Konya is located on the vast Anatolian plains. It was a Hittite settlement, an important Roman outpost, a center of the early Christian church, and a Selcuk state’s capital. Despite this long history, Konya would have long ago settled into relative obscurity were it not for the Sufi mystic Celaleddin Rumi, who became known as the Mevlana and founded the sect known as Mevlevi, or Whirling Dervishes.
The Mevlana’s tomb and the adjoining Mevlana Museum are among the most important pilgrimage destinations in Turkey and the Islamic world, visited by thousands who come to pay homage to the great mystic and thinker. Rumi was born in Central Asia at Belk in 1207 and fled to Konya when he was 20. Here he met his mentor, a wandering dervish named Sems-i-Tabriz. Rumi devoted himself to study with Sems and was inconsolable when his master disappeared (possibly murdered by jealous colleagues of Rumi). Turning himself to Sufi teachings, he was inspired to write several volumes of spiritual poetry, the Mathnawi. He became an ardent teacher, encouraging his growing band of disciples to embrace love and charity, as well as such enlightened concepts as respect for women.
The brotherhood that Rumi founded is best known to outsiders for its distinctive and beautiful Sema, a ceremony in which dancers whirl to symbolically free themselves of earthly ties. The position of the arms, with the right arm extending to heaven and the left to the floor, reassuringly conveys the notion that the dancers are conduits through which the grace of God is flowing to humanity. The dancers’ garments also have symbolic significance: The hat represents a tombstone, the cloak is the tomb ( and is shed during the dance to represent escape from earthly bonds), and the white skirt is the funeral shroud.
Through the Mevlevi have been forbidden to practice openly since all religious brotherhoods were banned during the Republic’s early years, the government has continued to promote the Sema for its folkloric merit; today, an increasing number of the dancers also openly follow the teachings of the Mevlana. The dervishes perform in Konya during an annual December festival, though you can see them at other times in Istanbul, Cappadocia, and elsewhere throughout Turkey.