06 September 2015

Konya’s dervishes
and pilgrims challenge
stereotypes of Islam

A “Whirling Dervish” performance in Uçhisar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

My visit to Cappadocia earlier this year was motivated mainly by a desire to see sites associated with the Cappadocian Fathers as well as the underground cities, and the rock-hewn monasteries and Byzantine churches.

But there was an unexpected opportunity too to visit Konya, the city at the heart of the Turkish Sufi mystical practices, once the principal centre of the Mevleni school of “Whirling Dervishes” and the burial place of its founder, Rumi.

A “Whirling Dervish” performance had been part of a floor show at dinner in Uçhisar earlier in the week, and I had seen a similar performance in Istanbul in 1992. But this day-trip to Konya was a first-hand opportunity to visit the heart of Mevleni Sufism.

The Mevlâna Museum, tekke and surrounding buildings are the heart of Konya (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Konya is a religiously conservative city, once known as the “citadel of Islam.” It is a large, industrialised city in Central Turkey, with a population of over 1.2 million. It is Turkey’s seventh largest city, with its own airport and a light-rail system, but is such a sprawling city that the main bus station is 15 km from the centre.

Classical and Byzantine foundations

The Alâeddin Mosque on the citadel of Konya stands on the site of an early Christian basilica (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Konya was known to the Greeks as Ἰκόνιον (Ikónion) and to the Romans as Iconium. Greek legend says its name is derived from the word εἰκών (eikon, icon), or the image of the head of Medusa used by Perseus to defeat the local population before founding the city. Xenophon says it was the last city of Phrygia; later it was part of the Persian Empire until Darius III was defeated by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. When Attalus III, the last king of Pergamon, died without an heir in 133 BC, he bequeathed his kingdom, including Ikónion, to the Roman Republic.

The Apostle Paul and Saint Barnabas preached in Iconium ca 47-48 AD (see Acts 14: 1–5 and Acts 14: 21), and Saint Paul and Saint Silas probably visited it again ca 50 (see Acts 16: 2).

During the Byzantine Empire, the town was destroyed several times by Arab invaders in the 7th to 9th centuries, and it was captured by the Seljuk Turks in 1084. Although it was briefly occupied by Crusaders under Godfrey of Bouillon and Frederick Barbarossa, the area was retaken by the Turks, who made Konya the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum from 1097 to 1243.

The Seljuks changed the name of Iconium to Konya in 1134, and the city enjoyed a golden age that lasted into the 13th century.

The Mevlâna Museum and complex is one of the most sacred pilgrim sites for Muslims, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I started my visit at the Alâeddin Mosque on the citadel of Konya. A Christian basilica once stood on the site but was converted into a mosque by the Seljuks. The Alâeddin Mosque, built in the mid-12th and mid-13th centuries, incorporates architectural features, including columns and capitals, from this basilica and other nearby Byzantine buildings. It served as the “Mosque of the Throne” for the Seljuk sultans and houses their mausoleum.

From there, I went on to the Mevlâna Museum, historically the centre of the Mevlevi Order or “Whirling Dervishes” and the burial place of Rumi. In 1228, the Seljuk Sultan Kayqubad I, who invited Bahā ud-Dīn Walad and his son Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi order, to settle in Konya.

Persian poet and mystic

The tomb of Rumi is covered with brocade embroidered in gold with verses from the Koran (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273) is also known as Mevlânâ, Mevlevî (“my master”), and more popularly as Rūmī. He was a Persian poet, jurist, theologian and Sufi mystic. His influence transcends national, ethnic and even religious divisions. He wrote mainly in Persian, but also wrote verse in Greek, Arabic, and Turkish. His Mathnawī, written in Konya, is the greatest classical work of Persian literature.

His poetry has been translated into many languages and he is said to be the most popular, best-selling poet in the US. Dr Leonard Lewisohn, editor of the Cambridge-published journal, Mawlana Rumi Review, compares his place in Persian and Middle Eastern literature with Dante in Italian and Shakespeare and Milton in English.

The distinctive conical dome over Rumi’s tomb is covered with turquoise faience (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Rumi was born to Persian-speaking parents in the Balkh city of Khorasan, in present-day Afghanistan. Balkh was then a major centre of Persian culture where Sufism had evolved over several centuries. His father, Bahā ud-Dīn Walad, a theologian and mystic, is known to Rumi’s followers as Sultan al-Ulama or “Sultan of the Scholars.”

When the Mongols invaded Central Asia ca 1215-1220, Baha ud-Din Walad, his family and his disciples migrated west through Persia to Baghdad, and then to Mecca. From there, they travelled on to Damascus and then Cappadocia. They finally settled in Konya in 1228.

When Bahā ud-Dīn Walad died in 1231, the sultan offered his rose garden for his burial. His 25-year-old son Rumi succeeded him as molvi or head of his madrassa or religious school in Konya. Rumi travelled to Damascus, where he met the Dervish Shams-i-Tabrizi in 1244 in a meeting that changed Rumi’s life.

The richly decorated interior of a dome in the Mevlâna complex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Back in Konya, Rumi began writing his best-known work, his Masnavi, with the opening lines:

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
How it sings of separation...

