Konya, Turkey

For those who are still wondering, even the grandchildren of Iskender, the inventor of the doner kebab, can’t seem to make a doner tastier than those in Berlin. I will never understand how the unique Berlin doners have evolved to reign supreme.

This major disappointment behind me, I’ve decided to seek a bit of spiritual repose. I’ve come to the ultra-conservative town of Konya, in central Turkey (see this map and look inland north of Cyprus). Aside from being home to the most devout Turks, its also spiritual home for the Mevlevi Order of Sufi Muslims.

The Sufis are Muslims with heavy mystical inclinations. Far and away the best known Sufi, is the poet and mystic Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi Order, who made his home in Konya. The much beloved Rumi would spend days on end in solitude awaiting divine inspiration which was then furiously translated into one of his famous poems. During one such session, Rumi discovered that by twirling himself around he could eventually induce a trance-like state, which he believed brought him into direct contact with God. After 40 days of this exercise, Rumi emerged to reveal this technique to his disciples. Though I’m sure he wasn’t the first to twirl around in a circle, he was the first to proclaim it divine communication, thus beginning the tradition of the Whirling Dervishes.

Rumi’s poetry is widely read around the world, known for being the epitome of love and tolerance, which the Mevlevi doctrines espouse. It’s strange how Western perceptions of world religions have seemingly random bases — much to the benefit of Buddhism and to the detriment of Islam. The Dalai Lama, the best known Buddhist leader in the West, has come to represent peace and tolerance, with Hollywood actors talking of pre-Chinese Tibet as paradise on earth. All but the Chinese ignore the incredible brutality of previous Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan monasteries vicious standing armies of fighting monks. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden seems to be carrying the Western torch for Islam at the moment. In a parallel universe with the same events and occurrences, you can almost imagine the perceptions reversed. The truth might be somewhere in between, as usual, but maybe things are changing. I’ve heard that Donna Karan recently introduced a new line of clothing with super models strutting down the catwalks to Dervish music and a Rumi poem. I really wonder what the people here in Konya would think.

The prime tourist attraction in Konya is Rumi’s tomb, visited by 1.5 million Turks annually, and a fair number of foreign tourists.

The tomb itself reflects a paradoxical aspect of the Turkish Republic. In the name of support for democracy, Ataturk banned the Mevlevi Order (along with many others), whom he viewed as a threat. Since the early 1960s, the Mevlevi have formed a ‘Cultural Association’ and their traditions survive. As it’s an association, and still not the banned religious group, the tomb has been converted into the ‘Mevlevi Museum’ and every effort has been made to emphasize this — a place of scholarly intrigue, rather than spiritual worship. The magnificent hall in which the Dervishes whirled for centuries has now been filled with glass cases displaying various artifacts and treasures with little formal signs giving dates and dry explanations. Yet the museum patrons behavior — their chanting and praying — betray their visits to this place as actually being pilgrimages to a holy shrine.

It’s easy to criticize a heavy handed Ataturk. However, it’s far more difficult to envision modern Turkey had his secularization not been strictly enforced. Who is to say for sure?