In Alevi-Bektashi culture, alcoholic drinks referred to as bade, dem, mey, dolu etc. have an important place, both as everyday drinks as well as on special days and in worship ceremonies.
Some village gathering houses even include a special place where the dede places the spirits, either rakı or wine.
Among the Alevis of Tunceli, the members of the congregation stand in the entrance with the foods and drink they have brought and receive a prayer from the dede. Following the prayer, they give the food and drink they’ve brought to a person known as the lokmacı.
There is no drink set out on the sofra; it is distributed to those who want it. He who takes a glass of the drink first kneels before the dede, receives a blessing, and then drinks.
Among the Gülşani Bektashis of Thrace (Topçular and Kofcaz villages near Kırklareli), sherbet is sometimes used. In Topçular village, the sherbet is served in special wooden vessels. It is given in a particular order, as the baba prays. To take alcohol requires a definite discipline and order of conduct; it is not done haphazardly.
Among the Alevis, one of the twelve duties carried out at a cem is that of gözcü, or watchman. One of the duties of the gözcü is to warn those who have drunk more than the proper amount and if necessary, remove them from the cem.
The Bektashis have a saki dedesi who fulfills this duty, and the partaking of dem is organized by the dede. Among the Bedreddins, the taking of dem is known as aşk etme, the making of love. The Alikoç Bektashis in Thrace (Kocaz, Terzidere) gather the raki, which they call dem, in a kettle, and it is then blessed by the dede, after which it is given to groups of three men each. This is called üçleme (lit. doing something in threes), done for the love of Allah, Muhammed and Ali.
The Bektashis say that one may receive dem in two ways. One way is through the mouth (alcohol); this is not significant. The other is through the ear, i.e. in the sohbet (conversation) and this is very important. It is known is muhabbet (love, an intimate conversation). In each, they say aşk olsun, “may there be love.”
The way the glass is held when dem is being taken is important and imbued with meaning. Generally the members hold the glass in one hand, and before drinking touch first the backs of their hands, then the glasses, and say “can cana, cam cama” (soul to soul, glass to glass). However the Alikoç hold the glass in two hands with all ten fingers touching the glass; this is done in the name of the twelve imams. The ten fingers, plus the inside and the outside of the glass, equal twelve.
Special Occasion Dishes
Aşure (Noah's Pudding)
This is a dish made each year during the month of Muharrem. Common among the Sunnis as well, in traditional Alevi-Bektashi societies it is made in the square as a group effort, and distributed in kettles. Care is taken to include twelve ingredients when making it.
In Gaziantep, the Alevis make pisi (a type of bread) in the month of Muharrem, and distribute it every day from the 1st to the 10th of the month. This is known as hayrat yemeği (hayrat is a pious or charitable act; the dish is thus equated with an act of charity). During this month there is a fast during which no water is drunk; in its place people drink ayran, compote and other foods with much liquid. This is done in memory of Hüseyin’s suffering from thirst in Kerbela.
Sultan Nevruz (Navruz)
Nevruz, or spring equinox, is a holiday that has been celebrated by the Anatolian Alevis for centuries. Seen as the beginning of the new year, Sultan Nevruz is celebrated with picnics. In Sivas, foods beginning with the letter “S” are eaten, including süt (milk), susam (sesame), soğan (onion), sarımsak (garlic) etc. They also take care to bring seven different foods as well as greens.
In Kars (Dileme Village), on January 13, considered the beginning of the new year, the villagers make rice pudding and add a coin. They also make a salty çörek called tuzlu kılık or tuzlu culik. People who eat it become thirsty. They take a piece of this biscuit and put it under their pillow, and it is believed that whoever brings them water in their dream will be their future husband or wife.
The Bektashis of Macedonia (Ohrid) consider March 1 to be the beginning of the new year (March 14 on the new calendar). The evening meal consists of beans cooked with lamb’s feet. The women gather the bones and hang them somewhere in the room in which the meal was eaten. The bones are then thrown out in the morning, before sunrise.
