Beyond a beautifully and carefully choreographed demonstration, with unusual dancers and hypnotizing music, the Semâ ceremony by the Whirling Dervishes is front and foremost a religious performance with highly spiritual meaning.
Who hasn’t seen a picture of flying white robs and wished they could witness in person the centuries-old ceremony? We for sure did and arranging an evening to attend such event was high on our Turkey trip planning.
Thanks to its increasing popularity with visitors, it has become easier to find where to attend the Semâ ceremony. In Istanbul, the Galata Mevlevihanesi is the first original hall, located close to Istiklal Caddesi. The Grand Bazaar and the Press Museum are two other reputed halls, though the latter is currently being closed for restoration until end of 2015. Of note is the Hodjapasha Cultural Center set in a 15th-century old hammam.
Whirling Derviches in Sarihan Caravanserai
With our evenings in Istanbul quite full already, we decided to attend the ceremony during our stay in Cappadocia and went to the Sarihan Caravanserai 5 kms north of Avanos. Composed of a Turkish bath, sleeping quarters and a large open-sky courtyard, the caravanserai was built in 1238 and could accommodate camels, merchandise and merchants within its tall thick walls.
The Sarihan Caravanserai has been restored and several rooms including sleeping quarters can be visited prior or after attending the Semâ Ceremony. The inside building where the ceremony is performed is beautiful, with high arches, large stone pillars.
We were seated on wooden benches, and were instructed to neither talk, nor use photo flash or applaud, as a sign of respect for the religious performance about to take place. The musicians arrived first, settled themselves on the fourth bench and set up drums and traditional cord instruments like flute and bells.
The Whirling Dervishes slowly approached the heart of the building and lined themselves up, all in silence. Removing their dark coats signaled the beginning of the ceremony. Following the lead from their master, the Semâzen stepped in and engaged in their turning motion. Turn after turn after turn, a slow motion of perfectly choreographed swirls, endless revolutions.
The music performed by the musicians was very profound and is attended to induce a meditative state. Some dancers sometime faint or cry following their high spiritual engagement in the ritual.
Do no expect a highly energetic performance, or a foot-tapping music – this is not Broadway, but a religious performance. For this reason, it is not recommended for small children as they might not be able to stay put for the duration of the performance. Some attendees did fall asleep, but they did so silently, thankfully.
After about one hour, the dancers reached the end of their rhythmic choreography and slowly came to a stop. Exiting again in complete silence, we were left mesmerized and hypothesized by the whole experience. We were still reflecting about what we had witness while sipping on the complimentary hot tea served in beautifully crafted glasses.
Although now a definite tourist attraction, we felt honored to have witness this genuine traditional ceremony.
Semâ Ceremony – A 800-year Old Sulfi Tradition
Born around the 13rd century from Sufi fraternities as an inspiration of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi (1207-1273) and combining elements of the Turkish culture, the Semâ ceremony is an active meditation still practiced today by the Dervishes of the Mevlevi order. A member of such a fraternity is referred to as a darwish in Persian, and the dancers called the Semâzen, also of Persian origin.
High in symbolism, many of the Semâ dress code is designed with a specific meaning in mind with the camel’s hair hat (sikke) representing the tombstone of the ego; the large white skirt the ego’s shroud. Removing the black cloak represents being reborn to the truth. From standing with arms crossed as a symbol of unity, to the arms open and high up, receiving God’s words, turning from right to left as pivoting around the heart.
The dance is based on the belief that human conditions and primary existence is to turn, down to the molecular level of the atoms, the basis of the human body, to the sky and the earth. Hence the meaning of the whirling dervish turning continuously through the ceremony, the Semâzen communing through a mystical journey and aims to attain Perfection (Kemal). Composed of seven parts, each with its own complex steps and meanings, going through the Prophet’s own spiritual journey, all ending with a recitation from the Qur’an. Assed in 2005 as a UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony is a unique cultural experience in Turkey.
– This is a religious ceremony, not an entertainment performance. As such please be respectful, do not applaud at the end of the dance, nor take photos with flash.
– Try to find a small location – this is an intimate ceremony, and it would be lost if it was performed in an entertainment setting.
– I felt the beauty of location was equally important, to reinforce the traditional element of the ceremony. As such, we were pleased with the Sarihan Caravanserai, small and beautiful
– Most shows last about one hour and costs around Euro 35, including transfer to hotels.
Want to read more about Turkey? Check our posts about Hot Air Balloon in Cappadocia, walking down history in Ephesus, hiking through the Cave Churches of the Rose Valley of Cappadocia, or tasting traditional Turkish cuisine.