While the spinning cloaked mystics known as Whirling Dervishes are world-renowned, the significance of their traditional sema is shrouded in intrigue. This religious ceremony has been identified by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, making it a “must see” for those visiting Turkey.
The origins of the Whirling Dervishes date back to the 13th century when the Mevlevi order was founded by devotees of the Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi in Konya. It was believed that Rumi was walking through a marketplace and heard goldbeaters hammering rhythmically and speaking the Islamic phrase “There is no god but Allah”. He was said to stretch out his arms and begin spinning in a circle in response – an act that led to the evolution of the Whirling Dervishes.
Over time it came to symbolise a spiritual journey, with the dervishes abandoning their egos in search of truth, emerging at what is referred to as the “Perfect”. In this mature state the devotee was able to love with purity, free the soul, and obtain a closer relationship with God.
The ceremony begins with traditional Sufi music and a singer praising Prophet Muhammad in what is referred to as naat before a Taksim rhythm is played on a reed flute to symbolise the separation from God. The black-cloaked dervishes then bow in acknowledgement of the Divine breath, then walk in single file around the hall before removing their cloaks.
It is then that the whirling starts in what is known as the Four Salams. The dervishes gently spin counter clockwise, gaining momentum, and gradually raise their arms up as their skirts billow. The first salam recognises God; the second acknowledges his unity; the third the sheer ecstasy that comes with surrendering; and the fourth symbolises peace, with the Sheikh joining the dance.
Each dervish represents the moon, spinning around their Sheikh, who is the sun. The right palm faces Heaven while the left points towards the ground. After the Four Salams, another Taksim is played, followed by a recitation of the Qu’ran and a final prayer.
The trance-like sema ceremony was traditionally held in a ritual hall known as a samahane, with dervishes whirling on their left foot. White gowns are worn to symbolise death while the black cloak represents the grave and a tall brown hat, known as a sikke, is symbolic of the tombstone.
The practice was banned in 1925 after Turkey became a republic and the Whirling Dervishes forced underground, but in the 1950’s they were once again given permission to perform in public and the doors to their samahane opened to inquisitive tourists. The ritual is now taught across the country by cultural organisations to preserve this rich asset of Turkey’s heritage, and discussions are often held with audiences after performances to help them gain a better understanding.
Attending a Whirling Dervish performance offers a fascinating insight into this religious order while at the same time being a mesmerising cultural experience.
These fascinating Whirling Dervishes place are just some of the unique locations you can visit through Turkey Shore Excursions.