It was late March and our second, and final full afternoon, in Istanbul, a city which definitely lived up to the expectations placed on it. We had been enchanted by the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, and amalgam of Byzantine and Ottoman cultural and architectural influences in the two short days we had scheduled in this alluring city. On this day we would be treated to mesmerizing whirling dervishes, as well as explore an illustrious and historic Turkish bath (hammam).
When my husband, Bishara, and I decided to buy tickets for the Mevlevi Sema Whirling Dervish show in Istanbul’s Old City, I imagined we would see an entertaining performance of men spinning in long flowing garments rather than the formal spiritual and religious ceremony we were fortunate to witness in person. As we had done throughout our stay in Istanbul we decided to walk, map in hand, to the Hodjapasha Cultural Center where the whirling dervishes of Istanbul would be performing. We had been told by the accommodating staff at our boutique hotel, the Ottoman Imperial, that the easiest route would be a 25 minute walk following the tram line to the Cultural Center.
We liked the idea of walking, allowing us another opportunity to absorb as much of the tapestry of this beguiling city, as possible. Along the way we encountered quaint cafes teeming with romance and life – white tablecloths over tables for two, couples whispering in each other’s ears, soft candlelight, and Ottoman-style lanterns; as well as the pervasive stalls with vendors selling roasted chestnuts, a sentimental favorite of Bishara’s that remind him of his childhood in Jordan and Lebanon, and corn on the cob.
We stumbled upon the Hodjapasha Cultural Center in a narrow backstreet nestled among a cluster of Ottoman-style shops and cafes near the Sirkeci tram stop. The Cultural Center, a converted 550 year old Turkish bath that serviced both men and women, was built in the 1470’s by Hodja Sinan Pasha a vizier to Sultan Mehmed II. The structure remained a hamam until 1988.
Earlier in the day when walking from the Grand Covered Bazaar, which contains over 3,000 shops with everything from jewelry to colorful ceramic dishware, towards our hotel we discovered another Turkish bath, the Cagaloglu Hammam, built in 1741. There are around 100 Turkish baths in Istanbul, scattered along many of the city’s crowded streets and alleyways, from smaller neighborhood establishments to those found in five star hotels. The concept of the public bath made popular by the Romans, and established for maintaining cleanliness (and later doubling as a social gathering place), was passed along to the Byzantines of the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople and, ultimately, to the Turkish people.
As is the tradition with most Turkish baths, Cagaloglu Hammam offers separate services and entrances for men and women, and a hearty body scrub, massage, and hair washing by assistants. Visitors lay on hot slabs of marble in steam-filled rooms, and although given a piece of cloth (pestemal) as a wrap, must be comfortable with baring themselves in front of others. I settled for simply taking photos, as I am definitely on the reserved side. Although the service at Cagaloglu has received mixed reviews, the hamam is the oldest Turkish bath in service today, and harkens back to the days when Ottomans lounged luxuriously on its marble platforms while being scrubbed by attendants. The Cagaloglu Hammam appeared as a backdrop in the film, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and the hamam’s brochure claims its guests have included the likes of Tony Curtis, Chevy Chase, Cameron Diaz, and Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Later in the evening at the the Hodjapasha Cultural Center with its stone cut archways and intricate geometric designs, architecture reminiscent of its days as an Ottoman bathhouse, we were offered refreshments, sodas, sour cherry juice (a popular Turkish drink that I love), and Turkish delights. Just before 7:30 PM an announcement was made that the performance would begin and a reminder given that no photography or applause was allowed during the whirling dervish ceremony. We were ushered into a room with seating in the round under a high domed ceiling, a side platform for the musicians, and a circular marble floor where the dervishes would perform their ceremony. The Mevleviye were established in 1273 in Konya, Turkey and during the Ottoman era their numbers expanded throughout the region. The Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order (Mevlana is “our leader”) are named after Jelaleddin Rumi (1207 – 1273), a Persian poet and a follower of Sufism, which promotes cleansing of the soul through freeing oneself of bad habits and personal desires, leading ultimately to a closer relationship with God. The Mevlana and Mevlevi Order achieve this through the Sema Ceremony, which incorporates elaborate music and chanting, the dervishes, and a sacred journey from the mind and ego to love and unity with the divine. Just as the universe and our world is based on revolving motion – from our solar system, to blood and oxygen circulating in our bodies, to the most basic element of our world, the atom, the spiritual state is attained through the whirling of the dervishes.
