Konya, one of the first human settlements in history and the repository of each civilization that inhabited it, is a center of Islamic tolerance. It also gave Islamic culture the whirling dervishes, who enchant audiences with the spiritual atmosphere they infuse into every place they perform. Whirling dervishes perform their spiritual dance throughout the year but are more popular during the holy month of Ramadan, a time when worshippers feel surrounded by a more mystical atmosphere.
The whirling dervishes are members of the Mevlevi order of dervishes, an order founded in 1273 by the followers of Mevlana Muhammad Jelaluddin Rumi, a scholar of Islam who advocated tolerance, reason and access to knowledge through love. The Mevlevi order became a well-established Sufi order in the Ottoman Empire and spread into the Balkans, Syria and Egypt. It was outlawed in Turkey at the dawn of the secular revolution, and the main dervish lodge in Konya was converted into the Mevlana Museum. In the 1950s the Turkish government permitted members of this order to organize as an association and perform their rite, the “sema,” as a cultural dance. And with that, the whirling dervishes of today perform the sema to present Turkish culture to people from other countries and attract the attention of tourists rather than as a mystical journey.
Whirling dervishes perform their “dhikr” (remembrance) in the form of a dance and musical rite called the “sema.” The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through the mind and love to the “perfect.” Whirling dervishes turn toward the truth, grow through love, abandon their ego and reach the “perfect.” They then return from their spiritual journey as people who have reached maturity with the aim of loving all creatures and being of service to the creator.
They enter the hall in the footsteps of their sheikh, accompanied by hymns selected particularly for the occasion. They wear white gowns (symbolizing the burial shroud), wide black cloaks (symbolizing the earth of the grave) and high brown caps (symbolizing a tombstone).
With musicians playing, the whirling dervishes start circling the hall, taking slow steps in sync with their sheikh. At the end of the first part of the rite, the sheikh kisses each of the semazens on their caps, giving them permission to begin whirling. The whirling movement of the dervishes represents the earth revolving on its axis, and their rotation around the hall symbolizes the earth orbiting the sun.
The dance is made up of three parts. In the first part, which symbolizes the stage of reaching God, the whirling dervishes whirl accompanied by the sound of the ney.
This instrument plays a primary role in the music of the Mevlevi rites. It is an open-ended flute and comes to life when air is breathed into it. It has six finger holes in the front and a thumb hole in the back. The melody of the reed flute, Mevlana said, speaks of separation from worldly concerns and seeks the moment when it will be reunited with God.
In the second part, which symbolizes seeing God, they remove their coats, which hint at their souls being released from earthly concerns. They whirl with their right hands’ palms facing up and their left hands’ palms turned down. In this way, they convey the message that they give what they receive from God to man and leave nothing for themselves. The third part of the dance is faster, with the sheikh’s entrance into the dance. This part symbolizes man’s union with God.
According to Nuri ?im?ekler, the director of Selçuk University’s Mevlana Research and Application Center (SÜMAM), the reason behind the public’s intense interest in the whirling dervishes is their love for Mevlana. Most people believe worldly pleasures will not take them anywhere, as is suggested by Mevlana.