Being suppressed during the times of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey the practice of whirling dervishes was revived in 1956 and from then the Turkish Government permitted an annual celebration at Konya or a week of whirling which culminates each year on the Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi’s death on December 17th. A man who founded the practice of whirling and is considered to be a man of wisdom, spiritual master, and the most highly regarded poet-philosopher in Islam. In 2005 Mevlevi Semâ Ceremony was proclaimed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. It enhanced the role of Semâ Ceremony not only in the Turkish society but in the whole world making the whirling dervish as a symbol of nation state. Over the period of time Semâ was transformed from closed ritual ceremonies in dergah (monasteries) into big shows performed in stadiums attracting thousands of tourists. On December 17, 2015 owing to Şebnem Sözer (Cohort 1 alumnae) I had an opportunity to watch this mysterious and spectacular ritual performance. Together with Şebnem we watched it on the last day of the annual 10-day commemoration of the death of Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi.
This blog was drafted last year, however, I was not content with my writing and put it aside. On the one hand, it was giving me a feeling of uncompleted work. On the other hand, I was afraid of writing particularly on this topic since I did not consider myself knowledgable enough to write about such grandiose performance. And also the name of Mawlana, a big name in Sufism was too overwhelming for me. Scholars were devoting years to study the phenomenon of whirling dervishes as well as Mawlana’s philosophical teachings. How dare I, completely a stranger in this field and regular spectator, talk about things in which I have no expertise? These were my initial thoughts.
However, after some time I opened my writing again and decided that it might be valuable to share my experience at least with my colleagues. The blog gives a description of Semâ performance based on my personal experience and brings forward the questions which evoked in my head after the show. Many thanks to Şebnem who took me to this performance and who encouraged me to express few ideas which I shared in this blog.
Semâ Pilgrimage to Konya
Mawlana died and was buried in Konya, located at central Anatolia, in the south of Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. Between December 7-17, 2015 Konya city municipality along with Sufi dervishes were commemorating 742nd anniversary of Mawlana’s death. When we arrived to Konya we first visited the museum and Green Tomb of Mawlana. Regardless the cold weather the place was crowded. Visitors consisted of tourists who were competing in taking pictures (I was also among them) as well as pilgrims who were obediently praying in the open spaces around the tomb. Former rooms in dergâh (monastery) made into exhibition rooms where we could see ancient sacred scripts written in Persian as well as personal belongings of historical dervishes (monks). The doors leading to the rooms were small and we had to bend constantly in order to enter. Şebnem explained that it was for a reason. A man should bend his pride while visiting dergâh and show humbleness and respect to its members. Another reason of the fuss in Konya on the performance day was the fact that the Head of State, Recep Tayip Erdogan and Prime-Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu (now he is a former prime-minister) themselves were visiting the city and giving speech to its citizens in the main square. As it can be concluded the performance of whirling dervishes apart from being a cultural heritage and national pride of Turkish people also gained particular political meaning under today’s Turkish government. Thus, Semâ creates a special ambiance where political messages could be spread to the crowd.
Afternoon ‘show’ in Mawlana Cultural Centre
Like two kittens looking for the shelter in the cold weather, me and Şebnem after museum visit rushed to the Mawlana Cultural Centre. Show started on time. First there was a Turkish Sufi music concert. Later one of the leading researchers on Mathnawi (Mawlana’s main work) gave eloquent speech to the audience. And finally, M.C.s announced the start of Sufi whirling. Semâ performance was offered to its spectators as a dessert dish, because it was the most intriguing and essential part of the commemoration ceremony. While describing the Semâ performers I decided to use the term semâzen instead of dervish or a Sufi monk. I have found out in the performance programme that in Turkish semâzen means the one who performs Semâ. I was looking with curiosity at the sheepskin rugs which covered the performance area. The semâzens in black cloaks one by one were coming onto the stage and kneeling down in order to sit on the floor on those white sheepskin rugs. All the movements were done slowly, silently and with a big care. Meditation part took about
Then the orchestra started to play and semâzens after taking off their black cloaks began the salutation part. One after another walking in a circle, first they greeted their master standing in the centre, then each other. After each step they had a short pause. As if they were making a dotted line on the floor whilst walking. After the salutation semâzens began whirling. In this way semâzens repeated the performance four times. Considering the fact that it was choreographed performance timing for salutation and whirling part was very precise. Every whirling lasted six minutes and salutation lasted two minutes. The salutation part also included still standing of semâzens together in different numbers. Every time these numbers were changing from two up to five. I would compare these positions with constellations in the sky. After every another salutation part the semâzens were speeding up their whirling.
There are different speculations about the origins of Semâ as a movement practice. One of the frequent ideas is that Mawlana began whirling dances for the honour of Shamseddin Tabrizi who acted as a Mawlana’s master for some time and taught his ideas. In another case, it had been stated that Mawlana was passing through the shop and heard an extraordinary sound of gold being hammered. At that sound, he began to whirl with harmony of ecstatic sound. And later that goldsmith whose name was Salahaddin Zarkub became a sincere friend of Mawlana (Kayadibi, 2007: XLI). In fact, dervish dancing and whirling movements most probably existed before Mevlana’s time, and was taken this particular form in Konya in Mevlana’s time. Although we don’t have evidence, considering that Mevlana’s father came from Khorasan (today’s Ozbekhistan) by passing through Iran, there might be influences from Khorasan and/or Iran, maybe even from Pakistan and India; we cannot say really. It would be only a speculation.
Instead of Epilogue
Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.
Love is the bridge between you and everything
Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi
…If you only love for your own race
Then you only leave space to discriminate
And to discriminate only generates hate…
Black Eyed Peas’ song Where is the Love?
I would not be able to find better epigraphs for my concluding sentences. Without even being an expert in Mawlana’s teachings and preaching I can tell that at the core of his ideas lies the concept of Love. The love which exists not between two bodies but between two hearts/souls, because according to Mawlana heart has no gender and race. As I understood, Sema is not a simple movement of whirling, but it is a “love making” process backed up with certain knowledge, sentiments and emotions. The performance revealed to me Sema’s political and spiritual importance for the society today considering the precarious times in Turkey. After personally witnessing and emotionally being affected with the bomb explosions between October 2015-March 2016 in Ankara, it was natural for me to ask myself following questions: How the issues of peace and security are interpreted in Sufism? What is the intention of current governmental regime in promoting Semâ? Could people take refuge in ecstatic dances of dervishes to overcome their negative experiences? Definitely, answers to these questions can only be found through thorough investigations.
 This is rough translation. In original Turkish text was used the word “gönül” which is nor soul neither heart. But some abstract concept in between. I could not find English counterpart of this.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in all posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the association or the MA program.