Wonders of Turkey: Sirince

Sirince is barely discernible on any tourist maps, or on any internet travel sites.  My husband, Bishara, and I became cognizant of this sweet mountain village a few short miles north of Ephesus when visiting Kas, Turkey on the Mediterranean coast.  As we checked out of the charming Kekova Boutique Hotel in Kas, Bakir, an affable, middle-aged man, and manager of the accommodation inquired where we were going next on our travels.  When we replied “Ephesus,” the historic site on Turkey’s western shoreline, Bakir’s eyes brightened and he remarked, “Oh, while there, you must see Sirince, a nice mountain town very close to Ephesus.  My friends like to go there.”

Retaining Bakir’s suggestion in the corner of our minds, while basking in the remarkable Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus, proved expedient.  Subsequent to our sublime excursion to Ephesus, we promptly forged ahead through the nearby town of Selcuk, location of our hotel, and up a serpentine mountain road into Sirince.  Along the route, we took a detour, as we often do, and rendezvoused with the remnants of a homestead containing penned Columbidae hens, a resplendent peacock atop the coop mocking its feathery compatriots below.


On the way to Sirince.

Advancing along the circuitous roadway, we encountered the appealing village of Sirince, reportedly settled by the Greeks in the 1400s and later by the Turks, and known for its local fruit wines, Ottoman-style homes, and mountain scenery.  Sirince’s muddle of pebbled streets, red-tiled roofs, tangle of boutique hotels, and festive restaurants and souvenir shops, enticed us into further exploration of the disparate charms of this rustic and alluring pastoral town.


Sirince, Turkey



Beginning our sojourn in a converted school building, now housing the Stone School Museum, and Artemis Restaurant and Wine House, the onset of spritzing rain did not deter our enchantment with stores exhibiting multi-colored ceramic bowls, vibrant circular Turkish lanterns, and a diverse blend of multi-patterned women’s scarves.  Although normally tepid shoppers, we buckled, employed the prerequisite haggling, and purchased two handsomely garnished silver Turkish demitasse cups with matching cupolas and saucers, and two ceramic whirling dervishes in mid-stride as mementos of our notable and entertaining time in Turkey.


The blue eye is thought to eradicate the

The blue eye is thought to eradicate the “evil eye.”


Our purchases.


Surveying the humming core of the village, we stumbled upon a hospitable merchant from the town’s diminutive grocery shop, who obliged us by assisting with money exchange, and informing us of a second brother, an artist specializing in unique felt mediums, who owned an artist’s shop on an adjacent hill.  Equipped with the brother, Umud’s, business card, we made our way up the cobblestoned slope, and eventually found the artisan’s secluded family run enterprise.


Up the hill to Umud’s shop.

Umud’s stern eyes turned tender when we uttered his brother’s name and disclosed that his sibling had encouraged us to visit his uncommon artist’s studio.  Formalities vanished in short order.  His hand resting delicately on Bishara’s shoulder, Umud guided us to an exclusive enclave, his workshop in the rear of the store, and offered Turkish coffee in exquisite miniscule cups.  Wool and cloth material streaked with bold blues and reds alongside wooden tables and benches strewn throughout the unfinished room, the craftsman divulged he was working on a new prayer rug with colorful symmetrical configurations made of felt.  The rug, although incomplete, bore the resolute forms of geometric composition alongside more fluid calligraphy strokes.  The young man revealed additional completed felt rugs and caps, all reflecting his singular conceptions, drying on lines above his workshop.

Our discourse on prayer rugs and traditional designs led to an exchange encompassing Turkish culture and historical influences, and our revelation that we had witnessed a moving whirling dervish event several days before in Istanbul.  Pronouncing his study of Sufism some years ago, Umud related that the conventional whirling dervish ceremony, an outshoot of Sufism inspired by Mevlana Rumi, centered around the counter-clockwise spin, which represents the rotation of the earth.  Enduring, our host divulged that the dervish’s right hand opens towards the sky to receive God, and the left hand extends downwards towards the ground sending the spirit of God to the people of earth.  Our newfound friend reinforced the notion that a whirling dervish performance is painstakingly precise, somber, and pious.

Flush with spiritual enlightenment and feeling grateful for the hospitality, we said warm farewells to Umud, and made our way along the mesh of alleyways to Sirincem Restaurant, a delightful looking eatery with lovely views that drew our attention earlier in the day.  Ali, the young and sturdy-looking owner of Sirincem had been outside the restaurant, on the street, promoting the merits of dining at his establishment; Ali had approached us with promises of fresh pomegranate juice – the crimson fruit grown from his own family’s tree.  While the pomegranate juice swayed me to return later, it was the assurance that sheesha would be provided, which persuaded Bishara.  Sheesha, a nostalgic favorite, routinely conjures up tales of tender moments for Bishara of his early years spent stoking his father’s sheesha coals in the garden of his family home in northeast Jordan.

Arriving at the Sirincem later in the afternoon, we were cordially welcomed by Ali who was clearly pleased with our return.  Steering us to outdoor seating, we declined indicating a preference for sitting inside, as the temperatures had dipped with the setting sun.  Ali persevered with offerings of blankets, encouraging us to loll in the impressive outdoor views of the village and surrounding ridges.  Generosity and hospitality a mainstay of eastern culture, Ali scurried off only to return moments later with three substantial wool blankets; one given to Bishara and two placed gently around my shoulders.  Bishara and I dined on leafy salad grazed with pomegranate paste, delectable lamb shish kabob, dimpled green and black Turkish olives, and piquant pomegranate juice.  Nearing the end of our splendid repast, Ali cautiously notified Bishara that he had only located cherry flavored sheesha rather than the requested apple flavored tobacco.  Bishara’s disappointment apparent, Ali proclaimed he would be back soon and reappeared, self-assured and sanguine, the favored apple tobacco he had cajoled a benevolent neighbor into contributing stuffed in one hand, and a shiny sheesha pipe in the other.

Sirincem Restaurant

Sirincem Restaurant

Driving back down the willowing byways to Selcuk following our savory dinner, we pondered over our momentous eight-day trek through Turkey beginning with a provocative visit to Istanbul, a city rich in sundry cultural influences; followed by stops in Antalya Province, bordering the Mediterranean, with its mesmerizing natural beauty, and Ephesus, an ancient site depicting the nation’s complex history; and culminating with an outing to the pleasing and uncomplicated Ottoman-style village of Sirince, along with a wish to return to Turkey someday.


Wonders of Turkey: Whirling Dervishes and Turkish Baths

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).

Whirling dervish performance in Doha, Qatar.

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.

Tram Line in Istanbul

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.

Bishara couldn’t resist the roasted chestnuts!

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.

Entrance to Cagaloglu Hammam.

Sidewalk advertisement.

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.

Inside Cagaloglu Hammam.

Hammam in Ottoman Era.

Scrubbing and bathing in Hammam.

Turkish Sultans (displayed in corridor of Hammam).

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.

Mevlevi dervishes. 1887.

Mevlevi dervishes in 1887. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.”

Whirling Dervishes

Whirling Dervishes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 Mevlevi Order or the Mevleviye are a Sufi ...

Mutrip Band (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Turkish whirling dervishes of Mevlevi Order, b...

Whirling dervishes of Mevlevi Order, bowing during the Sema ceremony at Chicago Turkish Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Workshop at TFF.Rudolstadt

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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