Cities and Saints: Sufism and the Transformation of Urban Space in Medieval Anatolia

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9780271022567: Cities and Saints: Sufism and the Transformation of Urban Space in Medieval Anatolia

In recent years, Sufism has become all but synonymous with the mystic poetry of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273) and the ritual "whirling" of dervishes from Turkey. This branch of Islam does, however, have a long, complex history, and spiritual retreat was only one aspect of its significance. In medieval Anatolia, Cities and Saints contends, Sufis made alliances that gave dervish lodges powers so vast that they were able to alter the layout of cities and serve as the means of forging new social bonds.

Through close examination of the design and function of medieval Sufi buildings in several Anatolian cities, Ethel Sara Wolper shows that dervish lodges became sites where a new ruling elite promoted the cult of Sufi saints. Wolper's discussion, enriched by the use of a wide range of primary sources, goes on to chart the role Sufis and their patrons played in the establishment of a new urban order anchored in dervish lodges built near city gates, markets, and along major thoroughfares.

Highly original, Cities and Saints unites architectural history with the study of urban space and the spread of Islam. It will be an important reference for students of community formation in the Middle East as well as historians of art, architecture, and religion.

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About the Author:

Ethel Sara Wolper is Assistant Professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

The successive houses in which we have lived have no doubt made our gestures commonplace. But we are very surprised, when we return to the old house, after an odyssey of many years, to find that the most delicate gestures, the earliest gestures suddenly come alive, are still faultless. In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting.
—Gaston Bachelard

In the past decades, interest in Sufism, Islam’s main form of mysticism, and in the thirteenth-century poet and saint Jal_l al-D_n R_m_ (d. 1273) has reached new heights. In the United States alone, there are two R_m_ festivals per year. A growing portion of his poetry is available in translations and interpretations, many of which are performed live and sold as recordings. As part of this trend, a number of recent publications have shown an interest in illuminating the works of this great Sufi poet. These illuminations often mix poetry and images. The poems are R_m_, yet the images have been taken from every time period and geographic location. They are meant to evoke the spirit of R_m_. What we gain from these publications is obvious. I write this book, however, out of a concern with what these books can obscure. As we spend more and more time divorcing R_m_ and other Muslim mystic poets from their historical context, it becomes easy to forget why artistic greatness flourishes in some periods and not in others. We also obscure the influence of other mystics on R_m_’s thoughts, his belief and training in Islam, and the adjustments that he made in his life to the massive changes in the world around him.

This study seeks to recover these historical contexts by focusing on the physical place that produced this influential man. I begin, therefore, with some general definitions of R_m_’s world. He came of age in Anatolia in the late Seljuk and early Beylik period, a period that is understood in this study as beginning in 1240 and ending in 1350. The ruling dynasties of the period were Turkish groups that followed Persianate traditions in government. Their religion was Islam, and their major sultans sought to bring Muslim scholars from all over the Islamic world to their courts in Konya and Sivas. Those that came found themselves in a land where Muslims were the minority and the Byzantine and Armenian legacy was still strong.

When we understand R_m_ and the whirling dervishes as an intrinsic part of the Islamic world, we help construct a more accurate picture of Islam as a dynamic and multifaceted faith. After this monotheistic faith arose in western Arabia in the seventh century, with the revelations of the prophet Muhammad, it was enriched by a variety of philosophical and intellectual movements, an enrichment that continues to this day. Sufism is one of those movements. Like other mystical movements, the central goal of Sufism is knowledge of God. The methods by which that knowledge is achieved form a main focus of Sufi literature and practice.

Although R_m_ has entered the consciousness of the West as an ecumenical love poet, embraced by New Age movements, he was a devout Muslim. He came from a long line of Muslim clerics and gave legal judgments before his introduction to Sufism. He, and the other religious scholars of his era, lived at a time when the practice of Islam was changed by the proliferation of Sufi communities. These communities tested the outward manifestations of Islam to find new ways of achieving an intimate knowledge of God. R_m_’s ecumenical message, which is so appealing to today’s followers in the West, grew out of this search and is reflected and reaffirmed by other Sufi writers of the period.

The Sufis in this study were often called "dervishes," a Turkish variant of a Persian word signifying those who have renounced the world. Although such a term emphasizes poverty, it came to be associated with members of a variety of urban movements. R_m_’s followers, commonly known as the whirling dervishes, are shown in this book’s frontispiece, engaged in their ritual whirling. Although this is one of many photographs circulating in the West that have helped create a picture of Sufism as a timeless world of arcane spirituality, R_m_ and the dervishes in the photograph are separated from each other by close to seven centuries, each of which brought major changes to the Islamic world and to the practice of Sufism.

This study focuses on one of these periods of change through an examination of the complex relationship between religious authority and the visual world during R_m_’s lifetime. The careers of R_m_ and other Sufi leaders, such as B_b_ Ily_s Khur_s_n_ and Fakhr al-D_n cIr_q_, are set against the spatial networks—urban, topographical, and spiritual—commanded by the buildings in which they lived and worshiped. Such a focus allows me to reintroduce R_m_ in the context of the unusual time and place in which he and his disciples lived. Although nothing remains of a portrait of R_m_ that was painted during his lifetime, there are rich source materials and building remains from the large number of Sufi buildings constructed during this period, and these help us reconstruct his world. By focusing on these buildings and the cities in which they are located, we can not only consider how the borders and spaces available to Sufis helped form their sense of themselves and their community, we may also learn something about how the borders and spaces available to us help form our sense of ourselves and our community.

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