Maintaining Turkish culture through the ritual of whirling dervishes

Story and photos by Michele Richinick

ISTANBUL, Turkey – As they stretch their right hands toward the sky and left hands outward toward the Earth, the 10 dervishes spin in place.

The left foot turns firmly on the ground, while the right foot circles it and propels each dervish around.

As they revolved inside the Silivrikapi Mevlana Cultural Center in Istanbul during a recent ceremony, their goal was to receive God’s beneficence by twirling toward spiritual perfection.

The dervishes engage in a mystical journey of spiritual ascent, giving life to an 800-year tradition in Turkey.

“You cannot explain with words the wonderful feeling,” Hasan Cikar, a 60-year spiritual master and leader of the center, said through a translator after the ceremony. “God is absolutely love, and we are living the same test as Him.”

He is referencing the mystical dance of whirling dervishes, known as Sema, that represents the journey of a human’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to reach the divine. The tradition reflects Ottoman and Turkish culture, history and beliefs, and has become a tourist attraction in the country.

Dervish, which means “doorway,” is a common term for a follower of the mystical Sufi path of Islam where a deeper identity of self is discovered and the material world is disregarded. They strictly follow the observance of Islam, but also nurture theirs and other individuals’ spiritual dimensions of divine love.

“We take [tourists] to see the ceremony because the religion and ceremonies are otherwise unknown to people,” Dervish Erol Baba, a former practicing whirling dervish for 40 years, said through a translator. “There are many bad things in this world, so we just try to help them see, to find peace.”

Selahattin Kaplan and Murat Alicavusoglu, co-managers of the Istanbul Dance Ensemble, bring about 70 tourists to the Dervish Dede Efendi House in Istanbul four times each week. The ceremonies, sponsored by the ensemble, attract about 12,000 people each year, Kaplan said.

“It’s a tourist attraction, but it’s a kind of cultural activity,” he said from his office in the Sultanahmet District of the city. “It’s a beautiful performance – beautiful music and beautiful dancing. Even if it is a performance, we show [tourists and Turkish people] how it is here.”

Most ticket prices range from 35 to 60 Turkish lira, or $22 to $38, for each hour-long ceremony, depending on the venue.

Joan Miller, of Miami, Fla., said the performance was the most authentic way to experience Sufi culture in Turkey.

“They want to expose us to their culture so we have a connection,” said Miller, who is traveling in Turkey until July. “But the most important thing is to be respectful.”

Sema originated in Konya, Turkey by Mevlana C. Rumi, a mystic, poet and philosopher from the 13th century who believed in peace, love and the equality of races, classes, beliefs and nationalities.

Rumi and his followers integrated music into their ritual as an article of faith, and the Mevlevi Order became a well-established Sufi practice in the Ottoman Empire. As a result, the impact of the ceremonies on classical poetry, calligraphy and visual arts was profound from the 14th to 20th centuries.

To separate education from religion, Mustafa Ataturk’s Turkish Republic in 1925 outlawed Sufi organizations in the country. The monasteries, or prayer and education buildings in the Ottoman Empire, were closed down. Some were made into mosques and museums, while others closed indefinitely, Kaplan said.

In the early 1950s, the Turkish government began tolerating public Sema performances in libraries, cinemas, gymnasiums, sports stadiums and cultural foundations, but mainly as a tourist attraction, he said.

“The past and present are different. Now it is not the kind of religious practice that it was before,” Kaplan said. “They can have high spirits and be religious, but it’s not like it used to be. Music and dance are art. It is more art than something religious.”

Today the sacred whirling tradition of Sufism, which exists as a mystical dimension of Islam, helps promote tourism in Turkey. The Mevlevi Order is still active in Turkey, with about 5,000 dervishes in the country, and 20,000 worldwide, Baba said.

Ten dervishes were performed in the recent Sema at the cultural center, but performances range in size from four or five dervishes to 10 or 15 at larger venues, Kaplan said.

Training to become a dervish takes three years. They must learn to play Sufi music, to read the Qu’ran and to write calligraphy, in addition to creating other forms of art, said Hakan Hacibekiroglu, group organizer for Senguler Travel in Istanbul.

Today’s tourists can experience the whirling dervishes ceremony at cultural foundations, museums and in some restaurants throughout the city.

In Islam, men and women are forbidden to pray together, Kaplan said. At the Mevlana Cultural Center, religious believers began by collectively praying, with men and women participants sitting on opposite sides of the room.

But both men and women dervishes perform the Sema. During the ceremony, the women dervishes wear red scarves around their necks.

Erol Baba, a former practicing whirling dervish, said he hopes tourists can find peace at the ceremonies.

At the start, the dervishes are led into the room by the dance master, who stands dressed in a black cloak at the foot of a red rug that indicates Mecca where Muslims face to pray. To move toward the truth, each dervish removes a black cloak, which symbolizes the material world, and reveals a white gown underneath, the ego’s shroud.

Sufis believe their lives are meant to be of service to people by deserting the ego, or false self, to reach maturity and perfection. The felt headdresses that each dervish wears represent the ego’s tombstone.

Sema consists of seven parts, with four salutes that begin the dramatic whirling. As they begin to twirl, the dervishes uncross their arms to receive God’s beneficence. About 12 musicians sit on a balcony playing the drums and string and wood instruments.

Each whirling section lasts between five and 10 minutes and is meant for God, not the audience. The dervishes remain silent and propel themselves in controlled movements using their hands, feet and head. The movements of their wide, white gowns create a breeze in the room as they rotate gracefully at their own pace, most with their eyes closed.

After about one hour, the journey ends when the dervishes stand, arms crossed, on the side of the floor. The dervishes believe they reached maturity and a greater perfection, to love and to be of service to creation. They redress into their black cloaks, and a Qu’ran reading in Arabic and prayer are recited. Since Sema is a spiritual act, the audience does not clap before the dervishes exit the room.

Patrick Berthiaume, of Montreal, Canada, always dreamed of attending a Sema ceremony in Turkey.

“I really like the values of Sufism, of loving each other and the spirituality. Most people have heard about extremist Islam, but I think they have many great values,” said Berthiaume, who has also attended the ceremonies in Montreal. “I think it’s a bit sad to see that it’s a tourist movement.”

Kaplan said he encourages both tourists and Turkish people to attend the authentic Sema ceremonies to experience Turkish culture and Rumi’s beliefs.

“The ideas of Rumi are important about peace and love,” he said. “He was a very clever man, and the messages are important to the world because his ideas have no discrimination.”



About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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