12 April 2015

A day in Konya visiting the tomb of Rumi
and the home of the ‘Whirling Dervishes’

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

Patrick Comerford

My week in Cappadocia was motivated mainly by a desire to see sites associated with the Cappadocian Fathers and to see the underground city at Derinkuyu, and the rock-hewn monasteries and churches with their Byzantine frescoes, some of them having survived the iconoclast heresies.

My hot-air balloon flight on Friday morning, my riverside walk along the banks of the Melendiz in the Ihlara Valley and my daily views of the “fairy chimneys” in Göreme turned a field-trip into a holiday.

But when my planned balloon flight was cancelled on Wednesday and again on Thursday I had an additional and unexpected opportunity to visit Konya, the city that is at the heart of the Turkish Sufi mystical practices, once the principal centre of the Mevleni school of Islam or “Whirling Dervishes” and the burial place of its founder, generally known in the West as Rumi.

Konya is about 250 km south-west of Göreme, and it takes more than three hours to get there by bus. But it was a day-trip that I would not like to have missed. A “Whirling Dervish” performance had been part of a floor show at dinner in the Halayhan Kaya Restaurant in Uçhisar on Wednesday evening, and I had seen a similar performance in the Galata Tower in Istanbul back in 1992. Last week I had a first-hand opportunity to see the heart of Mevleni Sufism.

Konya has a reputation as a religiously conservative city. It was once known as the “citadel of Islam,” and the people are still regarded as more devout than those in other cities in Turkey. It is a large, industrialised city in Central Turkey, with a population of over 1.2 million people, making it Turkey’s seventh largest city. It is such a sprawling city that the main bus station or otogar is 15 km from the city centre, and the city has its own airport, wide boulevards and an excellent light-rail system.

Konya, was known to the Greeks as Ἰκόνιον (Ikónion) and to the Romans as Iconium. Greek legend said its name was derived from the εἰκών eikon (image), or 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. It was later part of the Persian Empire, until Darius III was defeated by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. When the last king of Pergamon, Attalus III, was about to die 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 during the First Missionary Journey ca 47-48 AD (see Acts 14: 1–5 and Acts 14: 21), and Saint Paul and Saint Silas probably visited it again during the Second Missionary Journey ca 50 (see Acts 16: 2). Tradition also says this was the birthplace of Saint Thekla.

During the Byzantine Empire, the town was destroyed several times by Arab invaders in the 7th to 9th centuries, and was besieged and attacked by the Seljuk Turks who captured the city in 1084. They made it the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum from 1097 to 1243, although it was briefly occupied by the Crusaders under Godfrey of Bouillon (1097) and Frederick Barbarossa (1190) after the Battle of Iconium (1190). The area was retaken by the Turks.

The name of Iconium was changed to Konya by the Seljuks in 1134, and the city reached the height of its prosperity and influence in the second half of the 12th century. It was a golden age that lasted into the 13th century.

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

I started my visit at the Alâeddin Mosque on the citadel of Konya. A Christian basilica once stood on this site but was converted into a mosque when the Seljuk Turks captured Konya in 1080.

The Alâeddin Mosque was built in the mid-12th and mid-13th centuries and 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.

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

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

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273) is also known as Mevlânâ, Mevlevî (“my master”), and more popularly and simply as Rūmī. He was a 13th-century 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 even in the US he is claimed as the most popular and best-selling poet.

Dr Leonard Lewisohn, editor of the Cambridge-published journal, Mawlana Rumi Review, compares his importance in Persian and Middle Eastern literature with the contribution of Dante, Shakespeare and Milton to Western literature.

Rumi was born to Persian-speaking parents in the Balkh city of Khorasan, in present-day Afghanistan. At that time, Balkh was a major centre of Persian culture and Sufism had developed there for several centuries. His father, Bahā ud-Dīn Walad, a theologian and mystic from Balkh, 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 set out westwards, travelling through Persia to Baghdad, and on to Mecca. They then travelled on to Damascus, Malatya, and the cities of Kayseri and Nigde in Cappadocia, before settling in Karaman for seven years. In 1228, they finally settled in Konya.

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 Islamic religious school in Konya, and his public life began around 1240.

Rumi travelled to Damascus, where he met the Dervish Shams-i-Tabrizi in 1244. The meeting changed Rumi’s life and he was transformed into an ascetic, and when Shams died he expressed his grief in an outpouring of poems.

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...

Rumi spent the next 12 years dictating the six volumes of this masterwork.

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

When he died on 17 December 1273 in Konya, 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.

Following his 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 has become 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. On my left-hand side stood six coffins in rows of three dervishes who accompanied Rumi and his family from Belkh. Opposite them, on a raised platform and covered by two domes, stand the cenotaphs of the descendants of the Mevlâna family and some high-ranking members of the Mevlevi order.

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

I then found myself standing in front of the tomb of Rumi, covered with brocade, embroidered in gold with verses from the Koran. The actual burial chamber is located below it. Next to Rumi’s tomb are several other tombs, including 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.

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 instruments including violins, cymbals, tambourines, drums and the flute or ney once played by Rumi himself.

Rumi 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 practice of Whirling Dervishes developed into a ritual form.

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.

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

The musical instruments are on display, as well as dervish clothes, including Mevlâna’s books of poetry, illustrated Korans, rare prayer rugs, and a box (Sakal-i Ṣerif), decorated with nacre, 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 now housing mini-exhibitions on the lifestyles and teachings of the dervishes.

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

To the right of the mausoleum, I visited the kitchen of the dervishes (Matba), was also used for educating novice dervishes. Beside the kitchen is the mausoleum of Hurrem Pasha.

In a secularist drive under Ataturk, the mausoleum and the dervish lodge were turned into a museum in 1926 and reopened in 1927. But the Mevlâna Mausoleum, with its mosque, dance hall, dervish living quarters, school and tombs of Mevlevi leaders, continues to draw pilgrims from all parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

Rumi’s teachings emphasise tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. He recognised that 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 its plaintive sound of the ney played throughout our visit to the Mevlâna. 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.

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

Some sayings of Rumi

Love is here like the blood in my veins and skin.
It has emptied me of myself and filled me with the Beloved.
His fire has penetrated all the atoms of my body.
Of “me” only my name remains; the rest is Him.

Love is reckless; not reason.
Reason seeks a profit.
There is no one more insane that the lover
For his reason is blind and deaf because of love.

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.

An early version of the Mathnawī Mevlâna’s book of poetry, on display in the the Mevlâna Museum (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.