Whirling dervish ceremonies were started as a form of meditation by Jalaluddin Rumi, the famous Sufi Muslim mystic and poet, in the 13th century. The Persia-born Rumi — who was living in Konya, then the capital of the Turkish Seljuk Empire — told his followers, “There are many roads which lead to God. I have chosen the one of dance and music.” He would fast, mediate and then dance to reach a state of unparalleled enlightenment. Inspired, other sects started to spread his dance, called the sema, throughout the Ottoman Empire. The most renowned sect was the Mevlevi order; dance participants were called semazen. By the 15th century, the order had established rules for the ritual to maintain its myriad traditions.
Dancers wear long white robes with full skirts, which symbolize the shrouds of their egos, art historian Nurhan Atasoy of the Turkish Cultural Foundation wrote in “Dervis Ceyizi,” her book on dervish clothing. On the dancers’ heads sit tall conical felt hats called sikke, ranging from brown to gray to black depending on their sect; these represent the tombstones of their egos. Over the robes, the dancers wear long dark cloaks, which embody the wearers’ worldly life and are cast off during the ceremony. When the dancer is finally wearing only his long white robe, he is assumed to be without fault and ready to start the mesmerizing complex whirls that define the sema.
The dancers, who fast for many hours before the ceremony, start to turn in rhythmic patterns, using the left foot to propel their bodies around the right foot with their eyes open, but unfocused. Their whirling is fueled by accompanying music, which consists of a singer, a flute-player, a kettle-drummer and a cymbal player. As the dancers turn, the skirts of their robes rise, becoming circular cones, as if standing in the air on their own volition. A team of researchers found that the edges of spinning skirts experience accelerations “of about four times Earth gravity”, reporting that the skirts “carry cusped wave patterns which seem to defy gravity and common sense.”
In 1925, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president, closed all the orders and hermitages as part of his secularization policies. For decades, the dervishes had to retreat underground. In 1956, even though legislation still outlawed these Sufi sects, the Turkish government revived the whirling dervish ceremony as a cultural asset. Dancers began to perform on the anniversary of the death of Rumi, a tradition that has led to an annual nine-day December festival in Konya. During this period, Turkish dervishes worked to spread the dance outside their country to preserve the pure sema traditions. In 1963, Munir Celebi, a direct descendant of Rumi, arrived at the philosophy-based Study Society in London to teach 60 students to turn.
“They wanted to preserve the dance in its original form and not just be a tourist attraction,” said Philip Jacobs, who has been whirling for 43 years and still leads twice-monthly sema ceremonies in London.
Although the government eased its regulations in the 1990s to allow dervishes to perform ritualistic ceremonies, critics contended that because the ceremonies have been commercialized for paying audiences, damage to Turkey’s cultural jewel had already been done. This was the sense I had at the sema I attended at the cultural center, and a couple of my fellow audience members agreed with that assessment. “We fell like the show was more touristic than spiritual. We would like to see the dance performed by a more religious sect,” said Maxime LeClercq, 27, a French citizen who was visiting from her home in Britain.
Elifnaz Caliskan, a Turkish citizen in graduate school at University of Maryland, has attended many sema ceremonies in Konya and Istanbul. She said by email that while visitors can see a show at any type of venue, “if you want to feel the love, you should go to a dervish lodge.” During the past decade, a number of lodges have been reestablished in Istanbul — perhaps in a resurgence of cultural pride, or in response to the fact that in 2008, the Mevlevi ceremony was cited in the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, the arm of the United Nations that focuses on education, science and culture. These lodges include the Galata Dervish Lodge, which was built in 1491 and houses a museum; the Yenikapi Dervish Lodge, which opened as Istanbul’s largest lodge in the 16th century and is set on beautiful rolling grounds with a cemetery populated by Ottoman-Era sultans; and the Bahariye Dervish lodge, which was founded in 1613 and is located on the coastline of the Golden Horn.
We had originally planned to visit a dervish lodge, but, when we arrived, there was unexpectedly no ceremony that day (I recommend double-checking schedules close to your trip).
