Rumi & Sufism in Turkey

Rumi, or Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, is one of the world’s best-selling poets – a particularly impressive feat, given that he died some eight centuries ago. His message of universal love and religious tolerance has found a significant audience in the modern world. Mevlevi, the Sufi order founded by his followers, is known around the world for the practise of Sema, a worship ceremony famed for the whirling dervishes who spin on the spot with arms outstretched as a form of meditation and prayer.

Yet for many readers of his work, the real Rumi is hidden behind inaccurate translations that strip away the context of his Islamic faith.

“I wanted to create a unique Turkey vacation that really does justice to the country’s history and culture,” says David Mannix, co-founder of our partner Arcadia Expeditions. “Sufism and the figure of Rumi provide us with an excellent framework for that.

“Turkey stands at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, making it the perfect place to study comparative religion. Our storyteller guide is an expert on the subject, and with her we hope to unveil the life of this extraordinary, impactful poet and the context of the time and place he was writing in as deeply as possible.”

What are Sufism tours in Turkey like?

Exclusive experiences & meaningful connections

Our Rumi and Sufism tours in Turkey are led by Seemi Ghazi, a lecturer in Classical Arabic with a special interest in Islamic literature, culture and spirituality. They take in a host of memorable Turkey experiences: a street food tour in Istanbul, a gulet cruise on the Aegean Sea, a tour of an underground city in Cappadocia and the chance to admire its famous ‘fairy chimneys’ from above by hot air balloon.

But they also include several exclusive activities of immense significance to those interested in Sufism, Islam and studying comparative religion. Whether you’re sharing a meal with a cave-dwelling family in their Cappadocia home, catching an intimate whirling performance in a community dervish lodge, or meeting with the imam of Isa Bey Mosque in Selçuk, these encounters are designed to benefit local communities, and create meaningful connections within them.

As you follow Rumi’s spiritual journey and the history of Sufism, you’ll also explore many of Turkey’s spectacular mosques, cathedrals, Roman ruins and natural landmarks, not to mention some of its culinary highlights.

“We get to know each other on the first night over a lavish welcome feast, held at a palace on the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul,” says David. “The tasting menu uses ancient dishes that draw inspiration from those that would have been enjoyed by Ottoman sultans.”

Small group tours

Small group tours exploring Sufism in Turkey and the life of Rumi take place in June, and are led by Seemi Ghazi, an expert on Sufism, Islamic literature and comparative religion, and a performer of traditional Islamic arts.

Group sizes are limited to 16 to enable a more immersive and intimate experience by using small, locally owned hotels and restaurants. They also ensure that small communities and hosts unused to large groups of tourists are not overwhelmed.

Private departures are also available throughout the year, which may also be accompanied by Seemi Ghazi depending on her availability.

What is Sufism?

Sufism, or Tasawwuf in the Arabic-speaking world, is a mystical approach to Islam. Followers strive to attain closeness with God, purification of the inner Self, and perfection of worship through focusing on spirituality, asceticism and ritual such as meditation, chanting and, in the case of the Mevlevi Order, whirling. Rather than being a type of Islam, Sufism is a way of understanding it.

Through writers such as Rumi and Attar of Nishapur, Sufism was integral to the spread of Islamic civilisation, as well as intellectual culture through the Islamic world, in part due to its suitability for societies based around religious plurality or secularism. It has been described by several commentators as “an antidote to fanaticism”.

Tending to be moderate and apolitical, Sufis are concerned more with spiritual change within themselves than changing the external situation such as oppressive governance – something that has led to suspicion and aggression from some quarters. The fact that Sufis worship saints, which can be viewed as idolatry, has also made them targets of extremist fundamentalists.

Many Sufi orders took root in Turkey over the centuries. The practise was banned under secular reforms by the Ottoman state in 1925, but those roots went deep and it was able to survive underground.

Today, while still tolerated rather than officially permitted, Sufism flourishes, and it is not difficult to find a performance of the Mevlevi order’s whirling dervishes, especially in Konya, the Anatolian city where Rumi spent most of his life.
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Who was Rumi?

Rumi has quite the resume. Revered 13th-century Persian poet, one of the most widely read and best-selling of all time, a prolific and massively influential Islamic theologian a philosopher.

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was born in Central Asia, in what is today Tajikistan, but after the Mongol invasion of the Persian Empire his family sought sanctuary in Konya, former capital of the Seljuk Sultanate.