It is a common tradition for Alevis and Bektashis to put a coin in the various types of breads they bake for special days.
The Bektashis of Ohrid prepare a type of börek called kolbörek. This is made with leavened bread dough, and contains a coin. The börek is cut and distributed at the New Year’s breakfast by the eldest member of the household, and whoever receives the coin will be lucky for that year. The name kolbörek literally means “arm börek,” and as the women make it, they say “as these böreks wrap around each other, may our family embrace each other as well.” In the evening, the kolböreği is brought to a prayer meeting and the dede repeats the same prayer.
In the region of Maraş and Malatya, the Alevis put money into the kömbe which they make for Nevruz and Hızır İlyas, and whoever receives the coin will be lucky throughout the year.
The same tradition shows up among the Bektashis of Thrace; there is a special cem for the occasion and the bread, containin money, is cut in the meydan (the open area at the front) in the name of the twelve imams.
In Alevi villages, no food is generally cooked in a home where there has been a death. In Elbistan, no food is cooked for three days; it is brought by neighbors. These visits are called sofralı gitme (loosely translated, “meal visits.”). In Adana, this lasts for seven days, and is known as ölü aşı (dead person food). Seven, forty and fifty-two days after the death, meals are served, and aşure is made as well.
A common custom within Alevi Bektashi culture is to visit the tombs, tekkes, hearths or graves of people considered great or holy, and serve a meal there. This is known as ziyaret, literally, a visit.
One can find such places throughout Anatolia and Rumeli. In Demircilik village in Elbistan, there is the Hearth of Teslim Abdal. This hearth is considered to contain the boot of Teslim Abdal, and the lineage/extended family that keeps and takes care of it is called the ocaklar soyu (lineage of hearths). Healings are also performed here; a sick person is brought here along with a sacrifice. A lokma (holy food, which in this case may consist of meat, bulgur pilaf, ayran) is eaten and the sick person spends the night in the room where the boot is kept. The meal is eaten with all the members of the family (lineage) and whoever comes to the home. The head of the family prays, “El bizden, sebep Allah’tan” (the hand is ours, the cause/strength is God’s), and runs the boot over the back of the sick person three times.
Similar meals and customs are to be found all over Anatolia. The soil underneath the tomb at these places of pilgrimage is called güher. Those visitors seeking a cure mix some of this soil with water and drink it.
Among the Alevis and Bektshis, salt, bread and water are considered sacred and among the people have been imbued with a host of meanings. Beliefs and practices relating to salt in particular are common among Alevis and Bektashis.
The Bektashis consider salt to be sacred. Both in every day cooking as well as in places of prayer, salt holds an extremely important place.
Meals begin with a small taste of salt, and end the same way.
For the Thracian Bektashis, salt carries two meanings:
1. Be balanced in all that you do. However you begin something, finish it in the same way.
2. When things which appear useless unite in essence, they become beneficial, they give flavor. Sodium and Chorine are both poisonous in their pure states, but when they unite, they become salt.
The Alevis of Maraş, Elbistan (Kantarma – K. Yapalak), have a candlestick with twelve arms which they use in their cems, believed to date from the time of Horasan. After the dede “wakes up” (lights) the candle, he puts salt underneath the candlestick. Bread is later dipped into this salt and eaten as a curative.
The information in this article comes chiefly from my own field studies. In addition, I have occasionally made use of the following sources:
Rıza Yetişen, Tahtacı Aşiretleri (Adet, gelenek ve görenekleri)
Ali Rıza Balaman, Gelenekler Töre ve Törenler
A.Celalettin Ulusoy, Hacı Bektaş Veli ve Alevi-Bektaşi yolu
Sabahat Mahmuti, Ohri Türkleri Arasındaki Görenekler
M. Şakir Ülkütaşır, Tahtacılar
Metin And, “İslam folklorunda Muharrem tenzili”, Türk Folklor Araştırmaları Yıllığı