konya, turkey: whirling dervishes and mohammad’s beard


On a midpoint in my travels from Ankara to Antalya, the city of Konya welcomed me as it has welcomed many Muslim pilgrims over the years. Of course, my pilgrimage to this city of approximately one million was one of discovery, not religion.

Central to Konya’s importance is the tomb of Celalleddir Rumi [also called Mevlana], who, in the thirteenth century founded the Sufi Islamic sect known as the Whirling Dervishes. His tomb is located in the middle of a bustling city whose residents appear slightly more conservatively dressed than in other cities in Turkey. Given the importance of this city as a pilgrimage site, this is not the city to come to if you want to party the night away.

Mevlana’s tomb is contained in the Mevlana Museum, and being a Friday [essentially the Islamic Sunday], the place was full of local tourists. I was glad to see that locals of all demographics and all styles of dress were interested in Mevlana and his history – whether religion-based or not. While I am not a proponent of religion, I am a proponent of educating oneself and learning about one’s history and culture.

Within the museum walls, there is a large courtyard with quasi-English-style gardens, a large gift shop, and my favorite place – a cafe. To enter the museum, a former Mosque, one must cover one’s shoes with what look to be shower caps [provided to you]. This prevents your shoes from touching the floor. The museum itself is not large, but is lined with the tombs of Mevlana and his followers. There is also an exhibit of manuscripts, vestments and musical instruments related to this Sufi sect.

What I found most interesting though was what I encountered just before the exit. In the center of the room was an elevated glass display cube with a jeweled cadre inside. For lack of a better word, this was a reliquary that contained what believers think is the actual beard of Mohammad.

Like the Shroud of Turin, the finger bone of St. Catherine in Siena, or any of the thousands of pieces of the “true cross,” this relic is not something that is connected to the teachings of the religion, and would not be condoned by what is in the Koran. As a local told me, “Mohammad would have told these people to go and read the Koran instead of looking at a box with a beard in it.”

I then noticed something more interesting. The glass cube that surrounded the cadre had a little hole in each corner. I first noticed this when a mother was showing her young daughter what they were for. The mother put her mouth up to the hole, breathed in the air, and held her breath for a few moments. Her daughter then did the same, as instructed by her mother. To them, this was a way of being closer to their prophet, by breathing in the air that contained what they believe to be his beard.

Belief systems are strange and dynamic things, and often have little to do with the central morality tales that lie at the root of religions. Humans must have a gene that pre-disposes us to the desire for idolatry, thusly opening the door for many a relic.