret meanings of each of these inscriptions. Sometimes one image or pattern can contain all three names; Allah, Muhammad and Ali,” said Chris pointing upwards.
Near our feet, the triangulated tomb in the centre was covered with further offerings, including a candle that had recently burnt out its wick.
Outside we could hear muffled voices now, and decided to vacate the space to allow the other visitors to pay their respects. As we passed them at the tomb’s entrance, I tried to ascertain whether they were here for Demir Baba or Saint George, but I couldn’t.
Where in the world: The Demir Baba Tekke
is close to Svhestari, a small village about 42km
northeast of the city of Razgrad.
In and out: The best way to visit the shrine
is by flying into Varna International airport
and then hiring a rental car, as the shrine is
in quite a remote location not served directly
by public transport.
Top tips: Combine your visit to the tomb of Demir Baba
with a visit to the nearby Thracian Tombs of Sveshtari,
a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing impressive
Royal Thracian tombs discovered in 1982 that date back
to the third century BC.