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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Sema: A Dance of the Heavens

Come, come whoever you are
Our lodge is not one of despair;
Come however you are.

Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rumî (1207 - 1273)

Imagine one evening you've wandered off a side-street and you find yourself at the mystical Galata Tekke or lodge in Istanbul.

You peek through the open doors of this hidden, small religious house to get a closer look inside. Trying to find a space through the motionless heads of the select audience gathered around the octagonal room, to one side of the polished wooden interior you notice a group of mystics chanting rhythmically.

A boyish, olive skinned face from the crowd suddenly notices you, and you are about to move away fearing discovery, when the man smiles and indicates for you to come inside. You try to explain that you haven't paid an admission fee, but he waves your worry aside. You're here now, his expressions seem to say.

You are about to protest again - but with less force than before - when out of nowhere emerges a solo voice full of heartbreaking longing, similar to the muezzin's call you've heard at certain times of the day in the big city, from the slender minarets of gigantic mosques.

With all the anguish of love, a reed flute picks up the human wail in sympathy. Walking further in and fighting your shyness, you ask the man in a low whisper if the flute has a name. It's a ney, he says cordially.

A drum slowly begins to beat. Gradually a flute, a zither, a second drum, a lute and an assortment of unfamiliar stringed instruments, brought centuries ago by the first Turkic invaders from the remote Asian steppes, join in an ethereal rhythm that evokes fantasies of harems, caravans, turbaned multitudes and the twisting lanes of an Ottoman bazaar.

It is a call to perform a remembrance; the man continues to offer some helpful commentary as you watch the performance, heavy with symbolism, play out.

You are in the school of the Mevlevi, a religious order dating back centuries. These believers dance as prayer.

Twelve dervishes file into the back of the room as though in response to the call of the ney. Dressed in dark cloaks, wearing tall black hats you are told that the hats symbolise a gravestone; the black coats symbolise a grave, and underneath these black coats they wear white religious robes with voluminous skirts which signify a shroud. This marks the symbolic death of the ego for these dervishes as their souls prepare to commune with God in front of your very eyes.

With a light-footed step, the performers with immobile faces walk three times around the stage, each performer bowing low on every circuit to a red-dyed sheepskin that symbolises, so the whispered commentary goes, the presence of their spiritual teacher Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rumî.

female dervishes by Izzet KeribarThen they cast off their funereal black cloaks, as though discarding all worldly ties, to reveal their dresses, and crossing their arms they place their hands on their shoulders. Two of the dancers' gowns catch your eye as they are coloured, one red and one yellow standing out among the white dancers.

You ask the reason. They are female dervishes, recognisable because of their coloured gowns. Male and female dervishes perform together on occasion, comes the reply.

A singer intones: "There is no God but God," and the assembly calls out the word "Hu" - the most holy, according to believers - of the 99 names of God or Allah.

Hu-Allah-Hu begins to sound strangely like Hallelujah to your ears as the believers begin to revolve in long white skirts, slowly, slowly at first.

There is a low rustle, like a wind before the storm, as the dervishes revolve around the hall in two counter-clockwise circles. Shoulder to shoulder, they turn independently both around their own axis and around the other dervishes, while their arms gently extend sidewards as they dance, the right hand face upward and the left down.

Your new found friend enlightens you on what you see -

The repetition of the turn is known as zikr which means remembrance. The belief is that the purpose of life is to remember Allah by celebrating him. Every electron and proton is whirling around a nucleus, as the planets whirl around the sun - and all of them are chanting for Allah. They say if you listen closely even your heartbeat thumping in your chest is chanting Al-lah, Al-lah.

The turning itself represents the earth revolving on its own axis while orbiting the sun, the man explains, and the position of the arms and hands is said to mean "What we take from God we give to the people, keeping nothing for ourselves." They are receiving Allah's grace and distributing it to humanity.

The dancers perform silently and the house falls silent. Even the commentary that has guided you quietens down now as there is no need for words anymore. While the performers whirl, the ritual gradually transforms into a spinning trance. Nothing prepares you for the disorienting feeling that the dervishes are defying gravity.

This ritual you've just experienced is known as the sema, a dance of the heavens; the dance of the whirling dervishes.

Want to know more?
Main Index | The Sema | The Mevlevi | The Teacher | The Followers

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