We visited in the town of Nevsehir in the Cappadocia region, where an old caravanserai fort hosts Whirling Dervish ceremony. I had heard various things about this sect of Islam, that it had been outlawed for a time after Ataturk’s modernization programs began, for example. But I wanted my understanding to be more than anecdotal. I was delighted to observe one of their sacred ceremonies.
The beautifully carved walls of the exterior of the caravanserai remain. The mosque, however, has been converted to a place where the Dervishes perform their sacred ceremony. On the east side of the covered center square of the courtyard, three musicians and three slender priests entered, plus one sort of master of ceremonies–at least that’s what I expected him to be. But he never spoke, his eyes remained closed, and I couldn’t see that he communicated with the whirlers or the musicians in any way, so he is still a bit of a mystery to me. The viewers sat on the north, west, and south sides (but not behind the three musicians, who remained stationary on the east).
Everything in the Cosmos Whirls
Their external robes were long and black. Underneath, they wore white jackets short to the waist, long-sleeved, with no buttons, but tied on one side with a narrow white cloth piece to a black narrow cloth belt that wrapped the waist several times. Under the jacket they wore a simple white collarless shirt. On their heads they wore something that looked like a very tall fez that is brown, representing the earth—the ground. The shoes were black, no heel, soft leather.
The singer controlled the tempo with two drums. One musician played on a sitar-type of lap harp. A third musician played a flute (forward and down like a reed flute). As the music gained in intensity, three of the dervishes standing on the north side, removed their black cloak (symbol of death), to reveal white undergarments (symbol of the shroud). They bowed to God, kneeling with their foreheads to the floor, then stood in an attitude of reverence with arms crossed and hands to the shoulders.
Meditation in Movement
The three men stepped out and began turning slowly with their hands across their chests on opposite shoulders. As they entered the music and the centrifugal action of whirling began, their arms gradually unfolded. Gaining speed, they slowly raised their arms, the right hand reaching up to God, their left hand palm extended down. These actions symbolize how they receive all goodness from God with the right hand and pass it on with the left to the inhabitants of the world around them.
They turn on the left foot, the right foot rotating onto the heel to help push them forward around the stage. It was kind of hard to see exactly because the skirts were very long and carried wide as they spun. Despite the differences in the men’s height, their twirling stride was synchronized so that they remained exactly distanced from one another throughout.
I understand the principle of spotting that dancers employ in order to keep their balance and to prevent inner-ear turbulence. But the Dervishes keep their eyes closed the entire time, with their head slightly tilted toward the right hand lifted toward God. I don’t understand how they can do it. I asked our guide, and he said that he’d attempted as a young man to join the sect, but the whirling made him throw up. Every time. The only answer I can deduce involves somehow reaching a state of deep contemplation and tranquility before any motion begins.
Our instructions for protocol allowed photography before and after the ceremony, but not during. The lighting would be our cues. When the ceremony was completed, the Dervishes would whirl again for tourist purposes and photographs. Simple. Clear.
I felt a jolt when during the ceremony the first camera flashed and broke the peace. Then another camera flashed from behind me—one of my friends—and I felt indignant. What quality is there inside a person who is unwilling to honor the sacred rituals of another culture?
Caravanserai fort in Konya
The caravanserai in Konya was built by the ancient kings to protect and encourage traders on the silk route. Herodotus, the 5th century Greek historian who lived in what is now Bodrum, Turkey (Halicarnassus in the Persian Empire), wrote about the trade route to the east in China. This east-west trade hopped for a millennia and the Silk Road became a place where money, ideas, and culture were exchanged.
Anatolia is ringed by mountains, so the kings built lodgings for caravans at distances apart of one day based on what a camel can walk (20-25 miles). The Seljuks were traders that needed shelter for their caravans, so the doors were open sunrise to sunset and protected year round by soldiers.
The main gate of the 13th C. AD Caravanserai of Sultanham models Turkish Seljuk art and demonstrates how the Seljuks focused all attention on the portal. Inside the open-air courtyard, a small mosque called “Kosk Mescid” is situated. The caravanserai also held kitchens and baths to address the trader’s physical needs. In the winter animals were housed on the bottom level and merchants on top in side-by-side wooden townhouses. In summer, the animals were in the courtyard. Caravan owners didn’t pay for accommodations for the first three days, but the amount the trader sold in those three days was taxed. The state reimbursed traders for any losses.
In 1453 AD the Turks conquered Constantinople and about then the Portuguese discovered sea route to China. Consequently, the overland route became less frequent.