A journey into the world of Turkey’s famous yet mysterious whirling dervishes, learning more about Sufism along the way
By: Samantha North for Time Out
Many visitors to Istanbul have seen the famous whirling dervishes conducting rituals in Sultanahmet or Galata. A stunning spectacle, the dervishes transport the viewer to a mystical realm and allow them to experience an authentic Turkish tradition. But Istanbul’s dervishes are more than just a tourist attraction. They are just one element of an ancient and highly spiritual interpretation of Islam: Sufism. Time Out has delved deeper into the world of Sufism to present you with an overview of what Sufism means, how you can experience it by attending a sema ceremony, and how it differs from the interpretation of Islam you perhaps think you know.
Turkey’s whirling dervishes belong to the Mevlevi order of Sufism, founded in Konya in the 13th century by the Persian poet and mystic Jalal-ad-Din Rumi. Mevlevi practices flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire, until Atatürk outlawed the order in 1925. In the 1950s, the Mevlevi order was allowed to perform in public as a tourist attraction, and the order could develop again from there. Interest in Sufi practices has skyrocketed in Turkey since 2007, when the Mevlevi whirling dervishes received UNESCO world heritage status on the day of Rumi’s 800th birthday. This increased even further with the release of popular novelist Elif Şafak’s best-seller ‘40 Rules of Love’, chronicling an American woman’s discovery of Rumi.
The sema ceremony is probably the most visible aspect of Sufism in Turkey. Held at Sufi lodges known as tekke, the sema allows worshippers to come together and express their deep love for Allah. Music is a major part of Sufi worship, including zikir, the sound of rhythmic chanting. This is heard as believers recite the 99 names of Allah and acquire positive energy by doing so. Nezih Çetin, head dervish at the tekke in Fatih, explained that Sufism is built on an unshakeable foundation of Islam’s basic tenets, such as praying five times a day. According to Mr. Çetin, all Sufis must carefully follow the requirements of Islam before they can embark on the path of Sufism. He explained, “If Islam is the core, then Sufism is built on top.” Sufi scholar Professor Kemal Oke, lecturer in political science at Istanbul Commerce University, explained to Time Out Istanbul that there are many different paths of Sufism. Some orders are stricter, while some are more lenient. But the main idea stays the same – to purify the soul by focusing on Allah and becoming one with the divine. “To my mind, being human is to be civilized, no matter whether you are Christian, Muslim or non-believer. Sufis are accepting towards other religions. The missing link in our lives is love, and there’s no tranquility without it,” he said.
With the wise words of the Sufi masters in mind, we departed for the Monday night sema ceremony. Ornate yet modest, the tekke is located in the heart of Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district. Inside the room, a giant chandelier forms a striking centerpiece, suspended from the carved wooden ceiling and surrounded by green and gold Arabic calligraphy. The ceremony began with the strumming of stringed instruments. Then the kneeling worshippers began to sing. Worshippers were a mixed group, male and female together. The men wore white skullcaps, while the women covered their heads with scarves. Children were capering around, skipping among the worshippers with obvious enthusiasm.
The all-male worshippers at the front of the room swayed gently to the music and sang, their white-capped heads moving slowly in unison. The overall atmosphere was peaceful, calm and respectful. After about twenty minutes of hypnotic music, a group of dervishes could be seen getting ready in the wings. They were putting on long white robes with flowing skirts, covered by black top robes and finished off with a tall brown hat. The dervishes clustered on the sidelines, waiting, as the music’s tempo gradually increased. In neat formation, the seven white-robed dervishes came to the floor and walked slowly around the room. They passed in turn in front of the head dervish, bowing to him as he whispered to each one.
At last came the moment we’d been waiting for. The whirling began. The dervishes filled the floor as they swirled gently around the room with eyes half-closed. Their faces wore expressions of absolute calm and concentration. One dervish in particular seemed to be completely immersed in another world. Their hands were unfurled, with the right pointing up to the ceiling, and the left down to the floor, which symbolizes receiving blessings from heaven and sending them down to earth. Then the head dervish, dressed in black, took the center of the floor. The others twirled around him. He opened up the top part of his robe to symbolize burning with love for Allah. At this point the chanting worshippers increased their volume. Some people’s personal chants rang out above the overall wall of sound. Then, abruptly, it all stopped. One man’s voice took over, chanting Arabic verses from the Qur’an. The dervishes kneeled and bowed low for a final time. They replaced their black over-garments and filed slowly off the floor, disappearing into the sidelines. From his seat at the front of the tekke, the imam led everyone in the final chant. After that, the ceremony was over. It lasted over two hours, yet time slipped by easily as we watched the dervishes twirling. Attending the sema is truly a unique and spiritual experience, made even more meaningful with greater understanding of Sufi beliefs.
Where to attend a sema in Istanbul
The sema ceremony we attended takes place every Monday evening from 8.30pm at the Cerrahi Tekkesi, Fatih – Karagümrük. Another option is the more tourist-oriented Galata Mevlevihansei, located near Tünel at the end of Istiklal Caddesi. Sema ceremonies take place there every day at 7.30pm, except Mondays. Alternatively, whirling dervishes can also be seen at Sirkeci train station daily at 7.30pm.