by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff
If you are looking for a place in Bulgaria that combines nature, architecture and spirituality, Demir Baba's tekke will be among your top choices.
The saint's stone tekke, or shrine, lies at the foot of the cliffs of Kamenen Rid. Dense woods rustle around Demir Baba's tomb, an object so exquisite that from afar it looks like a toy that you could hold in your hand.
Demir Baba's tekke is one of the 140 cultural heritage sites in the Sboryanovo Archaeological Reserve, near Isperih. The tomb stands out from all of them – including the Thracian necropolis featuring Caryatids (an UNESCO heritage site) for one reason: it is the only monument in the area that has been used for the same purpose continuously since it was built in the 16th Century.
Demir Baba, or the "Iron Father," who is buried here, is the most honoured saint of a small and little known group of Muslims in Bulgaria – the Alevis.
Some 70,000 Alevis live in Bulgaria now in compact groups in villages in the Dobrudzha region, the Ludogorie and the eastern Rhodope. They are followers of an unorthodox and rather liberal version of Shiite Islam. Drinking alcohol is not forbidden and women do not cover their heads. They hold common rituals away from the eyes of the uninitiated. Alevis consider Imam Ali, the "True Heir of Mohammed," and believe in the 12 Imams, his infallible followers.
Alevism is esoteric and full of symbols incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with it. What is known is that the figure seven, the number "12" and the rose are sacred. That is why the tombs of Alive saints are heptagon-shaped and the turbans depicted on men's tombstones have seven wraps.
Orthodox Islam forbids the veneration of tombs and cemeteries. For Alevis, however, the tombs of saints are sacred places where people come to pray for health, for fertility or to seek divine help.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers