The Mevlevi Order, known to us as the Dervishes, were founded by Mevlana Rumi in the 13th century to promote tolerance, forgiveness, and enlightenment. They survive today as a cultural brotherhood and their spectacular dance, called the Sema, is actually a sacred ritual performed by Muslim priests in a prayer trance to Allah. The participants believe that during the sema the soul is released from earthly ties and able to commune with the divine.
The Persian word 'darwish' means the sill of the door and is accepted in Arabic and Turkish (dervish) to describe the Sufi - the one at the door from this material world to the spiritual one.
The Whirling Dervishes (or semazen) were an integral part of Ottoman high culture. From the fourteenth to the twentieth century, they had a signifigant impact on classical poetry, calligraphy and the visual arts. Rumi and his followers integrated music into their rituals as he preached that music and dance would uplift man's spirit to a higher plane.
The Sema is devided into four musical movements, each with a distinct rhythm. At the beginning and close of each selam, the semazen testifies to God's unity. The first selam is the birth of truth by way of knowledge. The second expresses the rapture of witnessing the splendor of creation. The third is the transformation of rapture into love; complete submission and communion with God. The fourth is the semazen's coming to terms with his destiny and his return to his task in creation. They then cast off their black robes and reveal the wide bell-like skirts beneath. Traditional Sufi Dervish may be seen chanting a dhikr, which is the repetition of "la illaha illa'llah" (there is no god but God). However, some Dervish may only repeat "Allah" as they know man can die at any moment, and they want only the name of God on their lips at that moment.
Whether the performance is by a true Sufi, or simply a performing artist, it is nevertheless both entertaining and fascinating. The performer whirls endlessly while manipulating skirts in a colourful display. They step forward, arms crossed in front of their chest. Raising their arms, holding their right palm upward toward heaven and their left palm downward toward earth, they gradually start whirling in a counterclockwise direction. Every step is measured and controlled.
The dancers are not seeking ecstasy. Instead, they aspire to entering a trance-like state whilst maintaining their physical axis while contemplating the shaikh in the center of a circle of dancers. The shaikh represents their link to Rumi and their love of God. They must train for years before they are permitted to take part, whirling as a reflection of the natural revolutions that move all things. Through the whirling they seek to achieve a union with God. The dervishes silently perform the sema, making small, controlled movements of hands, head and arms as they whirl. They are accompanied by music, often dominated by the sound of the reed pipe as well as drums and chanting.
Near the end, the sheikh enters the circling dervishes, where he assumes the place of the sun in the center of the circling planets. With this part of the ceremony over, the dervishes return to the side-lines and kneel down. Their black cloaks are put on once more to again reflect their return to the material world.
The ceremony ends with a prayer for the peace of the souls of all prophets and believers. A modern, generic term for this type of meditative dancing is Peace Dancing and is used to describe all such dances, whether religious in origin or otherwise.
Well worth seeing if ever you get the chance and a whole lot more than a dance routine.