By Shabtai Gold for DPA-International
In front, people shuffle past in a procession, some crying and others praying. A handful fall on their knees. Somewhere in the background, breaking through the room with its high ceilings and ornate domes, a man chants "Allah" over and over in a trance-like meditation.
This is said to be the final resting spot of Jalal ad-Din Mohammed Rumi, the 13th century Islamic mystic and poet who died here in Konya, in the Turkish Anatolian heartland, when it was part of the Seljuk Empire, a Turkic-Persian dynasty.
Despite a layer of snow and temperatures that freeze the waters flowing from plentiful fountains dotting the streets, many thousands make the pilgrimage to his grave, housed inside a lodge once used by whirling dervishes. Often they struggle to articulate the reason for the visit.
"There is something about him, it comes from the heart. Things like this, from the heart, they are hard to explain," says Ruhsar Tunaboylu, who came from Istanbul with her aging mother.
The pair makes the trip nearly every year on December 17, the anniversary of Rumi’s death in 1273. The mother says simply, before returning to pray under her breath: "To me, he means peace, love and tolerance."
For others, the journey has been more complicated. Michael Junayd flew in from Vancouver, Canada. He tucked himself into a corner with a view of the impressive memorial, watching as visitors from Turkey, Iran, Libya and further afield pass.
"It took me 20 years to get here. This is my pilgrimage. I don't think I'll get a second chance," he says.
For Junayd, the experience has already born spiritual dividends. "I feel my prayers so much more strongly since I came," he says. Unlike most of the visitors, he does not see himself so much as a Muslim, but rather a follower of Mevlana, the common term used to describe Rumi, to indicate his role as a chieftain.
The cult following has developed, both in the East and the West, as a Muslim spiritual figure and as a secular wordsmith offering insights into the trials of a broken heart.
Some believe the loss of his own friend and mentor, Shams Tebrizi - who has a far more modest, though still highly popular memorial inside a mosque nearby - contributed to his poems of love and absent companionship.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you," a line from a Rumi poem, often pulled for use on social media affirmations or in pop psychology articles, detached somewhat from its original meaning of God.
It has echoed through the centuries and across the seas, being mimicked - whether intentionally or not - by Leonard Cohen, who died this year, in his 1992 song Anthem: "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
The cult element, though, was too much to bear for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who was a staunch secularist. The Sufi houses Rumi inspired were banned after 1925.
However, in recent decades, in part because of their touristic appeal, they have made a comeback. Now, the whirling dervishes - dozens of whom can gracefully turn without ever bumping into each other - are a visual element inseparable from Turkey’s advertising.
"He was a friend of God, a wise man," says Sidika, a local Konya resident, aged 47, who comes once a week to Rumi’s mausoleum.
Sufi Islamic culture was passed down to her from previous generations and despite the legal measures against the lodges, never died out.
In the days leading up to the death anniversary, the current, more Islamic-leaning government sponsors symposiums and even Semas, the ceremony where the dervishes chant, play instruments and perform their famous dance.
Dressed in white robes, one hand reaches up to the sky and the other downwards, as each dervish turns to what is described as “the movement of the universe.” The elaborate performance is rife with layers of symbolism: Surrender and suppression of ego.
The devotional songs sung during the performances and in events around the Semas are often from the Koran or are Rumi’s writings, originally in Persian.
The religious music remains popular in Turkey. Radio stations in Konya broadcast the tunes and bus drivers happily turn up the volume for travelers.
However, this year, the tourism sector has been hit hard by bombings and an economic downturn, hurting hotels, restaurants and other businesses that depend on the annual mass influx.
A reduced number of foreign and domestic visitors came this year to Konya for the rituals around the anniversary of Rumi's passing, known as Seb-i Arus, or "wedding night", denoting the concept of death as a chance to marry one's Creator.
The traditions, though, which have survived two empires, countless wars and the secularization push at the start of the modern republic, seem destined to carry on.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.