The whirling dervishes

Mevlevi philosophy has been handed down to successive generations for 800 years through the 'sema' or whirling ceremony. And its founder Mevlana's Union with Allah is celebrated every December for 15 days.

Konya's Mevlana Culture Center was filled to capacity last year for the 15-day 'Şeb-i Aruz' celebrations. Preceding the 'sema' or whirling ceremony, music concerts were given and Dr. Halil İbrahim Sarıoğlu, a Persian language teacher at the University of Ankara, gave an impressive talk laced with excerpts from Mevlana's famous work, the Mesnevi. This was followed by readings from the same text in the languages of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, in both of which variants on Persian are spoken. Enthusiastic applause rang through the hall throughout the talk. Thousands of people from faraway countries had come to Konya to take part in the Şeb-i Aruz or 'wedding night', so-called because it celebrates the anniversary of Mevlana's Union with his beloved Allah. The presence not only Persian speakers from distant lands but of numerous foreigners from Europe and, especially, the Far East was just a small indication of the continuing worldwide interest in Mevlana and the Sema ceremony.

Interest in Mevlana is growing by the year. Although he was born on 30 September, the 'celebration' is held on the day of his death, 17 December, which is of special significance because it marks his Union with his beloved Allah.  Fifteen days prior to this date, sema or whirling performances commence twice daily at the Konya Mevlana Culture Center, the last taking place on the day itself. The 'semazen's or whirling dervishes begin their dance following a series of traditional sacred rituals. While they whirl, they hold their right hands up and their left hands own in a stance that signifies Mevlana's own material insignificance and how he gave what he received from Allah directly to the people without arrogating it to himself.

Mevlana was forced as a boy to migrate with his father, Şeyh Bahaddin Veled, from the city of Balkh in today's Afghanistan in the wake of the Mongol invasions. They settled in the then Seljuk capital of Konya where the young Mevlana began his spiritual journey through the training he received from his father and from the learned men of the period. It was here in Konya, too, that he developed his philosophy, which would have such an impact on his own and subsequent periods. Mevlevism was a spiritual order that was developed around Mevlana's philosophy after his death by his son, Sultan Veled, and his grandson, Ulu Arif Çelebi. To achieve communion with Allah, the Mevlevi dervishes invoked his presence in a ceremony involving music and whirling. In the beginning  the whirling ceremonies were irregular in nature, performed on the spur of the moment and not subject to any particular rules. Performed to the beat of the hammers audible from the shop of the Jeweler Selahaddin in the Konya market, these spontaneous ceremonies were later brought under a stricter discipline and took their present form in the 15th century. Whirling ceremonies in Turkey today are performed by the Turkish Mystical Music Ensemble of Konya, an adjunct of  the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. There are also mevlevihane's or Mevlevi houses in other cities and countries, as well as groups unaffiliated with any organization that are willing present a whirling ceremony for a fee.

Semazen Nuri Bey of Konya's Turkish Mystical Music Whirling Group says that the Şeb-i Aruz, which used to last one week, was lengthened to two because it was so physically exhausting for the performers. Most of the semazen's in the Tourism Ministry's group at Konya are around fifty years old. Nuri Bey has been whirling for almost thirty years and says that the ceremony can be performed up to age sixty depending on one's physical condition. The whirling group at Konya consists of the postnishin or dede, who is the head of the group, the chief whirler, and thirteen other semazen's or whirling dervishes. Depending on the greatness of the performance, performed by up to twenty more semazen's not officially part of the group may also be incorporated into the performance. These unofficial semazen's are forced to make their living from donations. There are also those who practice other professions in order to make a living apart from whirling.

The primary qualification for becoming a semazen today is to devote oneself to Mevlevism and train oneself to this end. The whirling itself requires technical training of course. The candidates train for as much as two to five months on a wooden plank one meter square with a nail in the middle, placing their left foot so that the nail is between their big toe and second toe. Starting early can therefore be a great advantage when learning the sema technique.
Prior to the ceremony, careful and unhurried preparations backstage take place in complete harmony. The semazen's begin to get dressed in their changing rooms approximately an hour before the performance. After donning their undergarments, it is time to put on the 'tennure' or white gown, the sash, the black cloak and the 'sikke' or cap. Each garment must be kissed and touched to the forehead before it is put on. To adjust the length of the tennure, a rope is attached to the semazen's waist either by another semazen or by the postnishin while the semazen stands with his hands clasped behind his neck. A brief whirl is then performed to test the costume. During their backstage preparations the semazen's are as high-spirited as they are respectful and modest, and jokes and wit are not  lacking in the changing room even as a deeply spiritual atmosphere reigns supreme.

Fahri Özçakıl, the chief semazen of the Konya group, is critical of those who want to turn the whirling ceremony into a profit-making enterprise. For the almost twenty years from 1973 when he first began to whirl at the age of twelve up to 1991, Özçakıl performed the ceremony at great self-sacrifice with no remuneration whatsoever. He maintains that the performance of the ceremony today for purely commercial purposes at weddings, hotels and places of entertainment is unseemly, adding: “Mevlevism is not active today in the sense of a dervish order. We are merely striving to perform the 'sema' ceremony of Mevlevi culture in keeping with the original. We are endeavoring to achieve communion with Allah as Mevlana did by emulating his ceremony.”

The semazen's of Konya are well aware of significance of the performance they give and are proud to be perpetuating a tradition they believe in. For over eight hundred years the Mevlevi philosopy has been handed down to succeeding generations through the whirling ceremony. Mevlana's teaching, “Come, whoever you are”, and its much-needed message of tolerance have a lot to say to us today. We hope that a world is near in which those words will be heeded. We would at least like to imagine this is possible...