Bishara and I took our assigned places in a fully packed room, where layered brick formed more imposing archways and a hushed silence seemed to belie a heightened level of expectation. The ceremony, which continues today as a cultural heritage performance, began with five men, the Mutrip (members of the Sema band), in black robes and long felt cone-like hats soberly entering the room, bowing, and walking, one by one, to a small elevated stage. The Mutrip is comprised of musicians who play the kudum (small kettledrum), ney (reed flute), yayli tambur (long necked stringed instrument with a bow), and kanun (lap harp or zither). The unique musical repertoire (ayin), which incorporates chanting of poetry and religious passages, accompanies the dervishes in their whirling dance. Rumi is reported to have said, “In listening to music, the soul leaves its normal orbit and enters higher spheres.”
Fifteen minutes into the music I caught sight of the first dervish entering the room. Somber and reserved, the lead dervish was followed by four more dervishes all dressed in black cloaks and the same long felt hats worn by the Mutrip band members. One of the men carried a red sheepskin, which was placed on the floor near where the dervishes would perform, symbolizing birth and existence. The men hung their heads and moved piously single file into the room. Removing their black robes (signifying an awakening to the truth) revealed the dervishes long billowing white frocks. Reaching the center of the stage, with arms crossed over their chests and hands over opposite shoulders, the dervishes began to turn around one by one, beginning with the lead dervish, and bowing to the dervish behind them. After the first dervish completed his bow he began twirling counter-clockwise on his own axis and around the circular arena, with the others following, symbolizing the spin of the earth and the solar system. Each dervish, in turn, released his arms gracefully from his torso with his right hand open in front of him and his left hand, palm down, behind him. I learned later from an artisan in the small mountain village of Sirince, (near Ephesus, Turkey), who crafted the felt hats worn by the dervishes, that the uplifted right arm symbolized reaching upwards to the divine, while the left arm directed to the earth projected a spiritual gift for those observing the Sema ceremony. The dervishes continued spinning, each producing seamlessly smooth motions, while in a prayerful, meditative type of trance. Throughout much of the ceremony, an alternating dervish remained twirling in the center of the circle of spinning dervishes, with eyes of the remaining four trained on the central dervish.
The dervishes followed a ritualized pattern of twirling for close to fifteen minutes, when they gradually slowed the velocity of their exquisite spins until their arms were, again, criss-crossed against their chests with hands over their shoulders, and when at rest with heads hung low, began solemnly bowing, once more, to each other. Following the bowing sequence, the lead dervish, launched into a fresh slow twirl, releasing his arms into the air with his counterparts following suit. And the cycle of twirling and bowing would continue for another three quarters of an hour, all the while accompanied by the Matrip’s musical repertoire. With each spin, dervishes abandon more of their human egoism, and move closer to ultimate truth, love, and a union with the divine. The end of the ceremony saw one of the dervishes collect the red sheepskin, kiss it, and each dervish, one after the other, back out of the room, bowing before exiting. The Matrip members did the same; one by one the cloaked musicians backed out of the room, and bowed before leaving the arena.
Bishara and I left the ceremony chattering away about the captivating performance and our newfound knowledge of the Whirling Dervishes. Although the charming Ottoman-style restaurants beckoned us during the chilly walk back to the Ottoman Hotel Imperial, our hotel’s Matbah restaurant was a bigger draw; we just could not pass on the warm hospitality and luxurious cuisine fashioned after meals served to sultans of the Ottoman period. Of course, we were not disappointed.
- Wonders of Turkey: Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Wonders of Turkey: Hagia Sophia and Covered Bazaar (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Wonders of Turkey: Old Antalya (Kaleici) (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)