9. The whirling dervishes


Frankly I had an idea that whirling dervishes in this modern age were some sort of cheapened but fun entertainment version of an old practice. I had no idea that it is still a deeply religious ceremony. So I was poorly prepared for the performance last night. Which was actually a good thing as my mind was a fairly clean slate. I can’t describe this without some detail, so if you are easily bored, skip this post!

The Hodjapasha Dance Theatre was converted from an historical turkish bath (called a hammam) in 2008. Originally built by Hoca Sinan Paşa who was a teacher and later vizier to Fatih Sultan Mehmet during 1470’s, the performance area contains an intimate circular glass dance floor and a musicians stage under the dome where 4 players were sitting. Audience seating is located around the dance floor with a capacity of 220 and the people in the closest row could if they wished touch the skirts of the dervishes. A very intimate atmostphere.

When we arrived it was obvious that there was a full capacity crowd - reassuring! While we were waiting for the performance to begin, I read a little about the ceremony, and a description was also being projected on to the circular brick walls above us.

The whirling dervishes are based on the Mevlevi order, recognised as a mystical arm of Islam. Its philosophy sufism is the means by which a person makes his personality free from bad habits, cleanses his soul and attains maturity with his love for God. It is a lifestyle. The Mevlevi order is based on love and tolerance.

It’s important to understand why the whirling. Everything in the universe, from the blood circulating in your body to the atoms in the solar system, is revolving. Seama, the whirling dervish ceremony, is the spiritual journey which has seven parts celebrating the creation of the universe: the creation of sun and moon and non-living things, the creation of plants and then animals, and finally the birth of humanity.

The special costume you would be familiar with represents the death of ego. The sikke (tall brown felt hat) is the tombstone, the black coat the tomb, and the white undergarments the shroud.

The ceremony began with 5 men in black full length coats, held tight at the neck by their crossed arms to conceal the white underneath. They walked in and bowed from the waist to a higher being. The audience are asked not to applaud at all during the ceremony or afterwards. It is not an entertainment, but a religious ceremony.

They then kneeled and touched their heads to the floor. All the while the stages of the ceremony were being projected in writing on to the walls, with an eerie spotted light effect moving around the walls of the room, now and then changing to representations of animals etc. There was chanting at the beginning, and then after that marvellous music sung by three older men with beautiful voices. It sounded like a nearly rollicking Turkish folk song with that lovely middle-eastern overtone. At no time did the performers engage with the audience. We were there as witness only to this all-encompassing representation of love.

There were two boys of about 30, one man, the sheikh who led the group who was 45 or so, and two much older men: one with a beard, and the other whom I suspected could have been late 70’s. Their black overgarments were of a very light flowing fabric, as were the white outfits underneath. They wore very full white gathered skirts right to the floor in light cotton which swirled superbly, a black cummerbund, a white grandpa shirt with pearl buttons to mid-chest, and a white box jacket with one side fixed to the other by a loose cord which allowed body movement without the jackets flying outwards. Underneath were white long johns and black sox.

To begin with, the dancers had their arms crossed over their bodies, each hand on the opposite shoulder, representing the one-ness and unity of God. The black coats came off quite quickly and the dancing began. They appeared to have their eyes closed, and as they twirled, their arms lifted right up to above their heads and they stayed that way. The right hand was pointing upwards to receive from God, and the left dangling representing giving away everything to others. Each twirl took as long as it takes to say one-thousand, and that's a lot of twirling.

The first twirling lasted for 8 minutes. EIGHT MINUTES! Heads slightly tilted to one side, eyes closed, they twirled. White skirts flaring out in full arcs as they imperceptibly moved around the circular dance floor. Imagine doing that for 20 seconds or so - you’d be giddy quite quickly. I could scarcely believe my eyes. No one faltered, no one opened their eyes, hands gracefully aloft for what seemed an eternity. They were in a world of their own.

There were brief pauses where arms were again crossed over the chest, and bowing, and more whirling periods of 2 minutes, 5 minutes, with small changes procedure. All without falter. During the brief breaks, the lead dancer’s mouth was moving as he chanted silently to himself. I can’t say that the dancers were in a trance, but they were certainly partaking in a silent meditation. How do they do it? I have no idea.

I was totally awed by the athleticism, professionalism and utter concentration. I was also moved by the symbolism. I wouldn’t have missed it.

ps photography of the performance was not allowed, so I have used the cover of the programme.