Nestled in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland, Konya is both an economic boomtown and a bastion of conservatism – a modern Turkish city with deep Islamic roots.

It is also the birthplace of the Mevlevi Order and its whirling dervishes, a symbol of mystical Islam. And each year, the city swells with pilgrims paying homage to Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th-century Konya scholar who brought Islamic mysticism into the mainstream.

On corners dotted with historic mosques and in teahouses across the city, Rumi’s followers gather here every December on the anniversary of his death. They sing, visit his tomb and watch the hypnotic whirling of robe-clad dervishes, representing man’s spiritual ascent to the divine.

The days-long celebration – known as the Mevlana Festival, after the name Rumi’s early followers gave him – draws thousands of visitors from around the globe and culminates on the Seb-i Arus, or day of Rumi’s death, the night his fellow mystics say he finally reunited with God.

But in today’s Turkey, riven by ethnic and social divisions, there is little left untouched by politics. And it is against this backdrop, including Konya’s place in Turkey’s modern political landscape, that the Mevlana Festival has been held in recent years.

Sufism – which was banned in Turkey nearly 100 years ago and survived only through underground networks – emphasizes love and reflection as a more direct path to God. It encourages followers to shun material wealth and seek inner peace.

The Turkish state later realized Rumi and his whirling disciples were potential draws for tourism and loosened the restrictions on Sufis, according to the Harvard Divinity School.

Today, Sufis can practice – and whirl – at state-owned museums and cultural centers. But they still are barred from forming orders, or brotherhoods.

The dervishes have provided Turkey with some of its most iconic images.

In 2017, even the president of the republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, attended the festivities.

“The winds of separatism and are trying to spread . . . to destroy our ancient unity,” Erdogan said in a Dec. 17 speech on the last night of the festival, in what appeared to be a reference to the conflict with Kurdish separatists in the country’s southeast.

As he spoke, heavily armed guards prowled the stadium, an indoor arena with a capacity of 10,000.
“I would like to request that everyone, all of Mevlana’s friends, take ownership of our faith, our values and our motherland with love, with affection, with enthusiasm,” Erdogan said before swiftly departing with his entourage.

On the night of Dec. 17, which is considered Rumi’s “Wedding Day” with God, dervishes perform the trancelike dance to large crowds. In white robes and conical brown hats, they spin into ecstasy to the sounds of the ney, a Turkish reed flute. For them, the whirling dance symbolizes pure love – a return to the divine. In 2008, UNESCO added the dance to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
But Erdogan’s presence at the performance, or “sema,” was also a testament to the fact that Konya province, with a population of roughly 2 million, is also a stronghold of the president’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Konya’s rapid economic growth has coincided with the AKP’s rise to power, bringing with it lucrative infrastructure projects and investment. And its religious character is a natural place for the party’s Islamist politics to take root.

Konya – once a backwater of the Anatolian steppe, despite its storied history – is now a thriving commercial and industrial hub, served by high-speed rail links and an international airport. It produces wheat, sugar and barley, and manufactures car parts and plastic packaging, according to the government’s online investment portal.

Its medieval Seljuk architecture sits alongside modern universities and small businesses, including those serving the thousands of pilgrims that travel here each year.

But the government isn’t popular with everyone.

The tumult of the past few years – including terrorist attacks, a failed coup and sweeping arrests against government critics – has curbed tourism, hurting businesses.

“When people travel, they want to be safe. They don’t want war,” said Sami Yildiz, general manager of the Safa Royal Museum Hotel in central Konya. “It’s our government’s politics – because of that there is no safety, no tourism.”

In years past, Yildiz’s guests came from Italy, Japan, Poland and the Arab world. But in the past two years, most have been Iranian. Rumi and his patron saint, Shams Tabrizi, spoke Persian and were born in what was then the Persian Empire. Their tombs are popular pilgrimage sites for Iranians.

“I’ve spent 21 years in the tourism sector here, and it was wonderful,” Yildiz said. But the past two years “were the worst I’ve ever seen.”

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