Home > Essays > from Istanbul in Winter: Hagia Sophia, The Call to Prayer, Rumi
Published: Sun Apr 15 2007
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
from Istanbul in Winter: Hagia Sophia, The Call to Prayer, Rumi

Hagia Sophia

As you walk toward Hagia Sophia through the snow from the Sultanahmet tram stop on a sunny morning at the end of February, the church resembles a broad-shouldered mountain with foothills clustered around it. The huge, unsightly buttresses, erected by the great Ottoman architect Sinan to keep the dome from collapsing, obscure one’s view of how it must have originally been designed to look. Yet all the domed appurtenances of dependent structures—the Ottoman türbes or tombs, the library, the house of the mosque’s official astronomer, the airy şadırvan built by Mahmut I in 1740 when Ayasofya (the building’s Turkish name) was a mosque—support the preeminence of the main dome and pay homage to it. The minarets the sultans’ architects added are outriders guarding the assertiveness of the building’s bulk.

Mahmut I’s octagonal şadırvan, or ablutions fountain, where Muslims washed themselves ritually before going into the mosque to pray, would be worth a visit even if there were no church here. Eight widely spread arches supported by willowy columns of grey marble hold up a wide, low-pitched canopy roof, its vast eaves giving protection against both the heat of a summer’s day and Istanbul’s long, rainy winters. The undersides of the eaves are fretted with slender strips of wood; above the eight arches, along the tops of the little walls, which gain a sense of lightness by being constructed of a white and grey variegated marble, you can make out a narrow band of red, white, and green design. Paralleling this band of decoration, just beneath it, runs another band of horizontal lozenges—emerald green—on which verses from the Qur’an are inscribed in low relief, picked out in gold. The lightness of this bagatelle is further enhanced by our being able to see right into the fountain itself, which is enclosed by a grille of gilded metal rising up into the dome by way of light, curving branches fashioned from wrought iron. The whole is topped by a little dome with a gold finial, echoing the more powerful domes of the church itself.

I felt I was finally beginning to get somewhere in understanding Ottoman architecture when it dawned on me that the Turks’ origins as a nomadic people account for many things about them, including the kinds of buildings they liked. The chief model for much Turkish domestic architecture is the tent. Look at the pavilions of the Topkapi Palace and you will see that the sultans felt most comfortable in places that opened themselves to the breezes of summer and could be heated with a charcoal brazier in winter. The low divans around the walls of their pavilions served as couches during the day and as beds at night. Bedding was rolled up and stored in built-in cupboards. The word konak, or mansion, according to the Redhouse dictionary, originally meant “a stopping place, a place to spend the night while travelling; a bivouac or temporary encampment.” We might even consider the etymology of the word “pavilion,” which is related to the French word papillon, “butterfly,” going back to a Latin stem that meant both “butterfly” and “tent.” Many of the Turks’ most delightful domestic buildings seem light as butterflies. The şadırvan of Mahmut II itself is modelled on a tent, its broad roof held up by thin columns as utilitarian as tent poles.


I am used to entering Hagia Sophia’s precincts through a gate opening off the big open space that lies along the south of the complex, a vantage point that pairs it with the Sultanahmet Mosque, or Blue Mosque, across the park with its fountain and garden. So it is hard to grasp that the church was once approached through a portico on its west side, a portico that no longer exists. An act of historical imagination is needed to eradicate the little street, with its youth hostel, tea garden and shops, that now parallels the church on the west, to mentally dig up the tram tracks that run uphill from the ferry landings at Eminönü, past the train station and Gülhane Park, in order to imagine the emperor and his retinue riding uphill to the arcade that once preceded the entrance.

In this democratic age you enter with little self-consciousness from the narthex into the nave through the Imperial Door, which was once reserved for the emperor and the patriarch. But once inside today, I take off my hat. I want nothing to obstruct my vision as I look up into the dome, which the ancients saw as being suspended from heaven on a golden chain. The circle of the dome, the half circles of the round arches and tympanum, pierced with dozens of little windows that flood the place with sunlight, thronged with dust motes that, by filling the space, define it visually, are like a series of wheels turning as the eye follows them, in perpetual motion.

