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Muslims’ reverence for the eccentric Sabbatei Sevi

An etching of Sabbatai Sevi (Wikimedia Commons)

An etching of Sabbatai Sevi (Wikimedia Commons)

ULCINJ, Montenegro — Throughout 1988, Jusuf Lika had debilitating migraines and sensory disruptions that doctors blamed on the chemicals in the darkroom where he had worked.

A man in his 20s in what was then still Yugoslavia, Lika consulted some of that country’s best medical experts, but none could help him, citing an irreversible buildup of toxins in his body.

“My world fell apart: As a young man I heard I would be a disabled person,” said Lika, a Muslim man of Albanian descent who runs a music school that he founded in his native city of Ulcinj, situated on the coast near the Montenegro-Albanian border.

But then a friend advised him to place in his bedroom a jar of earth from what many believe is the Ulcinj grave site of Sabbatai Sevi. A Turkey-born 17th-century Jewish eccentric, Sevi was regarded by followers as the Messiah — that is, before his conversion under duress to Islam, when he became known among Jews as a false messiah.

Two weeks after taking his friend’s advice, Lika was cured of his illness, he told JTA during a recent interview in his office.

“I am not a superstitious man,” Lika said. “I don’t know whether I was cured because of this, I’m just telling you what happened.”

Whatever the cause for Lika’s recovery, it reflects the lasting reverence for Sabbatai Sevi by some Muslims in Montenegro and beyond.

Sabbatai Sevi is one figure in a tangle of customs, secrets and traditional beliefs belonging to a regional identity that is rooted in mysticism, tolerance and religious cross fertilization.

Regarded by Jews as an oddity, Sabbatai Sevi is nonetheless “a symbol for some Montenegrins and Albanians of their distinct identity as well as an interfaith and intercultural bridge to the West and Judaism,” according to Eliezer Papo, a scholar on Balkan Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

Especially for the secretive Bektashi Shiite sect, Sabbatai Sevi is “an element through which to express their genuine philo-Semitism, to ‘market themselves’ to the West and to some extent also draw tourism to Ulcinj and the region,” Papo said. “But I wouldn’t say Sevi is integral to the religious identity of the region.

“It’s a recent addition.”

The place that Lika believes is Sabbatai Sevi’s grave is owned by the Mani family — a clan of business owners headquartered in Ulcinj’s center. Under the shade of olive and carob trees, the sepulcher is kept closed inside a yard that few visitors dare trespass. Lika stays outside as he shows a journalist a window looking inside the small sepulcher, which has a dark and carpeted interior.

In Jewish history, Sabbatai Sevi — a savant in Jewish texts whose erratic behavior fits the symptoms of a bipolar personality disorder — was a significant figure. By the time of his conversion in 1666, he had developed a huge following across Europe.

It split established communities like the one in Amsterdam, dividing rabbis and families in a heated fight for the future of Judaism. Some credit the spiritual upheaval over the “Sabbateans” with the development of the fervently mystical chasidic movement in the 18th century.

Sabbatai Sevi’s legacy has had a long-lasting effect on the region as a whole, including on the Dönmeh of Turkey — a society of crypto-Jews who for centuries presented themselves as Muslims but continued to consider themselves Jewish, with Sabbatai as their prophet.

Today, only a handful of families that describe themselves as descended from Dönmeh exist in Turkey — where they are still the subject of much distrust and conspiracy theories.

Sabbatai Sevi died in 1676 in Ulcinj, where he had been exiled by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire for continuing to practice some elements of Judaism after his forced conversion. This interfaith identity in recent decades has become increasingly appealing to liberal Muslims in the region, according to Papo.

In 2015, Papo chaired an international conference about Sabbatai Sevi in Ulcinj.

Baba Mondi, the spiritual leader of the Bektashi sect, calls Sabbatai Sevi a “dervish” — a Farsi word for a deeply spiritual Muslim (and in some rare cases Jew) who ascetically devotes his life to serving Allah.

“He is a dervish to Jews and he is a dervish to Muslims, and a bridge for our sister religions to meet on,” Baba Mondi, who is based in Albania. He works at the world center of his liberal sect — a magnificent domed structure in Tirana with 12 arches and jade-colored interior walls.

Elements of the Bektashi tradition and faith may have played a role in the rescue of hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust in Albania and Montenegro, a rare case of popular defiance of the Nazi occupation.

Whereas Sabbatai Sevi is a well-known and popular figure in Ulcinj, there is some dispute about where exactly he is buried in this drab and chaotic city with a beautiful beachfront and few hotels.

Many locals believe Sabbatai Sevi’s remains rest inside the sepulcher owned by the Mani family — whom some locals, including Lika, believe are themselves Jewish because of their relative wealth and their name, which is common among Turkish Jews.

Alma Mani, a woman in her 20s, was the only member of the family who agreed to talk to JTA. Rolling her eyes when asked about the sepulcher, she insisted the grave inside is not Sabbatai Sevi’s but of “some ancient ancestor.” She declined to say anything about the family’s origin or pose for a photograph.

Papo, the Ben-Gurion University historian, also doubts that Sabbatai Sevi is buried inside the sepulcher.

Followers of Sabbatai Sevi wrote that he did not want to be buried in a Muslim cemetery. But he could not be buried in a Jewish one either because of his conversion, Papo said. Sabbatai Sevi’s followers also wrote that he is buried “adjacent to the sea,”whereas the Mani grave site is more than a mile away from the beach.

Papo’s research has led him to an alternative location for Sabbatai Sevi’s grave, near the seaside fortress where Sabbatai lived out his final years and where he likely had his study.

The fortress’ tower has a work space that archaeologists now use to prepare exhibits from the site. Mysteriously, that space has two niches, one featuring two Stars of David and another adorned with a painting of a snake descending from a tree.

Whereas Stars of David were commonly used in Islamic decorations, the snake painting is a much stronger indication of Sabbatai Sevi’s connection to the place and corresponds with Sabbatai’s unique interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis, Papo said.

“The followers of Sevi who became Muslims believed the messiah is destined to help us off the tree of knowledge of good and evil and onto the tree of life,” Papo said.

Additionally, Sabbatai Sevi’s followers called him “Ilan” — Hebrew for tree. Seen together, these elements reinforce the hypothesis that the snake painting is “a distinct Sabbatai Sevi symbol,” Papo said.

The same symbol features on headstones of Sevi followers in Istanbul.

As for Sabbatai Sevi’s burial place, Papo traces it to a hill near the fortress. The hill is sandwiched between what used to be a mosque and a church with a Christian cemetery.

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