Wednesday, July 31, 2013


In late April (before the protests in Taksim Square), I went on a tour of Turkey.  One of the stops was the city of Konya in Cappadocia.

Konya has an extensive history and has had many names.  The area around Konya was inhabited as early as the eighth millennium BC.  When the Hittites arrived there in mid-2000 BC, they called it Kuwanna.  The Phrygians (8th century BC) renamed it Kowannia.  The Romans latinized the name to Iconium.  The Seljuk Turks (after crushing the Byzantines in 1071) turkicized the city’s name to its present Konya and established their capital there (renaming themselves the Sultanate of Rum).

This brings me to the highlight of a visit to Konya: the shrine and tomb of Mevlana Jelaleddin, whom we know as Rumi, poet and mystic.

Born September 30, 1207 in Balkh, in modern-day Afghanistan, Jelaleddin (Rumi) came from a noted family of poets and Islamic jurists.  Between 1215 and 1220, his family fled (in advance of attacking Mongol armies) and settled in 1228 in Konya, where his father, a scholar and teacher of Islam, was invited to head the medressa (an Islamic theological academy/seminary, typically built with a tall portal linked to two-storied corridors with dormitories for students and lecturers, library and lesson rooms).  At his father’s death, Rumi succeeded him as shaikh (sheik or master) of the Sufi (Islamic mystic) learning community in Konya. (Jelaleddin acquired the name Rumi because he was from (or of) Rum, the Seljuk Turks’ name for former-Roman Anatolia.)

Crucial to Rumi’s writing and thought was his deep friendship with the Sufi mystic Shams of Tabriz who taught Rumi spiritual dance, music and poetry.  Within less than four years of his appearance, Shams vanished (probably murdered by jealous students of Rumi, led by one of Rumi’s sons, Allaedin).  Grief-stricken, Rumi withdrew.  During this period he wrote 50,000 verses, some expressing his deep loss and referring to Shams as his soul mate.  These mystical love poems take their imagery from everyday life, so that they are vivid, fresh and convincing.

Rumi lived another quarter of a century during which he wrote the Mathnawi (or Mesnevi), an encyclopedic five or six volumes on mystical thought, theories and images, written in Persian (the language of literature).  It is regarded by most Persian-speaking orders of Sufis as second in importance only to the Qu’ran.  Rumi died on December 17, 1273.

Here are two poems by Rumi:


This human being is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
translated by Coleman Barks


My worst habit is I get so tired of winter.
I become a torture to those I’m with.

If you’re not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity.  My words
tangle and knot up.

How to cure bad water?  Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits?  Send me back to you. 

When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean.  There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can’t hope.

The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.

Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter whether that friend is moving away from you
or coming back toward you.
translated by Coleman Barks

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