Konya is alive with the celebration of the anniversary of the death of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the great 13th-century Sufi saint, poet and Islamic jurist. The day of Dec. 17 becomes so busy that celebrations now last a whole week leading up to the date. The city is packed to the brim, and every hotel is at maximum capacity. It can be difficult navigating the city during this busy time, especially for foreigners. So here are some tips for hacking this week from someone who likes to attend the event often. What to do, where to go and how to avoid embarrassing yourself – all of these essential questions are answered here!
Between all the touristic attractions, it's sometimes easy to forget what is at the heart of these celebrations: Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi and his exemplar relationship with God. Known in the West as Rumi (literally, “from Anatolia”) and in the East as Mevlana (literally “Our Master”), the famed poet lived most of his life in Konya, then the capital of the Seljuk Empire, where he was a renowned teacher of hundreds of students. He is most known today for writing the "Mesnevi," a beautiful didactic epic poem in six volumes. The work has more recently become famous for becoming a best-seller in the United States, but this masterpiece has been a cornerstone of Islamic life for centuries.
Like all Muslims, Mevlana believed that everything has one source, which is a God who is eternal and omnipresent. His works explained that humans, who are temporarily divided from this source, will one day be reunited with God and gain the utmost happiness and pleasure from this experience. However, impatient lovers of God can reunite with them by annihilating their egos, leaving nothing behind but Creation itself. This, Mevlana believes, is the true message of the Quran for those few who wish to completely devote themselves to worshiping and loving God. This of course touches upon a theme that already existed in Sufism, but Mevlana put it to verse in an exquisite and seminal way.
For this reason, for him the moment of death was not one for mourning but for celebration. This was the day he was to become one again with his beloved, God. That is why this day is called "Şeb-i Arus," a phrase meaning literally "the night of the bride" or "wedding night." It is a metaphor that likens this moment of passion and happiness to that of a bride approaching her wedding night. Those who have lived in some other countries, particularly in India or Pakistan, might already be experienced this tradition from the "urs" of other beloved Sufi saints.
But many forget that the yearly event we have today, of meeting on Dec. 17, is actually a modern phenomenon! Prior to the declaration of the republic, the date of Mevlana's death was celebrated according to the lunar calendar, like all other religious events on the Islamic calendar. This meant the event shifted with the seasons: One year it was in autumn, another year in winter. During this period, people did not go on an annual pilgrimage to the city of Konya; in fact, people visited Konya rarely if at all. Konya was a far-flung and small city in the middle of Anatolia that was difficult to get to before the widespread adoption of cars. Instead, people would traditionally celebrate the date wherever they lived.
In 1925, the Republic of Turkey passed a law that closed down dervish convents of all Sufi sects as part of its sweeping reforms aiming to modernize the country. This brought the end of the Konya Mevlevi dervish convent, the house of the Tomb of Mevlana. The inhabitants handed it over to the protection of the government, which turned it into a museum a year later. Throughout the country, Şeb-i Arus passed by quietly, with a little ritual.
Everything changed in the 1940s and '50s when various government-run events held during Dec. 17 featured practitioners conducting the Sema ceremony. Looking back at those who were conducting the Sema ceremony in those years, they were all various ex-dervishes from around the country who took the opportunity to meet up in Konya once a year and celebrate their culture and spirituality. As it was illegal for them to conduct this ceremony (or, in fact, any other Sufi ritual) anywhere else, it became the focus of their year. The event quickly grew and added many important officials to its list. Ministers, ambassadors, members of parliament and famous scholars from around the country and abroad all flocked to the city on Dec. 17. The tickets were always sold out, so the event spread across the week. Today the municipality of Konya has taken the Şeb-i Arus ceremony to be a foundational event of the city, and uses this opportunity to encourage tourism to the region. This is primarily the reason why the discussion around the week is so confusing for those who don't know the history – Is it cultural? Is it religious? Is it folklore? Is it Islam? It can all get a bit confusing.
But this history is reassuring for me because it shows that there's little I can do wrong during Şeb-i Arus week. This is a new tradition, up for interpretation. What is important is staying loyal to the heart of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi's teachings: love towards God and love towards your fellow human.
