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The dance of the devout 6 mai 2012

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Sunday Telegraph (UK) May 6, 2012, p. 8-9

Sara Evans

Konya, the birthplace of the Whirling Dervishes, is a city still rooted in its Muslim heritage, finds Sara Evans.

Even in the shadows of the stage their white robes appear luminous. Now moving into the light, they twinkle like stars. Synchronising perfectly, they spin and turn, forming a glittering constellation. Human gyroscopes, the dancers are the famous Whirling Dervishes of Turkey.

They perform here in Konya every Saturday night. In the world’s grandest Whirling Dervish hall, a devout and rapturous audience savours every step the Dervishes make. For Konya – just an hour’s flight southeast from Istanbul – is Turkey’s most Islamic city, with over a million people living and worshipping here.

I see evidence of this on the city’s streets as I walk around Konya. Women cover their heads in tightly drawn scarves, or wear burkas. Men sport beards. Throughout the day, I hear the Muslim call to prayer from the shining minarets of Konya’s ancient Seljuk mosques.

Then, from dusty carpet shops in the medieval bazaars, from cafés selling succulent kebabs and salty flatbreads, and from rose and tulip stalls in the markets, the city’s men – young and old – head to the mosques. Once inside, they turn to Mecca, kneel and start the rituals of prayer practised here for centuries.

As they pray, the city falls quiet. Everything slows down and makes for a scene far removed from the fast-paced dancing of the Whirling Dervishes I marvelled at on Saturday night. In the stillness, it’s hard to believe that it was in Konya, in the 13th century, that the Dervish first whirled.

The origin of the spinning ritual (or sema) is attributed to a widely revered holy man called Rumi, more popularly known as Mevlana, meaning Our Guide or Sainted One. A devoted, but not orthodox Muslim, Rumi preached inclusivity, tolerance, love and respect for all, regardless of their religion.

An ardent advocate of Sufism (a mystical aspect of Islam), Rumi expressed his love for all humanity in his acclaimed writings and poetry, and his love for the divine in his spiritual and trance-like whirling.

It’s said that Rumi first started whirling in one of Konya’s bazaars. Walking past a line of goldbeaters, he became so moved by the music of their rhythmic hammering accompanied by their gentle chanting of Allah’s name that he raised his arm towards the sky and started to revolve in a state of awe, spinning and spinning until he reached oneness with his God.

Rumi then regularly repeated this dance in front of his followers, reciting his verses and poems as he reached a rapturous state.

So loved was Rumi that when he died in 1273, the people of Konya mourned solidly for 40 days. He was buried in a splendid rose garden in the palace grounds of the city’s sultan. A magnificent mausoleum, with a large dome made from vibrant turquoise tiles, was built over his grave.

Rumi’s devotees – well known for imitating Rumi’s spinning ritual – were then organised into a brotherhood called the Mevlevi or Whirling Dervishes. Their first lodge was set up around the mausoleum.

Now known as the Mevlana Museum, the lodge complex with the mausoleum’s vivid turquoise tiled dome, sister minaret and mosque, is one of Konya’s most distinctive sights. After the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, it is one of Turkey’s most visited attractions. Every year, from Turkey and the Muslim world around two million « pilgrims » visit the Mevlana Museum.

For them, Rumi’s tomb is a well-known holy site, but in the West – despite a recent increase of interest in Rumi’s poetry (admirers include an eclectic mix – Madonna, Phillip Glass, Demi Moore and Goldie Hawn, among others) – the mausoleum is little known.

Yet the museum is far from secret or exclusive. Just as Rumi preached inclusivity, the great Ottoman silver doors at his tomb’s entrance are open to all. Everyone is invited to delight in the beauty that lies within.

And so I am here, at the silver doors, taking off my shoes, covering my head with a scarf, just like the ones worn by the women in the streets.

Inside is a different world, strangely beautiful and decidedly holy. Hazy sunlight filters through stained-glass windows onto the mausoleum’s tiled walls creating a kaleidoscope of opulent hues and mysterious patterns. In the background, I hear delicate music from a reed flute.

Rumi’s sarcophagus is draped in heavy brocade, embroidered with precious gold threads. Placed upon it is a huge turban, symbolic of Rumi’s spiritual authority. The nearby tomb of Rumi’s son is similarly decorated. There are more than 60 other sarcophagi here too, the resting places of other family members and eminent Dervishes.

In a side mosque, the light from crystal lamps and ornate lanterns reveals sacred treasures, including a casket holding rose-scented strands of Mohammed’s banned was beard, ancient prayer rugs – one of which is said to be the most valuable silk carpet on Earth – and a copy of the Koran so tiny that its creator is said to have gone blind creating it.

Everything is exquisite. Everything is divine. All around is a sense of hushed awe like that shared by a wedding congregation when a beautiful bride walks among them.

It’s the same awe I experienced watching the Dervishes when, as they spun faster and faster still, it felt as if Konya was turning just that little bit faster than the rest of the world.



Getting there

Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; turkish airlines.com) offers flights to Konya via Istanbul from around £240 return from various UK airports. Further information from the Turkey Tourist Office (020 7839 7778; gototurkey.co.uk).


