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.
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.