In a spin from top to toe
The inside story on Turkey’s whirling dervishes
IT begins with a hat in Istanbul. Not far from the Grand Bazaar, I wander into a felt-maker’s workshop where I find Mehmet elbow deep in a lather of soap and felt. He is making a sikke, he says. It is a hat for a dervish.
Mehmet shows me some he has made earlier. Tall and cylindrical, like an elongated fez, the earth-coloured sikke is meant to resemble a tombstone.
They were worn by dervishes when they performed their famous sema, or whirling dance. The idea behind it is that the hat is a reminder of their own inevitable death.
‘‘Istanbul is full of dervish performances,’’ Mehmet says, frowning, ‘‘but they are just dance shows, like belly dancers. You need to attend a religious gathering to understand a genuine sema.’’ Mehmet recommends a dervish I could consult.
Dervishes are Sufis, an interpretation of Islam that emphasises mystical asceticism. Central to Sufism is the idea of the loss of self as a means of attaining union with the divine. At different times in different places, Sufis have employed various ways of exciting a kind of ecstasy — music, dance, drugs, love — making the whole dervish thing sound a bit like a particularly successful weekend at Glastonbury.
Eight centuries ago, dervishes in Turkey took to whirling as a path to the divine. They were followers of 13thcentury philosopher and poet Jelaluddin Rumi, known as the Mevlana. For non-Muslims accustomed to headlines featuring puritanical j ihadists or fatwa-waving ayatollahs, Rumi can be a revelation. His poetry (Rumi wrote in Persian) speaks of peace and love and tolerance. Ironically, he is one of the most respected saints in the Islamic world and a bestseller in the US, where his Sufi readers are swollen by New Age recruits attracted by his freethinking liberalism.
‘‘There are no rules for worship,’’ Rumi writes. ‘‘Say whatever and however your loving tells you to. Your sweet blasphemy is the truest devotion. Through you a whole world is freed. Loosen your tongue and don’t worry what comes out. It’s all the light of the spirit.’’ You can see how this would appeal to any child of the 1960s.
In the evening I go to meet my dervish. Erol is a serious, bearded man in his 50s whose English lends his explanations of Sufism a pleasingly surreal quality. ‘‘First sleeping, then dream time, morning time, master, this one, that one, lesson,’’ he says.
I nod. I know this dervish thing is going to be a little confusing.
We take a taxi along the Sea of Marmara past the old walls of Constantinople. In the western suburbs, the Silivrikapi Monastery is as nondescript as a school hall. A woman ushers us into a large auditorium where about 200 devotees are seated cross-legged on the carpet. They look about as mystical as members of the local Rotary Club.
I arrive just in time for prayers. The lights dim and a man begins a long, quavering chant. Then the whole room suddenly takes up the name of Allah, chanting it over and over, as they rock back and forth, eyes closed, ‘‘AL- lah, AL-lah, AL-lah’’, until the word becomes a kind of communal heavy panting. There is no hysteria in this chanting, only a mesmerising calm, as the waves of repeated sound wash across the room. This is the zikr, the meditative trance with which Sufis try to find oneness with God.
After about 10 minutes, the chanting stops as abruptly as it began. The lights are turned up and everyone seems to be back to normal. Dinner is served on plastic plates, like a church social. After dinner, the carpets are rolled up and the dervishes arrive in single file, dressed in black robes and tall sikke.
But wait, let’s leave the whirling for later, when we get to the epicentre of the Mevlana’s world, to the city of Konya. It is Erol who recommends a trip to Konya. At least I think he does. ‘‘Mevlana, dying, praying and praying, going and coming Konya, dancing, dancing, the dervishes, number one,’’ he tells me. His English sounds like my Turkish.
Konya, deep in the heart of Anatolia, was once a Roman city, Iconium, visited by St Paul. By the 12th century it became the capital of the Sultanate of Rum, a division of the fractured Seljuk Empire that had once stretched from the Mediterranean to Central Asia. From early in the 13th century, artists and scholars gathered in Konya from all across western Asia, making it the Florence of the Islamic Middle Ages, a cauldron of artistic achievement and enlightened philosophy.
Today Konya is a provincial Turkish city, famous for the beauty of its Seljuk architecture and the excellence of its kebabs. To the outside world its interest rests on the fact one of the 13thcentury scholars drawn to this city was Rumi, the Mevlana. He is to Konya what William Shakespeare is to Stratford-on-Avon.
More than a million pilgrims come every year to visit his shrine, which stands beneath a fluted turquoise dome. Devotees file inside, gazing up at the densely decorated surfaces. They stand before Rumi’s tomb, their hands outstretched in attitudes of supplication. A number are in tears.
After the tears, pilgrims queue to gape at the exhibits in the adjoining semahane, or dance hall. There’s an illuminated original of Rumi’s greatest work, the six-volume Masnavi; grains of rice inscribed with prayers; a Koran so tiny that the writer went blind; a casket containing strands of Mohammed’s beard. The casket has small holes so you can catch the scent of roses emitted by the hair.
Tearing myself away from Mohammed’s fragrant beard, I set off to explore Konya’s magnificent Seljuk architecture, the contemporary and equal of our early gothic cathedrals. The Ince Minare Medresesi, the Seminary of the Slender Minaret, could be a showroom for fluid Islamic architecture — carved gateways, fountains, soaring domes of Seljuk tiles, vaulted half arches.
In the evening I go to see the dervishes dance. Konya boasts a new ‘‘whirling’’ auditorium, a vast circular space with tiered seating on all sides. The musicians take their place on a low stage to one side. Then the dancers file in, about 30 men who spread out around the rim of the dance floor. All are wearing the sikke and dressed in black robes. They kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground. The music begins with the slow haunting notes of the nez, a Turkish wind instrument. In the sudden hush it is the sound of love and longing. As the other instruments join in, the semazen, the dancers, arise and shed their black robes to reveal white robes beneath.
With slow steps they file past the master — a representative of the Mevlana — receiving his blessing before they begin to spin in slow motion on the floor. As they turn, their arms unfold from their chests, extending above their heads, like white flowers opening.
The skirts of their robes blossom around them. In a moment the floor is full of dancers, turning in their elegant circles, dipping into a divine trance.
As religious devotion, whirling may seem a little odd. But the semazen create, in the orb of the dance floor, a human gesture of tremendous grace. As they dance, it is freedom from earth’s bondage, a release from the weight of those tall tombstone hats. Stanley Stewart was a guest of Steppes Travel.
Whirling dervishes at the Galata Mevlevihanesi in Istanbul, left, and Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya