Five Whirling Dervishes filed slowly into the room, black ankle-length cloaks covering their wide white skirts. Lining up at the side of the room, the men sank to their knees and prostrated, touching tall conical camel-hair hats to the polished wood floor. Standing, they circled three times, bowing in greeting to one another as they circuited the room. After three rounds, they removed their cloaks, revealing long flowing white gowns cinched at the waist.
Slowly, the performers began to spin counter-clockwise, each using his right foot to push off while pivoting on the left. As the speed of rotation increased, arms unclasped and rose upward weightlessly, reaching toward the heavens, while gowns flared out and undulated like the ocean’s surface. Faster and faster they spun, heads tilted at nearly 90 degrees, with right hands pointed up to the sky and left hands, upon which their gaze was focused, turned toward the earth.
This ancient Sema Ceremony is performed by the Mevlevi Sufi Order, a mystic arm of Islam that was established more than 750 years ago by followers of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi, best known for his spiritual poetry. The ceremony is highly symbolic. A small red carpet placed on the floor represents birth and existence. A drum beat symbolizes God’s creation order to “BE,” and the playing of a reed flute represents the “divine breath that gives life to everything.” When the Semazens bow to each other during their thrice repeated circular walk around the room, they are saluting the soul. The camel’s hair hat represents the tombstone of the ego while the wide white skirt represents the ego’s shroud. By removing his black cloak, the Semazen is spiritually reborn to the truth and his crossed arms represent the number one, testifying to the unity of God. As the whirling begins, the position of their hands means, “from God we receive, to man we give; we keep nothing to ourselves.”
It is also rooted in science. In the universe, everything rotates, from the solar system to the planets, right down to the electrons that rotate around the nucleus of every atom. Humankind’s very existence is essential to this rotation, yet man’s intelligence makes him superior to other beings. A Whirling Dervish believes his movements force the rational mind to revolve in harmony with everything we define as living and non-living. Strangely, the theory that the earth revolves around the sun was first offered in the early 1500’s by Copernicus, more than 300 years after whirling dervishes began performing their ritual.
In its entirety, the Sema Ceremony represents man’s ascent to heaven, his spiritual journey, turning toward the truth, growth through love, and finally, the desertion of self as he loses himself in God. In the end, he returns to being a man, albeit one who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, with a vow to be of service to the whole of creation with a greater understanding.
There was no doubt that the dervishes twirled into a state of higher bliss that evening. Not only did a musky, sensual scent accompany their initial appearance, but the temperature of the room inexplicably increased the moment they began to spin. But perhaps the most astonishing evidence of their elevated state was the end of the performance, when they suddenly braked to a stop, crossed arms across their chests, and stood as still as marble statues. Despite more than 20 minutes of spinning, they were not the slightest bit dizzy. Seeing the whirling dervishes had long been on my wish list and the experience did not disappoint. I was so awed by it that I attended a second performance at a plush theater a few days later. But it was this first one, held in a simple meeting room inside Istanbul’s main train station, that sent goosebumps up my arms.
Attending a Mevlevi Sema Ceremony:
The ceremony at the Istanbul Train Station (Orient Express Sirkeci Gar) is held every Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. I highly recommend going to the station early to purchase tickets, as seating is done on a first-come, first-serve basis, with earlybirds enjoying front-row seating. Admission is 50 Turkish Lira (slightly more than $22 USD). Best of all, unlike at other performances around the city, photography IS allowed in this venue in Istanbul, Turkey.