whirling dervishes

Photographing whirling dervishes

The Sufi whirling is an elegant and mystic religious ritual of active meditation. Practiced, for centuries, by Sufi followers of the Mevlevi order (whirling dervishes), it is an act of love and a drama of faith.

HISTORY

The order of whirling dervishes was founded in 1312 by mystic poet and Islamic theologian Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (Mevlânâ) in Konya, Turkey.

The members of this Sufi fraternity (Mevlevi order) were called dervish (from the Persian word darwish). They used to follow prescribed disciplines in service to a given sheikh or master to establish trust with him. The Mevlevi order grew up and expanded quickly. Dozens of monasteries (namded "tekke") were founded throughout the Ottoman Empire in cities like Athens, Cairo, Mecca, Baghdad and Damascus.

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Sufi fraternities were declared illegal by Ataturk's Turkey in 1925. All the monasteries were shut down. Some of them were turned into mosques or museums. Only in the last 20 years of 20th century, public performances of Mevlevi order started to be permitted again by Turkish authorities.

In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the performance of whirling dervishes (Mevlevi Sema Ceremony) as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Today, whirling dervishes' ceremonies across Turkey attract large crowds from all over the world, though these performances lost much of the initial spiritual meaning. Despite that, it is worth to see them if you are in Istanbul.

sema ceremony

whirling dervishes

PERFORMANCE

The dance of the whirling dervishes is one of the most impressive features of the mystical life in Islam. The music accompanying it is of exquisite beauty, beginning with the great hymn in honor of the Prophet.

The rituals of Rumi's followers (whirling dervishes) are an exquisite ceremony of spirituality. Chanting of poetry, rhythmic rotation, and incessant music create a synthesis which induces a feeling of ecstasy, and mystical flight to the single faithful.

The meditation performed by whirling dervishes comes within a worship ceremony called Sema.

Dervishes aim to connect with Allah in a spiritual journey through this ritual. Connection with God is sought through abandoning own ego by listening to music, focusing on God, and spinning body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun.

sema ceremony

In the symbolism of the Sema ritual, the camel's hair hat (sikke) of the semazen (whirling dervish) represents the tombstone of the ego; his wide, white skirt (tennure) represents the ego's shroud. By removing his black cloak (hırka), he is spiritually reborn to the truth.

The semazen stands with his  arms crossed to represent the number one to testify God's unity. While whirling, his arms are kept open. His right arm aims to the sky to receive God's beneficence. His left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. By doing so, the semazen conveys God's spiritual gift to all those are witnessing the ritual. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The meaning is the human being was created with love in order to love.

Each semazen's rotation takes him past the sheikh (master), who stands on a red sheep skin. The sheikh is a channel for the divine grace.

WHERE SEEING WHIRLING DERVISHES IN ISTANBUL

There are quite a few places in Istanbul where you can enjoy whirling dervishes' performances.

Most of them, nowadays, are strongly tourist-oriented and poorly authentic, unfortunately (like Dervis Cafe & Restaurant). Consequently, they are not suitable for some real shooting.

I suggest you one of the following three places for something very close to "authenticity". 

Before deciding where to go, remember, first of all, whirling dervishes' Sema is a religious ceremony.

You have to respect it by being silent and shooting photos very discreetly, where allowed, without disturbing the audience around you and the ceremony itself.

As a sign of respect, also follow the dress code by wearing long sleeves and long pants or a flowing skirt.

photographing whirling dervishes

whirling dervishes

HODJAPASHA CULTURE CENTRE

Located in a restored historic hamam dated 15th-century, this culture and performance centre puts on a 1-hour Dervish performance (Sema ceremony) each evening at 7 pm. Short English explanations about the ceremony provided on projector screens. There is also an extensive exhibition about the Dervishes in the waiting area.
Ticket price is 35€ or 37 USD and you can book tickets on line. Photography is not allowed but if you email them a few days before attending the ceremony, they can give a special authorization for shooting photos. Flash use forbidden. 

SILIVRIKAPI MEVLANA CULTURAL CENTRE

Probably the most ‘authentic’ whirling dervishes' ceremony you can attend to while in Istanbul. EMAV Silivrikapi Mevlana Cultural Centre hosts a 4-hour long performance on Thursdays at 7:30 pm. includes a Q&A session and prayers as well as the sema. Performance (Q&A session included) just in Turkish. Photography allowed. Ticket price is 35€ and you can book tickets on line.

SIRKECI TRAIN STATION

Located in the historic train station home of worldwide famous Orient Express, the 1-hour performances are held every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday evening. Unfortunately, due to restoration works on the historic building, ceremonies are still suspended. Check here for more information about when the ceremonies will be bookable again in this beautiful venue.

GALATA MEVLEVIHANESI MUSEUM

This was another famous place to see whirling dervishes performing inside a historic and significant venue. In fact, this was the oldest Sufi lodge and school in Istanbul (established in 1491). They used to host a Sema ceremony every Sunday at 5 pm but since Covid-19, all performances have been cancelled. Check their website if ceremonies are bookable again. 

HOW PHOTOGRAPHING WHIRLING DERVISHES

As already said above, the dance of whirling dervishes is a religious ceremony. This means you have to be silent and respectful throughout the duration of the whole performance, even if not held inside a religious building.

Ask if shooting photos during the ceremony is allowed. Better to arrange for a granted permission by email before attending the ceremony in order to avoid any unpleasant setback.

As photographer, my first absolute suggestion is to turn your silent shutter on in your camera before the performance begins.

As you will be seated very close to the stage, as normally happens, you will need a wide-angle lens for shooting. I used my Nikon Z 14-30mm. Bring also a more powerful zoom to shoot a single dancer only. 

Bring with you additional battery and memory card for shooting the event.

As whirling dervishes' ceremony is held indoor with poor light usually, you will have to raise the ISO of your camera, consequently. Don't be afraid to raise up to 2500 or 3200. You can easily manage both high amount of grain and noise in post production. Software like Adobe Photoshop or Topaz DeNoise can master these problems very well with great final results. 

As whirling dervishes move quickly and continuously, set the focus mode in continuous-servo (AF-C). Your camera will adjust focus continuously to compensate for changes in the distance to the subject while the shutter-release button is pressed.

Set lower f-stops to let more light into the camera.

Give a motion effect to the single subjects by looking for the ideal combination of aperture and shutter.

If possible, try to shoot the ceremony from a higher viewpoint (if the building is provided) for a different and unusual angle.

Stefano Politi Markovina