Space needs to be defined or articulated in some way before we can apprehend it for what it is. This is true even of the Grand Canyon. What is most immediately obvious about Hagia Sophia is the huge volume of space it encloses. As the church was being finished, that space was made dazzling by the application of mosaics, which extended across its entire inner surface. I have read that at one time an area of four acres was covered with gold mosaics. Since I live on a piece of land exactly one acre in size, it is easy to let my imagination move slowly over our acre, multiply it by four, and mentally transfer that surface to the inside of the church where I am standing now, hat in hand, looking upward to the apex of the dome, fifty-six meters from the ground. I have read that it is as tall as a fifteen-story building.

You can imagine what this interior space was like when illuminated by hundreds of beeswax candles and clouds of frankincense from the altars. The massive circular chandeliers, which hold two dozen or more clear glass oil lamps the size of your hand, have been electrified; but still the low-wattage light they project through ancient, hand-blown glass lamps, glistening on marble pavement worn smooth by fifteen centuries of Christian and Muslim feet, is one of the loveliest sights I have ever seen.

Inside the church, once its overarching magnificence has had time to be absorbed, hundreds of smaller impressions come to the visitor. If you look back at the west wall, above the huge central door, your eye falls on a black-and-white marble plaque the size of two chessboards set one above the other against the wall. On the plaque is pictured a book propped on a throne, its pages lying open, framed by tiny classical pillars and an arch. A dove representing the Holy Spirit is suspended in midair as it descends into the pages of the opened book.

Moving in and out from the nave into aisles which are divided off by arcades, you walk, as among the trunks of mature trees in a grove, between verd antique and porphyry columns that support the lower arches, each column bound with a collar of lead at top and bottom. When I visit Hagia Sophia I always go back into the apse, into what would have been a little space behind the altar when the building functioned as a church, to look at a panel of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Iznik tiles picturing the Kaaba in Mecca. Just this one little panel, only a few feet tall and a couple of feet wide, inserted discreetly into the marble revetment under a little arch—the sea green of the tiles, the flowery plumes of decoration like elongated paisleys. Someone has repaired a broken bit by inserting a tile of completely different design—a single tile that would fetch a thousand pounds in an auction house in London.


I don’t know what lens would open wide enough to take in Hagia Sophia’s sense of space and light. Perhaps the large-format camera with which Ansel Adams photographed the Sierra Nevada would be up to the job. You climb up to the gallery in an attempt to get a better feeling for the size of the place, and look up into the dome from there. Then you walk to the east end of the gallery and try to get a good view of the mosaic of the Virgin with the Christ child on her knees in the half dome of the apse, or the huge figure of the archangel Gabriel in the south arch of the apse, or the few fragmentary feathers of the archangel Michael’s wings that remain. You gaze in wonder at the six-winged angels depicted in the east pendentives, trying to remember whether they are seraphim or cherubim, and which of the two are supposed to dwell closer to the throne of God.

While I am in the gallery, it pleases me to run my fingers over the initials visitors to the church carved into the marble railings at some early date. That they are Greek letters gives these acts of vandalism a little class. Today my son Andrew is with me. He succeeds in finding the curious characters carved into the railing of the south gallery, supposedly put there by Vikings at a time when those fearsome Northmen served the Byzantine Emperor as bodyguards. Andrew has a sharp eye, because he is also able to find the carved ship on a pillar in the north gallery near the mosaic portrait of the emperor Alexander. This man was so notorious that when he visited his predecessor and brother, Leo VI, on the latter’s deathbed in 912, the old emperor’s dying words were, “Here comes the man of thirteen months.” Leo’s words were prophetic: Alexander reigned for only thirteen months and died of apoplexy while playing polo drunk. It can’t be intentional, but Alexander is depicted in mosaic with so livid a countenance, you’d swear his portrait was executed when he had a hangover.

