One of the main sights I had hoped to see while I was in Turkey was the famous Whirling Dervishes. Sadly most of the Semas put on in Istanbul are little more than tourist or dinner shows, and I didn’t care to see a tourist show if at all possible. To see a real one would be much more difficult and I did not have the time to travel to more traditional cities to see ones first hand.
Founded in the present-day Turkish city of Konya, the Whirling Dervishes are a religious Sufi sect of the Mevlevi Order. The order was founded on the traditions of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi the 13th century Persian Poet by his followers after his death. The whirling part is a type of dhikr (remembrance or invocation or god), that forms the unique aspect of the dervish tradition.
There are many forms of dhikr from recitation, chanting, or even silent remembrance of god. The Whirling type of Dhikr is unique to the Mevlevi Sect. During its time, the Mevlevis found great prominence in the Ottoman Empire with many holding high positions in the Caliphate. However following World War I and the birth of the modern state of Turkey, Mustapha Kemal outlawed and persecuted the sect. They basically needed to go into hiding and practice in secret to keep the traditions alive. It wasn’t until more recent years when the cultural and historical values of the Whirling Dervishes were realized did they really start to come back open.
Given this history I knew finding an actual Sema would be difficult as many of them had closed over the years. We had been in Istanbul for several days, but it seemed we were always just so busy with many things, so after coming back from Cappadocia I knew if I didn’t take the chance now I would not see one firsthand. Marc was getting ready to leave so hopefully we’d get to catch a show together but it seemed less likely. I had checked several travel agencies but all of them only pushed the same basic tourist version of the Sema. Thankfully my Lonely Planet guide finally came in handy. They mentioned one particular agency, Les Arts Turks that could actually set people up with a trip to a real Monastery (as they called it) and Sema and I knew this would be my chance to go see one.
I quickly made my way to their offices in the center of Sultanahmet or at least to where I had thought I was going as I went into the wrong tourist agency at first. The day of the week did not match up however and I almost booked one of the wrong things since I stopped on a floor too early! I went up another floor to the eclectic office of Les Arts Turks and met with one of the men there who mentioned they may have one Tuesday evening but they wouldn’t know for sure until the day of depending on the needs of the Monastery. There was room on the list so I put myself down on the waiting list and hoped for the best. I was leaving the day after so I knew if I missed this chance I wouldn’t get another one.
Sadly with Marc leaving tonight I knew I would have to go solo for this event. It had been raining heavily during the last few days in Istanbul. I guess June while hot also is part of the rainy season, or at least just when I travel to places!
I got to the office a bit early and I could see that the rain had not been too kind to them. There was water damage everywhere and it was really quite sad to see. I don’t know if or how insurance works in this part of the world so I really can’t comment on how bad things will be for them to get it all repaired. They didn’t seem too despaired however, just apologizing for not being able to offer us any tea while we waited. I could see the other travelers starting to wander in, a couple from the Netherlands, another from Spain, another traveler from the States.
There were about 10 of us in total going in and we were basically all as confused and curious as to what it could be. The great thing about Les Arts Turks is that they actually get you to see the real thing. You basically pay for the transportation to the monastery but everything else is free. So we all sat, reading up on pamphlets on Sufism and Mevlevi while getting a political and historical lecture on Mevlevi, Sufism, and just general understanding between cultures. It was really good to talk and listen to firsthand accounts and just a better understanding on how Sufism and Dervishes play a part in the history of turkey, Islam, and just general things. I don’t think there is enough real just dialog and understanding that we all have our practices and we can all share and grow in this world together.
So after a bit more than an hour of chatting we all wandered outside to our van. We all piled into the big van and made our way off to the Monastery. I can’t say for sure exactly where we went; it was dark and rather late at the time. It was definitely outside the center of town and not somewhere I could easily retrace my steps to return.
The rain was still pouring down as we entered the monastery. As we prepared to enter they separated us by sex, and the men all went downstairs while the women upstairs. They also instructed us against taking any photographs while we were inside. After a few more quick instructions about the ceremony we all bolted for the entrance through the small garden and as I ran into the small doorway I could notice one small kitten also trying to just keep out of the rain hiding out under the overhang.
We entered the main foyer and took off our shoes and made or way into another large multi-purpose room. The people were busily finishing up a meal and several folks were sitting around a few tables eating. They insisted we eat as well being the considerate hosts they were. Several of the guests had refused to dine along but knowing that it would not be polite to refuse completely a few of us joined in on the meal.
The meal consisted of what tasted like a pumpkin soup and several large stuffed peppers. I have to say the food was actually rather quite good. While I didn’t want to eat too much I am definitely glad I took the chance to sample some. A few of the locals had sat with us too, and we all shared from the several large bowls and plates that were placed on the table before us. This also gave us a chance to talk a bit about the Monastery and the order that was there.
After dinner finished up they led us into a large room where they seated us to one side. It was like a big octagon with another room attached to the far end away from me. They sat all of us on an area to one side, and there were many other folks there too which we were told were university students from Istanbul (they did not have the same restrictions on taking photos).
We still had not seen any of the women so we weren’t sure if they had eaten or where they were being seated. I think we could kind of tell some of them were seated upstairs above us as you could make out figures looking down from above.
The ceremony started in the far room with many of the adherents seated with another older man sitting at the end playing an instrument. They would recite words in almost song through what seemed like several verses. I really wish my foreign language skills were more advanced as I would have appreciated it better had I known what they were saying.
After a period of time they then started into a more repetitive intonation and then the whirling dervishes entered. Dressed in white robes with a brown large cap the dervishes emerged from the room we had sat in to eat previously. They slowly made their way into the room, their robes lightly flowing as they walked. It definitely had a very mystical quality to it all as they all lined up and the one who appeared to be the leader to one side.
They bowed and he bowed back and they slowly started in a line a twirled as they walked in a smooth sweeping manner. You have to just sit and wonder what must have been on the minds of those dervishes as they whirled around the room, making smooth turns with their feet and their hands gently held aloft.
It was quite mesmerizing with the motion of their bodies and the chanting from those behind them. Do they truly feel closer to god because of it? I can only but sit and wonder as I watch. This procession continued on for some time to follow, more bowing and more twirling as the room seemed to come alive with the energy of all these participants.
And then soon it was done.
We got a quick lecture on the Sema and we were sent off back to our Vans to make our way back to the center of Istanbul. The rain had let up slightly and it was turning into a rather lovely night. We chatted a bit about where we were from and where we were going and all of our impressions of the service. It was definitely among the more unique and interesting experiences I have had a chance to see on all of my travels and one I hope to re-experience one day in the future if I find myself here again.