The Sufi Whirling Dancers – a 700-year experience in the heart of Istanbul

Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your myth


Likely, you have heard of the famous 13th-century poet Rumi. The first time I came across his words was in Sarajevo, Bosnia, realising my ignorance for not knowing such an influential scholar – likely because he was Islamic and I had never been in any Islamic country at that time before. I quickly realised how big he was and still is amongst not only those countries where Islam is the majority religion, but also in the Western world, which made me feel even more embarrassed – considered a best selling poet in the United States. This doesn’t surprise me now – his writing is simple but full of meaning. Easy to understand in any language, utilising common vocabulary and accessible and relevant to anyone with any religious or ethnic background or level of education. Of Persian nationality, Rumi has left a magnificent legacy, words of wisdom still so relevant today, seven centuries later, and I believe would never stop being so.

While in Istanbul, I went to see a whirling dervish ceremony – Sema is the name of the ceremony. These were started by Rumi himself, as a form of meditation. The scholar was Sufi – a member of Sufism, the mystic body of religious practice that focus on Islamic spirituality and esotericism.

There are many roads that lead to God. I have chosen one of dance and music

Rumi reportedly told his followers

Before this ceremony, Rumi would fast, meditate and then dance aiming to reach a state of unparalleled enlightenment. Others started to practice it with the most renowned sect adopting being called the Mevlevi order. The dancers are called semazen.

The long camel style hats worn by the semazen is callened sikke and it represents a tombstone for the ego. The white skirt (tenure) is the shroud for the ego. And, when the Dervishes take off the black cloak they wear before the ritual, he is meant to be spiritually reborn to the the truth. When the dancer is wearing his white robe, he is assumed to be without fault and ready to start the whirls.

The movements are mesmerising, somehow hypnotizing and perhaps that’s is also the point – to get you in a trance, to forget about worldly worries and find within yourself some peace and perhaps even some enlightenment too. The dancers turn in rhythmic patterns, using the left foot to propel their bodies around the right foot with their eyes always open, but unfocused. The skirts rise taking a conic form – almost as if defying gravity, levitating, pulled by some sort of supernatural energy. The ceremony doesn’t happen without its own music – a singer, a flute player, a kettle drummers and a cymbal player mark the rhythm of the whirling.

Unfortunately, this ritual was put in danger in 1925, when Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal ataturk closed all orders as part of his secularization policies. The existence Sufi sects were forbidden and Dervishes were could not practice their rituals, unless doing do underground. In 1956, the legislation was still prohibiting the Sufi sects but the whirling dervish ceremony was revived as it was considered a cultural asset. Dancers started to perform on the anniversary of Rumi’s death

In the 1990s, the government eased such regulamentations to allow dervishes to perform their ceremonies but, by then, a lot of voices criticised the way this ritual had been commercialised, and the damage had been done. The show is now considered more touristy than spiritual. Knowing this, and knowing I couldn’t really go to a dervish lodge during my time in turkey (where you are meant to see the real thing) I still found a more secluded, somehow “less touristy” spot in Istanbul – and also a lot cheaper in comparison to other places. It was located in a 500 hundred year old madrasah (Islamic school), built by a Chief Eunuch of the Topkapi Palace Harem. It cost me €17 at the time – and you can find it here.

I really wanted to experience this 700 year old ceremony with minimum distractions and I wish I had been strong enough to have never picked up my phone and take some pictures and videos. But if I had done so, I wouldn’t have been able to share a little bit of its magic with you. If you are in Istanbul or planning to go soon, I highly recommend you take some time to see a Sufi Whirling Dervish ceremony. A quick little video below:

Love, Nic


One thought on “The Sufi Whirling Dancers – a 700-year experience in the heart of Istanbul

  1. So beautiful and mesmerizing. Love that you chose to experience this, not a lot of people have this on their Turkey bucket list. I’ve seen Sufi dancers before (I’m Indian) and I love how lost they are in their feelings/devotion while dancing. It’s beautiful. I definitely recommend listening to Sufi music too. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, the music just makes you feel so spiritual.


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