ISTANBUL, Turkey — He died in 1273, but his poetry and message of tolerance have made Rumi the most celebrated mystical poet in the Islamic world, from the Balkans to Bengal.

This icon of Islamic civilization (or of Afghan, Iranian or Turkish national heritage) also holds global sway.

There are hundreds of Facebook groups dedicated to the poet: One of them has more than  80,000 members. Rumi nightclub in Buenos Aires caters to Argentina’s most glamorous. In New York one can read Rumi scrawled on darkened subway walls and bus stops. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing/There is a field/I’ll meet you there,” reads one line, seen recently by this correspondent printed across an ad for a poetry slam on a bus in Brooklyn.

On the 800th anniversary of Rumi’s birth, UNESCO declared a commemorative year, striking a medal with the poet's imagined likeness.

Dervishes wait backstage before a performance in Istanbul.
(Nichole Sobecki/GlobalPost)

But nowhere does Rumi’s philosophy hold more sway than here in Turkey.

As the 736th anniversary of his death dawned on Dec. 17, his followers, the Mevlevi religious order that Rumi founded, honored him with performances across the country, from Konya (where Rumi is buried) to cosmopolitan Istanbul.

Watching the Mevlevi sufi dancers, or whirling dervishes, borders on the sublime.

In English, the name sounds silly, but the age-old religious performance is gripping. The rituals of the dervishes possess a highly structured form within which the gentle turns become increasingly dynamic as the individual dervishes strive to achieve a state of trans.

For the performers, the whirling motion is a form of dhikr, or remembrance of God.

When I asked about its significance I was answered in parable.

One day, I was told, Rumi was walking through the town marketplace when he heard the rhythmic hammering of the goldbeaters. In his ears, the beats of the hammers became "la elaha ella'llah" or in English, "no god, but God." So entranced in the happiness of this message, he stretched out both of his arms and began to spin. With that, the practice of Sema — and the dervishes of the Mevlevi order — were born.

But while deeply rooted in tradition, many today are adapting the ancient rituals to be more relevant for their modern, urban lives.

For most of history, cultural and religious pressures led women to hold their Sema separately from men. Now, however, new organizations of worshippers are changing the rules, bringing men and women together in this gripping performance.

“Today women and men work in every occupation together, ride buses and trains together, and perform the rites of the pilgrimage together,” says Aysegul Altun, a member of The Contemporary Lovers of Mevlana. “Thus the Sema is an appropriate place for them to worship together.”

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