An early version of the Mathnawī, Mevlâna’s book of poetry, on display in the Mevlâna Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Rumi spent the next 12 years dictating the six volumes of his masterpiece. When he died in Konya on 17 December 1273, he was buried beside his father. The Yeşil Türbe or “Green Tomb” was erected over his grave. The mausoleum was designed by the architect Behrettin Tebrizli and was finished in 1274. Rumi’s epitaph reads: “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”

Centre of pilgrimage

The decorated box said to contain the beard of the Muslim prophet Muhammad (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Following Rumi’s death, his son Sultan Walad and his followers founded the Mevlevi Order, also known as the Whirling Dervishes, famous for their Sufi dance known as the sema ceremony. The mausoleum of Rumi is now the Mevlâna Museum and is one of the great centres of pilgrimage in the Islamic world.

I entered the mausoleum from the Tilavet Room through a silver door made in 1599. To my left, stood six coffins in rows of dervishes who accompanied Rumi and his family from Belkh. Opposite, on a raised platform and covered by two domes, stand the cenotaphs of the descendants of the Mevlâna family and high-ranking members of the Mevlevi order.

The tomb of Rumi is covered with green brocade, embroidered in gold with verses from the Koran. Next to Rumi’s tomb, several other tombs include those of his father and his son. The cylindrical drum of the dome over Rumi’s tomb originally rested on four pillars. The conical dome is covered with turquoise faience, and several sections were added until 1854.

An old, richly decorated copy of the Koran on display in the museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Ritual Hall (semahane) was built during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent. Here the dervishes performed their circular ritual dance to the music of violins, cymbals, tambourines, drums and the flute or ney once played by Rumi himself. He saw music, poetry and dance as a path to this union with God, helping the believer to focus on the divine. From these ideas, the practices of the Whirling Dervishes developed into their ritual form.

Journey towards truth

Richly decorated and illustrated manuscripts and books are included in the museum displays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In the Mevlevi ritual, the sema represents a mystical journey of spiritual ascent through mind and love to the Perfect One. In this journey, the seeker symbolically turns towards the truth, grows through love, abandons the ego, finds the truth and arrives at the Perfect. The seeker then returns from this spiritual journey, with greater maturity, to love and to be of service to the whole of creation without discrimination based on belief, ethnicity, class or and nationality.

An exhibition of dervishes being taught the Mevlevi ritual, the sema (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Mevlevi order includes people of all backgrounds in its invitation:

Come, come, whoever you are,
whether you be fire-worshippers, idolaters, or pagans,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a dwelling place of despair.
All who enter will receive a welcome here.

The musical instruments are on display, along with dervish clothes, Mevlâna’s books of poetry, illustrated Korans, rare prayer rugs, and a decorated box (Sakal-i Ṣerif) said to contain the beard of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

In the middle of the courtyard stands the ṣadirvan (ritual fountain), with the dervish cells on the south and east sides of the courtyard, each cell covered with a small dome and housing mini-exhibitions. Close to the mausoleum are the kitchen of the dervishes (Matba), also used for educating novices, and the mausoleum of Hurrem Pasha.

A museum display of two dervishes in conversation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In a secularist drive under Ataturk, the mausoleum and the dervish lodge were turned into a museum in 1926. But the Mevlâna Mausoleum, with its mosque, dance hall, dervish living quarters, school and tombs, continues to draw pilgrims from throughout the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

Rumi’s teachings emphasise tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. He believed all religions are seeking truth. His essential teaching focusses on the reunion of the soul with the Beloved or the Creator, from whom the soul has been cut off. It is said the sound of the reed and the ney represent the plaintive longing of the soul for reunion with the Friend, the Creator.

A recording of dervish music and singing, with the plaintive sound of the ney, played throughout our visit. We were, perhaps, the only non-Muslims there that afternoon. It was humbling to watch people in their unguarded piety as they prayed in silence, reverently and in tears before the tomb of Rumi.

‘Be drunk on love’

The ritual fountain in the courtyard seen from a former cell of a dervish (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Some of the sayings of Rumi include:

In generosity and helping others, be like a river.
In compassion and grace, be like the sun.
In concealing others’ faults, be like the night.
In anger and fury, be like the dead.
In modesty and humility, be like the earth.
In tolerance, be like the sea.
In generosity and helping others, be like a river.

15, For Rumi, the ney represents the plaintive longing of the soul for reunion with the Friend, the Creator (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

One of his poems that I love best is “The Mouse and the Frog”:

A mouse and a frog met every morning
on the riverbank.
They sit in a nook of the ground and talk.
Each morning, the second they see each other,
they open easily, telling stories and dreams and secrets,
empty of any fear or suspicious holding-back.
To watch and listen to those two
is to understand how, as it’s written,
sometimes when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible.

In another poem, Rumi writes:

A soul not clothed with Love
brings shame on its existence.
Be drunk on Love,
for Love is all that exists.
They ask, ‘What is Love?’
Say, ‘Renouncing your will.’
He who has not renounced will
has no will at all.
The lover is a mighty king,
standing above the two worlds.
A king does not look
at what is beneath him.
Only Love and lovers
have eternal life.
Set your hearts on this alone;
the rest is merely borrowed.

Two Turkish coffees at the end of the day in Konya (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in September 2015 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

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