Beyond Afyon the temperature outside the bus became so cold that the windows began to freeze on the inside. The crazed patterns formed by the ice made them hard to see through. But the countryside had already begun to change: the coastal terrain, with its sparsely covered mountainsides and olive groves had given way to the relentless Anatolian plain. Grim shepherds, protected from the biting wind by felt cloaks so thick they stood rigid like minature yurts, watched their fat-tailed flocks helped by fierce sheepdogs. And beneath their watchful gaze the road stretched on and on, hour after hour, through this bleakest of landscapes.
Finally a sign heralded our arrival in Konya. For one of the oldest human settlements, Konya seemed surprisingly provincial. St Paul had lived here, as had Ibn al-’Arabi and Rumi. But apart from the farmers, coming in from the countryside on their horse-drawn carts, nobody else seemed to bother any more (this was 1979, well before a couple of enterprising American poets put Konya back at the centre of the ‘esotourist’ map!)
And it was so cold. A dry cold that made the air almost painful to breathe, like taking a lungful of glass shards. After Istanbul and the coast, with its damp temperate winter climate, Konya was a different world — tilted, somehow, toward Siberia, and away from the twentieth century.
The Selcuk Hotel was a shabby affair, small and awkward, but at least it was warm. The staff, too, were dour — more reserved than the effusive, outgoing people we had encountered so far. But it was within a brisk walk of the places we had been sent to visit. And did a reasonable breakfast, after providing an adequate night’s sleep.
The morning’s itinerary involved the tombs of thee men. First was Sadruddin Konevi, out from the centre into the South Western suburbs of the city. Then Shams-i-Tabriz, whose ‘tomb’ is something of a contradiction (since nobody knows what became of him), but which is nonetheless very much a focus for connecting with his ‘presence’ — and, more than that, with the intensity of his love for the Real. And then finally to Rumi’s magnificent mausoleum.
As we made our way down Mevlana Caddesi, ‘Our master’s street’, towards the complex with its distinctive turquoise fluted tower, I was filled with an intoxicating mixture of expectation, excitement and trepidation. This was the ‘main event’ of our pilgrimage, which we had been steadily heading towards over the last few days (and, metaphorically, for the previous few months). It was also a very special day: the 17th December, the sheb-i-arus, ‘wedding night’, when Rumi left his mortal coil to be with the Beloved. That night we would head off to some gymnasium somewhere to witness the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ giving a performance of their age-old sema. But now we were to pay our respects at the tomb of the great master himself.
The museum complex that surrounded the tomb room was incredibly busy, filled with visitors pushing and shoving their way past each other to ‘see the sights’. As I went into the tomb room itself, I was feeling more than disappointed: annoyed, in fact, with the scrum of tourists that were making such a supposedly ‘spiritual’ place into a replica of the first day of a department store’s January sale. Standing before the gorgeously brocaded sarcophagus, I held out my hands in imitation of the faithful who I saw saying a fatiha under their breath before wiping their hands (and, with them, the baraka, the ‘blessing energy’) over their faces. No sooner had I adopted my posture of imagined piety, my head bent in contemplation, than somebody barged into me from behind — almost knocking me over. And that was it! I became incandescent with rage — storming my way back to the hotel in the darkest of moods.
I laid in the darkened room, the snow-grey sky slipping away into night, feeling thoroughly depressed. I was angry with myself, for blowing this great opportunity. I was angry with the situation. I was angry with everything! Finally, after wallowing in self-pity for a couple of hours, my friend George arrived back. He was a seasoned Konya veteran — having been at the 700th celebrations back in ’73 — and had been involved in these things long enough to recognise what was happening. Talking it through with him, I began to feel a bit better. Then he suggested that we could go back — it wasn’t yet closing time — and try again. I agreed.
By now it was dark. And if it had been cold before, it was bitter now. But we wrapped our scarves against the wind and headed back down the road to the tomb. As we got to the main gate, I sensed that something was wrong. The door was closed, and when we tried it, locked. Checking my watch, it was just before 5 p.m. Yet the sign next to the entrance clearly stated that the complex closed at 5.30. There must be some mistake! We banged on the door for a bit, and then finally the doorkeeper arrived.
