The Anguish of the Mutrib: A Liturgy of Ecstasy and Its Abolition

After the presidential decree of 1925 that declared Sufi orders in the new Republic of Turkey to be illegal, a visitor came to call on Ahmed Remzi Dede, the last shaykh of the Mevlevihane at Üsküdar. When he discovered that his friend was not at home, he wrote a gazel and left it for him. Remzi Dede in turn added three lines to each couplet to produce a remarkable tahmis in which he lamented the closure of the Mevlevihanes. He believed the decree to be a catastrophe that barred the gates to the other world, and he described the anguish of the musicians whose skills had been essential to the performance of Mawlawi ritual.

To explain why Remzi Dede wrote in such terms, I shall describe the emergence of the Mawlawi sama from the ecstatic dance of Jalal al-Din Rumi and its codification into a liturgical performance of remarkable sophistication and complexity. This process reached its zenith when the centre of Mawlawi culture moved from the great asitane in Konya to the five Mevlevihanes of Istanbul. Not only were they close to the imperial court and to the wealthy and sophisticated circles that served it, they were usually controlled by a small number of families that provided shaykhs who were themselves often excellent musicians and gifted poets in Persian as well as in Turkish. I shall therefore draw upon a description of the performance of the liturgy by Resuhi Baykara, the younger brother of the last shaykh of the Yenikapı Mevlevihane, which has been translated into English for the time.

As a conclusion to the panel, I shall also place the closure of the Mevlevihanes in the context of a new Turkish nationalism and describe its effect upon the Persianate legacy of the Ottoman era.