Once I arrive in Konya, I spend most of my time on pilgrimage to the many tombs of major Sufi figures in the area. I’m not alone; hundreds flock to these tombs during this period. Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Shams Tabrizi, Ateş Baz-ı Veli, Sadreddin Konevi, Tavus Baba... Visiting these inspirational people and enjoying their presence is the heart of Şeb-i Arus.
Because of this, it's important you don't pack your schedule. I really recommend that this time remain one of learning and contemplation. Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi is an excellent teacher even over 700 years after his death. Find a place to sit in his tomb, spend some time in contemplation there, or watch his many visitors pass you by. If it's too busy, you can find a corner in the Tomb of Shams Tabrizi, alongside many others who will be doing the same. A beautiful thing you can do while here is opening up masnavi.net on your phone to listen to the entire Mesnevi, read in Persian.
Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi's books are sold all around the city in almost every language. This is the time to grab a copy and find a corner to read it in. I recommend reading not a translation of the Mesnevi, but a translation-and-commentary. This is because reading a commentary alongside the book is the traditional method of reading the Mesnevi that has been practiced for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, few have been translated into English. I recommend "Listen: Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana Rumi by Kenan Rifai," translated by Victoria Holbrook, for the first volume of the Mesnevi. If you have little time to shop, I also recommend dar-al-masnavi.org, an "electronic school of Masnavi studies" that contains accurate and free information for anyone interested. The website has very good translations and commentaries of hundreds of lines from Mevlana's works.
The main place to visit this week is the Tomb of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, now known as the Mevlana Museum. Upon his death, Mevlana left behind a large number of followers who continued to learn from the teachings he had imparted through his sermons and poetry. Following an already established tradition of dervish convents being formed around the graves of Sufi saints, these followers became formally organized as a Sufi order by Mevlana's eldest son, Sultan Veled. They named themselves "Mevlevi" after his epithet of “Mevlana.” You may know the Mevlevi by the name they are called by in the West, the "Whirling Dervishes." Through the generations, the Sufi order slowly spread, eventually establishing over 34 dervish lodges across the Balkans, Anatolia and the Middle East. The building now called the "Mevlana Museum" was once the "Konya Mevlevi dervish convent." This building was the center of the Mevlevi order from which all the Mevlevi convents were organized.
When you visit, you will notice that there are two main buildings around a rectangular courtyard. The building curling around the courtyard contains the kitchen and several dervish cells. This would have housed tens of dervishes who dedicated their lives to pursuing knowledge, worship and teaching others. The central building, which you will see most people heading into, contains the Tomb and adjacent ritual room. Inside you will find the final resting place of not just Mevlana but his extended family. At his side lies his beloved eldest son Sultan Veled, at his feet is the tall tomb of his father Bahaeddin Veled, and surrounding them is over 20 generations of Mevlana's descendants. Another notable tomb is that of Hüsameddin Çelebi, Mevlana's companion. It was he who wrote down Mevlana's Mesnevi as the great poet dictated it to him.
When entering the tomb, one should be careful not to speak loudly, and men and women both should avoid dressing provocatively. This is because, traditionally, people conduct themselves as they would be if they were in the presence of the living Mevlana. This ties into Mevlana's teachings and the heart of Şeb-i Arus: He is not "dead" but simply "silent." Many even avoid turning their backs to his tomb in respect.
If you have questions, the great energy and ardor in the air encourage many people to lend a hand. However, I particularly recommend the International Mevlana Foundation for any questions you have. This UNESCO-accredited foundation was formed in order to safeguard the teachings of Mevlana and the Mevlevi tradition. One interesting fact about the organization was that it was actually key in ensuring that the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony was recognized as one of the "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO. The office, based in a quaint two-story Konya-style house right next to the tomb, always has English speakers who are willing to help. However, if you are a large group, I would recommend emailing or calling them beforehand.
If you would prefer some peace and quiet instead, a good place to rest nearby is the cafe and garden of Hich Hotel, a boutique establishment that is right next to the tomb. The building itself is a pretty mansion built in the 1800s featuring a cumba, a type of closed balcony quintessential of Turkish architecture. The garden is a great location to sit down, read and watch the beautiful tomb.
