Their white robes rise and fall in unison, spinning faster and faster as the right palm is raised to the heavens and the left hand points to the ground.
As they continue turning in a spiritual trance, the dancers float between two worlds. They are now in a deeply personal and intense form of meditation.
“A secret turning in us makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
and feet of head.
Neither cares. They keep turning.” (‘The Turn’, Rumi)
The ceremony, also known as Sema, starts with a prayer after which each dervish, one by one, receives blessings from their sheikh (master). The melodious sounds of a flute follow, symbolising their path to God. The dance begins.
The Sema is laden with meaning, from the attire to the hand movements. The brown, conical hats worn by the dervishes represent a tombstone; the black jackets symbolise the grave; and the dervish’s skirt the funeral shroud.
While moving, the dervishes take off their jackets as a way to show their removal from earthly ties. Their hands, one pointed upward and the other to the ground, signify “what we receive from God, we give to man; we ourselves possess nothing.”
Their voice echoes as they repeatedly call out to Allah, spinning faster and faster. Egos and personal identities abandoned, they attain spiritual perfection.
“You feel a closeness with God,” a dervish describes. “The creator is closer to every creature than their jugular vein.”
A mystical form of Islam, Sufism shuns all forms of materialism in pursuit of asceticism. In most historical accounts, Sufis are commonly known as persons of religious learning whose aspirations revolve around being close to Allah.
The whirling dervishes are part of the Mevlevi Order, a sect of Sufism born in the 13th century. Also known as The Mevlevis, the dervishes revere Islamic scholar, mystic and renowned Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi (Mevlana), who greatly influenced Muslim writing and culture. Many of his poems describe his overpowering love for God.
However, Sufism and The Mevlevis have faced many challenges. In 1925, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, banned all Turkish Sufi orders and their practices as he did not want religion to be used as a tool in politics. Consequently, the dervishes were forced to go underground. However, in the 1950s, the government eased these restrictions and allowed the Sema to be performed in public.
A huge ceremony takes place annually in Konya, a city of pilgrimage for Sufis located in Central Anatolia, Turkey, where Rumi was born and buried.
The Sema can also be observed at several locations in Istanbul, including the Galata Mevlevihanesi, the city’s first Sufi lodge.
With special thanks to Hodjapasha Centre for allowing us to film the performance.