You can’t escape in Turkey from the Whirling dervishes. They whirl in souvenir shops, teagardens of tourist spots, restaurants and nowadays even weddings. You can wear them in form of a bracelet, buy a sculpture for your home and some people even cut their hedge in the shape of a dervish. The dervish became somehow besides the tulip a symbol of Turkey. You can learn the whirling dance in workshops and there is always this random guy next to the Sirkeci train station asking you ‘Wanna see dervish show tonight?’ Show? Later more about this. When you belong to my Muslim readers you might be now a little bit indignant about the whirling dervishes when you are not on the Sufi page. But when we talk about Islam in Turkey, we just can’t ignore the influence Sufi brotherhoods had throughout history. I want to explain you now who whirls there, why they are doing that and if there is a chance to catch up a non-commercial ceremony somewhere in Istanbul.
The Mevlevi brotherhood, a Sufi order, bases their doctrines on the poetry of Mavlana Jalal al-Din (died 1273) or just Rumi. He teached in the central Anatolian city of Konya. His works often emphasize the meaning of music as a booster for the human soul to reach higher spiritual realms. The brotherhood (tariqa) puts music and dance in context to the creation of the universe. The movements of the planets in the cosmos are displayed in the whirling dance. The word dervish means ‘doorway’ and this describes the function of the brotherhood member as a spiritual gateway to the heavenly world. Through the dance, the soul becomes free and can get in touch with the divine.
Before it was a ‘show’
The ceremony of the Mevlevi dervishes is called Sema and it is the dhikr of the order. Dhikr means remembrance , traditionally devotional acts in Islam in which the names of Allah or short prayers are cited. This can be done silently, loudly or as whirling dance, the different brotherhoods have their own styles of dhikr. The story behind is that Rumi once walked through the marketplace and heard the hammering of the goldbeaters. He recognized the words ‘La ilaha ilallah – no God but Allah’, was so happy that he stretched out his arms and began spinning in a circle. We don’t know exactly when the whirling became an elaborated ceremony. Maybe it started around the 15th century. The form we know today occured in the 17th and 18th centuries. Mevlevi dervishes recieved a profound musical education and the reed flute Ney is the key-instrument due to the symbolic meaning in Rumi’s poetry. A Mevlevi dervish underwent a traditional retreat of 1001 days. He learnt not only codes of belief and spiritual practice but also served in the kitchen or cleaned the tekke (lodge). After the training, the dervish stayed connected to the order but pursued his secular job and family life. As the musical education in the brotherhood was excellent, many dervishes worked at the court. Their musical view and mystical philosophy influenced the artistic development in the Ottoman Empire and the most famous composers had all their ties to the order. While the Bektaşi trained the Janissary elite soldiers, the Mevlevi had the role of intellectual and artistic leaders.
Mevlevi dervishes in 1887
The Mevlevi dervishes created an outstanding musical form, the Ayin. When you have experience with Western sacred music, you can compare its quality to a canata by Bach or a mass by Mozart or Beethoven. The repertoire was teached in the meşk system – that means the oriental oral tradition where the student learns from his master by listening to him. No Ottoman musician ever used sheet music. Western travellers throughout the history described the Sema ritual very well and are a great source for research. The Mevlevi always allowed foreigners to visit their ceremonies, according to Rumi’s words ‘Come, come, whoever you are’.
A Neyzen – player of the reed flute Ney
The Ayin consists of four parts, symbol for the four elements and the four seasons. It starts with te Naat-ı Şerif, a kind of prayer praising the Prophet (saw) and after, you hear the Küdüm, a big drum. The beat refers to the phrase ‘He said ‘Be, and it is’ that occurs several times in the Quran. After starts a Ney taksim, that means an improvisation on the Ney. It is played over a long note, a drone, and this creates a mystic athmosphere. If the taksim ends, the Semazenler (that’s the name of the Whirling dervishes) come out and take their positions. The long hut stands for the gravestone and the white garment for the shroud. The dervishes have in the beginning a black cape, when they take it off it shows they are ready to be reborn in the truth. The crossed arms stand for the number one as there is just Allah and no other God. After follows the Devr-i Veledi, the walk of Sultan Veled to the sound of a Peşrev, an instrumental prelude. The dervishes circulate three times and take bows- it’s the greeting of one soul to another soul, hidden behind forms and bodies.
