About This Festival
Men dressed in whites robes and tall hats spinning in circles doesn’t sound as exciting as running with the bulls or dancing at Rio’s Carnival, but the chance to watch the Whirling Dervishes will change you in a way you’d never expect. Based on the teachings and practices of the 13th-century poet Rumi, this 10-day festival will expose you to the power of devotion and show you that spinning can do more than just make you dizzy.
The idea to find inner peace through whirling didn’t come out of nowhere. Rumi was born in Afghanistan and spent time in Persia (present-day Iran) before moving to Konya, Turkey, where his father was invited to be a scholar. Rumi became a scholar himself, teaching peace, love and tolerance, for which he gained a large following. Educated followers saw him as a wise philosopher, while the uneducated regarded him as a prophet. Rumi’s life changed when he developed an intense learning relationship with an older, wandering mystic named Shams of Tabriz. Unfortunately Rumi’s followers didn’t approve of Shams’ influence, and supposedly killed the mystic.
From tragedy comes discovery, and Rumi found within him an ability to channel poetry. It was also at this time that Rumi introduced whirling as a method to achieve divine harmony. Thus a movement was born. The Whirling Dervishes (also known as the Mevlevi Order) have been honoring Rumi’s death for almost 750 years, marking his “wedding night” with God on December 17, 1273.
An Authentic Experience
When we first heard of this festival, we were certain there’d be packaged tours and charter flights from the U.S. After all, books about Rumi have outsold every other poet out there, and it seems like every New Age wedding has the gratuitous Rumi poem. This, however, was not the case. Rumi is revered as much more than a poet in his homeland, and of the festival’s 100,000 visitors, nearly 90% of them are from Turkey.
Konya is Turkey’s 7th largest and most conservative major city, with more than 1 million residents. There are no bars, restaurants don’t serve alcohol, and 95% of the women wear a burqa or hijab. While the town’s most exquisite Islamic architecture comes from the 13th-century Seljuk period (when Rumi was there), most of its modern buildings are straight out of the 1970s and 80s.
The festival is an authentic, indigenous gathering. In the West, we tend to overlook Rumi’s Islamic message even though 10% of the lines from his poems are taken almost exactly from the Koran. You might come here to marvel at the whirling, but this festival will teach you more about modern Islam than you ever imagined.
While this is a spectator sport, it’s impossible not to get a “contact high” from the smooth, elegant, trancelike dance. The dervishes’ flowing white robes pick up the various colored lights in the Mevlâna Cultural Center, which fits nearly 2,000 people and was built primarily for whirling ceremonies. The moment when their arms, folded across their breasts, raise to the sky—the right arm facing up to God and the left arm turned down to the earth—feels like a flower blooming in spring. It’s no wonder UNESCO added this ceremony to its list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Your personal experience will likely be full of awe. As these individual men morph into a collective visual symphony, you’ll be struck by the sense of oneness you feel with them and how that transfers to oneness with a higher power. Whether you’re religious or not, you’ll understand what Rumi meant when he said, “The real work of religion is permanent astonishment. By that I don’t mean in astonishment turning your back on Him. I mean blazing in blind ecstasy, drowned in God and drunk on Love.”