What does it take to revive an ancient pilgrimage route? The Sufi Trail is an 801 km-long hiking and biking trail from Istanbul to Konya. It runs through diverse nature, crosses the wide plains of Anatolia and passes through old villages with plenty of mosques and Sufi shrines.
Sedat Çakır and Iris Bezuijen, founders of the Sufi Trail, told Sacred Journalism about the vision behind their project, the Anatolian concept of pilgrimage and the transformative power of hiking.
Sedat and Iris, in a few words: What is the Sufi Trail?
Coming home... It's the feeling of coming to a home which is not known to you yet – because you've never been there. But once you arrive, you feel at home. When you meet your hosts on the trail, you instantly know each other. There is intimacy. You sense that people have already been expecting you. The Sufi Trail is all about sharing your heart. But you shouldn't be in a hurry. If you are in a hurry, you will miss a lot.
Indeed. Slowing down is a key ingredient of any pilgrimage.
As hikers we tend to see things from our own perspective. We always expect new experiences on the way. But we need to realize that locals also like to meet us. If you're in a hurry, you take that opportunity away from people. It's actually a loss for them as well. It doesn't mean you can't move fast. But don't be in a hurry. Just having a tea with someone for a few minutes might be enough to exchange some life lessons. While hiking, you give those conversations time to ripen and integrate them in yourself. That's what makes pilgrimage so great.
How did the inspiration for the Sufi Trail emerge?
In May 2006, I [Sedat] decided to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Back then, I was in close contact with my friend Mohamed el-Fers, a Dutch writer of Iranian descent. He is now something like a spiritual father to the Sufi Trail. Mohamed gave me the idea to walk the camino in the spirit of Rumi, with the vision of bringing people together. Before I set off Mohamed and I met the bishop of Haarlem, my home town in the Netherlands. The bishop gave me a letter for the Bishop of Santiago which I delivered along with a Qur'an in Spanish.
Later, Mohamed and I came up with the idea of reviving the old route to Mecca which foot pilgrims used to walk. But the bigger the idea became, the more difficult it seemed. That's why we decided to break it up into chunks. In 2009, I hiked from the Netherlands to Turkey. The rest is history: We developed the first leg of the Mecca trail and called it the "Sultan's Trail" – an international hiking route from Vienna to Istanbul. Five years ago we launched the Sufi Trail. The next stages will be from Konya to Damascus and then onwards to Mecca.
If it wasn't for the war in Syria...
Yes, for the time being Syria is a big challenge. We want to at least develop a cycling and hiking route up to the border of Syria. If the future allows, we will extend it from there.
So how did you go about creating the Sufi Trail route?
We just made a line, not the route. It's you who creates the route, not us. Without the cyclists and hikers there is no route. When researching the Mecca route – which the Sufi Trail is a part of – we drew on many historical sources. In the Ottoman times pilgrims and merchants used to rest at places called menzil, for instance a caravanserai. At such inns, messengers would change their horses and travellers renewed their provisions. While creating the stages of the trail we orientated ourselves around the location of those guesthouses. We didn't develop the route from scratch. We are just reviving it.
We just made a line, not the route. It's you who creates the route, not us. Without the cyclists and hikers there is no route.
You also needed to do a lot of field work, I guess.
You have to adapt the route to the present day so it's practical for modern cyclists and hikers. For instance, some of the old paths simply do not exist anymore because they were replaced by three-lane highways. As another example, the Mecca route used to lead over the Sakarya river. But the bridge has long disappeared. You also need to consider the weather and trail conditions. In every season you'll have a different hiking experience.
After this initial research you need to hike the trail yourself. We organized five journeys with groups of volunteers for trail marking, publicity and maintenance. It takes 10-15 years before a route matures enough that you can call it finished. We can't yet say the Sufi Trail is a mature route. By the way, the name "Sufi Trail" came to us mainly because of Konya, the city of Rumi. If you let something end in Konya, it naturally becomes "Sufi."
How did local people react to the Sufi Trail idea?
