The mystic writings of the Persian poet known as Rumi (1207–1273) are generally considered to be the supreme expression of Sufism, the mystical trend in Islamic thought and culture. This exhibition coincides with the eight-hundredth anniversary of the poet-philosopher's birth. On view are nearly three dozen works from the Museum's Islamic art collection—including miniature paintings, Islamic calligraphy, ceramics, metalwork, glass, and textiles created between thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries—that evoke the world in which he lived and suggest the scope of his enduring legacy.
Rumi was born in 1207 in the oasis of Balkh, in what is now northern Afghanistan, to a Persian-speaking family. To avoid the Mongol invasions, the family moved westward through Iran, Iraq, and Syria, meeting famous writers and mystics, such as the revered poet Attar, who authored the finest spiritual parable in the Persian language, "The Concourse of the Birds." The poem is represented in the exhibition by five pages from a lavishly illustrated manuscript. Two of the pages were painted when the manuscript was originally produced in Herat (Afghanistan) in around 1488 and the other three were added in Isfahan (Iran) in 1609. The best-known illustration is from the latter group, and shows the birds on their quest to seek a spiritual leader, a symbol of mankind in search of God.
The family's flight ended in 1226 in the Anatolian city of Konya—capital of the Seljuk Turkish sultanate of Rum, from which the poet's name derives. Rumi settled, taught, and composed here until his death in 1273. Although Konya's sultans were forced to pay tribute to the Mongols in 1243, the city remained a safe haven for Islamic culture, gathering outstanding minds from far horizons in a tormented age.
In Konya, where he was influenced by the teachings of the Spanish-Arab metaphysical thinker Ibn Arabi and the religious mendicant (or "dervish") Shams, Rumi himself founded the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes and instituted the ecstatic dance ritual for which the "whirling dervishes" are known to this day. A miniature painting of the fifteenth century from Herat (Afghanistan) beautifully illustrates dervishes performing the dance, typified by a spinning motion that symbolizes the circling spheres of the cosmos.
The Grand Masters of the Mevlevi Order, lineal descendants of Rumi, eventually became the most revered religious dignitaries in the Ottoman Turkish realm. By the seventeenth century, only the Grand Master was considered spiritually eminent enough to present each new Ottoman sultan with the regalia symbolizing his investiture: a sumptuous jewel-encrusted ceremonial sword. A highlight of the current installation is one such sword, from the Museum's Department of Arms and Armor, comprising a seventeenth-century Iranian blade, an eighteenth-century Indian jade grip, and a nineteenth-century Ottoman Turkish emerald-studded scabbard. It is displayed beside a mendicant's bowl, contrasting the ostentatious regalia of the sultan (a worldly king) with the holy poverty of the dervish (a king in the realm of the spirit).