Sunday, December 30, 2012

Whirling Dervishes

Konya, the first city I visited during my short trip, is the birthplace of the Mevlevi Order. The origin of the order is attributed to Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet who spent most of his life in Konya. According to a legend, one day when he heard shahaadah - the Muslim declaration of faith - he opened his arms and started to dance in a whirling movement. After his death, his followers founded the Mevlevi Order, also called The Order of Whirling Dervishes. The name comes from the famous way in which the dervishes worship God - by dancing. They pray by rapidly whirling on their axis, which imitates the revolving of planets in the Solar System around the Sun. Although the tradition had its hard times in the past, being declared as illegal by Atatürk in 1925 and banned for many years, nowadays it's still nurtured and the Mevlevi ceremonies (Sema) figure as one of the main attractions in Konya. Thanks to my friend Nur, who hosted me there, I could watch this amazing spectacle on a Saturday evening.

Considering the popularity of the Sema ritual, I was surprised to discover the performance is free of charge. Nur, her mum, her sister and I arrived to Mevlâna Kültür Merkezi after 8 pm. Seeing the flocking crowds, we knew that it would be difficult to secure the best seats. The circle-shaped auditorium was filled to capacity; people sat on the stairs and right in front of the scene or stood behind the chairs on the top level. We took a seat at the top, hoping to get the full picture of whirling white figures. To my disappointment, the security requested us to move to the very front rows. I didn't really fancy watching the ceremony from so close, having a barrier separating the scene from the audience obstruct my view. But when the dervishes entered the scene, it turned out there were no bad seats to observe the performance - I would have loved to have seen the luminous constellation of whirling dancers from above, but at least I could watch it from close-up and notice some subtle details.

The ceremony starts with a musical introduction, where traditional Turkish instruments are used. After the recitation of prayers, the dervishes enter the scene. They are dressed in white skirt that produces the spinning effect, white pants worn under the skirt, white jacket and a black robe, which they remove before whirling, as a symbol of passing from death to life. They also put on a tall, conical hat. Every item of their clothing also has a meaning - the white gown symbolizes death, the black robe - a grave and the head covering - a tombstone. After a lengthy recitation of prayers, the master of the ceremony, one by one, lets the dervishes start the whirling. They spin in a counterclockwise direction, at first with their arms crossed on their chests. Soon they open their arms and raise the right one to the sky (receiving God's blessings) and turn the left one toward the ground (giving what he receives to the fellow men). In the beginning their movements are slow, but quickly the whirls become increasingly dynamic; the dancers rotate in continuing spins, slightly titling their head, which helps them withstand the whirling movement for a lengthy time without feeling dizzy. They also move their feet is a special way - the weigh of their body rests on their left foot, which they use for rotating in short twists; the right one helps them move their bodies around the left foot. It helps the dervishes perform this movement is a very smooth way. The dervishes can move even up to 40 spins a minute!

Today the Sema Ceremony is considered as art, which in 2005 was safeguarded as the first Turkish Masterpiece of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Personally, I was fascinated. The ceremony touches your heart and charms with its simplicity; after short time one could also feel taken into a dazy trance. Now I wish I could move the dervishes to Ankara to enjoy this sublime performance every weekend.

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