The song of a reed flute rises and falls, becoming one with the voices of the men singing in a style reminiscent of the muezzin. The accompanying drum turns the chamber into a giant beating heart at the center of which is a remarkable sight. Their faces relaxed, almost blissful, the dancers pivot in place, their white skirts twirling in perfect symmetry, their arms open to an invisible universe as they seek union with the eternal. It is a tradition that has survived—sometimes secretly—since the 13th century and its participants have become symbols of Turkish culture.
Spectators may find themselves dizzy just watching, but the dancers themselves never seem to be affected by whirling in place for as long as an hour at a time. But this ceremony, known as the sema, is much more than a dance, it is a form of prayer for a special order of the mystic Sufi.
In Arabic, suf means wool and so the Sufi became known for the plain woolen robes that they wore in their rejection of materialism. Unlike other sects of Islam, Sufism does not generally focus on the legal aspects of the religion; the Sufi are concerned primarily with the inner aspects of spirituality, of dismissing the ego and perfecting one’s faith. A dervish is any devotee to the various Sufi orders, and arguably one of the most famous of these is the Mevlevi Order, the Whirling Dervishes.
The Mevlevi are followers of Mevlana, the name—meaning “our guide”—given to teacher and poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi. Born in 1207 in what is present-day Afghanistan, Rumi was not Turkish, but Persian. As the Mongols invaded from Central Asia, Rumi’s family moved west and settled in Konya in the heart of the empire of the Seljuk Turks.
Rumi’s primary concern was unity with the All-Powerful. In Islam this is, of course, Allah. But one of the most fascinating aspects of Rumi’s teachings is the belief that all religions share basic tenets of faith and aspire to the same power. His was a message of tolerance and indeed the sema is the dancer’s efforts to leave behind the pettiness of the material world and his own ego and be open to the All-Powerful.
When Rumi died in 1273, a great shrine was erected over his tomb, and with his death the Mevlevi Order took its birth. Konya, Mevlana’s home and final resting place, became the center of this confraternity. The order survived the fall of the Seljuks but held the favor of the subsequent rulers, the Ottoman Turks. A Mevlevi monastery or dergah was founded in the capital of empire, Istanbul. The Ottomans went on to create an immense empire which eventually reached throughout the Middle East, Asia Minor and into southeastern Europe which explains occurrences of dervishes in places like Egypt and the Balkans.
But the Ottoman Empire collapsed after siding with Germany in World War I. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder and first president of a new Turkish republic in 1923, was insistent that the new government be secular unlike its Ottoman predecessor, and so many elements of Islam such as the fez and veil were abolished from Turkish society. The Mevlevi along with other religious orders were similarly banned in 1925 and the dervishes were forced to perform their rituals in secret.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Turkish government, realizing the value of the Whirling Dervishes as a tourist attraction, began allowing them to dance—only in Konya—on the anniversary of Rumi’s death, December 17. Restraints were lifted even further in the 1970s when Mevlevi began to travel outside of Turkey, performing once even for the Pope. Today, the Whirling Dervishes still gather every December 17 in Konya, but travelers can witness semas on a weekly basis in Istanbul or Konya. Though the laws were loosened based on the understanding that these events would be tourist “shows,” a look into the faces of these dancers will dispel any doubt of the sema’s deep spiritual nature.
There is no governing authority in the dervish community; those who desire to become whirling dervishes seek out a sheikh or guide within a Sufi circle, and then pledge themselves to that lineage. The sheikh has no power or privilege but rather becomes a servant to the spiritual yearning of the dervish seeking unity with God.
But why the whirling motion? The Mevlevi believe it is the motion of nature as is evident in the way the planets circle the sun, blood circulates around the body, and even the tiniest pieces of the atom perform their infinite rotations. Humans are special in that they are intellectually aware of this motion, and only they possess the unique power to consciously acknowledge it and its spiritual aspects.
The dance is a mystical path by which the dervish rises up through the material world and into the spiritual as he spins faster and faster. The dervish travels into the mystic to find enlightenment and then returns to share it with the physical world. His responsibility is to take the truth he has experienced and serve creation without discriminating between race, class or belief.
The ceremony begins with a sung eulogy to the Prophet Mohammed who represents love. The singer’s voice becomes a sonorous instrument and fills the hall where onlookers sit in the half-light along the sides. The rising tremolo of the voice is almost hypnotic and surely initiates the break with the physical world and creates that other-worldly feeling that most non-Muslims get when they first hear the call to prayer drifting out over the rooftops.
Then the dervishes are called by several beats of a drum which are followed by instrumental music representing the Divine Breath which gave life to all things. Only after this introduction do the dervishes take the floor at the center of the hall. In a circular walk the dervishes bow to each other and their spiritual guide with arms crossed over their chests, one soul greeting another.
Their headdresses, tall plain cylindrical hats that narrow just a bit to flat tops, represent the tombstones of their egos. At the very beginning of his dance, the dervish removes a black cloak revealing his simple white garments, the first move from darkness to light. The white skirt, the shroud of the ego, rises as the dancer whirls, lifting to the truth.
The dervishes begin turning in place as the music increases its tempo. Starting with their arms crossed on their chests they represent the One, the unity of God. Then as they whirl faster their hands rise up before them, and their arms open like flower petals to the spiritual moment. The dervish’s right hand reaches to the heavens to receive Allah’s beneficence while the left hand turns to the earth as he spins from right to left, revolving around his heart. It is an embrace of all humankind, of all the creation. The ceremony finishes with a reading from the Koran and a prayer for the peace of all souls. Then the dancers go off to meditate on what they have experienced.
When the fascinating dance ends, spectators are often left with reflections of their own.
Traditionally, the public ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes has been performed by men, though women sometimes partook in private. Recently, however, that tradition is being challenged. In Istanbul a female dervish member of a group called Contemporary Lovers of Mevlana has become a subject of controversy and opened debate among Mevlevi.
The music is an important part of the ceremony as well and much of what foreigners consider “Turkish” music derives from it. You can find it in Turkey wherever CDs are sold and especially in markets. A good place to look is the famous and hip Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian only street near Taksim Square on the European side of Istanbul.