How to describe Shams of Tabrizi? Some sources describe him as Mevlana's teacher, some describe him as Mevlana's student. Either way, Shams changed the course of Mevlana’s life forever.
Shams was a wandering dervish, in ardent search of someone who epitomized the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the 13th century hagiographer Feridun Sipehsalar, Mevlana and Shams sensed each other's presence in Konya, went in search and ended up sitting on opposite benches. Shams asked Mevlana a question, and he became so in awe of Mevlana's response that they both fell into a state of spiritual ecstasy. Shams had found the man he was searching for, and Mevlana had found a like-minded soul. Mevlana took Shams into a small cell and they spent six months secluded together. They spent so much time together that Mevlana's disciples felt neglected and grew jealous. Then Shams disappeared. According to Eflaki, Shams was murdered by some of Mevlana's jealous disciples and his body was thrown down a plugged-up well in Konya. Many scholars have noted that this story seems unlikely, but the tradition claims that the tomb today was built upon that well. Whatever actually happened, Shams was now gone and Mevlana mourned him. The total time that he had spent with Shams appears to have been less than three years, but Mevlana was forever changed by their time together. He began to write the Diwan of Shams, a series of ecstatic poetry dedicated to God and Shams.
The Tomb of Shams, a small mosque just 10 minutes walk from the museum, is calm and tranquil compared to the now (unfortunately) touristic Tomb of Mevlana. The location is indeed likely not the site of Shams’ grave, as the recent excavation into the well underneath the building found no grave inside. Still, it is spiritually regarded as his resting place, and no Şeb-i Arus visit is complete without a visit to his tomb.
After spending the day in pilgrimage and contemplation, in the evening everyone heads toward the Mevlana Cultural Center. Every evening between Dec. 7 and Dec. 17, the building hosts the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony. It's hard to explain such a practice in a short article, so the only thing I can say is that it's very important to read up a bit before going to attend the beautiful but lengthy ceremony to fully appreciate the event.
Here I will instead cover some (often unspoken) codes of conduct about the ceremony that will save you from making a fool of yourself! Don’t worry, I have your back. The key thing to remember about the Sema ceremony is that it is a ritual that should be conducted by trained practitioners. Even if you yourself are coming simply to observe this tradition, please be respectful towards believers who have come to attend a ceremony. Again, men and women both should avoid wearing provocative clothing, as the Holy Quran is recited during the ceremony. You should make sure to sit quietly through the whole ceremony, avoiding speaking and clapping. Every year I wince as unknowing crowds clap in appreciation at the end of the ceremony!
Of course, the Sema ceremony is not the only thing to enjoy in the Mevlana Cultural Center. Alongside exhibits and art shows, there are many stalls filled with wares of all kinds. Nearly all the famous shops and artisans in Konya set up stalls here during this time – It’s useless trying to search for them in their shops, they’re all here! If you want to get some shopping done this week, this is the place to do it.
And this is the point where I am here to save you once more. Shopping can be tricky in Konya, and there are some things you best avoid buying. At the top of this list is the clothing worn during the Sema Ceremony, particularly the iconic felt hats of the whirling dervishes. It can be bought all around the city during this period, when really it shouldn't be sold at all. Full of intricate meaning and symbology, these hats were traditionally only handed from teacher to student in a special initiation ceremony. You could say that buying one and putting it on is the equivalent of putting a Buddha figure in a bathroom, or going around with a Native American headdress on.
On Dec. 17, the actual anniversary of the rebirth of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi according to the solar calendar, the Mevlana Cultural Center is packed with VIPs and government officials holding a lengthy and formal Ending Program that features many speakers. But for those who are looking for something more authentic and down-to-earth, there is another option.
Every Dec. 17, lovers of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi congregate at his Tomb to hold a prayer at 4 p.m. According to various hagiographies, Mevlana is said to have passed away at around that time. The tomb becomes packed at this hour, and you can find yourself unable to enter the building. Many people head there a few hours ahead and find a corner to curl up in. If you are willing to head there early and wait, this informal event is the most special moment of the week, and a priceless opportunity to commune with fellow souls.