The first time I had heard of Whirling Dervishes was when I read Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish by Dorothy Gilman as a teenager. Ever since then, in my dorky little mind, getting to see a dervish whirl would be a pinnacle of achievement for me. And I finally achieved it the summer of 2013. But of course, because the Universe enjoys messing with me, I have no photos of the actual ceremony; the bane of my existence showed its face: Photos Not Allowed. Three words guaranteed to make me wail in anguish and gnash my teeth in utter pain.
The whirling concept was originated by a 13th-century Persian man called Rumi, who was a poet, theologian, and Sufi master. The Mevlevi Order was started as a branch of Sufism by his followers after he died. During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Order spread to other areas including the Middle East, Egypt, and the Balkans. By 1925, the Order was declared illegal in the new Turkish Republic. However, in 1954, someone realized that tourists love this kind of thing and so the Order was given the right to perform Sema (the whirling ceremony) in public but primarily as a tourist attraction. And today, we tourists can see the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul, Konya, and in Cappadocia.
Why whirling? Why not jumping or head shaking or arm waving? Well, the Mevlevi Order believes that it is a fundamental part of our existence, to whirl. The belief is that everything revolves – from planets all the way down to electrons, protons, and neutrons in atoms. So by whirling, they are attesting to the existence and to the majesty of the Creator, praying to Him, and giving thanks.
Before you go to a Sema, it is important to know a few things ahead of time or else you’ll sit there for 45 minutes wondering what the heck is going on. So, here are a few things to know:
- Sufism, a branch of Islam, focuses on love, tolerance, worship of God, community and personal development, self-discipline, and responsibility.
- Whirling Dervishes are properly called Semazen. Dervish is the colloquial term.
- The clothes a semazen wears has symbolic value:
- The white gown (tenure): symbol of death, the ego’s shroud;
- The black cloak (hirka): symbol of the grave (removing it means being spiritually reborn to the truth); and,
- The brown hat (kûlah or sikke): symbol of the ego’s tombstone.
- Semazen with crossed arms: represents the number one, which apparently means God’s unity
- Semazen with open arms (while whirling): right palm faces the sky to receive God’s gifts while the left palm faces the earth in order to give what he received to others. The semazen is also conveying God’s spiritual gift to those of us watching.
- Semazen spin from right to left which symbolizes embracing all humanity with love.
- The whole point of the sema: it is supposed to represent a person’s spiritual journey via intelligence and love to Perfection. Learn, grow in love, move beyond the ego, find the truth, and reach Perfection. But it doesn’t end there – you’re supposed to return and serve all creatures regardless of belief, class, or race. And to do it with love.
- DON’T CLAP! It would be the equivalent of clapping while your Preacher/Priest is giving a sermon (if you’re from a Pentecostal or Evangelical church, this analogy doesn’t work for you. Sorry.)
I saw a Sema when I was in Cappadocia at the Sarihan Caravanserai (an ancient stop along the Silk Road trade route built in 1249 – it provided amenities for merchants and stables for animals). It was about 15km from Goreme and in the dark (arrived about 9pm), the building was large and imposing. After we passed through the beautifully carved front gate, we walked through a courtyard with five tall naves. Past that is the room in which the Sema takes place: a square in the middle and each of the four sides were stadium seating. It doesn’t really matter where you sit (beyond sitting as close as possible) because you can’t take photos! Then with little fanfare and no explanations (beyond a leaflet handed out), the ceremony began. Overall, I enjoyed it. Though there were times where I was thinking…”didn’t you just do that?” or “aaand of course you’re going to whirl in that direction again.” So yes, it was super interesting to witness the Whirling Dervishes, but it felt a bit voyeuristic watching someone worship God, and just a tad bit boring after 30 minutes…but it is definitely worth the experience!
NOTE: In Istanbul, some places such as restaurants have a ‘dervish’ whirl as part of the evening entertainment. While it allowed me to get a photo of a dervish in mid-whirl, it really wasn’t real. My understanding is that those who do this aren’t part of the Mevlevi Order and therefore, not real semazen. Basically, it is like seeing the local Elvis impersonator rather than the King himself.
So, can I count this as my Adventures List #16? Or do I have to somehow sneak a photo of a REAL Whirling Dervish?