Anatolian Sky Holidays (08445 719128; anatoliansky.co.uk) provides a nine-night « Wonders of Turkey » tailor-made tour, with visits to Konya and Cappadocia, from £1,299 per person, including return flight from Heathrow, Manchester or Birmingham to Izmir via Istanbul; airport transfers; b&b; and car hire.

Visiting The Mevlâna Museum

The museum (at eastern end of Mevlana Caddesi; 0090 332 351 1215; admission around £2) opens from 10am to 6pm Mondays and from 9am to 6.30pm Tuesday to Sunday.

Last tickets are sold 20 minutes before closing time. Women should cover head and shoulders with a scarf before entering. Shorts should not be worn by anyone.

The Whirling Dervishes

The Whirling Dervishes perform every Saturday night in the Mevlana Cultural Centre (Çimenlik Mh, just over half a mile east of the Mevlana Museum, past the cemetery). Tickets are free and can be obtained from local hotels and travel agencies, as well as the tourist office (behind the Mevlana Museum on Mevlana Caddesi 21; 353 4020), which opens from 8.30am until 5.30pm every day except Sunday.

Tickets can also be booked for public and private Dervish performances from Selene Tourism (Ayanbey Sokak 22b; 353 6745).

Other sights

Konya’s Old Town is also home to many impressive and well-preserved buildings that demonstrate some of Turkey’s finest Seljuk architecture. The highlights include:

The Museum of Wooden Artefacts and Stone Carving (Adliye Bulvari; 351 3204; open 9am to noon, then 1.30pm to 5.30pm; closed Mondays, admission around £2): once known as the Ince Minare Medresesi; inside you’ll find an octagonal minaret, an amazingly ornate doorway and wonderful carvings.

Sahib-i Ata Mosque (Larende Caddesi; open 9am to noon, then 1pm to 5pm; closed Mondays, free admission): functioning mosque complex with grand gateways and beautiful blue Seljuk tile work. Originally built in late 1280s, but restored in 13th-century style after it was destroyed by fire in 1875.

Alaaddin Mosque (Alaaddin Tepesi; open daily 8.30am to 5.30pm; free admission): Konya’s most important religious building after the Mevlana Museum – an Arab-style edifice begun in the 12th century, with various additions and embellishments, including marble columns and stonework reused from Roman and Byzantine buildings.

The inside track

Take your camera to the Whirling Dervish show. Photography, including the use of flash, is permitted. Video cameras can also be used. There’s no seat allocation system, so arrive an hour in advance if you want a place near the front.

The annual Mevlana Festival runs for a fortnight, ending on December 17, the anniversary of Rumi’s death. During this time more than a million people visit Konya, which means flights become booked up, accommodation becomes more expensive and tickets to see the Dervishes are scarcer. Book all tickets well in advance.

Konya is the centre of Turkey’s carpet trade and provides locally made carpets and rugs, prized for their luxurious wool, at much cheaper prices than in Istanbul. Isdar (Bostan Çelebi Sokak 14b; 264 3959) is one of the best family-run shops in Konya, selling old and locally made carpets at honest prices.

To enter Turkey you need a visa. This is actually a sticker bought at the airport before joining the immigration queue. No photograph is required. The cost varies but is around £10. Only hard currency is accepted (pounds, euros or US dollars).

The best hotels

Ulusan Hotel £

A small budget hotel, in a central location, with clean rooms, hearty breakfasts and friendly staff. Shared bathrooms only (0090 332 351 5004, doubles from £25 per night).

Hotel Rumi ££

A three-star in a prime position opposite the Mevlana Museum, with smart rooms, restaurant, sauna and Turkish bath, and free Wi-Fi (352 1121; rumihotel.com; doubles from £55).

Rixos Konya £££

Part of a a luxury Turkish chain, located outside the city centre, but providing very comfortable accommodation plus a health club with gyms, swimming, riding and tennis (221 5000; rixos.com; doubles from £155).

The best restaurants

Sifi Restaurant £

Popular with locals; décor is basic but meals are cheap and tasty. Serves regional specialities, including etli ekmek – flatbread topped with spices and ground meat (Mevlana Caddesi 29; 352 0519).

Gülbahçesi Konya Mutfagi ££

A restored old mansion offering good traditional food on a roof terrace with excellent views of the Mevlana Museum complex; great for people-watching (Gülbahçe Sokak 3; 351 0768).

Kösk Konya Mutfagi ££

Busy restaurant, run by a well-known food writer, providing classical Turkish cuisine with a twist. Dining in the rose garden is recommended (Mengüç Caddesi 66; 352 8547).

What to avoid

The dress code in Konya is conservative. Women should avoid skimpy clothing and carry a headscarf as many mosques and places of interest require women to cover their heads.

If you visit during Ramadan (to run from July 20-August 18 in Turkey this year) avoid eating and drinking in public during the day. Many cafés and restaurants are closed during Ramadan. Travel plans may be affected so check ahead.

Don’t assume that Konya will be mild during the winter months. Winter weather is bitterly cold and snow frequently falls.

Many historic monuments close on a Monday, so avoid this as a sightseeing day.

Did you know?

Whirling Dervish orders and their lodgeswere in 1925 when Turkey secularised. In 1975 the Konya lodgewas revived « preserve a historical tradition ».


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