233. Bektashi Dervish’s Back-Scratcher

Turkey, 18th–19th century
Size: 50 cm long
Carved wood

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We know this belonged to a Bektashi dervish because of the shape of the turban carved in the ‘spoon’. Each of the Sufi orders in Turkey had its own particular headdress, easily identifiable, and this is an unusually fine example of its type. Hajji Bektash, originally from Nishapur, was active in Anatolia between 1209 and 1271, the time of the Sultanate of Rum, and contemporary with Jalal ad-Din Rumi. His followers became close to the military as the Ottoman Empire consolidated its power, and particularly to the elite Janisseries. While it may seem odd to us that a mystical enterprise should connect itself to a war-machine, the result was that the Janisseries underwent a life-long spiritual discipline in tandem with their military training. This had many interesting and surprising consequences.

This object, nevertheless, represents something of a mystery. The dervish orders, in Turkey and elsewhere, produced a variety of artefacts: begging-bowls made from the coco-de-mer, often beautifully carved; prayer-beads; meditation sticks; stone ‘talismans’ of various kinds; calligraphy, of course; and back-scratchers. Why back-scratchers, I ask myself? The monastic orders of Europe, the usually misguided equivalents of the Sufi orders, never produced such objects, so do we infer that they hosted fewer fleas than the dervishes of Anatolia? And because the majority of the back-scratchers are identifiably Bektashi, were they more infested than the Mevlevis, Qadiris and other dervish fraternities? This is a deep question, and mystically inclined people have been lax in not picking up on it.

I have consulted various sages on the issue. From two, I received an identical and interesting resolution to the conundrum. When you get an itch in the middle of your back, in just the place you are unable to reach without advanced yogic training, it is a sign of incipient enlightenment. The back-scratcher is designed to stimulate this chakra, and hasten the oncoming enlightenment. On reflection, I think they are in cahoots, and having me on. I have an itch exactly in the place defined, and no amount of scratching with this fine implement has made me any wiser now than I was before.