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Whirling Dervishes at the Galata Mevlevihanesi

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With their heads slightly tilted, arms raised in exaltation and spinning in graceful circles, the whirling sufi dervishes are among the most enduring images of Turkey. Istanbul boasts a number of places in which to catch a ceremony, but we chose to attend the twice-monthly performance in the Galata Mevlevihanesi; the city’s oldest tekke.

Dervish Dance

Before the sema ceremony, I wasn’t sure what to expect apart from men in tall hats spinning slowly. And as it turns out… these expectations were spot-on. The performance is uplifting. Very spiritual and strange, and very moving. But it really is just dudes spinning around to strange music, for almost an hour. And I’ll confess that I started getting bored, after spin #235. (Everybody’s got a dervish spin limit. At 235, mine is acceptable. Those who are more mystically inclined might have a higher tolerance. 5000, say. But everyone has a limit.)

Dervishes are adherents to sufism: a mystical interpretation of Islam, which aspires to a perfectly pure state of worship. Each dervish order is based around an exalted teacher or saint, and each has different practices. In general, dervishes ascribe to an ascetic lifestyle of extreme poverty, and are fairly similar to Catholic monks. The Mevlevi Order was based around the teachings of the Persian mystic Rumi, and was among the most prominent dervish sects in the Ottoman Empire. Even sultans would come to watch their ceremonies in Galata.

Established in 1451, the Galata Mevlevihanesi is the oldest surviving tekke (dervish monastery) in Istanbul. It’s now been converted into a museum dedicated to the Mevlevi Order, with exhibits that illuminate their way of life, rituals, music, and beliefs. The brothers of the order didn’t spend all day whirling; they were skilled in calligraphy and art, and masters of specialized professions like watchmaking. The museum does a good job of introducing the dervishes, and their beautiful old tekke.

The sema ceremony is held in the Galata Mevlevihanesi on the second and last Sunday of each month. It’s probably the most authentic possible setting in Istanbul to watch the Dervishes do their thing.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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June 11, 2013 at 11:05 am Comments (2)

The Jewish Museum and Kamondo Steps

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Under the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was one of the world’s great ethnic smorgasbords. Greek, Armenian, Albanian and Turk all got along relatively well and lived peaceably, if not equally, under Ottoman law. So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Jews fleeing persecution in Europe found a permanent home here, and have long been part of the city’s cultural fabric.

Kamondo Steps

The Ottoman Empire wasn’t just one of the world’s greatest powers, but also among its most tolerant. Ethnic and religious minorities were treated with much more respect by the Ottomans than by the countries of Europe. When Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand issued their execrable 1492 decree expelling Jews from Spain and Portugal, Sultan Beyazit II formally invited them to resettle in Ottoman lands.

Still, it’s silly to pretend that the entirety of Jewish history in Istanbul has been one of roses and sunshine. Antisemitism flared up throughout the centuries, depending on the views of the reigning sultan and the tolerance of other minority communities… Istanbul’s Christians were particularly hard on their Jewish counterparts. But the Jews of the Ottoman Empire had it relatively good, and eventually reached half a million in number. They settled mainly in the neighborhood of Balat, but the city’s most important Jewish Museum is found in Karaköy, inside a converted synagogue.

The museum is small but interesting, concentrating on artifacts like traditional clothing and religious relics. There are detailed accounts of the Jewish migration to Istanbul, and the experience of living in the Ottoman Empire. And the synagogue itself is so beautiful that it’s almost worth the cost of entry, alone.

Near the museum, you can find the curvy Kamondo Steps, built in 1860 by Istanbul’s foremost Jewish family. The gorgeous staircase has become one of the most photographed landmarks in Beyoğlu.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Jewish Museum | Kamondo Steps

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June 7, 2013 at 5:01 pm Comments (0)
Whirling Dervishes at the Galata Mevlevihanesi With their heads slightly tilted, arms raised in exaltation and spinning in graceful circles, the whirling sufi dervishes are among the most enduring images of Turkey. Istanbul boasts a number of places in which to catch a ceremony, but we chose to attend the twice-monthly performance in the Galata Mevlevihanesi; the city's oldest tekke.
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