When I walk round the south gallery I like to stop for a moment at the tomb of Henricus Dandolo, the doge of Venice who personally led the Frankish troops of the Fourth Crusade in their sack of Constantinople in 1204. Dandolo is one of the great heroes of Venice; he was ninety years old and practically blind when he led the siege. In fixing a date for the demise of Byzantium, people tend to focus on 1453, when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks, but the real catastrophe for Constantinople came two and a half centuries earlier, and the destroyers were Christians like the Byzantines themselves. The city’s treasures were looted, carried away to Venice and other parts of Europe, and though the Byzantines regained power later in the thirteenth century, the empire was never as powerful again. After they retook their city, Dandolo’s bones were dug up and thrown to the dogs in the street. When the late Godfrey Goodwin, author of the classic book A History of Ottoman Architecture, conducted tours for his classes at Boğaziçi University, he would invite any student who felt so moved to spit on Dandolo’s grave.

Situated at the head of the west gallery, looking down the whole length of the church toward the high altar, is the loge belonging to the empress of Byzantium. She had the best seat in the house. From the intricate lacework of the white marble capitals to the verd antique columns arranged in groups of twos on either side—deliberately smaller than the tree-trunk pillars one sees elsewhere in the building—to the delicate lamps that flank the spot where she sat with her entourage, it is clear from the design, scale, and materials that this loge was specifically fashioned with the empress in mind. A circle of green Thessalian marble set into the pavement marks the spot where her throne stood.


Sultan Mehmet II, who would be known as Fatih, the Conqueror, was just twenty-one years old and had been sultan for little more than two years when he conquered what was then the most famous city in the world. He made his triumphal entry late in the afternoon of Tuesday, 29 May 1453, a scene described by the seventeenth-century Turkish chronicler Evliya Çelebi in his Seyahatname, or “narrative of travels”:

The sultan then having the pontifical turban on his head and sky-blue boots on his feet, mounted on a mule and bearing the sword of Muhammad in his hand, marched in at the head of seventy or eighty thousand Muslim heroes, crying out, “Halt not conquerors! God be praised! Ye are the conquerors of Constantinople!”

Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely, in Strolling Through Istanbul, take up the narrative:

The Conqueror rode directly to Haghia Sophia, the Great Church that was as renowned in Islam as it was in Christianity, and when he arrived there he dismounted and fell to his knees, sprinkling a handful of earth over his turban as a sign of humility. Fatih then surveyed the church and ordered that it be immediately converted to Islamic worship….“Tears fell from his eyes [wrote his biographer, Kritovoulos of Imbros] as he groaned deeply and passionately, ‘What a city have we given over to plunder and destruction!’”

This massive pile of stone absorbs a frightful amount of cold in winter. Today I open a window from the gallery when one of the guards is not looking, to get a view to the sunny outdoors. I discovered that these windows could be opened about fifteen years ago, and from the south gallery I took one of my favorite photos—a skyscape of dome after dome after dome. In the foreground were two türbes in the congeries of buildings that surround the cathedral— big, domed octagons topped with gilded finials, answered at a distance of two hundred meters by the domes of the Blue Mosque. It’s like standing on a ridge in the Himalayas, seeing the lines of peaks receding into the blue distance.

More recently I found I could open a window from the north gallery as well, and get a view in that direction across to the dome of Hagia Irene, which was the most important imperial church in the city before Hagia Sophia was built in 576. Today I discover one of the little windows at the eastern end of the north gallery, beyond the mosaic of the drunken emperor Alexander, push it open, and gaze out over the fountain of Ahmet III, to my mind the most pleasing creation of the Turkish rococo style in Istanbul, with its hipped roof sloping down at a forty-five-degree angle, its four little domeshaped lanterns, one on each slope of the roof, with a slightly larger lantern crowning the building itself, each of these sporting with a flourish a gilded finial. Along the upper walls, underneath the eaves, runs a calligraphic frieze of inlaid scarlet marble, with emerald green tiles. Paralleling this are other bands of decoration in tile and inlaid stone.

