Thursday, January 03, 2008

Tito, Teto and Some Troubled Tourism Await You in Tetovo, Macedonia

Legend says that Tetovo was named after the mythical Teto, who cleared snakes from what was a village at the foot of the Šar Mountain many centuries ago. But perhaps this fable alone won't persuade you to leave the Skopje to Ohrid highway and visit this city in northwest Macedonia close to the border with Kosovo. Indeed, Tetovo has hardly been a magnet for travellers. For a long time the only tourists near here were those en route to Macedonia's most famous ski resort, Popova Šapka.

Unfortunately, to most outsiders, Tetovo is not renowned for its skiing facilities. Rather, it has a more forbidding reputation. It is the scene of the Albanian separatist National Liberation Army's (NLA) fierce clashes with Macedonian security forces in the 2001 conflict.

But the Albanian minority's unofficial capital, at one time part of the Ottoman Empire, as well as belonging to Serbia, Great Albania and Yugoslavia – and also the refuge for a considerable number of tsarist officers after the Russian Revolution – offers a pleasant and friendly surprise.

Tetovo's central square is not exactly enticing. It has the usual combination of broken pavements and dilapidated monuments, relics of the Communist era under Marshal Tito, the former Yugoslavian leader who tried to steer his own path between East and West.

Tito's buildings are of an architectural style designed to prove the superiority of his brand of Communism over Todor Zhivkov's. Just don't expect any earth-shattering contrast to Bulgaria!

But don't give up on Tetovo just yet. Turn left into Ilindenska Street and reach the humpback stone bridge over the Pena River. There you will see, rising on the other side of the river, a building that can rightfully claim to be the world's most colourful mosque. And the interior is just as striking as its façade.

The walls of the Aladzha Mosque, also known as Šarena Dzamija, or the “Painted” Mosque, are covered with geometrical shapes in green, blue, ochre and red – a truly delightful sight. And, thankfully, the building forms just part of a brighter enclave in an otherwise drab location.

Surrounding the mosque is a small park with well-maintained rosebushes and towering trees that provide a welcome contrast to the neglected central square. The Pena River babbles at its side and an abandoned Turkish bath cuts across it, part of an old complex of inns around the mosque.

Until fairly recently it housed a restaurant that went by the rather pretentious name of “Sheraton”. The octagonal turbe, or tomb, with the remains of Hurshida and Mensure, the women who founded the complex (the first building was finished in 1459), is right in front of the mosque.

“Do you like it? They used 30,000 eggs to make the paint.” A friendly young schoolgirl from the building's top-floor religious school approached us inside the mosque to practise her English. But most children are shy and only speak Albanian, the second official tongue in the Macedonian Republic since 2002.

The addition of the second language stemmed from provisions in the peace treaty that ended the conflict. Under its terms any language spoken by more than 20 percent of the population became, like Macedonian, an official state language. The Albanians, numbering just over 25 percent, are the only group eligible. But tolerance of another tongue has failed to dissolve simmering tensions. Since the republic split from Yugoslavia after a 1991 referendum, relations between Tetovo's two largest ethnic groups have been precariously poised between peace and war.

The South East European University was part of the problem. Established illegally in several houses in the nearby village of Mala Rechica, it became the country's first institution to teach students in Albanian. Legalised in 2001, it now has its own web page and is a rival to Tetovo State University.

But the Bektashi monks in the nearby Harabati Baba Tekke, a Dervish lodge, have a long history of hardship. Situated outside the city, by the large new cemetery at the foot of Popova Šapka, the monastery has a conspicuous three-storey, ultramarine-painted tower. The monks claim the tower was the last home of a high-ranking Albanian named Roxalana, who died of tuberculosis there. According to a more popular theory, it was part of the monastery's defence system, founded in the 16th Century.

The tower could not protect the tekke either from being burnt by guerrillas in 1948 or from Yugoslavia's Communists, who banned its religious activities and converted it from a haven of meditation into a tourist complex comprising a hotel, restaurant and disco. In those years – ironically, the Macedonian Communist Party was founded in 1943 in Tetovo – the monastery was silent proof of the legend explaining its unofficial name, Sersem Tekke, or the Fool's Tekke.

The story, recounted by present-day Bektashi monks with suitable self-irony, relates to a dream of Ali Baba, one of Suleiman the Magnificent's most esteemed high officials. The vision of this highly respected Bektashi leader in the Ottoman Empire was so inspiring that Ali Baba decided to abandon secular life and devote himself to religious contemplation. Angered but powerless, Suleiman told his vizier: “If you will be a sersem (fool), then go.” Ali Baba settled in Tetovo, which was practically unknown at the time, and became popular as Sersem Baba. Officially, the monastery is named after Harabati Baba, the only disciple of the former vizier, who took over the institution after Ali Baba's death in 1569.

While strolling in the large monastery garden or looking at the old stones in its cemetery, you may decide that Ali Baba was a sensible man rather than a sersem. The complex, whose main buildings were constructed in the 18th Century, became the focal point for the Bektashi living in this part of the Balkan Peninsula and survived even though Atatürk banned the order in its native Turkey in 1922. According to some estimates, nearly a quarter of Muslims here belonged to this denomination at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Despite Communist persecution, the tekke quickly restored its initial activities in 1995 following an initiative by Baba Tahir Emini. Today, there are 10 to 15 Bektashi monks living there. “We just want peace and privacy. So we don't advertise ourselves and we try not to attract tourists,” one of them tells us. But sit with them under the shed – decorated with portraits of Imam Ali, the reverse clocks and pictures from Baba Tahir Emini's funeral some months ago – and the monks can be very hospitable.

Gradually, more tourists are coming. Ironically, they're attracted not by the fêted Popova Šapka, or Priest's Hat, named after an Orthodox monk's headgear, but by the religious order and its monuments that were forbidden until just a few years ago.

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