Entranced by a 700-year-old ritual, the whirling dervishes perform a Sufi dance, steered by rhythmic breathing and chants of “Allah”, as they seek to become one with God. Their white robes rise and fall in unison, spinning faster and faster. The right palm is raised to the heavens to receive God’s blessings, which are communicated to earth by the left hand pointing to the ground. As they continue turning in a spiritual trance, the dancers float between the two worlds. They are now in a deeply personal and intense form of meditation.
The whirling dervish ceremony, or sema, which blurs the lines between dance, prayer, meditation and trance, is as synonymous with Turkey as the mosque-studded skyline of Istanbul. But what are the dervishes practising this ancient ritual, inspired by the teachings of a 13th-century poet and religious leader from present-day Konya (Turkey), trying to achieve?
“Sema is the ritual of the Islamic Mevlevi Sufi order, based on the philosophy of Rumi, symbolising the rising of the human soul by releasing the ego to become enlightened, and thus to become united with God,” explains dervish Abdülhamit Çakmut. Çakmut is president of the Mevlâna Kültür ve Eğitim Derneği (Rumi Culture Organisation), which is associated with Istanbul’s Hodjapasha Cultural Centre, one of the places where visitors can witness this hypnotic ritual.
As Çakmut explains, the seven-part ceremony is laden with meaning throughout, ranging from the melodious ney (reed flute) representing the divine breath that gives life to everything, to the performers’ distinctive attire. “The dervish, with his headdress (symbolising his ego’s tombstone) and his white skirt (his ego’s shroud), is, by removing his black cloak, spiritually born to the truth and ready to journey towards it. At the onset and each stop in the sema, holding his arms crosswise he represents the number one, and testifies to God’s unity,” explains Çakmut.
During the elegantly simple performance, rotating with skirts swirling in a choreographed constellation of dancers, the dervishes are believed to become a conduit for divine blessings. “While whirling, his arms are open, his right hand directed to the skies ready to receive God’s beneficence, looking to his left hand turned towards the earth,” says Çakmut. “This is his way of conveying God’s spiritual gift to the people he looks upon.”
Their voices echo as they repeatedly call out to Allah, spinning faster and faster. Egos and personal identities abandoned, they attain a spiritual perfection known as fenafillah. Çakmut likens this “sacrifice of mind to love” to the nirvana of Buddhism, with the distinction that the highest rank of Islam is Muhammed the Prophet, and the aim of sema is not “unbroken ecstasy and loss of conscious thought” but rather “complete submission and annihilation of self within the loved one”.
Ultimately, it’s hard to pin down the mysterious ceremony rationally – Islamic theologians have pondered it for centuries, and it continues to enchant even the most secular of viewers with its sense of spinning into the infinite. Suffice to say, it takes months of dedication for devout initiates to learn the Rumi ropes – as well as a wooden board and a bag of salt. Using the salt to prevent slipping and blisters, the trainee spins with his left big toe and second toe around a nail in the middle of the square training board, while holding his right foot perpendicular to his left and his arms crossed with palms to shoulders.
He must turn his foot and his whole body to the right without raising his heel from the board, and he later progresses to whirling without the nail, opening his arms and wearing the all-important white tennure robe. “The skirts opening in the air like an umbrella during sema is called ‘opening tennure ’,” explains Çakmut. “While wearing tennure, the whirling dervish feels lighter in aerodynamic terms, and this helps prevent dizziness.”
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 the Islamic scholar, mystic and renowned Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi (or Mevlâna – ‘our leader’), who greatly influenced Muslim writing and culture. Many of his poems describe his overpowering love for God.
The Mevlevis and their 100-plus tekke (lodges) had great influence during the Ottoman Empire, but Sufism and the order subsequently faced many challenges. In 1925, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, banned all Turkish Sufi orders and their practices as part of his quest to turn Turkey into a modern, secular nation. The dervishes went underground until the 1950s, when the Turkish government eased the restrictions and allowed the sema to be performed in public. In 2005, the sema’s cultural significance was recognised by its inclusion on UNESCO’s third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The Mevlâna Festival takes place every December in the Anatolian city of Konya, which is a pilgrimage destination for over a million Turkish Muslims, especially Sufis, in part because of the Mevlâna Museum. Much more than a museum, this turquoise-domed shrine holds the turbaned tombs of Rumi, his son and followers; the nearby Mevlâna Culture Centre hosts sema performances thought the year.
The sema can also be observed at several locations in Istanbul, including the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre, the EMAV Silivrikapi Mevlâna Cultural Center and the city’s oldest tekke, the Galata Mevlevihanesi, founded in 1491 and rebuilt in 1796. Cultural tour operators such as Les Arts Turcs can also organise trips to see the spectacle.
Across the Sea of Marmara in Bursa, the first Ottoman capital, you can watch a performance from the tea garden of the 600-year-old tekke at Karabaş-I Veli Kültür Merkezi (the Mevlâna Cultural Centre). Amid the wavy valleys and rock formations of Cappadocia, the restored 13th-century Sarıhan (Yellow Caravanserai), one of the most impressive remaining Seljuk caravanserais, also hosts semas in an atmospheric setting befitting this distinctively Turkish ritual.