One imagines that the pavilions of paradise must resemble the fountain Ahmet III built here. Islam had its birth in the desert, and water plays a sacred role in its rituals, architecture, and symbolism. What might have been square angles in a more prosaic architecture are rounded and angled here, swelling out on each of its four corners to form a semicircle of little grilled windows where cold spring water was handed out to thirsty mosque-goers or petitioners approaching the Topkapi Palace, whose grounds stretch out behind Hagia Sophia. Since it is the sacred colour of Islam, what a good thing it is that green, whether matching the opacity of jade, the brilliance of emeralds, or the freshness of a newly opened leaf, is set off so perfectly in the Ottoman style by calligraphy or other decoration
in gold. Thus it was that the artists who worked in the employ of the sultans and pashas of Istanbul found a way to marry the simplicity of Islam’s naïve desert origins to the sumptuousness achieved by the Ottoman Empire, successor to Rome and Byzantium.

Andrew and I have been so caught up in the power that Sophia exerts that we have hardly noticed how cold it is until we go outside, sit where the courtyard of the cathedral once was, among bits of classical statuary and architectural fragments, and drink our little cups of strong, sugary tea. Just over the wall is the youth hostel where I stayed forty years ago. The day is sunny and still. The tea garden is serene and deserted, with an out-of-season stillness. It will be at least a month before the tourist business gets underway. Turks love roses, and the rose bushes here have been pruned, winter leaves and debris cleared away. My son and I drink tea, sensible of what we have absorbed from our visit to the massive old cathedral, which embodies so much of great architecture’s ability to make us feel happy.

Inside, within an immense volume of captured air, are the spirits of the Greek mathematician and geometrician who designed this marvel, the emperor who caused it to be built, the thousands of artists, workers, and artisans who made it a reality, the ghostly presence of the archangels whose feathery wings have not quite been eradicated from the walls, the emperor’s Viking bodyguards who sailed all the way here from the icy fjords of Norway, the bored churchgoers who carved their initials into the white marble railings to relieve the tedium of the protracted Orthodox liturgy. Here is the pale visage of the emperor Alexander, who enjoyed his last moments of existence drunk, galloping a polo pony, and the mosaic portrait of the empress Zoë, who, when her first two husbands died, had their faces chiselled off the wall and replaced by their successors in her affections. Finally come those who destroyed Byzantium in the name of more recent empires: the empty tomb of the brave, avaricious doge of Venice, who ordered his men to lift him off his ship and stand him blind among the crusaders attacking the city walls, and Sultan Mehmet II, in his enormous turban and his sky-blue boots, weeping over the city he had destroyed, quoting Persian poetry about life’s transitoriness.

The Call to Prayer

The call to prayer wakes me as I lie in bed in the dark. First a nearby muezzin declares, Allāhu Akbar. The phrase is often translated as “God is great,” but the morphology of Arabic is not simple, and in fact the word akbar is the comparative adjective from kabir, “big” or “great.” As my friend the Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa puts it, “the idea is that Allah is great(er) than all other presumed deities or creatures or beings.” Other singers from other mosques take up the call, sometimes seeming to compete with one another’s renditions, sometimes seeming to set up a dialogue. Ashhadu ana la ilaha illa Allah, “I declare that there is no God but God,” Ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasuluhu Allah, “I declare that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.” How many of these voices are live and how many recorded, I have no idea. But listening every dawn, I fancy I hear variations in the muezzins whose voices I have come to recognize.

Hayya A’lassalaah, “Gather in prayer.” Hayya A’lalfalaah, “Gather in goodness.” There are places in the city that lie within hearing distance of so many mosques that the effect can become like a surreal assault of voices and their echoes, the hard surfaces of stone and concrete and asphalt providing a sort of chamber for the reverberation of all the tones and halftones and quarter tones of these Arabic phrases sung with Turkish intonations. My aim each morning is to listen intently all the way through, and I am inevitably sorry when the melange of different voices ends, when the last echo drops away, because it means that one more morning now I have failed to concentrate all the way through, to hear the nuances of how each distinct voice performs. Allāhu Akbar, Allāhu Akbar, la ilaha illa Allah.

