Last night, I attended a Mevlevi Sema Ceremony at Hodjapasha Cultural Center. The center “promotes and teaches Rumi philosophy to develop human spiritual potential”. Their aim is creating a “better functioning society and more peaceful world.” During a visit in 2013, I saw dervishes perform at Hodjapasha. This trip, I had planned to attend the ceremony at nearby Galata Convent and Whirling Dervish Hall. Sadly, with covid restrictions, the Mevlevihanesi isn’t conducting public performances.
“According to Mevlana disciples, the mystical journey for God is made through worship, prayer, a complex musical repertoire called ayin, and this unique whirling dance ceremony. The Sufis who make this ceremony are called Whirling Dervishes or ‘Semazen’ in Turkish.”
Hodjapasha Cultural Center
The Hodjapasha center is on the Asian side near Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Hodjapasha performances are conducted in a former 15th-century hammam (Turkish bath). Photography and applause aren’t allowed. The performance area has a circular glass dance floor and musicians’ stage, with spectators seated around the dance floor close to the dervishes. There were about 50 people at the ceremony.
Mevlevi Sema Ceremony
The mystical Mevlevi Sema Ceremony is a serious religious practice. It’s part of “heritage from the Islam culture, inspired and improved by Sufi and spiritual master Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi (1207-1273), a famous Islamic mystical poet and theologian”. The ceremony began over 800 years ago in the ancient Neolithic settlement of Konya. Sufis (Mevlevi in Turkish) “dedicate their lives to finding a closer relationship with God”.
During the ceremony, dervishes “extend their arms with their right hand opened upward and the left hand turned downward, meaning from God we receive, to man we give; we keep nothing to ourselves”.
There are seven parts to the sema. While whirling, “arms are open with the right hand directed to the sky ready to receive God’s beneficence, and the left hand turned down toward the earth”. Everything about the ceremony is symbolic! These are brief, simplistic summaries of each part of the ceremony:
- Part One shows the dervish with his headdress (his ego’s tombstone) and his white skirt (his ego’s shroud). He removes his black cloak, spiritually born to the truth. Journeys and advances begin.
- Part Two is a drum, symbolizing God’s order to Creation – “Be”.
- Part Three is an instrumental improvisation representing the first breath giving life to everything.
- Part Four is the dervishes greeting each other.
- Part Five is the sema (whirling) and consists of four salutes or “Selams”. The first salute (1) celebrates man’s birth to truth by feeling and mind, the second salute (2) expresses the rapture of man witnessing the splendor of creation, the third salute (3) is the transformation of rapture into love and reaching the state of ecstasy and “nirvana” or “Fenafillah” in Islam, the fourth salute (4) is returning to a state of subservience to God.
- Part Six ends the Sema with a reading from the Quran.
- Part Seven is a prayer for the repose of the souls of all Prophets and believers.
“The whirling dervish ceremony is a mystical journey representing mankind’s spiritual ascent through mind – going toward the truth, being exalted with love, quitting the ‘self’ to get vanished in God, and then coming back as a more matured person.”
Sema Musical Instruments
- Ney reed pipe which has a mystic role in Turkish music
- Kudum small kettledrum coated with kid leather
- Rebab string instrument
- Kanun string instrument
- Tambur string instrument
“The whirling dervishes revolve both around their own axis and around the circle, just as planets revolve around their own axis but also around the sun.”
The first time I saw a Mevlevi Sema Ceremony, I didn’t prepare. A little research made it much more meaningful and interesting.