Cover image for Cities and Saints: Sufism and the Transformation of Urban Space in Medieval Anatolia By Ethel Sara Wolper

Cities and Saints

Sufism and the Transformation of Urban Space in Medieval Anatolia

Ethel Sara Wolper


$93.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02256-7

152 pages
9" × 10"
27 b&w illustrations/15 maps

Buildings, Landscapes, and Societies

Cities and Saints

Sufism and the Transformation of Urban Space in Medieval Anatolia

Ethel Sara Wolper

“A significant addition to the literature.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In recent years, Sufism has become all but synonymous with the mystic poetry of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273) and the ritual "whirling" of dervishes from Turkey. This branch of Islam does, however, have a long, complex history, and spiritual retreat was only one aspect of its significance. In medieval Anatolia, Cities and Saints contends, Sufis made alliances that gave dervish lodges powers so vast that they were able to alter the layout of cities and serve as the means of forging new social bonds.

Through close examination of the design and function of medieval Sufi buildings in several Anatolian cities, Ethel Sara Wolper shows that dervish lodges became sites where a new ruling elite promoted the cult of Sufi saints. Wolper's discussion, enriched by the use of a wide range of primary sources, goes on to chart the role Sufis and their patrons played in the establishment of a new urban order anchored in dervish lodges built near city gates, markets, and along major thoroughfares.

Highly original, Cities and Saints unites architectural history with the study of urban space and the spread of Islam. It will be an important reference for students of community formation in the Middle East as well as historians of art, architecture, and religion.

“A significant addition to the literature.”
“Wolper’s method is on the whole solid and very persuasive. Her study is one of the most accessible and clearly illustrated treatments of the immensely important subject of Muslim pious endowments I have read. Her analysis of the various socio-religious constituents of the lodges is very well done, and her chapter on women in lodge life is a fine contribution to the study of gender in medieval Muslim societies. Excellent photographs, plans, and city-maps illustrate her argument clearly and efficiently. For readers with a prior interest in medieval Islam in particular, this work will open up new avenues of inquiry, especially in relation to Sufism’s role in shaping religious community beyond the orbit of ruling Muslim dynastic authority.”
“Wolper both makes fresh contributions to the unearthing and evaluation of the relevant architectural record during a key transitional period and opens up new avenues of thinking for historians of Sufism in understanding community formation and institutionalization. . . . It is to be hoped that Wolper will continue to apply this same combination of scholarly rigor and innovative approach to other regions and periods of Anatolian Sufi history.”
“In the short and elegant Cities and Saints: Sufism and the Transformation of Urban Space in Medieval Anatolia, Ethel Wolper examines the dervish lodges erected in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in three Anatolian cities—Amasya, Sivas, and Tokat—and the way in which they fostered Sufi traditions and practices. . . . Architecturally, the monuments are vividly presented with very good photographs and newly drawn plans of the buildings and their urban locations.”
Cities and Saints gives the reader a feel for the dervish lodge as a structure and the attraction it exerted on the local population. . . . The reader feels a participant in the slow process by which the dervish lodge displaced the madrasa and by which the dynamic of the city was thereby rerouted away from its old symbolic center.”

Ethel Sara Wolper is Assistant Professor at the University of New Hampshire.




