A few minutes before the start of the ceremony, the excitement is palpable in the amphitheater of the cultural center of Konya, a city on the Anatolian plateau of Turkey. The room gradually plunges into darkness while a shower of light reveals the orchestra installed on the stage. A light hum coming from the choir invites one by one the daf, the qanun and the ney (percussion, plucked string instrument, and wind instrument, editor’s note) to bring a new depth to the song. The melody gains in intensity, gradually rising under the marquee dotted with small lights resembling a starry sky.
Around thirty whirling dervishes descend into the arena for an hour’s round, one hand directed towards the ground and the other towards the sky, in a quest for union with the divine. Dressed in a black cape, a white dress and a sikke (head covering symbolizing the tombstone), followers of Mevlevism have reproduced the codes of Sufi rituals since the 13th century.
Born in the territory of present-day Afghanistan and speaking Persian, it was in Konya that Mevlâna or Djalâl ad-Dîn Rûmî (1207-1273), the founder of the Whirling Dervishes, a Sufi mystical order, is said to have begun to practice sema ( the gyrating dance of the whirling dervishes).
More than a thousand people came to attend the Seb-i Arus – literally the wedding night – or celebration of the death of the great poet, punctuated by recitations of the Koran and prayers. “I come away feeling so peaceful! », rejoices Seda, her eyes sparkling, as she leaves the performance. Thirty-year-old from Istanbul, she and her partner Salih come from secular backgrounds but have been interested in Sufism for several years. The next day, they will go to the “sohbet” (discussion) of Celalettin Berberoglu, author of a noted work on Sufi philosophy.
A highly conservative city
The old sage is not a guru. Owner of a small shop located near the tomb of Mevlana, he sells products made from goat’s wool. He modestly welcomes his admirers upstairs, seated on a small stool at the back of the room. From morning to evening, hundreds of people parade to come and discuss subjects as diverse as politics, ecology, gender relations… Asked about the improvised sema by visitors from all over the world on the main square, he disapproves: “Everyone reappropriates the rite in their own way and sometimes moves away from the original message,” he regrets before reminding the assembly of the essentials of the ritual.
Among the historical monuments that structure the city center of Konya, the tomb of Mevlana, easily recognizable by its turquoise tower, is the subject of all curiosities. A continuous stream of visitors enters the dargâh (shrine) to pay their respects in front of the imposing coffin. In the front row, a group of Iranian women, kneeling with open palms, their faces flooded with tears.
The universal dimension of the principles of Sufism makes it possible to bridge the gap between numerous religions and beliefs, all of which are found in Konya during the ten days of festivities. Turkish, Persian, Japanese, Arabic, Flemish, Hebrew… all languages resonate in the streets of Konya. The influx of tourists delights the shops around the square which sell representations of Mevlana in the form of figurines, sketches, statuettes, etc. as well as all kinds of derivative products. This sudden, almost eruptive cosmopolitanism contrasts with the conservatism of the city of Konya, which voted 70% for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the presidential elections of May 28.
If the mystical dimension of Sufism sometimes earns it the distrust of the most rigorous Sunnis, the power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not hesitate to seize it, anxious to bring about new pious generations. The head of state goes to Konya every year on December 17 to celebrate the night of Seb-i Arus, and presents Mevlana as a source of national pride, even if it means downplaying the character’s Persian origins.
Beril, 35, works in advertising and has lived in Konya for ten years. Coming from a family that is a member of the tarikat (religious sect of Sunni Islam) of the Nakchibendi, she wears the veil and observes religious rituals but had never really been interested in the festivities. Invited to participate in a dhikr (collective prayer), she admits: “I had never attended this type of prayer. I feel like I’m traveling in my own city.”