Observing the Whirling Dervishes is a must-do for many tourists exploring Istanbul or Turkey. In this detailed guide, we will deep dive in this 750-year-old ritual and spotlight the finest venues to partake in this cultural experience.
Istanbul, where history whispers through its streets, is also home to some of the best examples of an ancient mystical dance form – Dwirling Dervishes. As the city breathes with tales of centuries past, the essence of Sufi Whirling permeates the air, inviting both locals and visitors to partake in a sacred experience.
What are Whirling Dervishes?
Whirling Dervishes aren’t merely a performance; rather, they are participants in an ancient ritual deeply rooted in Anatolian tradition. This sacred ceremony is known as Sama, or Sema in Turkish, and it holds a significant place in the Sufi practice of dhikr—a form of meditation and prayer. Sama, translating to “listening,” complements dhikr, which means “remembrance.”
During these profound rituals, participants engage in various elements, including singing, playing instruments, dancing, reciting poetry and prayers, donning symbolic attire, and other sacred rituals. Sufism, a mystical Islamic belief system, particularly embraces Sama as a powerful and popular form of worship.
In recognition of its cultural and spiritual importance, UNESCO bestowed the “Mevlevi Sama Ceremony” of Turkey with the prestigious title of one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005. This acknowledgment underlines the deep cultural significance and global value of the ancient Sufi ritual performed by the Dwirling Dervishes.
Origins of Whirling Dervishes
In the vibrant tapestry of Sufi traditions, the birth of Sama within the Mevlevi Order is a tale woven with the mystical essence of Rumi, the revered Sufi master and founder of the Mevlevis. Legend has it that while strolling through the bustling marketplace, Rumi was captivated by the rhythmic beats of goldbeaters at work.
In this enchanting moment, it is believed that Rumi, inspired by the apprentices’ cadence, heard the sacred dhikr, “la ilaha ilallah” (There is no god but Allah), echoing in the rhythmic hammering. Overwhelmed with joy, Rumi extended his arms and began to twirl in a mesmerizing circle—a practice we now know as sufi whirling. Thus, the artful ritual of Sama and the emergence of the renowned Dervishes of the Mevlevi order came into being.
Why do Dervishes Whirl?
Among the practitioners of Sama, the Whirling Dervishes from the Mevlevi Order stand out as perhaps the most widely recognized. Those engaging in the sema ritual within the Mevlevi order are individuals who have undergone initiation into the order, historically restricted to men. In this captivating ceremony, participants move collectively in a circular formation, each one also turning individually.
If art is considered “self-expression,” Sama takes on the essence of “selfless expression”—an immersive encounter with “fanaa.” Fanaa holds a profound significance in Sufism, representing the “passing away” or “annihilation” of the self. The Whirling Dervishes, through their rhythmic movements and collective dance, embody this spiritual concept, transcending individuality to attain a state of unity and selflessness.
The Sama ritual encapsulates a mystical odyssey, depicting humanity’s spiritual ascent through the realms of the mind and love, ultimately reaching a state of perfection. Guided by the pursuit of truth, the practitioner undergoes a transformative journey, cultivating love, abandoning the ego, discovering ultimate truth, and attaining perfection. This spiritual act results in the individual returning enlightened, matured, and perfected, ready to extend love and service to the entire creation.
Rumi, in his reflections on Sama’, eloquently expresses, “For them, it is the Sama’ of this world and the other. Even more for the circle of dancers within the Sama’ who turn and have in their midst, their own Ka’aba.” This profound statement draws a parallel between Sama’ and the pilgrimage to Mecca, both serving as pathways to draw participants closer to God.
In the rhythmic dance of the Sama, individuals mirror the spiritual journey akin to the pilgrimage, creating a sacred connection and a heightened sense of divine proximity.
