Turning Point: Istanbul’s Female Dervishes

June 10, 2015 Genevieve Hathaway

The dance of the sema, or the “Whirling Dervish” is a sacred ritual for Mevlevi Sufis – a mystical and philosophical strand of Islam. The dance is performed in a symbolic costume of white robes and a conical hat, called a sikke. Accompanied by a reed pipe, the dancers raise their arms towards heaven and whirl counter-clockwise. Their revolutions represent the earth's orbit around the sun, and the dance is a journey through which the dervishes are meant to get closer to God and truth. Their long white robes float around them, giving the illusion of gravity-defying effortlessness.

Traditionally, only men can dance as Whirling Dervishes, although in places like Istanbul, that is beginning to change. One Mevlevi lodge here is looking forward – acknowledging that for the order and its traditional whirling dance to remain relevant, it needs to welcome women into its ranks.

Women take the stage at the Contemporary Lovers of Mevlana in Istanbul. Photo courtesy Robyn L.

A tradition turns inward

The origins of the Mevlevi Sufi Order date to the Turkish Ottoman period and can be traced back to the poet and philosopher Rumi. With religion at its core, the Mevlevi were scholars and artists with an important influence on the classical Turkish arts until the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1925. With the subsequent push toward secularism, the Order was banned; dervish lodges were converted into museums and the practice was pushed underground. Today, the sema is prohibited in Turkey when performed for purely religious reasons, but it’s permitted as a display for tourists or to promote culture – a move to reinvigorate the tourism industry rather than a sign of religious tolerance. In fact, private worship by the order remains officially banned. As a result, many Istanbullular describe the Dervishes as old-fashioned and conservative – even secretive – because of how private the organization is and the strict rules governing admittance into its ranks.

Demystifying the tradition

Hasan Çıkar, spiritual leader of the Contemporary Lovers of Mevlana (EMAV), has introduced numerous changes to the dervish tradition. “We renew everything,” he told the Associated Press. “There is nothing old here. We are always looking forward.” The 80-year-old Çıkar views the inclusion of women as an important step in modernization. After all, his group was the first to allow women to take up whirling in public alongside men – a sea change for an order backed by 700 years of tradition. His Dervishes perform the sema each Sunday evening at the Silivrikapı Mevlana Cultural Center.

"We are always looking forward." says Hasan Çıkar. Photo courtesy Robyn L.

"We are always looking forward." says Hasan Çıkar. Photo courtesy Robyn L.

Çıkar and his students believe that women should spin alongside men—even if it’s seen as a break from tradition by many of the Mevlevi dervishes throughout the country. For many women, being a member allows them to contribute to the preservation of traditions in this small yet historically significant branch of Sufism. Çıkar and his students operate a weekly question-and-answer session (conducted in Turkish, with some translation into English) ahead of their sema performance to demystify the practice and broaden the public’s understanding of the Mevlevi Sufi Order.

The streets around the Blue Mosque in modern day Istanbul. Photo courtesy Genevieve Hathaway.

The streets around the Blue Mosque in modern day Istanbul. Photo courtesy Genevieve Hathaway.

Reinvigorating the practice

This shift in perspective will take time. Because of their insistence on inclusiveness, EMAV is not officially recognized by the main seat of the order, Konya’s Mevlâna. Çıkar and his female students were not permitted to travel to Konya in December for the festival commemorating Rumi’s death.

Regardless, Çıkar is adamant that the best way to preserve the ancient Mevlevi tradition is for it to remain relevant. Inviting women into its ranks will reinvigorate the practice and broaden understanding of the Order. Merve Bahar, a young professional in Istanbul, agrees: “I think it’s wonderful that women are allowed to participate. The Mevlevi are often viewed in Turkey as very conservative and closed off. It will be good for more women to become members.”

Performing the music of the sema. Photo courtesy Robyn L.

Performing the music of the sema. Photo courtesy Robyn L.

Catch a Whirling Dervish Performance in Istanbul

The best place in Turkey to see an authentic Whirling Dervish sema performance is in Konya. But in Istanbul, there are a number of excellent locations. Book tickets in advance and arrive early to get a great seat.

• EMAV (Women perform the sema at this lodge): performances Sunday evenings.

• The Galata Mevlevihanesi or Galata Lodge: performances Sunday evenings.

Getting There

Want to experience Turkey’s mystical whirling dervish? G Adventures runs a number of departures in Turkey encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours – check out our small group trips here.

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