Kosovo dervishes welcome spring with ritual piercings


Pristina (AFP)

Chanting and swaying to the hypnotic rhythm of prayer until they reach a trance-like state, the group of dervishes then pierce their cheeks with long needles, without drawing blood or showing pain.

Dozens of Sufi dervishes from the Kadiri order gathered in Gjakova, a city in western Kosovo, earlier this month to celebrate the centuries-old spring equinox festival of "Sultan Nevruz".

Considered a mystical sect by fellow Muslims in Kosovo and Albania, the dervishes belong to an array of Islamic Sufi orders.

Arranged in a circle inside their 'tekke' -- a small house of worship that bears little resemblance to a traditional mosque -- they move to the sound of drums and tambourines as they make their profession of faith.

The crescendo of sound culminates in the piercings, which involves putting a long metal skewer into the mouth and pushing it out through the cheek.

The believers do not feel pain because of the "passion that explodes like a volcano," explains Agron Juniku, a dervish leader from Tirana who joined the ritual with others from Albania.

It is, he says, "a devotion to God, a challenge to yourself".

Gjakova, which is known as Djakovica in Serbian, is one of the strongholds of the Balkan dervishes.

But not all orders partake in the piercings, such as the larger community of Bektashi dervishes -- the fourth biggest religious community in Albania after Sunni Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics.

While 95 percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million inhabitants are Muslim, only a tiny fraction -- a few thousand -- are dervishes.