Istanbul’s Whirling Dervishes

Managing Editor Scott Stuckey has just returned from Turkey and got an insider’s look at Istanbul’s famous Whirling Dervishes.

I first heard the term “Whirling Dervishes” as a young child and, reasonably enough, surmised that they were dervishes who loved to whirl. What a dervish was, exactly, remained a mystery to me until last Friday, when I stepped into a 500-year-old Turkish bathhouse (repurposed as the Hodjapasha Culture Center) in the Sirkeci area of old Istanbul. Here, monks of a mystical Sufi order of Muslims–known traditionally for their spirituality, self denial, and tolerance–perform a centuries-old dance ritual for the admission price of 40 Turkish lira, beverage included.

My tour group streamed into the circular brick room, and we took our seats just a few feet from the Plexiglas stage, lit from beneath with colored lights, where the dervishes would spin. A worry crossed my mind: What if a dervish got dizzy and landed in my lap? We were that close.

Soon, musicians took their place in an alcove and began playing and chanting classical Turkish music, using traditional drums and stringed instruments. In time, five dervishes appeared, walking around the perimeter of the stage. Their every movement–crossing their arms, laying a sheepskin on the floor opposite the door, bowing, saluting one another–followed established traditions lost on most of us in the audience, though we sensed there was meaning to it all.

I glanced at the notes I had taken as our guide, Etem Öztürk, explained the significance of the dervishes’ clothing: “They wear tall felt hats, white gowns with long skirts, and black capes that they remove,” he said. “The hats represent tombstones. The gowns are burial shrouds. The black capes are the dirt of the grave.” The point of the ritual, Öztürk continued, was to leave everything of the world behind and to become one with God, with Allah. “That only truly happens in death,” he said. “These monks are mimicking death. When they’re performing, it’s as though they are dead.”

Fair enough, though, as we watched, the dervishes seemed quite alive to me, the hems of their gowns lifting centrifugally from the floor as they spun, always counterclockwise, sending a gentle breeze out over us spectators. I watched for the movements Öztürk had described: the tilting of the head, the opening of the arms–the palm of the right hand facing up, the left palm facing down, in order to transmit the positive energy of heaven earthward, spreading peace and wisdom.

I needn’t have worried about a dervish spinning out of control. It became clear that every movement was ritualized, if not precisely choreographed. The monks have had a lot of practice. And why not? The tradition dates back to the followers of Rumi, an Islamic mystic and poet who lived in the 13th century. His devotees, known as “the gentle ones,” would eventually include the likes of Ottoman sultans. His poetry, available on Amazon.com, is still cherished today for its literary beauty and spiritual enlightenment. I left the performance relaxed. If I hadn’t been so busy fumbling with my camera, I would have probably been pleasantly mesmerized as well.

After we piled back onto the bus, one of the European journalists I was traveling with was skeptical about the experience. “I don’t see how they could’ve achieved a trance-like state with all of us in there,” she said to me, “coughing, bumping chairs, making distractions.” I pointed out that our guide had explained that this ritual was always performed before an audience, never in private, its point being to bless the spectators, not the whirlers. He had said, “If you watched this 400 years ago, it would be pretty much like it is today,” even down to the collecting of money, which was used then to support the community. Today, he noted, the dervishes all have day jobs.

My seatmate on the bus was still skeptical. “All right,” I said, slightly annoyed that in a world where inanity and violence are the stock-in-trade of modern entertainment, she would be troubled by a performance as innocent as this. “Let’s assume they don’t really go into a trance, that it’s just rote movement done to entertain an audience. So what? It still puts forward a peaceful face of Islam and delivers a message that communing with God is worth some effort.”

“Okay,” she conceded, after a moment of reflection. “I get it.”

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Good, I thought. To me, it seemed like a message even a child could understand.

Photo and Video: Scott Stuckey

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