On both the way to and from my holiday in Central Asia I had a day and a half in transit in Istanbul. This was a great opportunity to finally see the whirling dervishes in action, and I booked myself an online ticket to a Mevlevi Sema ceremony at the Hodja Paşa Cultural Centre, a 550-year-old converted hammam.
To the Mevlevi order, everything in the universe revolves - from electrons round an atom, to the blood in our bodies, to the planets around the sun. The whirling of the dervishes - which they refer to as revolving - reflects this and is a way of casting off bad habits and becoming one with God.
The dervishes enter wearing long, black cloaks, and beige felt hats which resemble a foot-high fez; these hats represents tombstones for the ego, which is shed (or dies temporarily) during the ceremony. After many bows, and the removal of their cloaks, they slowly start to revolve. Initially their arms are crossed with the their hands on their shoulders, but as they begin to revolve, their arms gradually loosen and open, ultmately held up in the air as they turn. This revolving, at 1-2 revolutions per second, goes on for some forty minutes in total, although with some brief pauses as the ceremony has a number of stages. Any ordinary mortals would be dizzy to the point of nausea but these guys are apparently experiencing an "intoxication of the soul", and so suffer no such worldly discomforts.
To my surprise there is no joy shown on the dervishes' faces, which remain expressionless throughout.
Although performed for tourists in this location (in fact the Mevlevi order is still outlawed in Turkey and licenced to 'perform' only for tourists), it is still really a devotional ceremony, and so we were told not only not to take photos but not to applaud either. I found it quite moving but then I have always enjoyed the mystical side of religion, from the incense of the Ethiopian and Greek orthodox churches to the trance music of the Moroccan Gnaoua. In fact the two things I most want to experience during my remaining time in West Africa are a Lebu exorcism (Senegal) and a voodoo ceremony (Benin). Both are unlikely, unfortunately.
But in Istanbul on my second transit coming back from my holiday I found another venue with a Mevlani Sema ceremony, not in such an atmospheric venue but one where photos were allowed.