By , December 8, 2012 10:50 am

I had long ago heard of Whirling Dervishes but, to be honest, had no idea who they were, what they did (well, ok… I figured it probably had something to do with whirling), or where they were.  Until I got to Turkey.

While we were walking by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, we were (surprise, surprise) approached by a man trying to sell us tickets to a Mevlevi (Whirling Dervishes) show.  Still knowing nothing about them, I decided there and then to attend… with a name like “Whirling Dervishes” how could you go wrong?  Tickets cost 35 lira per person (normally 40 lira, but he was giving us a deal. The same deal he gives to everyone else).

The show took place in the waiting room of the Istanbul Train Station and, I must admit, until the Dervishes took the stage I was still unsure if it was legit.  The “ticket” was a generic piece of cardstock, lacking a date or a number.  To my relief, it was accepted at the doors and we were shown into a small room with three rows of plastic chairs set up on three sides of the performance space.

The band came out first, followed by the Dervishes.  Since the “performance” is actually a religious ritual, most Orders prohibit photography and recording.  We were told nothing of the sort, however, and while I didn’t use a flash, photos were obviously fair game.

Two of the musicians

Every part of the ceremony – from the music to the singing to the clothing to the Dervishes’ every movement  – was highly ritualized.  From the moment the music started, I could sense a deep meaning behind every note and action – even if I didn’t understand it.  It is not choreographed – in that the Dervishes are not always in perfect sync as they whirl – which contributes to the raw feeling and emotion being displayed.

For about an hour, the Dervishes completely transformed the waiting room into a totally different place.  Except for the LCD screens of the tourists’ cameras and phones that kept tugging me back to reality, it almost felt like I was transported to a different time and space.  Eventually, I put MY camera down and let myself get completely mesmerized by the ritual.  I especially enjoyed watching the faces of each Dervish as they got lost in the ritual of whirling.

Whether you take the time to research the history of the Whirling Dervishes or not, experiencing their ritual is not something to miss in Turkey.  It is almost mystical to watch, and a true thing of beauty.

Info Box on the Whirling Dervishes:

In a nutshell, the Order of the Whirling Dervishes is a branch of the Sufi tradition of Islam.  The Sema ritual they perform has deep roots, beginning with the inspiration of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi (1207-1273).  By revolving, the dervishes acknowledge the existence and majesty of the Creator, give thanks to Him, and pray to Him.  The ritual, which has been performed for seven centuries, unites three fundamental components of human nature – the mind (through knowledge and thought), the heart (through feelings, poetry and music), and the body (by spinning).  It symbolizes the universal values of love and service.

In 1925, Turkey outlawed all Sufi orders, included the Mevlevi Order.  It is believed to have survived by continuing their rituals in small villages until 1954, when they were granted limited permission to perform the Sema for tourists.  Even today, they are still banned as a Sufi order.  To find out more about the order and the ritual, click here.

You can experience the Sema ritual nearly nightly in Istanbul.  There are also regular performances in Cappadocia and, of course, Konya (where the order originates and which holds the Mevlana Commemoration Festival in December each year).

4 Responses to “Whirling, Twirling, Swirling – Getting Mesmerized by the Whirling Dervishes”

  1. Katherine says:

    I LOVED THE WHIRLERS! This was a highlight when I was in Istanbul and Mevlana Rumi is as close to a mentor as you can come while not being alive… Rumi’s writing are the bible that I try and live by and I love that it’s all about love… The dervishes are a big part of what I fell in love with in Istanbul… and I also LOVED LOVED LOVED the turkish baths and the cisterns (did you guys see this!?) Anyway…I can’t wait to see you guys to talk about all this stuff!! Submitting the contract for the house in Bulgaria tomorrow, btw! It’s in Zmeevo…will need work, but with only 17 miles from Balchik (the sea), we’re super happy!!! i’ll be in bulgaria march 21-April 19th! HAVE FUN!!!!

    • Ashley Lenzen says:

      Hey Katherine! I’ve never read Rumi’s writings, but they are on my must-read list now. We loved the cisterns too. We didn’t take in the Turkish baths, though we might squeeze one in later today (we’re back in Istanbul right now) before our flight out tomorrow.

      Can’t wait to see you guys again, too. Seems we’ve got a lot to catch up on. We’re thrilled to hear about your house – sounds perfect with it being so close to the sea. It’s kind of nice to buy something that needs work, isn’t it? It leaves you with a blank slate to create and decorate a personal space. We’re excited for the day we can visit you there!

  2. Rachel says:

    Witnessing these actions must be more fascinating than watching it in a video. Although I’m not really into these kind of ritual dances or ceremonies, I was moved.

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