Konya was a very cosmopolitan city in Rumi’s time, home to diverse religions, languages and ideas, as well as a well-educated elite, an atmosphere of religious tolerance and diversity that allowed him to learn from several faiths.

However, the greatest influence on Rumi, his thinking and writing was a brief but intense relationship with a wandering mystic known as Shams of Tabriz, who encouraged Rumi to add poetry, dance and music to his worship. When they parted, Rumi ploughed his emotional distress into poetry, writing love songs to Shams, the Prophet Muhammad and God.

It’s said that Rumi started whirling to the percussive notes of gold-beaters in the market one day. He became known for spinning away while composing his poetry or meditating, and today the Mevlevi Sama (listening) Ceremony has been recognised by UNESCO.

Rumi’s words of love, joy and spiritual devotion have resonated through the centuries with amazing relevance. His is ultimately a humanist message, one capable of transcending religion, language and geography, but also one that stems directly from his Muslim faith and belief in the Koran.

Translation… or interpretation?

The Rumi that has found fame in recent years has an attractive way with words, but the price paid for such beautiful simplicity is that much of the context, specifically Rumi’s Islamic faith, has been shorn away. Many translations have taken substantial liberties with Rumi’s poetry and the meaning behind it.

Rumi’s poetry shouldn’t be uncoupled from Islam, as it was directly informed by his religious beliefs, which were in turn informed by the Koran – and Sufism tours in Turkey offer real understanding on how his ideas were developed.

You’ll learn how language is more than just a means of communication. It is also a way of keeping shared beliefs, traditions and memories. Reframing it to appeal to different cultures, time periods and religious sensibilities is effectively a form of spiritual and cultural colonialism. Guides will reveal why, for Rumi’s work to be seen as universalist and encouraging tolerance, its roots in Islamic teachings must be acknowledged.

What are whirling dervishes?

Whirling, as practised by the Mevlevi order founded by Rumi, is a Sama (listening) ceremony performed in remembrance of God, often accompanied by music, singing, poetry recitals and prayer. Groups of devotees, usually men, move in a circle while spinning around, inwardly chanting “Allah” with every 360-degree rotation. It’s a form of spiritual meditation that has become a cultural attraction, but it’s not always done for tourists.

“Our trips allow you to take in two whirling dervish performances which offer highly contrasting experiences,” says David. “The first is the famous and touristy one in Konya, close to Rumi’s mausoleum. The second is after we leave Istanbul and arrive in Bursa, in Anatolia. Here in the suburbs, we spend an evening at a 16th-century dervish lodge where we’ll be the only visitors. We meet the devotees and watch them perform as they would with no spectators, just for themselves, to forge that connection with God.”

Clothing is integral to Sama. The dancers appear wearing long black cloaks that symbolise death and the grave, discarding them to reveal white robes, a symbol of resurrection. On their heads they wear tall brown felt hats which are meant to resemble tombstones and symbolise the death of the ego, a necessary act to achieve closeness with God.

Where can I watch whirling dervishes in Turkey?

Whirling dervish performances (though it must be remembered that they are also religious ceremonies) can be observed in many locations across Turkey.

Among the best-known are those held at the Galata Mevlevi Museum in Istanbul and near the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, which holds a festival every December where you can also see many instances of whirling.

Our Sufism and Rumi vacations in Turkey also offer an exclusive invitation to a community dervish lodge in Bursa, where the devotees are performing not for tourists but for themselves and God alone.

As well as witnessing a very authentic whirling ceremony, you can also speak with the participants and learn about their cultural traditions, and the importance of Rumi and Sufism in their daily lives.

Where is the tomb of Rumi?

The tomb of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi is in the mausoleum of the Mevlâna (Our Master) Museum in Konya, central Turkey. Construction of the mausoleum was finished a year after his death in 1273, and it, as well as the dervish lodge of the Mevlevi order, became a museum in 1926.

The museum, with its eye-catching green conical dome, is one of the most popular destinations in Turkey. Almost 3.5 million pilgrims and tourists visited in 2019. There are weekly whirling dervish performances in the attractive rose garden outside during the summer months.

Rumi’s father and son are also buried here, and among the exhibits are a number of musical instruments used by Rumi himself, books of his poetry and some ancient Korans and prayer rugs.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: GuenterRuopp] [Intro: Incelemeelemani] [Who was Rumi?: Nathan Hughes Hamilton] [What are Whirling Dervishes?: svklimkin] [The tomb of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi: Nazzarenoagostinelli]