Flutist ready to play (photo: Henry Angelo-Castrillion)
The dance master begins the dance (photo: Henry Angelo-Castrillion)
The tempo increases (photo: Henry Angelo-Castrillion)
Come, come whoever you are, infidel, pagan or fire worshipper, come to me. Our convent is not a place of despair. Even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, come to us again, come.
Heard across the gulf of time, the invitation of Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi is as compelling today as it was 700 years ago when the poet-philosopher founded the Islamic fraternity of the Whirling Dervishes.
Dervish, the Persian word for doorsill refers to a person on the threshold of enlightenment. The Dervishes believe that through a revolving or whirling movement they can leave this world behind and enter Gods presence. The whirling experience is a foretaste of the eternity of oneness that awaits the man or woman who lives righteously in this world.
Mevlana, born in Persia in 1207 is regarded as the greatest Moslem mystical poet to write in Persian. His work, Mathnavi, includes six books of rhymed fables, a vast poem, didactic discourses and allegories, all of which are referred to as The Persian Koran.
As a result of his writing Mevlana attracted a following. He was consulted by great men, regarded as a saint before his death in 1272, and called mawlaw or master by his disciples.
Outside of Turkey, however, Mevlana is best known for instituting ecstatic whirling movements. Persian mysticism already included music and dancing but Mevlana was the first to develop a specific form. It is said that one day as he was passing a goldsmiths shop Mevlana heard the name God ring out with the beat of a hammer. Chanting Allah, Allah he began to revolve in ecstacy in the middle of the street.
Mevlana shared this experience with his followers and from then on they would gather to dance in the little prayer room of the mosque at Meran, a hillside suburb of Konya, Turkey. Eventually the Dervishes gathered at their own convents (teekes).
Instead of gathering in convents today, followers of Mevlana perform the dance in town halls.
The ritual starts with the cry of the reed flute. From the group of seated musicians comes solemn and rhythmic chanting along with music from the small double drum, Oriental violin, zither, long necked banjo, and the flute.
The Dervishes wear a traditional black cloak, which symbolizes the grave or entombment. Led by a dance master, they slowly process into the hall where they bow deeply and kneel in prayer before the sheikh, who is sitting on the Post or Seat, the highest spiritual position in the ceremony.
Underneath the cloak, they wear a white shirt and a long skirt which represents the shroud. The tall, honey-colored stovepipe hat symbolizes the tombstone.
To begin the ceremony, the master singer begins to chant praises to Muhammed, the Islamic prophet, in a mixture of Arabic, Farsi and Turkish. The shrill wail of the flute breaks into the chant and the Dervishes are called to dance.
Once again, they bow, kiss the floor and walk ceremoniously around the hall three times, bowing to each other every time they pass the sheikh. The Dervishes then remove their cloaks, thereby shedding their tombs and symbolizing their aim to leave behind worldly attachments and enter into a oneness with God.
As they pivot on their left feet, the Dervishes extend their arms with the right hand upward, taking from God, and the left hand down to give to the people, keeping nothing for ourselves.
Whirling, the dervishes utter the name of God and his attributes. They repeat the dance three times, with the sheikh joining in the last time. The music quickens and they appear to enter into a spiritual trance of oneness with God.
The holy dance, with its elaborate costumes, and its haunting music remains unchanged. Its preservation through 700 years is a fitting testimony to its aim of achieving a oneness with God.
Charles Adelsen, an American journalist living in Istanbul, frequently writes about the Near East.