Glossary of Essential Terms

A Note on Usage and Transliteration

List of Illustrations


Part I Buildings and Religious Authority in Pre-Ottoman Anatolia

1. Visual Authority and Sufi Sanctification: Negotiating Elite Survival After the Mongol Conquest

2. The Patron and the Sufi: Mediating Religious Authority Through Dervish Lodges

Part II Dervish Lodges and Urban Spaces: Sivas, Tokat, and Amasya

3. Dervish Lodges and the Transformation of City Spaces

4. City Streets and Dervish Lodges: Constructing Spiritual Authority in Sivas, Tokat, and Amasya

Part III Audiences and Dervish Lodges: Proclamations and Interpretations

5. Dervish Lodges and the Transformation of Resident Populations: Christians, Craftsmen, and Akhīs

6. Women as Guarantors of Familial Lines: Dervish Lodges and Gender Representation in Pre-Ottoman Anatolia

7. Islamization and Building Conversion: Epic Heroes After the Bābā Rasūl Revolt



Select Bibliography



The Vilāyetnāme (Book of sanctity) of Hājjī Bektāsh recounts a meeting between a wandering dervish and a monk. In the story, the dervish was sent to deliver wheat to the Christian monk. Along the way, he sold the wheat to starving townspeople and replaced much of it with straw and dust. When the dervish turned his load over to the monk, he was impressed with the monk’s hospitality and began to think that the monk would make a good Muslim. The monk, having understood the dervish’s thoughts, informed him that “he was already a Muslim, but he was afraid to be such a Muslim as the dervish who had betrayed the trust of his master by selling some of the grain.” At that moment, church services began, and Christians entered the church. When the service was over and the last Christian had left the church, the monk led the dervish into the church and closed the door. He then lifted a stone slab and opened a door hidden underneath. The door opened into a room holding a tall dervish cap and a mihrāb (prayer niche). The monk donned the cap, prayed at the mihrāb, and “informed the astonished dervish that he was himself a Bektāshī dervish.” After his prayer, the “monk” removed his dervish garb and put on again his Christian garment.

This anecdote underlines some of the contradictions between the nature of religious belief in medieval Anatolia and the contemporary perception of that belief. The wise Christian monk, who was also a Bektāshī dervish, understood that true religious feeling and belief were different from the appearance and trappings of faith; in this story, even contemporary beholders were easily confused by the tricky interplay of substance and shadow of religious sentiment. Not surprisingly, modern scholarship, in its efforts to understand the religious milieu of medieval Anatolia, sometimes forgets the complex historical, religious, and cultural developments that shaped it. The following study concentrates on a crucial element in these developments: the dervish lodges built in central Anatolia between the second half of the thirteenth century and the second half of the fourteenth century, when Hājjī Bektāsh and other dervish leaders began to have a significant following. These dervishes tried to impose their understanding of the world onto a region undergoing rapid transformation by large numbers of immigrants and a breakdown of central authority. With the help of local amīrs (military and political leaders) and other leaders who had prospered from newly acquired landholdings, dervishes founded dervish lodges as centers for communal worship and the standardization of their practices. These dervish lodges eventually became pilgrimage sites and commercial centers where vigorous new communities came into being.

<comp: insert fig. 1 approximately here>

In the span of a hundred years, at least fifteen dervish lodges were built in the important trading cities of Sivas, Tokat, and Amasya (fig. 1). In comparison to the few lodges built in these cities before the mid–thirteenth century, a visitor or resident would have noticed this large number of new dervish lodges because of both their number and their prominent location within these three cities. For example, by the second half of the fourteenth century, dervish lodges occupied sites along major roads leading to three of the six gates of Sivas (see fig. 13), at the eastern and western entrances to Amasya (see fig. 19), and oriented toward the single entrance and exit of Tokat (see fig. 16). There were four dervish lodges near Tokat’s primary markets, two near Amasya’s market, and one at each of the three markets of Sivas. Generally, as in the example of Sivas, dervish lodges, markets, and city gateways were close to each other, so that both residents and visitors would have encountered them. Furthermore, the time between these encounters with the different lodges could have been short, because these cities were near each other along well-established trade routes running from the southeast to the northwest.

Beginning in the thirteenth century, Sivas, Tokat, and Amasya became major immigration and trade sites for Muslims traveling from Iran and Central Asia. At the same time, these cities were located in an area that was primarily Christian. The Muslim elite who ruled these cities were expected to support a number of distinct religious and educational services for Muslim devotional activity. Yet, because these cities had large non-Muslim populations, their rulers faced a variety of challenges. Between the mid–thirteenth and the mid–fourteenth centuries, more dervish lodges were endowed in Sivas, Tokat, and Amasya than any other pious institutions, suggesting that dervish lodges were seen as a response, if not a solution, to some of the new problems facing the rulers of these cities. What this study attempts to demonstrate is how these local leaders used these buildings to support and foster local communities connected to dervishes. Not only did these dervish lodges provide each community with a geographical and spiritual center, they also became the physical structures around which new urban formations were organized.