Then I try to make myself comfortable again under my bedclothes, even with the words fresh in my mind, picturing what would be happening if I were among those going to the mosque to pray. I would rise in the dark, find my clothes and pull them on, walk down the seven flights of marble stairs and out into the darkened street through the snow. In the mosque courtyard I would make my way to the sadırvan, pull off my shoes and socks, roll up my sleeves, and perform the ablutions: washing my feet and hands, letting water run down my forearms to the elbows, then washing my face and ears, running my wet hands over my hair. Pulling on my socks and shoes, I would stop at the mosque door to leave my shoes there and enter with the others. Inside I would line up shoulder to shoulder with the other men and perform namaz. Praying in a mosque gives one a great feeling of solidarity with other men. I can see how much I would value it if I lived in a traditional Muslim society and it was an inherent part of my life, just as I find it comforting to pray in a church.

But I am far too much of a rebel and freethinker, too humourous in the medieval sense of the word—in short, too Western and individualistic to accept orthodoxy and authority of any sort. I am drawn to mosques as an outsider and a lover of architecture. I love being inside these great buildings. When I first came to Istanbul I used to sit in the Blue Mosque, in those precincts that are now roped off to exclude outsiders, prop my interlinear copy of the Aeneid on a Qur’an stand, and read there the story of Aeneas’s wanderings. If I did that now I suspect I would be challenged.


In the eyes of the orthodox, dervishes have often seemed not quite respectable. No doubt that is one reason I feel drawn to them. Poets, in the eyes of many, are not quite respectable. Of many examples of the poète maudit in European poetry, Arthur Rimbaud stands at the head of the class. Like a kalender dervish, the young Frenchman went in for buggery, ate hashish, and ended by renouncing poetry itself in favour of running guns in Africa, dying destitute like a French version of Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisited. Jelal-ud-din Rumi was certainly no Rimbaud, but there was a wildness about him that makes him the perfect patron saint and national poet for the Turks, an emotional people given to excess, phlegmatic on the surface and slow to anger, but often hot-headed and unpredictable when pushed, particularly in matters of the heart and questions of honour. I have witnessed displays of anger, fights even, on the streets of Istanbul and behind its closed doors that have been frightening in their intensity.

Rumi’s long poem, the Mesnevi, is sometimes referred to as the Turkish Qur’an. I don’t read Persian, so when I wondered if there might not be something a bit soft-focus and New Agey about the English translations of Rumi and was curious what the poems were actually saying, I turned to the Turkish versions done by Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı, known for their faithfulness to the originals. I translated Gölpınarlı’s Turkish into English with help from Turkish novelist Elif Şafak. When there was a choice between being literal and being poetic, we tried to be as literal as possible. I think you will see how extreme, how passionate and uncompromising Rumi is.

Listen, how this flute complains; how it tells of estrangement.
It says: Ever since they cut me from my reedy bed, men have
cried and wailed when I cried—and women too.
I want a heart wounded by separation, so I can tell the pain of
He who is cut off from his essence looks for the time of
I wept and moaned in every gathering, with the well-off and
the poor.
Everyone in his own way became my friend; no one wondered
about the secrets I have inside of me.
My secret is no different from what I cry aloud; but the light to
understand it is not found in the eye or in the ear.
The body is not hidden from the soul, nor is the soul a secret
to the body; yet no one is permitted to see the soul.
The voice of the flute is fire, not wind; whoever does not have
that fire inside him, let him leave us.
The fire of love has struck the flute; the frenzy of love has
struck the wine.
The flute is one of a pair separated from a friend, and it is that
friend; it has torn the curtains, it has ripped away our veils.
The flute speaks of a path full of blood; it also tells the love
stories of Mejnun.
Who has seen a poison like the flute, or a cure like the flute?
Who has seen a breath-companion like the flute, or anyone
who yearns like the flute?
The secret of this knowing is no different from not-knowing;
the tongue’s only customer is the ear.
The days have passed in sorrow, and become nights; the days
of fire became my travelling companions, then burned
If the days pass and go, say this: Pass, go, we have no fear. You,
friend, stay. Nothing matches you for purity.
Everyone gets their fill of water except the fish; for those without
their daily bread the day lengthens and gets longer.
The unripe have no understanding of the ripe; none at all. That
being the case, it’s best to cut words short—Fare thee well!