Dervish Costumes and Symbols: Decoding the Symbolism in Dervish Attire
Each element of the Whirling Dervish costume holds profound symbolism. The tall hats adorning their heads represent the metaphorical tombstone, while the white tenure shrouds, a fabric wrapping for a deceased person for burial, and the black cardigans on their backs symbolize the concept of graves. These attire components come together to convey a powerful narrative within the sema ceremony.
Spanning eight centuries, the sema ceremony not only serves as a mesmerizing dance but also weaves a narrative recounting the genesis of the universe and the resurrection of humanity within this cosmic framework. The Whirling Dervishes, through their carefully crafted costume elements and intricate movements, bring to life a spiritual tale that transcends time, resonating with the profound themes of creation and renewal.
Tourist Experiences: A Visitor’s Guide to Experiencing Whirling Dervishes
For visitors exploring Istanbul or Turkey at large, catching a Dwirling Dervish performance is a must-check item on their to-do list. It’s deeply embedded in Turkish culture, and people are eager to witness this captivating ritual. However, it’s crucial to recognize that amidst the myriad shows available, not all offer an authentic experience. Choosing the right venue becomes key to truly appreciating the dance of the Dervishes.
While numerous performances are available, the Şeb-i Arus ceremonies stand out as the best and most significant. Şeb-i Arus, translated as the “Wedding Night” in Turkish (combining “şeb” for night, and “arus” for wedding, derived from Persian and Arabic), marks the anniversary of the passing of Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi within the Mevlevi tradition. Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi poetically refers to this night as the Wedding Night, a symbolic union with his Lord and beloved. The ceremonies, originally commemorating Rumi’s passing around December 17, have evolved into the “Reunion Anniversary International Commemoration Ceremonies”, commonly known as “Şeb-i Arus” among the public. These significant events unfold at the Konya Mevlana Cultural Center, encapsulating the spiritual essence of Mevleviism in honor of Rumi’s profound legacy.
This grand event occurs annually in December in Konya, the Turkish city that also houses Rumi’s final resting place. It’s worth noting that many tourists might not visit during these specific months, and Konya isn’t the typical tourist hub in Turkey. In 2023, it was the 750th anniversary of Şeb-i Arus, and you can catch a glimpse of the 2023 commemoration in the video below. If you’re specifically interested in the whirling segment, feel free to skip to the second hour of the video.
Best Venues to see Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul
Being among the world’s most prominent tourist destinations, Istanbul presents captivating displays of “Dancing Dervishes.” Despite their deep roots in tradition, Whirling Dervishes have embraced evolution. Modern interpretations seamlessly blend age-old practices with contemporary expressions, captivating diverse audiences and safeguarding the longevity of this ancient art form.
Within this guide, I’ll spotlight several venues and shows that promise an authentic experience, allowing you to immerse yourself in the rich tradition of Whirling Dervishes.
Important Note: It’s important to be aware that the majority of venues do not admit children under the age of 7. This policy is in place as some youngsters may either become bored or frightened by the music and chants, leading to potential disruptions such as crying. The Whirling Dervishes show is similar of watching a ballet or opera, where maintaining a quiet atmosphere during the performance is essential for the overall experience.
Hodjapasha Cultural Center – Whirling Dervishes Show
Nestled near Hagia Sophia in a 15th-century Hammam, Hodjapasha, or Hocapaşa in Turkish, serves as a cultural center offering an immersive experience of the Whirling Dervish Show. While leaning slightly towards a tourist-friendly ambiance, this venue ensures an hour-long spectacle that commences with a brief video introducing the Mevlevi sect. Following this, the show unfolds with a captivating 10-minute concert of Sufi music and Sema dance, accompanied by live music, Persian chants, and enchanting special effects.
Beyond the mesmerizing Whirling Dervish Ceremony, Hodjapasha houses a petite exhibition spotlighting an array of personal items, instruments, and dervish attire, enhancing the overall cultural encounter for visitors.