It was important to us that locals would connect to the idea of the trail. This takes a long time. As a pilgrim you'll meet many people. First of all, locals need to be sure that you won't harm them. See, the villagers won't know your intentions. That's why we developed a Sufi Trail "passport" so that you can get stamps at certain places on the way. This makes the process of hiking – which is largely a foreign concept in rural Turkey nowadays – more official.
Can the trail make a contribution to the local economy in villages on the way?
For rural tourism to emerge you need to attract a certain number of people, at least 10-15 hikers per day. Locals can then offer their resources or provide you with a place to stay, bed'n'breakfast-style. We're not that established yet. However, we always encourage locals who have existing businesses like cafés or hostels to attract hikers and bikers on the Sufi Trail. This will provide them with an additional income. We also spent a great deal of time partnering with municipalities and presenting our project to the village heads. We also need the support of tour operators who would like to use and promote the trail for their journeys.
How do you fund the project?
It's all volunteer-based. Sometimes lack of funding can be a curse. But on the other hand, it teaches you to rely on the universe. That's actually one of the great lessons of pilgrimage. When you're on the trail you really discover the meaning of some concepts in Islam. Take nasip [divine provision], for example. Nowadays it has become a hollow phrase because most people always have money in their pocket. But on the road you really discover that something like nasip exists. Otherwise you won't be able to get the food, water or help you need. Most of the things you get on the road you can't purchase with money.
Then there is the concept of tevafuk [divine synchronicity]. On a pilgrimage you experience it all the time. There is something higher than yourself accompanying you, presenting you with exactly what you need at the right time. When you are on the road, in a state of need, you appreciate these gifts. They seem like a miracle to you. But actually this force is always there. However, in our everyday city lives where we are so busy with our tasks, we don't notice it. On the road you get empty and become ready to receive.
It also reminds me of the Islamic character of Khidr (Hızır in Turkish) who can suddenly appear to help strangers.
The idea of hızır is very rooted in Turkish culture. This concept helps people because they know that anyone might become a part of Hızır's story. Maybe in one moment, you become someone else's Hızır. You never know what your presence is doing for another human being. You can become a force of healing for someone. Years later, you might hear from someone something you said to them, something you have long forgotten about. But it stuck with them. As travellers we are all part of the Hızır story.
Maybe in one moment, you become someone else's Hızır. You never know what your presence is doing for another human being. You can become a force of healing for someone.
I feel the Sufi Trail is also about reviving the richness of those Anatolian traditions.
Yes, there is lots of diversity. Let me give you an example. There is a section at the beginning of the trail on which – in the course of a few kilometres – you experience a perfect cultural mosaic: There is a village called Kurtköy where the people are all laz [an ethnicity originating in the Northeast Black Sea region of Turkey]. They migrated to that village during the Russian war in 1877/78. Güneyköy, the next village, has immigrants from the Russian Dagestan region. The following one, Hamzalı, has been founded by Georgian immigrants from the Caucasus. Once there was an anthropologist walking with us who noted that this was like a paradise for any researcher. In Turkey, minorities struggle to keep their identities alive. Local languages have disappeared. So this kind of heritage is very precious.
Do you have any rituals when hiking?
To be honest, we never really had the chance to be just pilgrims on our trail because of the organizational focus. But we really like cleaning up places. A lot of places are poorly maintained. As pilgrims it is one of our duties that we leave the route cleaner than we entered it. Keeping our environment clean is a worldwide challenge. Even if you know that it will get dirty again once you leave, you have to do your part.
Is there any special memory or encounter from the Sufi Trail that stands out for you?
We were very touched by the village of Küçükmuhsine, roughly 30 kilometers before Konya. We arrived late and hiked up the mountain path to get to a local Sufi lodge where pilgrims usually spend the night. Once we arrived it was such an extraordinary sensation. We felt weightless, like passing through a gate into a different world.
During the pandemic many people feel uncertainty whether they should still travel anywhere. What role does hiking play in these times?
We had some group pilgrimages planned on the Sufi Trail which were cancelled due to international travel restrictions. So right now is a time to be local. We have been discovering a lot of new things around the place where we live in the Netherlands. So take a round around your house. Explore what is close to your home. As a hiker or cyclist, you automatically keep your social distance. Not only that, you are boosting your immune system. Your body is getting stronger.