The small and unassuming city of Tetovo, less than an hour from North Macedonia’s capital of Skopje, is home to two hidden gems that largely get overlooked by tourists. It doesn’t matter if you’ve explored all of the old Ottoman districts throughout the Balkans, or even Turkey. The Painted Mosque of Tetovo is surely unlike anything else you’ve seen.
Elsewhere in town, meanwhile, is the tranquil religious complex known as the Arabati Baba Tekke, which has been home to the mystic sect of Bektashism for centuries.
Getting to Tetovo from Skopje is easy, which you can learn more about below, in addition to info on where to stay in the capital.
The Painted Mosque of Tetovo
Entirely adorned in vivid colors and patterns, the Painted Mosque is completely unique in the region, and probably the world.
While the Sinan Pasha Mosque on the other side of the Sharr Mountains in Prizren, Kosovo contains paintings of a similar style, only a fraction of that mosque has been painted. Tetovo’s Painted Mosque, therefore, is a must visit.
The mosque also goes by several other names: Pasha’s Mosque, Alaca Mosque, Šarena Mosque, or the Colorful Mosque. But most people simply call it the Painted Mosque.
Approaching the mosque from the street, you’ll first see the back and side walls, entirely covered in rectangles with what appears to be a sun in each center.
Also notice how instead of a dome, the mosque features a tile roof more common in traditional Ottoman houses.
Coming around to the front, you’ll walk through the elegant courtyard, inside of which is a stone türbe, or mausoleum. It’s said to contain the bodies of two sisters named Hurşide and Mensure, who funded the original mosque.
The first incarnation of the mosque was built in 1438 by architect Isak Bey before it was ravaged by a fire. It was later reconstructed by Abdurrahman Pasha around 1838, who gave it its current form and art style.
Seeing as how the Painted Mosque’s artwork was inspired by Italian Baroque painting which didn’t emerge until the 17th century, we can be certain that the present style was not copied from the original building, but concocted by Abdurrahman Pasha himself.
Approaching the narthex, take in the beautiful floral and geometric patterns which cover not only the outer wall but also the entire ceiling. While these vivid exterior paintings are indeed hundreds of years old, they were refurbished quite recently in 2010.
Stepping inside, things get even more interesting.
While the mosque is relatively small, you can pass quite a bit of time inside taking in all the details.
Interestingly, despite no dome being visible from the outside, you’ll find a small dome in the interior. Its mesmerizing artwork features alternating scenes of ornate buildings and potted flowers.
To carry out his ambitious vision, Abdurrahman Pasha commissioned master painters from the town of Debar, near the border with Albania (ethnic Albanians remain a majority in Tetovo to this day).
Not only were the painters highly skilled, but they mixed their oil paint with eggs, a process which can help a painting last on wood for centuries. All in all, tens of thousands of eggs were said to have been used for the project.
As a result, the mosque continues to explode with color to this day.
To the right of the minbar, or pulpit, notice the depiction of the Kaaba, painted by a local artist who witnessed it firsthand during his pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s perhaps the only such depiction of its kind in the Balkans.
The Painted Mosque is free to enter, though they charge visitors a small fee for using the toilet outside. And they also accept donations.
As it remains an active mosque, you should avoid entering during prayer times. Otherwise, you’re free to walk around and take as many photos as you like.
The Arabati Baba Tekke
When finished with the Painted Mosque, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Arabati Baba Tekke. While not located in the immediate vicinity, it’s a reasonable fifteen minutes or so on foot to get there.
As the name suggests, the religious complex is a tekke, or lodge of a dervish order called Bektashism, a sect whose beliefs and practices vary quite strongly from that of typical Sunni Islam.
Bektashism is a Sufi order that originated in Anatolia in the 15th century. Sufism itself is a complex topic, but it can be summarized as Islamic mysticism.
The sect is named after a saint named Haji Bektashi Veli, who lived from 1248-1341. He’s believed to have emigrated to Anatolia from Khorasan, Greater Iran, to escape the Mongols – much like Rumi and his family.