The Hodjapasha Whirling Dervishes show stands as one of the most popular and well-received performances in Istanbul. It’s crucial to note that the seating capacity is limited. Therefore, I highly recommend purchasing your ticket in advance to secure your reserved seat for this captivating experience.
Information About Hodjapasha Whirling Dervishes
Venue: Hodjapasha Cultural Center
Duration: 60 Minutes
Price: 30€ (The price might change based on the season and availability)
Sirkeci Train Station – Whirling Dervishes Show
Located close to Hagia Sophia (Also really close to Hodjapasha Cultural Center), this venue is nestled within Şirkeci Train Station, a renowned landmark. Notably, Sirkeci train station holds historical significance as the ultimate stop (or start depending on the direction) for the world-famous Orient Express, which journeyed from Paris to Istanbul.
The venue boasts a rich historical setting, enhanced by the exceptional acoustics of the iconic train station and a distinctive blue design, all meticulously crafted to evoke a mystical atmosphere. This show offers a splendid display. A favorite among tourists, this location garners significant visits due to its historical charm and the captivating nature of the show.
Important InformationAs Sirkeci Train Station undergoes repairs and renovations, the show has been relocated to Dede Efendi House, conveniently located at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center.
Information About Sirkeci Train Station Whirling Dervishes
Venue: Sirkeci Train Station
Duration: 60 Minutes
Price: 33€ (The price might change based on the season and availability)
Kızlarağası Madrasa – Whirling Dervishes Show
Constructed in the 16th century and currently serving as the headquarters for the Istanbul Branch of the Turkish Writers’ Association, Kızlarağası Madrasa has evolved into a vibrant hub for cultural activities in Istanbul. Additionally, this venue hosts one of the finest Whirling Dervishes shows, offering visitors a captivating experience.
Situated just 500 meters (0.3 miles) away from Hagia Sophia on foot, this location holds a prime spot in the list. Optimal for visitors, you can purchase tickets in advance and, after exploring the main attractions, seamlessly attend the Whirling Dervishes show.
Information About Kızlarağası Madrasa Whirling Dervishes
Venue: Kızlarağası Madrasa
Duration: 60 Minutes
Price: 20€ (The price might change based on the season and availability)
Editor’s remarks:Kindly note that these shows are artistic performances and not actual rituals. While they closely resemble real rituals, it’s obvious that the dervishes won’t engage in authentic ceremonies before an audience, as these involve a departure from earthly concerns. For a deeper understanding of Sufism, Dervishes, and Rumi, consider visiting Galata Mevlevi House.
In the heart of Istanbul, the mystical dance of Whirling Dervishes continues to enchant and inspire. As the rhythmic whirling captures the essence of spiritual devotion, it leaves an indelible mark on those fortunate enough to witness its beauty.
Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul represent more than just a dance; they embody a profound spiritual journey that transcends time and cultural boundaries. The rich history, spiritual significance, and cultural impact make this ancient tradition a treasure for both locals and visitors.
FAQs about Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul
The dance symbolizes the seeker’s journey toward spiritual enlightenment, a ritual that transcends the physical and connects with the divine.
Prominent Sufi orders in Istanbul include the Mevlevi Order and the Bektashi Order, each contributing unique elements to the Dwirling Dervish tradition.
The tall hats adorning their heads represent the metaphorical tombstone, while the white tenure shrouds, a fabric wrapping for a deceased person for burial, and the black cardigans on their backs symbolize the concept of graves. These attire components come together to convey a powerful narrative within the sema ceremony.
Istanbul offers numerous venues to explore, and I’ve highlighted the top three in this article. These events are hosted at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center, Dede Efendi House, and Kızlarağası Medresesi.
Whirling Dervishes serve as cultural ambassadors, shaping Turkey’s cultural identity and becoming a source of national pride.
Yes, modern interpretations blend traditional practices with contemporary expressions, attracting diverse audiences and ensuring the continued relevance of the art form.