A different city. A different dance. Not London but Istanbul. Not Sadler’s Wells but the Galata Mevlevihanesi. Not a ballet, but a timeless, hypnotic ritual dance created by Persian poet, prophet, philosopher and mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi.
The Mevlevi Order was founded in his name in the thirteenth century, and became a well-established Sufi Order during the Ottoman Empire. It followed Rumi’s radical teachings that dance and chanting could induce a trance-like state and bring the dancers closer to God and perfection. This dance, the Sema, symbolizes the cyclical journey to spiritual maturity and perfection through love.
In April 1841 a young Hans Christian Anderson visited Istanbul and described the whirling dervishes performance in almost exactly the same way that it might be described today, almost two hundred years later. Nothing appears to have changed. So faithful is this performance to the tradition of centuries that it was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.
The Galata Mevlevihanesi lurks at the lower end of the pedestrian mall Istiklal Caddesi, en route to the Galata Tower in Taksim. Once it would have boasted spectacular views of Istanbul in every direction, now it is hemmed in by tourist shops and cafes, embassies, hotels and tram lines. The museum is open daily, except on Mondays, but the Dervishes perform only on Sunday evenings.
We have stood in the queue for half an hour, clutching the tickets we bought mid-afternoon, waiting for the signal to enter the hall. Luckily it is a cool, dry day. Finally we are moving, and we duck through the front gate, down a narrow alley past the 19th century Halet Efendi Mausoleum and into a wide, paved courtyard. To the left is a Dervish cemetery, with tall, narrow gravestones, some topped with dervish cone hats or turbans, most decorated with Arabic script. To the right there are several layers of terraces, patios and pocket-handkerchief sized lawns: a secret garden hidden behind the busy pedestrian thoroughfare, quiet and peaceful, mostly inhabited by fat cats.
The Dervish Lodge was originally built in the 15th century. It has been rebuilt and renovated over the centuries
thanks to fire, earthquake and old age. It was re-opened as a museum in 1975. From the outside, the Lodge is an unprepossessing white, wooden building, three or four storeys high, but once inside, we are surprised to find an octagonal shaped dance floor, the Semahane encircled by casual seating at ground level and overlooked by a screened mezzanine floor. We sit down facing the front doors, almost barreled over by a herd of camera-clutching tourists determined to claim the front row. As they pose noisily for “selfies” we admire the hall. The walls and high ceiling of the hall are decorated in trompe d’oeil and the pillars are painted to look like marble. (Upstairs, in the museum, we later discover a display describing how this marbling effect is achieved.}
Gradually, the musicians gather above us, on a balcony overlooking the hall like a mediaeval minstrel’s gallery. They are wearing the traditional white dervish robes and the conical hats, shaped like large thimbles or spools of cotton, and they clutch an array of instruments, including the ney (flute) and the kudum (drum), the halile (cymbal) and the rebap ( tiny fiddle), none of which I have heard till now.
The ceremony begins with solo chanting from the gallery, reminiscent of the intoning of Christian psalms, with that same hypnotic droning and dipping, unexpectedly punctuated with ear-catching glottal stops. Our pamphlet says this is a eulogy to the Prophet, who represents love. The second part consists of a steady drum beat, with the rattling sound of a snare. This is followed by an improvisation on the ‘ney’ or Turkish flute that represents the breath of God.
Then the dancers, or dervishes, plod solemnly and silently into the hall in single file, each dressed in a tall, conical, camel-coloured hat and wrapped in a large black cloak, arms crossed over their chests as if in strait jackets. Slowly, ceremoniously, each dervish bows respectfully to the senior dervish or sheikh, then to each other, circling the room to kneel in a row at one side of the hall, on sheep’s wool rugs, bowing their heads so their hats tip the floor. Then they slowly, silently remove their capes. Beneath the cape is a short, white jacket and a wide, white skirt tied with a thick black sash.
At last the whirling begins. To whirl is defined as turning in rapid circles. Remember that dizzy twirling as a youngster, pirouetting furiously, as fast as you could, until you collapsed on the grass in a heap, your head, eyes and stomach spinning sickeningly, gleefully? Not so this controlled, stately rotation. As the dervishes take to the floor, solemnly, almost pompously, each dervish bows to the sheikh and then to each other. Gradually they move out into the middle of the floor, one at a time, and begin to orbit gently around the central figure, the sheikh, who is purportedly the channel to divine grace. It is a steady, sedate revolution on the left foot, all heads tipped to the left, arms raised to the sky, eyes closed. And so they turn, turn, turn, repetitive, unfaltering, each remaining fixed on his own spot, “their skirts [standing] in the air like a funnel around them” (Hans Andersen), not hectically like spinning tops but steadily pivoting, like cogs in a rhythmic machine. As the dervishes twirl and bow, I have memories of Fantasia’s dancing mushrooms. My eyes droop, my head nods, as the dancers seek to achieve a meditative and spiritual state. When they stop, there is no swaying or tipping over. Everyone is steady as a rock. Except me, who jerks awake, alerted by the sudden silence. They peel off the floor, bowing again in orderly fashion, to don their cloaks and assume their positions at the side of the hall.
The last part of the ceremony is a reading from the Qur’an. Then the sheikh leads the dancers from the hall, each bowing to the audience as they leave.
The performance, once a private religious rite, has become a public tourist attraction since the new Turkish Republic dissolved this Muslim sect in 1925, and is allowed to continue as such. Reading reviews later that day, it is amusing to note that I was not the only one to anticipate a more frenetic display of local folk dancing. Many, who had obviously not done their homework, were both scathing and bored. Although it was not what I expected, I was nonetheless fascinated by the discipline, the skill and the profound symbolism of the ritual. In fact I was so riveted as to be almost oblivious to the superfluity of keen photographers in the audience. But I will happily echo one reviewer, who advises spectators to “abandon your camera and open your senses,” in order to concentrate properly on this int
riguing ceremony. It may not be everyone’s method of achieving God’s grace, but it obviously works for these disciplined, devoted Turkish gentlemen.
*With thanks to Google Images for the photos and sketches.