In a spin from top to toe

The in­side story on Turkey’s whirling dervishes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STAN­LEY STE­WART

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

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