A slaughter of sheep and offerings for sunny weather and good health: thousands of ethnic Albanians poured into a small village in southwest Kosovo on Saturday for an age-old, part-religious and part-pagan festival.
They came from all over Kosovo and neighbouring Albania to Babaj i Bokes in order to celebrate Shen Gjergji (Saint George), bowing before the mausoleum of a Muslim dignitary and local Sufi, Dervish Neziri, who lived more than two centuries ago.
“It is a centuries-old tradition, passed on through generations” and observed by people of “all religions,” said Halil Syla, a 56-year-old descendant of the dervish, whose family organises the annual event.
The blood of the slaughtered animals was smeared on the walls of the mausoleum, running into the soil of the cemetery situated in the mountains separating Kosovo and Albania.
Dozens of sheep bleated as they waited in an enclosure for the their executioner’s knife, while families walked around nearby tombs.
Dede Markegaj, 81, a Catholic and former teacher at the festival, intended to give a sheep’s tongue to one of his neighbours who is speech-impaired.
A Muslim woman in her sixties, Fetije Berisha, came from Albania in the hope of help to regulate her blood pressure.
Others asked for fertility or for a loved one to be healed, before descending the mountain to eat mutton, dance and enjoy the festivities.
Originally from this village of 600 people, 58-year-old Rexhe Miftari travelled from Switzerland, where he emigrated nearly three decades ago.
“This place is open to everyone, nobody will ask you about your religion,” said Miftari, who said he does not practise any faith.
He nevertheless explained that he believed in the virtues of a drop of blood or the tongue of a sheep. He wanted “to keep away threats to the family and Kosovo”.
According to Dede Palokaj, a historian in the capital Pristina, this festival — which has no equivalent in the region — dates back time immemorial “to celebrate the end of the winter and welcome the summer season”.
At the beginning of the Christian era, Saint George chose to integrate this pagan celebration into the Christian calendar. Muslims then began to participate, Palokaj said.
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is populated mostly by ethnic Albanians. Saint George is also celebrated on May 6 by Roma people throughout the Balkans.