Roses for Kerā Khātūn

Few Sufis in history have achieved as much renown as Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273), also widely known as simply Mawlānā, ‘our master.’ Of several hagiographical texts dealing with the life of Rūmī, the most expansive and best known is Manāqib al-‘ārifīn by Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, written in the early 1300s, decades after Rūmī’s death. In addition to Rūmī’s life, Aflākī includes the lives of several other saintly figures associated with Rūmī, drawing upon what seems to have been a vast reservoir of stories and anecdotes available to him. The resulting text, while imbued with many of the conventions of Sufi hagiography, also contains glimpses into everyday life in 13th century Konya. Formerly the center of the Seljuk Empire, Konya was by the lifetime of Rūmī under the rule of the Mongol Ilkhanids, albeit as a somewhat peripheral, frontier-like province. As had been the case under the Seljuks, Anatolia continued to be a place of cross-cultural interaction and struggle, and while increasingly politically decentralized and fragmented, host to both outstanding scholars and to networks of merchants and traders. Muslims may have been the majority population by Rūmī’s time, but members of various Christian confessions were still sizable and probably made up the majority in some places.

In the story below, in addition to the argument for the exalted nature of Mawlānā’s spiritual state, we get a glimpse of the market culture of Konya, and its possible ties to distant places. We also see some of the possibilities in the life of a woman in this period; the account is, not insignificantly, attributed to a woman, Mawlānā’s wife. Her maidservant acts as her representative in the market, unsurprising for a woman of exalted social class in this period. The account is also shot through with a rich sensuality and aesthetic sensibility, summoning for us not just sights and sounds of medieval Konya, but even smell- which is here bound up with the memory of sanctity, activated through the long-lasting lingering of the beautiful odor of the miraculous roses: memory that must be guarded lest it be misused, but, in the right noses, is both spiritually and sensually pleasing.

A rose by the Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukharī, c. 1733.
A rose by the Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukharī, c. 1733.

It is also transmitted that Mowlānā’s wife, Kerā Khātūn- God have mercy on her- who was a second [Virgin] Mary with regard to her unsullied life and the purity of her honor, related: ‘One day in the depths of winter Mowlānā was seated in seclusion with Shams-e Tabrīzī, and Mowlānā was leaning on Shams al-Dīn’s knee. I had placed my ear against a crack in the door in their direction to hear the secrets they were saying and to learn what was going on between them. Suddenly I beheld the wall of the house open and six awesome men of the invisible realm came in. They said salām, did obeisance, and placed a bouquet of roses before Mowlānā. And they sat there in complete concentration without uttering a single word, until it was close to the time of the midday prayers. Mowlānā indicated to Shams al-Dīn: “Let us perform the prayers. You act as prayer leader.” Shams al-Dīn said: “No one else can act as prayer leader when you are present.”

Mowlānā led the prayers and when the prayers were over, the six esteemed individuals, having paid their respects, rose and went out again through the wall. Due to this awesomeness I fainted. When I recovered my senses, I saw that Mowlānā had come outside and he gave me the bouquet of roses, saying: “Look after this!”

I sent a few petals of this rose to the shop of the perfume sellers to ask: “We have never seen this kind of rose before. Where does this rose come from and what is its name?” All the perfume sellers were amazed at the freshness, color, and fragrance of the rose, saying: “In the depths of winter where has such a wondrous rose come from?”

As it happened, there was a reputable gentleman in that company by the name of Sharaf al-Dīn al-Hendī who was always going to India on business and bringing back strange and wondrous merchandise. When they showed him the roses, he said: “This is the Indian rose. It grows particularly in that country in the area of Ceylon. That being the case, what is it doing in the clime of Rūm? I must find out the circumstances of how this rarity came to be in Rūm.”

The maidservant of Kerā Khātūn took the petals and, returning to the house, reported what had happened. Kerā Khātūn’s amazement increased a thousandfold. Suddenly Mowlānā came in and said: “Kerā, keep this bouquet of roses hidden and do not show it to any outsider. Concealed persons from the sanctuary of generosity and the caretaker of the delightful garden of Eram, who are the Pivots of India, have brought this for you as a gift that it may convey vigor the palate of your soul and give pleasure to your body’s eye. By God, by God, look after it well lest the evil eye afflict it.’

And it is said that Kerā Khātūn kept these petals until her final breath. But it happened that she gave a few petals from the bouquet to Gorjī Khātūn, the wife of the sultan, and this she did with Mowlānā’s permission. Whenever someone suffered pain in the eye, once a petal was rubbed on it he would be cured. The color and fragrance of these roses never underwent change thanks to the blessing of those esteemed persons whose bosom was perfumed with musk.

Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, Manāqib al-‘ārifīn, trans. by John O’Kane, 67-68

A basket of rose petals and bottles of rosewater, Fes, 2008.
A basket of rose petals and bottles of rosewater, Fes, 2008.

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