Yesterday I was clever, I wanted to change the world. Today I’m wiser, so I’m changing myself. – Rumi
The steep roads of old town Sultanahmet-Sirkeci in Istanbul, Turkey, might look like a strange place for spiritual surrender. But, that’s where you arrive at Ankara Caddesi (A street named Ankara) where Turkish people walking the streets are busy taking selfies behind dozens of store front windows that are beautifully decorated with Baklavas and Turkish delights dipping in honey.
As you walk along Ankara Caddesi, in central Istanbul, you’re facing the waters that will eventually merge into the Black Sea. While peeling your eyes away from this beautiful wall of blue, take a right into one of the side streets and ask anyone you see for “Dervishes?” And every one of the street vendors, pedestrians, shop owners will stop what they’re doing to point you at a small door somewhere behind you. Walk those few steps to enter what was a 550 year old Turkish hammam (bath) from the Ottoman times and you’re now inside the HodjaPasha Culture Center of Istanbul.
As soon as you enter, you’re greeted and given a seat number of your reservation. You enter a round hall with a high roof and sit down in a chair with your ticket number. You’re here to watch the spiritual spectacle called the Sema ceremony performed by “Dancing” Dervishes.
Sufism is a philosophical branch of Islam which was formed by the followers of the great 13th century poet Rumi. Rumi’s writings showed the world how to live a life as proposed by God. He showed the world a way to tolerance, love and charity. People who belong to the Sufi sect are called Mevlevi Sufis or Dervishes as they are followers of their master, Mevlana Celaddiin-i Rumi (Rumi’s full name). The Sema ceremony is a moving meditation performed by these Mevlevi Sufi Dervishes who whirl in dancing motion to music played by a live Sufi music band.
The performance that lasts for about an hour begins with a request to silence our cell phones and chanting in Arabic by one of the band members. This is followed by the soft beats of Sufi music playing in the background as the Dervishes, 4 to 5 men dressed in traditional Dervish clothes, enter the room. They form a close straight line standing shoulder to shoulder in the center of the room, first bowing to the crowd and then offering silent prayers with their heads bowed to the ground.
In a few minutes, they stand, and slowly, with their arms crossed across their chest, one after the other, each Dervish starts whirling in a counter clock wise direction. As they pick up graceful speed, they open up their arms, the right opened towards the heavens and the left opened up and parallel to the floor.
As each Dervish whirls, his left leg never leaves its footing off the ground, and he only spins using his right leg. He continues to whirl in his own orbit of spin, only leaving it to travel in coordinated circles with others, all while having his eyes closed and head leaning towards his right shoulder.
The ritualistic chants, dance and music of the Sema transcend time and space and you feel ready to surrender your inner self to a trance. It is after all meant to be a spiritual journey where the dervishes are a medium between God and humanity. The rhythmic movement of their Tennure (Dervish dress with skirt that represents a shroud) feels part hypnotic and part spontaneous.
Once in a while when you catch your breath, you’re brought back to the present moment where you’re still on a symbolic journey of a state of non existence and being one with the universe. Dancing like this takes practice, sometimes months of grueling training to test a follower’s spiritual, psychological and physical endurance.
And you’re facing a man who has given up years of his life for practice and perfection. You don’t know if he has longed for anything like you have, but you will trace his journey of commitment and faith that has brought him here.
As you watch him, you’ll dance like him in your head, dance in pure madness, humility and devotion for everything life has given you. Whether you end up seeing God or not, the perception of purity in this experience will make your lose your heart at the dervish (doorway). As you leave, you’re filled with ecstasy that can only be brought by experiencing pure love and truth.
Photo copyright: @ Sait Işık
To be perfect needs to abandon all known positive and negative feelings, beliefs, actions and habits. – Little book of life by Rumi
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