Turkey: In a whirl of their own

By Phoebe Falconer

Phoebe Falconer gives her spin on a traditional religious dance ceremony.

Whirling Devrishes twirl around in Turkey as a demonstration of their spiritual beliefs. Photo / Thinkstock
Whirling Devrishes twirl around in Turkey as a demonstration of their spiritual beliefs. Photo / Thinkstock

Here's something you can try at home.

Clear a space in your living room, making sure all objects with sharp corners are out of the way. Standing in the middle of the room, begin to revolve slowly, and then faster. If it helps, hold your arms out.

How many times can you spin before becoming dizzy and toppling over? Four? Five?

Spare a thought then, for the Whirling Dervishes (Semazen) of Turkey, who undertake this exercise regularly for 20 minutes at a time. Not only do they not fall over, they barely move from their designated spot.

It helps, of course, that the participants in this bizarre exhibition are in a trance of sorts. The point of the exercise for these Sufi adherents is the belief that, "wherever you turn is God".

We witnessed this 700-year-old ritual at the Seyyid Usal Dervish Lodge in Bursa, a heavily industrialised city in northwestern Turkey, and the country's fourth largest. Thus, it is not a pretty place. It does, however, boast a rich history, and was at one time the Ottoman Sultan's capital.

The Seyyid Usal lodge was rescued from dereliction after the purges of 1925, and rebuilt into the handsome structure it is now. The religious ceremony, or Sema, of which the whirling dance is a part, is held in a large octagonal room, about 10m by 10m, with a gallery around all four walls. This is where the women and girls sit - Sufi is part of Islam, and therefore rigidly segregated.

The men sit downstairs, the better to be able to help the dancers and musicians into their costumes. There are, of course, no female dancers.

The evening begins with the entry of the sheik, the chief minister. He carries a red sheepskin, which he lays down at one end of the room.

This symbolises an imaginary line across the floor of the chamber, regarded as the cosmic guide to the ultimate truth. The participants of the evening's ceremony then enter, and bow in turn to the sheik. Their arms are crossed with fingertips of each hand resting on the opposite shoulder.

The dancers are dressed in white shirts and long white skirts, weighted at the hem. They also wear brown felt turbans, or kulah, which resemble nothing so much as upturned flower pots. The sheik is distinguished in his dress by a long black cloak over his white garments, and a grass-green silk scarf around his kulah.

The music is provided by a group of six or seven, playing traditional instruments such as the ney, a small wind instrument, stringed instruments called kemence and tanbur and various hand drums. Together they provide a strong mesmerising beat and chant that the Semazen revolve in time to.

Once positioned in a rough circle on the wooden floor, the dancers bow to the sheik, who stands by the sheepskin, and then to each other. They then begin to revolve, always anti-clockwise, slowly at first and then faster as the music tempo increases. The right arm is held above the body with the palm facing upward, and the left hand faces downwards. This symbolises that what they get from on high is passed on to the world.

And they whirl. And whirl. And whirl. The skirts swing out into circles, so that from the gallery the dancers resemble flowers.

This is remarkable when you look at the dancers and realise that some are as young as 7 or 8, while the older ones appear to be in their late 20s. It takes a year, apparently, for a Dervish to learn how to whirl. Places in the troupe are fiercely sought after, and families vie to have a son accepted.

After 20 minutes or so, one of the younger boys is beckoned off the floor and his place taken by another dancer. By this method of swapping dancers in and out, a total of 15 take the floor.

All the while, the sheik watches, his head nodding in time to the rhythm, his words mingling with those of the musicians.

The music slows, the chants fade, and the performance comes to an end. Yet it's only a part of a religious ceremony, the remainder of which is taken up by communal chanting of verses of the Koran, in which the women are permitted to take part.

The Whirling Dervish (not to be confused with those dervishes who so confused General Gordon at Khartoum in the late 19th century) is the icon of the Mevlevi order of Sufism, a branch of Islam based on the teachings of the mystic poet Rumi. Older, more experienced practitioners can whirl for hours to focus their attention on attaining union with the divine.

As a demonstration of religious belief, the ritual is very moving. Purely as a spectacle, it is somewhat eerie and unnerving. It is, however, not to be missed on a visit to Turkey.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies to Istanbul via Australia and Dubai four times a week. Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand also fly to Istanbul.

From Istanbul to Bursa take a one-hour ferry to Yalova then an hour-and-a-half bus ride to Bursa. An alternative is to bus all the way - public transport is excellent in Turkey.

Further information: Entry to the Seyyil Usal Dervish lodge is free or by donation. Ceremonies are monthly. See similar rituals in Nevsehir in Cappadocia and at the Hocapasa Cultural Centre in Istanbul. A museum in Konya is dedicated to Sema and the dervishes.

- NZ Herald

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