The Bektashis revere Rumi and many other Sufi saints while also practicing the sema, or Whirling Dervish ceremony. Since the order was banned in Turkey in the 20th century, the world headquarters are now situated in Tirana, Albania.
The grounds of the Arabati Baba Tekke contain the mausoleum of a dervish named Sersem Ali Baba, a brother-in-law of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the Ottoman Empire’s most dominant rulers.
According to legend, the connection didn’t do him much good in the end, as strained relations between Suleiman and his sister resulted in Sersem Ali Baba being banished to the edge of the empire.
Sersem mostly practiced in Tetovo independently. And it wasn’t until after his death that his disciple, Arabati Baba, founded this larger complex to honor his master in 1538.
Most of what we see today, however, was added in the 18th century by Recep Pasha, father of Abdurrahman Pasha who’d go onto rebuild the Painted Mosque.
The large complex features a prayer hall, dormitories, dining halls and ornately carved wooden pavilions. The pavilions in particular are worthy of close examination, especially their ornately carved ceilings.
During the secular socialist Yugoslav era, the tekke was taken over by the government. And the local Bektashi community had to fight long and hard to reclaim it.
Not only did they have to pursue legal action against the Macedonian government, but they also had to contend with the Islamic Community of Macedonia (ICM). The ICM claims to be the sole representative of Islam in the country, refusing to recognize the Shiite Bektashis as a distinct order or sect.
They even went as far as sending armed members to seize the property in 2002. While the complex is currently back in Bektashi hands, one of the buildings has since been converted to a Sunni mosque.
During my visit, I was the only person walking around. But if you happen to meet a local member of the order, perhaps they may be able to show you inside some of the türbes, or mausoleums.
More of Ottoman Tetovo
Back near the Painted Mosque, there are a few other remnants of Tetovo’s Ottoman past that you can go and see. Walking east from the mosque along the Pena River, you’ll find a small but elegant Ottoman bridge.
Just across the river from the mosque, meanwhile, is the old hammam, or bathhouse. It originally belonged to the same architectural complex as the Painted Mosque.
Stepping inside, you’ll find a modern art exhibit, much like how old hammams have been transformed into galleries in Skopje.
While I didn’t visit myself, those staying longer in town can head over to the Tetovo Fortress, about an hour on foot from the center. It was built by Abdurrahman Pasha in the 19th century, though it’s now largely in ruin. Tetovo is also home to numerous churches.
If you’re feeling hungry, Tetovo is famous for its burek, a flaky pastry dish that often contains meat or cheese. As you’ll notice, most of the restaurant menus and other signs around Tetovo are written in Albanian rather than Macedonian.
If you’re in the midst of a longer trip through the Balkans, you might briefly forget which country you’re in!
Getting to Tetovo from Skopje is quite simple. Simply show up at the main bus terminal and buy a ticket for the next bus, which should depart hourly. They left at half past the hour during my visit, but timetables can always change without notice in the Balkans.
The ride lasts just around 45 minutes. In my case, the bus driver dropped me off along the main highway. But returning to Skopje, you should walk over to the bus station, which is clearly marked on Google Maps.
Most of Skopje’s main landmarks can all be seen on foot within a single day. However, spending several nights and using Skopje as a base for different day trips is ideal.
With that in mind, it’s more important to stay within reasonable walking distance of the bus terminal than it is to the city center.
While Skopje has a public bus system, it’s difficult to figure out and terribly slow due to bad traffic. Therefore, it’s best to walk whenever you can.
I stayed at a place called Universe Rooms and Apartments (formerly Universe Hostel). It’s located about 20 minutes on foot from the bus terminal and about 25 minutes from the Alexander the Great Statue.
I had a comfortable private room with a shared bathroom. The host Goran was incredibly kind and helpful in regards to information around the area, and it was easily one of my better accommodation experiences in the Balkans.