Aims and Approaches

The main goal of this book is to examine the role of dervish lodges in religious and cultural transformation. To this end, the book combines three traditionally discrete fields: the history of Islamic architecture, the history of pre-Ottoman Anatolia, and the history of Sufism. It draws upon these fields to construct a picture of dervish lodges as both buildings and institutions and asks two separate but interrelated questions about them. The first focuses on how the placement, orientation, and structure of these buildings changed the hierarchy of spaces in three Anatolian cities between the mid–thirteenth and mid–fourteenth centuries. The second question addresses how dervish lodges worked as places where different types of authority—religious, spiritual, and political—were mediated.

As in any study of the role of architecture in social change, this book is based on a number of assumptions regarding how people interact with their environment. The most important assumption is that the organization of urban space has a major effect on one’s perception and experience of the world. Urban spaces are important because they form a spatial order that distinguishes a range of choices for the pedestrian by determining what buildings and sites he or she can or cannot see, and how easily. The resulting visual hierarchy helps to define the city’s dominant features; in consequence, any significant change in the arrangement of urban spaces can redefine what those dominant features are. Thus, major changes to urban space alter not only daily patterns of behavior but, to some extent, world outlooks.

At the same time, this study recognizes that no matter how much society employs architecture and urban space as a means to stabilize itself, architecture’s inherent confrontation between space and its use dictates that space is constantly unstable and on the verge of change. In as simple an act as navigating city spaces, pedestrians always seek to alter the spatial order to suit their own needs. In such a way, changes in the spatial order reflect the dynamic between a preconceived hierarchy of spaces and the revision of that hierarchy by the visitors and residents navigating them.

This study, then, asks what made people support, live in, and visit dervish lodges and not other buildings. Although this question may seem to be a simple one, answering it requires a knowledge of how medieval audiences understood their world. I argue that their location within cities, their accessibility to the public, and the literature on them worked together in constructing new meanings, as well as creating and shaping new audiences, for them.

To address the dynamic interrelationship between audiences and buildings, the book is divided into three parts, each of which focuses on a different moment in a building’s history: the initial funding and construction, the moment of completion, and the succeeding years of its history. Thus, each part examines a different set of relationships between buildings and their audiences. In the first, I focus on the mystically inclined religious elites who fled to the Seljuk court after the Mongol invasions of the early thirteenth century, and argue that competition among these figures created a situation where buildings, especially dervish lodges, took on an increased importance as visual markers of religious prestige, what I call visual authority. In addition, I point out that some of the social tensions caused by the intermixing of Christian residents and Türkmen immigrants were alleviated by dervish lodges: institutions that were relatively open and provided a wide range of social services. Finally, this part explains that rulers who supported dervish lodges were eligible for unique tax benefits because of the flexibility of these institutions.

In Part II, the focus turns to the actual buildings and examines how they were integrated into the visual and social environments of these three cities. Using the layout of dervish lodges in combination with information from endowment deeds, I discuss in this part how and why formal changes were made to the structure of dervish lodges and how these changes were tied to ritual practices. In Chapter 3, I document the major building activity for four twenty-five-year intervals in Sivas, Tokat, and Amasya. I also explore changes in the spatial order of these cities by examining how the construction of new buildings and the appropriation and adaptation of existing monuments altered the experience of city residents.

Part III looks at these buildings as repositories of history and as monuments to the foundation of the Sufi communities that began to form in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. I examine such questions as how buildings appeared in Sufi literature and how this literature looked at the role of Christians. Because a large number of dervish lodges mention women in their building inscriptions, I use this part to reevaluate the role of women in the Sufi communities of pre-Ottoman Anatolia. As guarantors of familial lines, women became important emblems of regional dynastic alliances. Finally, through an examination of the spatial and spiritual networks commanded by these lodges, I conclude this section with a focus on how communal identities were extended to other regions and time periods in Anatolia and the Middle East.

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