by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Religions blend at Muslim cleric's tomb

demir baba tekke 3.jpg

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.

Alevis believe that all religions are equal and contain truth. This explains the many borrowings in their rites – for example, the lighting of candles.

The türbe is 11 metres high. According to locals, until the 1920s there was an iron cross and a crescent on its top. A local official had the cross removed, as he considered its presence on a Muslim sanctuary an insult to Christianity

The türbe is 11 metres high. According to locals, until the 1920s there was an iron cross and a crescent on its top. A local official had the cross removed, as he considered its presence on a Muslim sanctuary an insult to Christianity

The story of the Alevis' arrival in the Balkans contains many blank spots, hypotheses and legends. According to the most popular version, Alevis used to live on the border between the Shiite Iran and the Sunni Ottoman Empire. The two states were in conflict, so the sultans Bayezid II (1481-1512), Selim I (1512-1520) and Suleyman I (1520-1566) forced Alevis to move to depopulated areas in the Balkans.

At times the Ottoman state persecuted Alevis. Alevi saints and sages, however, had a special status. Officially they belonged to the monastic order of the Bektashis, who – somewhat confusingly – were Sunnis. Thus, saints such as Demir Baba, Osman Baba and Ak Yazılı Baba, who are still venerated in Bulgaria, were honoured by Sunnis, their deeds being described in legendary biographies and their tekkes visited by pilgrims.

The decorations inside the türbe were restored in the 1990s

The decorations inside the türbe were restored in the 1990s

Demir Baba was no exception. The legend says that he was a contemporary of Süleyman I. His birth had been predicted by the saint Ak Yazılı Baba, whose tekke is in the village of Obrochishte, near Varna. Demir Baba was still young when he showed signs of the great saint he would become. Prior to founding a tekke he travelled around the world and distinguished himself as a brave warrior and a skilled horseman. Demir Baba killed two dragons that were terrorising the lands of the Tatars and the Muscovites, and helped the sultan seize control of Budapest.

He then returned to his native village, founded the tekke, gathered disciples and started to preach and help people. One of the eloquent testimonies to Demir Baba's powers is still in his tekke. This is the karst spring called Başparmak. According to the legend, during an unprecedented drought people prayed to the saint for help. He put his hand into the rock and water spurted out.

Başparmak has not been piped yet because the local people believe it is sacred. A ritual is still observed requiring those entering the tekke to take three sips from it and wash their faces.

Demir Baba's turbe, or tomb, and the old house at the entrance of the complex are the only surviving structures of the large religious complex that used to surround the tomb. Belief in the saint's powers, however, is still strong and attracts Alevis, Sunnis and Christians alike. The largest number of visitors gather on 6 May, the holiday celebrated as Hıdırellez by Muslims and St George's Day by Christians.

The tekke is full of pointers to the mix of religious traditions and even superstitions. The saint's grave is covered with dozens of towels, shirts and socks, left there as gifts for prayers that were answered. The trees in the surrounding area and even the window bars of the turbe are decorated with colourful shreds of cloth, tied there by people who believed this would bring them health.

The stones in one of the walls of the complex are decorated with mysterious carvings. Seven-pointed stars can be seen on some of them. Hexagrams, which are known in mystical teachings as the Seal of Solomon, are depicted on others.

Witch’s Eyes

Witch’s Eyes

Several blocks bear domed buildings, one of which is certainly a mosque with a minaret. One of the stones in the wall attracts small groups of visitors who, with eyes shut and arms outstretched, try to find it and poke their fingers into two holes known the Witch's Eyes.

Demir Baba tekke had been a sacred site long before the arrival of the Alevis. Archaeological excavations have not been able to find proof to corroborate local legends of a Christian monastery dedicated to St George beneath the tekke. However, archaeologists have discovered that a Thracian sanctuary existed there between the 4th Century BC and the 2nd Century AD. The turbe was built literally on top of its remains and some of the stones of the pagan sanctuary have been incorporated into the walls of the Alevi shrine.

The most eloquent example is the huge stone block along one of the turbe walls. Two thousand years ago the Thracians offered sacrifices on it. Those who believe in Demir Baba's powers, however, lie on it in the hope that it will bring them health.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.