It is said that the essence of Rumi’s teachings is contained in these eighteen lines. Though the word ayrılıklar is plural in Turkish, we have translated it in the singular as “estrangement.” Negotiating the singular and the plural in Turkish can be tricky, because Turkish sometimes uses the plural where English would use the singular. The word could be construed as “separation” as well. It comes from the adjective ayrı: different, separate, apart, split, individual. Sufism emphasizes the loneliness of the individual soul and its longing to be reunited with God. But since in Islamic mysticism nothing exists but God—la ilaha illa Allah—the soul that wishes to be reunited with the deity is of the same essence it wishes to be reunited with. Henry Corbin’s essential book about the Andalusian mystic Ibn ‘Arabi is called Alone with the Alone. This theology is illuminated by a line from the hadiths (sayings and legends) of the Prophet Muhammad: “I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known. So I created man.” The reed flute, or ney, is Rumi’s emblem for the soul. Cut from its place of origin, it sings of its desire for return. This longing, this loneliness, this consciousness of separation, is the essence of Turkish culture: “He who is cut off from his essence looks for the
time of reunion.”

Rumi clearly did not suffer fools gladly. He has time only for those who feel and understand the pain of longing—every other kind of company is a waste of time: “The voice of the flute is fire, not wind; whoever does not have that fire inside him, let him leave us” (Kimde bu ateş yoksa, yok olsun o kişi—”In whomever this fire is not, let that person not exist,” to put it a bit more literally.) Turkish uses metaphors of the raw and the ripe or cooked to speak of the foolish and the wise, the gormless and the initiated. King Lear‘s “Ripeness is all” would have resonated for Rumi. The last line is uncompromising and peremptory. He has said what he had to say, and that’s the end of it. As the Turkish proverb has it, Hoşaftan eşek ne anlar?, “What does a donkey know about fruit compote?”

This metaphysical loneliness and longing, which according to Islamic scripture even God feels, forms an undertone that runs right through Turkish culture. The word hasret—longing, nostalgia, yearning—occupies a privileged place in the lexicography of Turkish mysticism and poetry. Perhaps to no one does this sense of being cut off, of not belonging, apply more truly than to Turkish writers and intellectuals. In bridging the gap between Europe and Asia, in belonging to both cultures, it may also be true that they belong to neither. Murat Nemet-Nejat in Eda, his anthology of modern Turkish poetry, identifies the spirit of this poetry as “Sufism without God.” Orhan Pamuk, writing recently in The New York Times, says that since most of the population of contemporary Istanbul is from somewhere else, everyone feels like a stranger. This sense of dislocation helps explain the popularity of the arabesk music that flooded the city in the 1980s, expressing the alienation felt by Anatolian immigrants, who were cut off from and nostalgic for the traditional village culture they had left behind.

A counterpart to the Anatolians’ nostalgia for their villages is the alienation old Istanbulites feel, the sense that they have lost their city to the immigrants who have transformed its cosmopolitan way of life in recent decades. Once, on the eve of a trip I was making to Anatolia, a lady I know in Istanbul said to me, sarcastically, “Why go to Anatolia? It’s right here in Istanbul.” For one who is able to live in Istanbul simultaneously in the past and in the present, the awareness of a civilization which has come crashing down, an empire that has lost its power, wealth, most of its territory, as well as its influence in the world, the city breathes an all-pervasive melancholy. This melancholy, kasvet in Turkish, is the theme of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City.


