Most of us are familiar with the Whirling Dervishes, but did you know that they originated from Konya, Turkey, and that their famous whirling dance has been World Heritage-listed by UNESCO?
Founded by followers of the famous 13th Century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi, after his death, whirling dervishes are members of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism. The whirling dance that you may be familiar with is a ceremony called Sema, which is said to represent the spiritual ascent through mind and love to a state of perfection and union with the divine.
Performed with one hand up to signify accepting the love of God, and the other hand down to connect with God’s creation. The Sema ceremony, which was first performed by Rumi, has been listed by UNESCO on its Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity list.
When performing the Sema, the dervishes whirl around their sheikh. Dervishes spin on their left foot, whilst their sheikh whirls around on the spot. The white gown worn by the dervishes symbolises death, and the sheikh wears a black cloak (symbol of the grave) and a tall brown hat made of felt which symbolises the tombstone.
While dervishes are usually male, throughout history there have been female dervishes, some of whom have attained high positions within the order.
During the reign of the Ottoman Sultans, the Mevlevi order was well recognised, and it spread to other countries, including the Balkans, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jerusalem. However, the Mevlevi order was outlawed in Turkey in September 1925 under the new Turkish Republic. In 1954 they were given partial rights to perform, partly for tourism reasons, and they began to travel the world performing, and even performed for Pope John Paul VI.
Rumi preached unlimited tolerance for people of all beliefs, and this same air of tolerance and welcome pervades today, with modern dervishes welcoming people from all faith backgrounds to the Sema Ceremony. Rumi’s attitude toward people from other faith backgrounds is best summed up in his famous verse:
Come, come, whoever you are, come.
Infidel, idolator, Wanderer, fire-worshipper, it doesn’t matter, come.
Ours is not a convent of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again
And the respect that Rumi had for people of other faiths is reciprocated – in 1958 Pope John XXIII famously wrote “In the name of the Catholic World, I bow with respect before the memory of Rumi”.
The Mevlevi order continues to be active today, and is lead by the 20th great grandson of Rumi. Every year between 10- 17 December, (the 17th is the anniversary of Rumi’s death), tens of thousands of pilgrims from all around the world travel to Konya to watch the whirling dervishes perform as part of a religious festival.
If you can’t make it to Konya in December, then it is possible to see them perform in various other locations around Turkey.