The whirling itself has four parts, each called selam. In the first selam, Allahs conditions for His creations are accepted as well as the birth of the human being into the truth. The beauty of Allahs creature and the delight of His allmightiness occurs in the second selam. Divine love and devotion characterize the third selam while the dervish prepares in the fourth selam the return from his spiritual journey to serve ‘on earth’. At the end, verse 115 from Surah Al-Baqarah is cited and a prayer for peace closes the ceremony:
|‘To Allah belong the East and the West; whichever direction you turn your face there is the presence of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Embracing and All-Knowing.’ (Quran 2:115)
At the Galata Mevlevihanesi in Istanbul
The mutrib heyeti, that means the instrumentalists and singers, traditionally consist of male voices, Ney flutes and the Küdüm drum. Sometimes also the long-necked luth Tanbur. But nowadays, you see big orchestras with all kind of traditional Turkish instruments and even the Western cello. Most of the ‘performances’ we see today just feed the appetite for nostalgia and esoterism. Whirling dervishes are in TV advertisements, in shopping malls, T-shirts, snow globes and restaurants. But what happened? In 1925, the young Turkish Republic closed all lodges of Sufi brotherhoods and transformed the buildings into mosques or museums. Performances were still allowed but without any religious framework. The authentic tradition of the tariqa went ‘underground’ while the Sema, the whirling dance, became a business. In 1953, a delegation from the US visited Turkey as part of the Marshall plan and they also did sightseeing in Konya, the city of Rumi. The dervishes were of course a topic of interest and a kind of cultural heritage performance was organized. After, the major of Konya had the idea that the whirling dervishes could be of significance for the tourism- and that’s how the spiritual sell-off has started.
Talentshow in Turkish TV – spiritual sell-off
You might wonder now if it is possible to attend an authentic Sema ceremony in all that commerce when you visit Turkey? Yes and no. The real, religious based Mevlevi tariqa life still happens ‘underground’ and you have to know somebody who knows somebody and so on – you get my point. The historical place is not the problem- the Galata Mevlevi lodge at the end of the Istiklal street in Beyoğlu, today a museum, offers regularly Sema. That’s all very well but touristic and people whirling there do it usually because it is their job. I heard, tickets are not that cheap. The Yenikapı Mevlevihanesi next to the tram station Cevizlibağ belongs today to an university. Free admission and when you are lucky to catch up a ‘performance’ of the State Ensemble for Historical Music (once a month) you get the Sema in a proper manner. Musicians, singers and whirling dervishes are employed by government but some of them are real dervishes – not Mevlevis, they belong to the Jerahi tariqa. The ensemble actually derived from the Jerahi as they did a lot of effort to save the Ottoman musical heritage after the lodges were closed, but that’s another story. In Fatih, next to Silivrikapı is the EMAV, the foundation of the Contemporary Lovers of Mevlana. On Thursday evenings, there is Sohbet with the Sheikh and after Sema. Men and women whirl together, I haven’t seen that somewhere else in Turkey. People are welcoming and friendly, there is at least one person around who speaks English. So when you are in Turkey, you should keep in mind: ‘Not everbody whirling around is a dervish.’
The Yenikapı Mevlevihanesi- if you go, go there
If you are interested in the Ney flute I recommend you as a further reading an article published in the Craftmanship Magazine. For ‘A master of the Turkish Ney’ a journalist from the US did a profound research in Istanbul. He also talked with me and if I remember it right, I complained also in the article about the sell-out of the whirling dervishes:The reed artist- Craftmanship magazine: http://craftsmanship.net/the-reed-artist/