In 1970 when I visited Konya in central Anatolia, where Rumi lived and wrote his Mesnevi, the first thing my travelling companion and I did was go to Rumi’s türbe. In a building next door, someone was playing the ney. Soon the plucked music of an oud joined in and then, hesitatingly, another player could be heard drawing his bow over the strings of a kemençe. Finally, as the rhythm quickened, yet another musician began to play softly on a hand drum. My friend and I sat on the ground underneath a window of the room the music was emanating from, and listened unobserved. In memory it seems like two hours or more. The evening cooled down, the stars came out, and eventually someone came over to the window, still not seeing us where we sat, and closed it.

I took it as a kind of teaching: for the moment, this much is opened to you, and no more. It was early autumn when I left Konya to travel east across Anatolia, crossing the border into Iran east of Erzurum, and the flat dusty landscape was for me a stage for transformation. Little groups of men sat drinking tea and smoking under big plane trees that were shedding their leaves as the year turned. “Leaving here,” I wrote in a poem called “Eight lines by Jelal-uddin Rumi,” published in my 1980 book The Knife and Other Poems:

I slip out the gates of the palace garden
as autumn stuns the trees with remembrance
and makes them come around again

—a memory of dervish flutes—

On that journey to the East, that pilgrimage, I travelled alone, sometimes joining up with other travellers for a few days, but mostly on my own. I felt many impediments falling away. Sometimes I felt I had slipped the skin of my familiar self and discarded it somewhere along the way, disappearing into something simpler, more primitive:

sleeping under leaves
dissatisfied and hungry         praying to the Great light
by day, and to the Moon, Our lady—

My only friends were the wolves.

The poem I am quoting leads up to a free translation of some of Rumi’s most famous lines. Only someone who can read Rumi in Persian, or who has seen a more literal translation than mine, can see how I have made it my own, perhaps distorting it slightly in the process. By changing “convent” to “caravan” I have orientalized a bit. But on my travels through Iran and Afghanistan I stayed more than once in caravan-serais, smoked water pipes and drank tea with gnarled old countrymen of a type I would later recognize when news photographs of mujahideen began to appear in Western newspapers. With these companions I took my lung-punishing turn stoking the narghile, its huge bowl of rough tobacco sometimes topped with a big chunk of hashish someone would have cut from a brick of the stuff. After an evening of smoke, tea, rice, and mutton sliced into chunks to skewer and roast over our open fire of holly oak, we would roll up in our blankets under the brilliant stars and listen to the wolves howl long into the night. Once I heard the bülbül, or nightingale, singing near Herat.

Here is my Rumi:

Come, come again, whoever you are
—wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving—
it doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come even though you have broken your vows
back there
A thousand times—
Come once more.

It is the spirit of the dervishes—not the orthodox, rule-infatuated ones, who, like some of the followers of any religion, live only to be correct—the wild ones, intoxicated with the spirit of something which to name is to distort. Part mythical, part imaginary, you can hear the presence of these beings, with their hasret, their yearning and sincerity, in traditional Turkish music—music of the Ottoman court as well as the saz music of the people. Perhaps music is the only language that can speak adequately of such matters.

The dervishes, their music, and the memory of their music—all this has led me far afield—southeastward from Istanbul to Konya, east from there into Persia, the spirit of which can hardly be separated from what we think of as Ottoman, and thus what we think of as Turkish—and from there to Afghanistan. When we journey east from Istanbul we recapitulate in reverse the path of migration the Turks took when they left central Asia in search of more fertile lands where they might graze their flocks and fight to win wealth and renown. A trip into Afghanistan takes us back in the direction of Rumi’s own life. He was born in Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, and his family fled the advance of the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, who destroyed Baghdad, putting an end to the Abbasid caliphate and making the waters of the Tigris run purple—red from blood, blue from the ink of the books from the city’s famous library, which these ignorant and destructive men pulled apart and threw into the river.

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Richard Tillinghast has published twelve books of poetry and five of creative nonfiction. His most recent nonfiction publication is Journeys into the Mind of the World: A Book of Places (University of Tennessee Press, 2017). He lived in Ireland for six years before moving back to the U.S. in 2011. He now divides the year between Hawaii and Tennessee. (updated 4/2020)

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