Before I visited Istanbul, I read John L. Stoddard’s description of the Whirling Dervishes from his 1897 lecture on Constantinople:
An old man [stands] motionless, surrounded by a score or more of younger men, who have saluted him and patiently await a signal from his hand. When it is given, one of the dervishes begins to spin around like a top, resting on the heel of his right foot, while propelling himself with the left. Another quickly follows his example, then another and another, until the entire company is in motion. The skirts of their long robes, belted at the waist, soon stand out from their bodies like so many bells, and keep their shape as steadily as if cast in bronze. Meantime the pose of each of the dancers is identical. The head droops to one side, the arms are extended, the right hand is raised aloft with upturned palm, as if to claim the blessing of Allah, the left hand lowered with the palm inverted, in token that what they thus receive they will hand down to others. Round and round they go, not in one place alone, but circling slowly through the hall, as planets turn on their own axes, while revolving about a central sun..[the dancers] seemed to lose all consciousness of their surroundings, revolving with increased velocity,—a smile of ecstasy upon their parted lips.
When I re-read John L. Stoddard’s words about the whirling dervishes of more than a century ago, I realized that we had seen essentially the same performance. That’s not surprising, for the whirling dervishes are part of a living tradition that stretches back more than 800 years. I can’t improve upon Stoddard’s description of the mesmerizing sight of the twirling dancers spinning gracefully around the room.
My friend Marian and I witnessed the whirling dervishes at a Mevlevi Sema Ceremony held at the Hocapasa Culture Center in Istanbul. Notice that it is described as a “ceremony” rather than a “performance.” The distinction is crucial, for the dancers are engaged in a religious rite rather than simply presenting an entertainment.
So who are these people and why do they practice this hypnotic dance? The answer relates to one of the world’s most beloved poets, Jalaleddin Rumi. Born in 1207 in what is now Afghanistan, Rumi eventually settled in the city of Konya in Anatolia (in central Turkey). Rumi was a follower of Sufism, which emphasizes the mysical dimensions of Islam. As a scholar, mystic, and poet he was both a devout Muslim and a passionate advocate for peace and tolerance.
While dervishes—wandering Sufi ascetics—were common in Rumi’s day, the poet is credited with introducing the practice of whirling to Sufism. It is one of a number of Sufi practices designed to promote religious ecstasy.
In the ritual, the dancers wear a costume that includes a tall camel’s hair hat (which represents the tombstone of the ego), a wide, white skirt (which symbolizes a shroud) and a black cloak (which when it is shed represents spiritual rebirth). The dance itself symbolizes the journey of the soul to God and the transformation of the self.
The sight of the dancers spinning around the floor brought to my mind a kaleidoscope of associations and images, from orbiting planets to spinning electrons. As haunting Sufi music played in the background, the scene felt mysterious, exotic and inexplicable–the distilled essence of Turkey.
When it ended, the dancers exited the stage and the crowd (having been told not to applaud before the ceremony began), left their seats in silence. We had been part of something we couldn’t explain, but I will be forever grateful that I was given the chance to witness it.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.