He is the most-read poet in the United States and possibly the best-known Islamic figure after Muhammad. His philosophy of divine love has inspired countless artists, musicians, and writers. He created the iconic symbol of Turkey, the sema ritual often known as the “whirling dervishes.” The man referred to is of course Rumi, whose full name was Mevlânâ Celâleddîn-î Rûmî. His death 742 years ago is commemorated every year on December 17.
Although this could be a melancholy occasion, in Turkish the day is known as Şeb-i Arus, meaning “Wedding Night.” Rumi’s philosophy does not see physical birth as the beginning, and it does not see death as the end. When people lose their physical body, they can reunite with the divine spirit of the universe - which is why Rumi believed this was his wedding night. Accounts say that on his deathbed, Rumi’s wife asked him to stay a little longer before leaving this world. Rumi expressed his hope of returning to the divine by saying, “Am I a thief? Have I stolen someone's goods? Is this why you would confine me here and keep me from being rejoined with my Love?”
Every year on December 17, people flock to Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya to pay their respects and experience a powerful ceremony of remembrance. As another important city for Sufism and the Mevlevi Order founded by Rumi, Istanbul also hosts a number of events on Şeb-i Arus. The largest of these is the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality event at Ülker Sports Arena in Ataşehir on December 24, where religious singers such as Sami Özer and Grup Tillo will perform traditional ilahiler (spiritual songs). The music will be accompanied by a Mevlevi prayer service and of course the ecstatic spinning of the dervishes. Tickets are available from Biletix.
Zorlu PSM offers another Şeb-i Arus ceremony on December 18, this time with readings of Mevlana’s poetry by film and television actor Selçuk Yöntem. The mystic's ancient but self-renewing words will be accompanied by Sufi music and an entrancing sema ceremony on the stage. Tickets from Biletix.
Istanbul’s oldest lodge of the Mevlevi Order, Galata Mevlevihanesi, is opening its doors to the public on the night of December 17. Built in 1491, this lodge has been turned into a museum that displays examples of Sufi arts, instruments, books, and clothing. The lodge’s sema hall still retains its traditional features, with Sufi musicians playing in a balcony overhead while the audience sits in a circle around the whirling ceremony. Tickets from Biletix or at the door.
If you want to get closer to Rumi himself, the best route is by reading one of his many works in English translation. However, there is now a way of approaching his spiritual mind and capturing the moment on camera: with the Rumi waxwork at Madame Tussauds. As Rumi wrote, "A great mutual embrace is always happening between the eternal and what dies, between essence and accident", which is almost permission to put an arm around his waxwork as you take a selfie.