In a cavernous restaurant in the walled ancient quarter of this capital, two skirted men slowly twirled to rhythmic drumming and chanting of the zikr, a mesmerizing incantation of the name of God.
Mohammed and Maher Jamal are members of a nearly 800-year-old branch of Sufi Islam, a mystical movement that uses poetry, singing and dancing to reach a trance-like state of communion with Allah, the Islamic God.
The Jamal brothers are known as whirling dervishes--masters of a spinning dance that they say channels Allah's energy earthward.
By day, Mohammed is a furniture builder and vendor, and Maher works as an accountant. But their true calling is Sufi dance.
"This is my heritage. My heart is in it," Maher said. "When I don't do it I feel something is missing in my life. It's in my blood."
As part of an end-of-the-millennium wave of interest in mystical and spiritual teachings from eastern Buddhism to Jewish Kabbalism, Sufi whirling has attracted new devotees in North America. But in Syria, where the art is passed from grandfather to father to son, the ranks of the initiated are dwindling.
At its height 200 years ago, the sect comprised more than 2,000 people, but the Jamals are among only 25 men practicing the art in Syria today, about half as many as 50 years ago. Another 60 dervishes reportedly live in southern Turkey, where the spinning practice originated under the Sufi master Jalal Din Rumi, who lived from 1207 to 1273.
"This is a very sad development," 28-year-old Mohammed Jamal said of the decline of the dervish tradition. But Maher, 35, who has trained his 9-year-old son to spin, is more optimistic.
"As long as there is one father passing it on to his son, it won't disappear," he said. "With God's help our faith won't die out."
To be accepted for training in Syria, a dervish must be at least 5 years old and commit himself to living as an upstanding Muslim.
Until four years ago, the Jamals confined their spinning to private homes and mosques. But after several trips to Europe, where they twirled in public, they agreed to a request by the proprietor of the Ommayad Palace Restaurant to allow guests--including many Western tourists--to witness their dance.
Maher would not divulge what he thinks about as he whirls, propelling himself with his right foot as his left stays anchored to the ground. But he described the practice as a form of worship.
"Spiritually," he said, "I am in a different world."
The counterclockwise ritual is designed to mirror the Earth's revolution around the sun. Maher says the technique requires enormous concentration and stamina. Every gesture, whether crossed arms, outstretched arms or deep bow, carries a different meaning. The footwork is extremely important, he says, "not only for balance, but because sometimes we are eight people turning at one time and we cannot bang into each other."
Often performed in larger groups, the ritual seeks to unite three aspects of human nature--the mind, the heart and the body--in an exercise aimed at intimacy with God. The choreography and costumes are laden with symbolism.
Whirling dervishes wear a tubular camel-hair hat known as a sikke, which represents a tombstone for the ego. Their wide, white skirts represent the ego's shroud. In removing a black cloak before beginning to rotate, the dervish appears to cast off his earthly self to be spiritually reborn.
At the beginning of the ritual, by holding his arms across his chest, the dervish is testifying to God's unity. When his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God's grace, he stares at his left hand, which is turned downward to transmit that grace toward the earth.