Bektashi holy man and legendary figure, Sari Salltëk, known in Turkish as Sari Saltuk, is said to have been either a dervish at the court of Sultan Orhan (1326-1360) or a direct The Cave of Sari Salltek in Kruja (Photo: Robert Elsie, June 1998)disciple of Haji Bektash Veli, founder of the Bektashi order. It is more likely, however, that he was a figure of early Balkan and not originally of Bektashi or Muslim legendry. The Bektashi simply took advantage of his popularity as a symbol of Islamic-Christian syncretism and religious tolerance in order to promote their own doctrines. The first legends associated with Sari Salltëk were recorded by the Moroccan voyager and geographer Ibn Battuta (1304-1377). From documents dating from 1538, we know that such legends were very popular in the Balkans. In Albania, Sari Salltëk is particularly associated with the town of Kruja, where he was, and to an extent, still is an object of veneration. He is said to have died on the Greek island of Corfu and is identified in the Orthodox tradition with Saint Spyridon. In the nineteenth century, many Albanian Bektashi went on pilgrimage to the Church of Saint Spyridon on Corfu to worship the patron saint of the island under his Islamic name. All in all, Sari Salltëk is said to have seven graves, the number seven often occurring in his legends, and each grave contains a part of his body. The core of the Albanian version of the legend of Sari Salltëk, recorded by Jules Alexandre Degrand in 1901, is as follows:
In Kruja, there was once a Christian prince with a fair daughter. He would have been happy, had it not been for a terrible Kulshedra which housed in a cave on the top of the mountain. Every day the dragon would bask in the sun in the ruins of a church, having demanded of the inhabitants of the town that they cast lots to be sacrificed and devoured, one man or woman every day. Many heroes had endeavoured to slay the beast, but to no avail. One day, an aged dervish with a white beard came to town, girded with a wooden sword and bearing the branch of a cypress tree in his hand. Having been informed of the terrible monster, he resolved to climb up to the cave. On his way up the mountainside the next day, he met the tearful daughter of the prince, who was on her way to the Kulshedra to be sacrificed. He said to her, “Do not cry. We will go together and I will not abandon you for a moment.” On their way, the old man asked the maiden to scratch his head because his hair was full of lice. She agreed and the scratching brought the old man such relief that he fell asleep with his head in her lap, but was soon awakened by the maiden’s tears. At sunset they reached the summit of the mountain, arid and parched as it was from the Kulshedra’s fiery breath. There was such heat there that the maiden began complaining of thirst. Thereupon, the old man plunged his staff into the cliff and out gushed a spring of water. After they had quenched their thirst, they were attacked three times by the fiery Kulshedra, but the dragon could do them no harm. The dervish then pursued the monster into its cave and slew it with his wooden sword, cutting off its seven heads and sticking its seven tongues into his pocket. He then told the maiden to return home to her father.
Overjoyed that his daughter had been saved from the Kulshedra, the prince resolved to offer her hand to the man who had saved her, still not knowing who had slain the beast. Many young men came forth pretending to have done the job, but none of them received the three apples the maiden held in her hands. When the dervish was called for, the townspeople began to mock him, not believing that such an old man could possibly have slain the dragon, but the maiden intervened and gave him the three apples, one by one. As proof of his deed, the dervish showed the prince the seven tongues of the Kulshedra, but declined to accept the hand of the maiden, saying, “We dervishes do not marry women against their will. Keep your daughter and your treasures. Allow me only to live in the dragon’s cave, and have a bit of food brought up to me every day.” The prince agreed and so it was. After several years had passed, however, the inhabitants of Kruja grew envious of the powers of the dervish. They were convinced that he was going to slay them, too, and resolved to murder him first. But one of Sari Salltëk’s disciples, who brought him his food every day, warned the dervish in time, saying, “Take this watermelon, eat it and flee, for the assassins are on their way.” The dervish, carving his watermelon, was infuriated at the unjust behaviour of the townspeople. Hurling the watermelon against the roof of the cave, he shouted, “Here’s their melon. They can have it back as a souvenir!” Ever since that time, there have been watermelon seeds and red juice in the cave, which the people of Kruja were wont to drink as a magic potent. Sari Salltëk then rode up to the peak of the mountain on the back of a mule and, in four great strides, departed for Corfu, leaving his footprints in Kruja, Shijak and Durrës.