We wound up attending a ceremony at Hodjapasha, a cultural center built in a restored Turkish hammam, a traditional bathhouse. The center had a small gallery showcasing different styles of dervish clothes and instruments with details about the history. Sweet drinks and tea were served as we waited for the red velvet curtains to open. Although the information was worthwhile, the vibe of the center felt very manufactured, as if the audience was being shuffled through the paces.
Ceremonies generally follow this pattern: They start with a brief announcement about etiquette, such as not to talk, use cellphones, take photographs, applaud or touch the dancers. (Some ceremonies don’t allow young children.) These rules aren’t in place just because the sema is a religious ceremony to be treated respectfully. According to Jacobs, the full attention of the audience is integral to the success of the sema performance. If spectators are engaged in the process, “you feel a light coming off them,” he says. Spectators sit in a semicircle around the dancers in seats or on the floor, and are not allowed to enter or leave during the ceremony, which lasts about an hour.
At the center, we filed in with about 60 other spectators and took our places on metal folding chairs in a semicircle facing a platform. After a short introduction describing the history of the Mevlevi order, strobe lights lit the circular stage as five men wearing long black coats and tan conical hats came out and placed sheepskin rugs on the floor. Behind them on a slightly raised stage, a small group of musicians played a ney, a long, thin reed-like flute, that produced a high, desolate sound; an oud, a wooden, pear shaped lute; and kettle drums. Then the dancers knelt, rolled up their rugs, took off their cloaks to display their white robes and started to whirl on the wooden floor.
As the dancers turned, I began to ignore my kids’ fidgeting, and slowly felt the jumble of life’s daily thoughts fade from my mind. But before I could enter the phase that Jacobs refers to as “the great stillness,” the lights went on and the spell was broken. Outside, I could hear the murmur of a new group of audience members as they gathered for another Turkish dance show.
With a pang of disappointment, I hoisted my daughter from my lap, and shook out my legs. As I stared at the empty stage, from which the dervishes had disappeared, I knew the magic was enough to make me want to seek out this mystical world once again. The next time, however, it will be in within a dervish lodge, without my kids, and with a greater openness to suspend my restless mind and lose myself within the divine.
Tabachnick is a writer based in Spain. Follow her on Twitter: @caraoncrime.
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If you go
Hodjapasha Cultural Center
Ankara Caddesi Hocapasa Hamami Sok No: 3. B, Sirkeci, Istanbul
Nightly whirling dervish shows at 7 p.m. in a converted 15th-century Turkish bathhouse. Adult tickets from about $22.
Galata Dervish Lodge
Sahkulu Mahallesi, Galip Dede Cd. No. 15, 34420 Beyoglu/Istanbul
Opened by a grandson of Rumi, Galata Dervish Lodge was one of the most important centers for Mevlevi dervishes in Istanbul and includes a museum showcasing the history of whirling dervishes. Performances on Sundays at 5 p.m. Call ahead to double-check time and to book tickets. Tickets from about $13.
Yenikapi Dervish Lodge
Mevlevihane Caddesi No. 25, Merkez Efendi Mah, Zeytinburnu, Istanbul
Ceremonies every first and third Thursday of the month and every last Friday at the second-largest lodge in Istanbul. Admission is free, but call to reserve a ticket by phone.
Bahariye Dervish Lodge
Eyup Merkez Mahallesi, Bahariye Cd., 34050 Eyup/Istanbul
In 1877, the lodge relocated to its current location in Eyup, alongside the coastline of the Golden Horn. Email the government office for more information about the lodge: firstname.lastname@example.org
Konya Whirling Dervish Festival
Information available through Konya tourism office:
Aziziye Mahallesi, Aslanlı Kisla Cd. No. 5, 42030 Karatay/Konya
The largest whirling dervish festival takes place annually in December, usually around the anniversary of Rumi’s death on Dec. 17. This year’s festival runs from Dec. 7 through Dec. 17.