Whirling Dervish Sheikh Saved Christians in Konia

Whirling Dervishes by Augustus Hoppin, 1874

In my last post I mentioned the Cilicia massacres (a.k.a. Adana massacres). That reminded me of the reason there were no massacres in Konia [Konya]. Because I prefer to hear heart-warming stories at this time of the year, I will now tell you about Abdülhalim Çelebi, the Whirling Dervish Muslim Sheikh who was instrumental in saving the Christian Armenians and Greeks of Konia in 1909.

Terror reigned in Turkey for two or three weeks in April 1909. Sultan Abdulhamid II organized a counter-revolution in Constantinople to regain full power from the Young Turks who, eight months before, had demanded restoration of the constitution. His supporters, mainly Muslim Turks, rose up in the Cilicia region and attacked those who had supported the revolution in 1908. They were mainly Christians—Armenians and Greeks. It is called the Adana massacres because the city of Adana suffered the most deaths. However, ABCFM missionaries, and Scottish archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, who was travelling with his wife in Turkey at the time, reported that entire towns and villages in Cilicia and Syria were wiped out. It should be noted that there was fierce resistance, and 20,000-30,000 Christians and a minimum of 600 Turks were killed.

But I wondered: Why that area? Why not in Talas and Cesarea where I’m writing about? Why not elsewhere in Turkey? After considerable research, I discovered the reason. It wasn’t because only the sultan’s supporters in Adana were involved. As Ramsay noted, there was “an organised scheme of massacre . . . Every one we meet, Turk, Greek or Armenian, knows and tells how critical the situation was. The simultaneousness of the preaching, and the similarity of the circumstances, demonstrate that a single plan was carried out in many places. . . . Whether it was with or without the cognisance of the old Sultan, no proof can be discovered.” But it didn’t happen in Cesarea because the mutessarif [governor of a region within a province] thwarted the attempts to riot and kill. It didn’t happen elsewhere because other governors and people took action, too. The story of Konia shows how it was organized . . . and how a massacre was prevented.

The Events in Konia

Three hodjas [Muslim teachers or scholars], either real or disguised as hodjas, from outside Konia, arrived in the city and began preaching in the mosques. They urged people to make a jihad [holy war] against Christians and to kill them. Naturally everyone panicked—Christians and Muslims alike. Rather than do anything about the situation, the Governor said he was sick and didn’t leave his house for six days. In the interim the Dragoman [professional interpreter] for the British Consulate, a young Armenian, telegraphed the Consul who was out of the city at the time, and received permission to open the gates and offer refuge to Armenian and Greek citizens of Konia.

Meanwhile, Abdülhalim Çelebi, the Sheikh of Mevlevi order of Sufi Muslims, made speeches urging Muslims not to attack Christians. The Mevlevi were commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes because of their meditative practice of whirling (dervish being a member of the order). Ramsay wrote that Çelebi was “one of the most highly respected personages in Turkey, whose family has always been noted for liberality of mind and broad views.” Before Abdulhamid II, it had been the custom that the Mevlevi sheikh would gird the sword of Osman on the Sultan during his investiture. The people of Konia heeded his words. There were no attacks.

Apparently one of the hodjas was arrested while he was “preaching massacre at the door of a mosque.” A soldier, an Albanian officer by the name of Murad Bey, also spoke against the jihad and helped avert a catastrophe. “It is quite true that friendly feeling has reigned always in Konia between Turks and Christians,” said Ramsay. And he noted that it was also true that Murad and and Çelebi “were active in using their eloquence and influence.”

The Whirling Dervishes

In 2008, UNESCO inscribed the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony [the whirling meditation] as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Here’s a 2-minute video demonstrating it.

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Illustration from On The Nile by Augustus Hoppin, 1874.

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