Real Whirling Dervish Ceremony

Night of the Whirling Dervishes

Well I am working all day tomorrow and got this part done – one more folks and then the trip is over. Boo!!!! Then maybe I can get started on the 19 rolls of film????? All I can say about the Dervish ceremony was “an experience that we will remember forever”. Again, just like so many other things we saw in Turkey, the ceremony has to be seen in person to be appreciated.

Early evening of DAY 16

TAXI!!! And off to Nurdogan’s. We went to Nurdogan’s shop, but he wasn’t there at the moment so we took this precious time to walk again near the Blue Mosque. It had little white lights on the six minarets and also flood lights that showed a gorgeous shade of blue and I believe also a bit of yellow. It was an exquisite site and they have benches where you can sit down and look at either the Blue Mosque or the Aya Sophia. I could have stayed there for a very long time just gazing at the Blue Mosque. It is a site to behold inside and outside. At night it is majestic and hypnotic. I then tore myself away and we went to meet Nurdogan.

Before I get into the actual ceremony, I will give you all a little background.

Known to the west as Whirling Dervishes, the Mevlevi Order was founded by Mevlana Rumi in the 13th century. The Order wrote of tolerance, forgiveness, and enlightenment. They survive today as a cultural brotherhood. They are not theatrical spectacles but sacred rituals. The ritual of the Mevlevi sect, known as the sema, is a serious religious ritual performed by Muslim priests in a prayer trance to Allah. Mevlevi believed that during the sema the soul was released from earthly ties, and able to freely and jubilantly commune with the divine.

Dervish literally means “doorway” and is thought to be an entrance from this material world to the spiritual, heavenly world. The Whirling Dervishes played an important part in the evolution of Ottoman high culture. From the fourteenth to the twentieth century, their impact on classical poetry, calligraphy and visual arts was profound. Rumi and his followers integrated music into their rituals as an article of faith. Rumi emphasized that music uplifts our spirit to realms above, and we hear the tunes of the Gates of Paradise.

The first part of the ceremony is The Sema, which represents a spiritual journey; the seeker’s turning toward God and truth, a maturing through love, the transformation of self as a way of union with God, and the return to life as the servant of all creation. The Semazen (with a camel’s-felt hat representing a tombstone of the ego; and a wide, white skirt symbolizing the ego’s shroud), upon removing his black cloak, is spiritually reborn to Truth. The semazens stand with their arms crossed, ready to begin their turn. Each rotation takes them past the sheikh. This is the place of Mevlana Rumi, and the sheikh is understood to be a channel for the divine grace. At the start of each of the four movements of the ceremony, the semazens bow to each other honoring the spirit within. As their arms unfold, the right hand opens to the skies in prayer, ready to receive God’s beneficence. The left hand, upon which his gazerests, is turned towards the earth in the gesture of bestowal. Fix-footed, the Semazen provides a point of contact with this earth through which the divine blessings can flow.

We all met at Nurdogan place and left in two taxies to the (Tekke) where there is a branch of Mevlevies. They call it the Nurettin Dergahi and it is a 300-year-old mosque. We arrived and had to take off our shoes and I was given a head scarf as I had forgotten mine. We were then ushered into a separate waiting room where we waited about 20 minutes or so. We then were taken past a room or two and into the main area where the religious ceremony would be performed. We women were taken to one side, up a step and behind a banister. The men were taken to the same area, but had to sit away from us. Above us was a small balcony that was latticed and behind it we could see some Muslim women. The lady journalist said that the last time she came with Nurdogan’s, which was about a year ago, she was taken up to the latticed part, but for some reason we were taken to this superb spot which was only about a foot away, if that, from where they would be performing. I felt very fortunate to be able to observe this from this open area. In another room next to the whirling area was a group of about 70 to 80 men all dressed in white with white hats on. They were all kneeling except for the musicians. Since their backs were to us, I wasn’t able to see much, but could hear the music. I think I heard harmony from a zither, whispering flutes, drums and soft percussion instruments. Also while this mesmerizing music was being played, they brought a blind man into the room where the musicians were. Nurdogan told Ed to wait till he hears him sing as “He has the voice of a baby”. The music and chants coming from the other room were so in unison that I thought at first it must be a recording. The Sufi music is played not for pleasure but for cleaning the mirror of the heart. Waiting with great anticipation, the Whirling Dervishes came into the room. They were led by the semazenbashi (dance master), who stood at his “post”. It is the highest spiritual position, marked by a red rug indicating the direction of Mecca. The dervishes took their places to his left with heads bowed. The semazenbashi wears a white sikke (felt hat). The other eight had the tan sikke. Then I heard a drum and the slap of glory, calling the semazens to awaken and BE. This began the procession of the semazens around the dance master. It is the salutation of one soul to another, acknowledged by bowing. Then begins the Sema ritual itself. During the Sema itself there are four selams, or musical movements, each with a distinct rhythm. At the beginning and close of each selam, the semazen testifies to God’s unity. The first selam is the birth of truth by way of knowledge. The second expresses the rapture of witnessing the splendor of creation. The third is the transformation of rapture into love; complete submission and communion with God. The fourth is the semazens coming to terms with his destiny and his return to his task in creation. Then they cast off their black robes and revealed the wide bell-like skirts. They stepped forward, arms crossed in front of their chest. Raising their arms, holding their right palm upward toward heaven and their left palm downward toward earth, they gradually started whirling in a counterclockwise direction. No one rushed, every step looked measured. With the scarf on my head, I had become warm, but when the semazens began to twirl, their billowing skirts was like a giant wind blowing in and it made me feel very cool.

