On our last night in Istanbul, Katie and I went to Hodjapasha Culture Center to witness the Sema (in English: Sama) Ceremony. This is a dance ceremony performed by the Mevlevi Order of Sufism (a mystical Islamic tradition), but you’ve probably heard them called “whirling dervishes” because of the revolving, rotating, spinning movements that make up the Sema, and bring the worshiping performers closer to God.
There is something strange about a bunch of tourists watching a religious ceremony, but tourists are actually part of the reason this tradition has been preserved. In 1925, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a secular Turkish government came to power and outlawed the Mevlevi Order. In the 1950s, the dervishes were allowed to perform the Sema Ceremony in public as a tourist attraction, and since then the restrictions on this Order have lessened. In the 1990s, the Mevlevi Order was able to re-establish some private religious ceremonies, and in 2005, UNESCO named the Sema Ceremony as one of its Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
While the Sema Ceremony is performed for tourists, I don’t think it was significantly altered to appeal to tourists. Katie and I found the spinning men captivating, but, at the end of the show, one English-speaker sitting nearby said they found it “boring.” We thought that was a bit rude, but, also telling — the dance movements were repetitive, rather than varied to appease an audience. Plus, photos and video weren’t allowed, which is a great way to annoy tourists. When the dervishes finished their performance, we weren’t even sure if we should clap because the dance wasn’t really for us — it was for God.
If you’d like to attend, the show at Hodjapasha Culture Center costs 60 Turkish Lira (about $30), and is an hour long, beginning with a 15-minute concert of classical Turkish music followed by the 45-minute religious ceremony. I thought the Sema was an impressive display of strength, discipline, and devotion to God. The degree of physical exertion involved was only apparent when the dancers would pause briefly to change positions, and in these pauses, they would breathe heavily and lean upon one another for support. It was a beautifully human gesture amidst the practiced, sacred movements of the dance.