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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.