Their twirling is magnificent to watch. The dancers are not seeking ecstasy. Instead, they enter a hyperconscious state and tempt to maintain their physical axis (thus the lack of dizziness among the dancers) while contemplating the shaikh in the center of a circle of dancers. The shaikh represents their link to Rumi and their love of God.

They must train for years before they are permitted to take part, whirl as a reflection of the natural revolutions that move all things. Through the whirling they seek to achieve a union with God. The dervishes silently perform the sema, making small, controlled movements of hands, head and arms as they whirl. They are accompanied by music, often dominated by the sound of the reed pipe as well as drums and chanting as the ritual gradually transforms itself into rapid, spinning ecstasy. The twirling which was done in three sessions – each one lasting about fifteen minutes.

As their wide, white skirts floated past me like giant waves, I could see their black shoes and feet under the white skirts and their movements were so small and graceful. While one foot remained firmly on the ground, the other crossed it and propelled the dancer round. A secret turning in us Makes the universe turn. Head unaware of feet, and feet head. Neither cares. They keep turning. —Rumi

The seemingly endless rotations of its dancers are intended not for us, but for Allah. Twirling 20 to 30 times a minute – after a time their movements also seemed to melt into one another. Their dancing became a prayer and I think most of us there became a part of it.

At one point I noticed one of the dancers at the side with his cloak on. Later I found out from Nurdogan that the shaikh goes from one Semazen to another and can tell if he is getting tired and if so, he nods for him to quit. I was so entranced by the dancers that I didn’t even notice this happening. Near the end, the sheikh enters the circling dervishes, where he assumes the place of the sun in the center of the circling planets. With this part of the ceremony over, the dervishes returned side by side right in front of me and knelt down. Their black cloaks were put on them to again represent the material world. The men in the other room, who had never stopped kneeling, then started to bob their heads and chant in perfect unison again. Their voices just fusing into one. I found out they were saying the 99 names of God.

The ceremony ended with a prayer for the peace of the souls of all prophets and believers. To God belong the East and the West, And wherever you turn is the face of God. He is the All-Embracing, the All-Knowing.

Nurdogan told us later that they had prayed for the visitors among them this evening. The sheikh and dervishes complete their time together with the greeting of peace and then depart, accompanied by joyous music of their departure. They silently go to their rooms for meditation. One of the beauties of this seven-centuries-old ritual is the way that it unifies the three fundamental components of man’s nature; mind, emotion, and spirit, combining them in a practice and a worship that seeks the purification of all three in the turning towards Divine Unity. But most significantly, the enrichment of this earth and the well being of humanity as a whole.

Our group left this unforgettable ceremony and it was one of the highlights of our trip to Turkey. I had seen pictures of the Dervish Ceremony which is performed in Konya once a year for spectators by the thousands, but this was the real thing and very personal.

I give special thanks to Nurdogan Senguler who kept his promise to me to take us to this ceremony. I had been in email contact with him for about eight months before our trip and true to his word, he made this possible for us. I have many Muslim friends and they are like family to me. I love them dearly. They are generous, giving and honest people. I have a little knowledge of their religion and I find it fascinating.

I was asked many times, why Turkey? Why not? I found the Turkish people to be very friendly; hard working people and the many faces of its landscape was stupendous. I can also throw in Istanbul, which is one of those cities that have an enormous sense of history. It is a country that would draw me back again. I also find the mystery of the Middle East luring me back to those countries. I personally feel very safe in the Muslim countries I have been fortunate enough to visit.

After the ceremony, we got a taxi back to our hotel. By then it was about 11:00 and we hit the bed for some sleep. Tomorrow would be our last day in this marvelous country. Boo Hoo!!!! I don’t want to leave!

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