“Kapalı,” he said sternly. “It’s closed”.
I tried to remonstrate. “Kapalı,” he repeated.
Things now seemed to be going from bad to worse — not only had I blown my chances in the morning, but it looked as if I was being barred entry now. There was nothing for it except to take this lesson on the chin. But I was still perplexed by why the museum had closed so early on this of all nights. I held out my wrist to show the doorkeeper, and pointed to my watch.
This, however, seemed to trigger a double-take. Suddenly he was looking at us very differently — staring right though us, as if he was scanning for something. After the longest, most uncomfortable pause, he smiled, stood back and swung the door open for us.
In front of the tomb there were perhaps 100 people. The atmosphere was very different from the morning: respectful, ‘charged’, an almost palpable feeling of concentration and attention. Soon after we arrived, an exercise began. The people in the room began an audible zikr, repeating the names of God, and we — not knowing what else to do — joined in. Then, at a certain stage of the proceedings, individuals started going up one at a time towards the platform that housed Rumi’s sarcophagus, holding out their hands. They would stop before the steps, where there was a small gateway, kneel, and kiss the golden gate. Then they would stand up and walk backwards to their place. This carried on for some time: I have no idea how long, since I had lost any sense of time. After a while, the meeting ended and we all dispersed. Nobody explained anything — we wouldn’t have understood anyway, since they were all Turks — and we left with the feeling that we had been very privileged to have witnessed a unique ceremony.
I remembered the words of Abu Said ibn Abi Khair, written in beautiful calligraphy above Rumi’s tomb: ‘Come, Come, whoever you are. Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.’
I returned again the following year, this time with an old schoolfriend who was interested in these things. I had told him a great deal about my previous visit, and he was excited to witness this special ceremony. Once again, we arrived at the tomb just before 5.00 p.m. Once again the doorkeeper — a different one, this time — said “Kapalı!” I smiled as if this was some great game, and showed him my watch. He looked at me as if I was stupid, and repeated: “Kapalı!”. “Yes, yes, yes, Kapalı…” I pointed to my watch again. He glared. Finally, after a tense stand-off, he swung open the door. And showed us that the whole complex was in darkness. It was well and truly closed.
I sometimes wonder now if the ‘secret ceremony’ ever really happened. I’ve never come across any reference to it, nor heard anyone else mention it. But, nonetheless, I remember it very clearly. And whilst there are many events I could attribute my ‘beginning’ on this Way to — many ‘initiations’, if you like — it is that moment that I consider the formal beginning of this extraordinary journey. The moment of being accepted, despite having done everything wrong, despite my own darkness, despite my lack of impeccability. A moment made possible, also, by the concern of a real friend.
Many years after, someone explained to me that the baraka affects people differently: it can make people feel elated, sad, anxious — even angry. But the way it makes you feel is irrelevant: ‘When the Sultan’s slave is handing out gold, does it matter whether he is smiling or scowling?’
I have circled awhile with the nine Fathers in each heaven.
For years I have turned with the stars in their signs.
I was invisible awhile, I was dwelling with Him.
I was in the Kingdom of ‘or nearer’, I saw what I have seen
I receive my nourishment from God, as a child in the womb;
Man is born once, I have been born many times.
Clothed in a bodily mantle, I have busied myself with affairs,
And often have I rent the mantle with my own hands.
I have passed nights with ascetics in the monastery,
I have slept with infidels before the idols of the pagoda.
I am the pangs of the jealous, I am the pain of the sick.
I am both cloud and rain: I have rained on the meadows.
Never did the dust of mortality settle on my skirt, O dervish!
I have gathered a wealth of roses in the garden of Eternity.
I am not of water nor fire, I am not of the froward wind,
I am not of moulded clay: I have mocked at them all.
O son, I am not Shams-i Tabrizi, I am pure Light.
If you see me, beware! Don’t tell anyone what you saw!’