A sheikh leader of Kosovo followers of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that preaches tolerance and a search for understanding, pierces himself with a sword during a ceremony marking Nowruz in the prayer room in the town of Gjakova on Thursday, March 21, 2013. The Kosovo dervish community carries on centuries-old mystical practices, such as self-piercing with needles and knives as a way to earn salvation and find the path to God. ( AP Photo / Visar Kryeziu )
GJAKOVE, Kosovo (AP) — Spring has arrived and dervishes in Kosovo are celebrating with dances and blood.
At a small dome-shaped Tekke (holy place) in western Kosovo, a sheikh stepped down from a thick altar-like matrass to face a circle of faithful dervishes. He grabbed a yatagan — an Ottoman-style sabre — and placed the piercing point on his right cheek. As he started whirling in the center of the room, dervishes around him swayed and chanted in rhythmic gasps that grew more and more intense.
The ceremony late Thursday of Sufi faithful in the town of Gjakove celebrated Nowruz, the beginning of spring and the birth of Ali, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.
The ritual involves piercing the flesh and dancing to the rhythm of the drums and the hums of the dervishes, who are clad in red-and-black robes and white woolen hats.
As the chants and prayers resounded in the wooden dome, the faithful followed the drum beats into a trance-like state. The sheikh then pierced their cheeks and the sides of their bodies with long iron needles to test their devotion.
Sufi dervishes, followers of Islamic mysticism, are a small minority in secular Kosovo, whose ethnic Albanians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Outsiders are rarely allowed to witness or film their hours-long ritual dances and prayers.
After about three hours, the ceremony ended with quiet prayers. The two dozen faithful left the Tekke — a holy place for prayer and a burial site for the sect's spiritual leaders — returning to their homes close to Kosovo's border with Albania.
Spring had arrived.
Nebi Qena in Pristina contributed to this report