The first time I head of a Whirling Dervish was when I read Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish by Dorothy Gilman as a teenager. Ever since then, seeing a dervish whirl was the pinnacle of achievement for me. And I finally achieved it the summer of 2013. But of course, because the Universe enjoys messing with me, I have no photos of the actual ceremony. The bane of my existence: Photos Not Allowed.
The whirling concept was originated by a 13th-century Persian man called Rumi, poet, theologian, and Sufi master. The Mevlevi Order was started as a branch of Sufism by his followers following his death but by 1925, the Order was declared illegal. Nevertheless, in 1954, someone realized that tourists love this kind of thing and so they were given the right to perform Sema (the whirling ceremony) in public but primarily as a tourist attraction. And we tourists can see the ceremony in Istanbul, Konya, and in Cappadocia.
Why whirling? Well, they believe that it is a fundamental part of our existence, to whirl. The belief is that everything revolves – from planets all the way down to electrons, protons, and neutrons in atoms. So by whirling, they are attesting to the existence and the majesty of the Creator, praying to Him, and giving thanks.
Before you go to a Sema, it is important to know a few things ahead of time or else you’ll sit there for 45 minutes wondering what the heck is going on. So here are a few things to know:
• Sufism, a branch of Islam, apparently focuses on love, tolerance, worship of God, community development, and personal development through self-discipline and responsibility.
• Participants of the ceremony are called Semazen. Dervish is the colloquial term.
• The clothes a dervish wears has symbolic value (death, grave, ego's tombstone)
• The whole point of this thing: it is supposed to represent a person’s spiritual journey via intelligence and love to Perfection. Learn, grow in love, move beyond the ego, find the truth, and reach Perfection. But it doesn’t end there – you’re supposed to return and serve the all creatures regardless of belief, class, or race. And to do it with love.
• DON’T CLAP! It would be the equivalent of clapping while your Preacher/Priest is giving a sermon (if you’re from a Pentecostal or Evangelical church, this analogy doesn’t work for you. Sorry.)
I saw a Sema when I was in Cappadocia. I arranged for a company to take me out to the Sarihan Caravanserai (an ancient stop along the Silk Road trade route built in 1249 – provided amenities for merchants and stables for animals). It was about 15km from Goreme and in the dark (arrived about 9pm), the building was large and imposing. After we passed through the beautifully carved front gate, we walked through a courtyard with five tall naves. Past that is the room in which the Sema takes place: a square in the middle and each of the four sides were stadium seating. It doesn’t really matter where you sit (beyond sitting as close as possible) because you can’t take photos! Then with little fanfare and no explanations (beyond a leaflet handed out), the ceremony began.
Overall, I enjoyed it. Though there were times where I was thinking…”didn’t you just do that?” or “aaand of course you’re going to whirl in that direction again.” So yes, super interesting to witness, a bit voyeuristic watching someone worship God, and just a tad bit boring after 30 minutes (I feel so heretical saying that!)…but it is definitely worth the experience!
By the way, there are various places (ie. Istanbul) where one can photograph a whirling dervish but I was told they are fake dervishes – they’re just performers rather than actual practitioners. Ah well – I photographed one anyway…