Istanbul’s Whirling Dervishes

Istanbul’s Whirling Dervishes

The audience looks on intently as the Whirling Dervishes conduct the preamble for their remarkable ceremony © Andrew Gough

The audience looks on as the Whirling Dervishes conduct the preamble for their remarkable ceremony © Andrew Gough

Mevlevi Lodge is one of Istanbul’s best-kept secrets. The fascinating complex, located a short walk from the 1,400-year-old Galata Tower, provides the perfect backdrop to the Sema Ritual, a sacred Sufi dance inspired by the legendary mystic, Rumi. The Mawlawi order was founded in 1273, not long after Rumi’s death, and Mevlevi Lodge was their Istanbul lodge. A Sufi museum by day, Mevlevi Lodgeprovides a unique glimpse into the history of the idiosyncratic order. It also includes an evocative cemetery, and each Sunday the grounds come alive with the vibration of one of the most esoterically rich ceremonies imaginable.

Sufi Cemetery, Mevlevi Lodge © Andrew Gough

Sufi Cemetery, Mevlevi Lodge © Andrew Gough

By 6pm the venue is filled to capacity and the audience is anxious to welcome the dancers, known as ‘Whirling Dervishes’, to the stage. The term ‘Dervish’ stems from the name of the initiate on the Sufi path, while ‘Whirling’ refers to the description of their evocative dance. I’m captivated by their regalia: a white gown symbolising death, covered by a wide, black cloak representing a grave, and a tall, brown hat that symbolises a tombstone, but which looks suspiciously like a beehive, an ancient Sufi symbol.

The Whirling Dervishes prepare to perform © Andrew Gough

The Whirling Dervishes prepare to perform © Andrew Gough

Nothing in the Whirling Dervishes’ performance is without symbolism. The ceremony commences with praise for Muhammad and is followed by the dancers’ introductory greetings. The atmosphere is haunting and the music is mesmerising, but what follows is truly astounding.

Two Whirling Dervishes greet each other © Andrew Gough

 Two Whirling Dervishes greet each other © Andrew Gough

The core of the Sema Ritual is the ‘Four Salams’ and here the dancers, representing the Moon, process around the Sheikh, or overseer, who represents the Sun.

The Whirling Dervishes process around the Sheikh © Andrew Gough

Processing around the Sheikh © Andrew Gough

The dancers skillfully spin off the toe on their left foot, with their right palm facing upwards towards Heaven and their left hand pointing at the ground. What strikes me straight away is the fact that the more experienced ritualists are ‘gone’, eyes shut, soon after they have begun, their bodies, led by spirit, unconsciously conforming to a ritual designed to take them on an invisible path to God.

A Whirling Dervish closes his eyes and drifts towards his God © Andrew Gough

 Drifting towards God © Andrew Gough

During the ceremony the dancers process around the stage four times, each procession representing a different aspect of their spiritual journey. The first is conducted in recognition of God, the second in honor of his unity, the third in surrender and the fourth in recognition of the heart. The final portion of the ceremony is called a solo Taksim, and concludes the evening in style.

Sema Ritual

The Sema Ritual © Andrew Gough

As I exited Mevlevi Lodge and walked out into the night, I felt cleansed, if not transformed, by the experience. The Moon seemed to smile, as though aware that it had just honoured the Sun in an ancient and spectacular ritual. I was keen to experience it all over again; only next time, I reflected, I am going to close my eyes.


  1. Sophia 10 years ago

    You are really to be envied – to get the opportunity to experience the whirling dervishes.Hope my destiny will lead me there one day to wittness this devoted dance.
    You might enjoy a rendering of an other sufi poet – Hafiz I am sure you have heard of.

    Faithful Lover

    The moon came to me last night
    With a sweet question.

    She said,
    “The sun has been my faithful lover
    For millions of years.

    Whenever I offer my body to him
    Brilliant light pours from his heart.

    Thousands then notice my happiness
    And delight in pointing
    toward my beauty.

    Is it true that our destiny
    Is to turn into Light Itself?”

    And I replied,

    Dear moon,
    Now that your love is maturing,
    We need to sit together
    Close like this more often

    So I might instruct you
    How to become
    Who you Are!

    (From Daniel Ladinsky ” I heard God lauphing – poems of hope and joy)

  2. Author
    Andrew Gough 10 years ago

    Sophia, hi. Thank you for that lovely poem. Wonderful. And I love how you describe it as a ‘devoted dance’. That’s perfect, for it certainly is. I hope you can experience it for yourself one day soon. Thank you again.

    Bee well.


  3. Miriam 10 years ago

    Hello Andrew,
    I too thoroughly enjoyed your article here, and am delighted a friend referred me to your page. I look forward to reading more. Istanbul is at the top of my wish list. Just a matter of time. Best wishes, Miriam

    • Author
      Andrew Gough 10 years ago

      Miriam, hi. Thank you very much for your post. It’s kind of you. I hope you will get to Istanbul soon. It is certainly worth the journey.

      Do stop by again soon.


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