The phrase “whirling dervish” – as it is used in English – suggests someone out of control, spinning madly, directionless. In fact, true whirling dervishes practice a very controlled art with roots in Sufi beliefs. Their rituals – ceremonies known as “Sema” – are far from spontaneous, requiring intense training and rigorous discipline. With arms raised and wearing voluminous robes which spread out as they twirl, the dervishes aim for a trance-like state intended to intensify contemplation. In 2005 the Sema ceremony was declared a masterpiece of intangible heritage by UNESCO.
The dervishes’ spiritual home is the city of Konya, in Turkey’s south. This is where Persian poet Rumi, the best known bard of Sufism, lived and died. While Sufism has been suppressed at various times by Ottoman and Turkish authorities, it is still possible to see whirling dervishes performing the Sema ceremony in Istanbul.
The city’s Sufi lodges are the best place to see this art form at its authentic best, although the best known, Galata Mevlevihanesi, is closed for restoration until December 2012. Nonetheless there are nightly ceremonies in other venues, including Yenikapi Mevlevi House and the Sirkeci railway station. Some tour groups take in lodges which are otherwise closed to the public.
As an alternative, the Sema ceremony is performed at the Hodjapasha Culture Center five evenings a week. The Hodjapasha is a converted Turkish bath near Topkapi Palace dating back over five centuries. The ceremony is performed in a round stone chamber under soaring vaults, the dervishes dramatically lit from above and below.