THE WHIRLING DERVISHES
Before entering the Hall of Celestial Sounds the dervish performs the holy ablutions of the Muslim faith. Then he proceeds to dress in the whirling costume unique to the Mevlevis. His attire is influenced by the mourning clothes that Rumi ordered after the death of Shamsi Tabriz. The sikke, the tall honey-colored felt hat, represents the tombstone of man.
The word 'cemetery' comes from the Hindu word samadh, which denotes a permanent state. Holy men who died were set in a grave in a lotus rishi position, and a lingam was placed on the top of their heads.
The tennure, or long white skirt, represents the shroud, and the khirqa, or black cloak with long, large sleeves, symbolized the tomb. Beneath the cloak the turner wears a dasta gul, literally a bouquet of roses and a white jacket, the right side of which is tied down, the left hangs open. Around his waist is fastened the alif-lam-and, or girdle of cloth.
The dervishes enter the semahane, or whirling room, led by the semazenbashi, the dance master, and slowly, with heads bowed, line up on one side of the hall. The dance master, who is closest to the sheikh's post, wears a white sikke. The sheikh is the last to enter the hall. He stops to bow at the axis line to his post and proceeds to walk slowly to the sheepskin dyed red to honor Shamsi Tabriz and represent the sun.
The musicians are at the opposite end of the hall on a raised platform, facing the sheikh. The hafiz, who knows the entire Koran by memory, begins the ceremony by chanting a prayer to Mevlana and a sura from the Koran. Then the sound of the kudum, kettle drums, breaks the silence.
The dervishes, now seated on their knees, listen to the piercing sound of a single reed flute, or ney which plays the music prelude. The dervishes slap the floor with their hands indicating the day of the Last Judgment and the bridge Sirat that is crossed to get from this world to Paradise. It is said that this bridge is as thin as a hair and as sharp as a razor.
The sheikh takes one step to the front of his post and bows his head. He begins to slowly walk around the semahane followed by all of the dervishes. They circle the hall three times, stopping to bow to each other at the sheikh's post. This part of the sema is known as the Sultan Veled Walk, in honor of Rumi's son, and symbolizes man's identity and his place within a circle. The circle is a position used in many of the Sufi orders. The zikr circle is the living mandala.
After circling the hall for the third time, the last dervish bows to the post and turns to complete the walk as the sheikh takes his post. They now all bow and in one motion remove their cloaks, kiss them, and let them drop to the floor. As they drop their cloaks, they symbolically leave their tombs, their worldly attachments, and prepare to turn for God.
The musicians on the platform are playing as the dervishes, with their right hand on their left shoulder and their left hand on their right shoulder, slowly walk to the sheikh's post. The semazenbashi is the first to arrive at the post where the sheikh is standing. He bows to the sheikh, his right foot over the left and his arms crossed at the shoulders. He kisses the right hand of the sheikh, recedes backwards from him and, standing five feet from the post, is in a position to begin directing the sema. Each dervish approaches the sheikh in this manner. He bows, kisses the right hand of the sheikh, the sheikh kisses his sikke, the dervish bows and turns toward the semazenbashi for silent instruction. If the foot of the semazenbashi, who wears white shoes, is extended outside of his black cloak, it is a signal for the whirler that the outside area is blocked to him, and he must begin to turn on the inside of the dance master. If his shoe is hidden, the whirler continues to walk past him and begins to unfold and turn on his outside.
All the dervishes unfold and whirl as the musicians play and the chorus chants. The turners extend their arms, the right palm faces up and the left down. The energy from above enters through the right palm, passes through the body which is a visible channel, and, as this grace is universal, it passes through the left palm into the earth. With extended arms, the dervish embraces god.
As they turn, the dance master slowly walks among them gesturing with his eyes or position to correct their speed or posture. The sheikh stands at his post. They turn counterclockwise, repeating their inaudible zikr, "Allah, Allah." After about ten minutes, the music stops, and the dervishes complete a turn that will face them toward the sheikh's post and halt. The movement is so quick that their billowing skirts wrap around their legs as they bow to the post. The selam is repeated four times, each about the same length of time.
In the second, third and fourth selams, a dervish who is tired may drop out and remain standing at the side as the others turn.
It is only in the fourth selam that the sheikh joins the dervishes. He represents the sun; the dervishes, the planet turning around him in the solar system of Mevlana. The sheikh whirls slowly along the equator line to the center of the semahane as a single flute sounds a distant wailing sound that leads him back to his post. When the sheikh arrives at his post, he bows, sits on the post, and kisses the floor. All the turners sit, and their cloaks are put on them by those who did not turn in the fourth selam. They have returned to their tombs, but in an altered state.
The sheikh recites the Fatiha, the first sura of the Koran, and all the dervishes kiss the floor and rise. The sheikh then sounds a prayer to Mevlana and Shamsi Tabriz and begins the sound "Hu." The dervishes join in sounding the "hu" which is all the names of God in one. This concludes the ceremony.
On the night of December 17, in honor of Rumi's day of Union with the Beloved, the ceremony concludes with the "greeting." All the dervishes, musicians, and turners line up and pass in front of the sheikh kissing his hand. They kiss the hand of each dervish who has passed before them leaving the last in line to kiss the right hand of about seventy of his brothers. It is a beautiful and touching moment that emphasizes the joy of the dervish when his thoughts turn to union with the Hidden.
Becoming a Dervish
The five Mevlevi tekkes, prior to 1925, were active dervish schools which existed in communal fashion. The initiate, or mureed, was called upon t make a covenant of allegiance to the sheikh.
In the West, discipline has come to indicate doing something contrary to one's comfort; in the tekke, discipline was learning while doing. Obedience to the sheikh was not loss of one's freedom; through the preparation of "how to be' one gained one's freedom.
The young initiate was given the choice of performing a chille , or retreat, for 1001 days and then becoming a dede in the Mevlevi order or becoming a muhip (an initiate who does not perform retreat and does not reside in the tekke, but comes every day for intense training in the dervish practices. If the choice was the retreat, the initiate was brought to the ahchi dede (ahchi means cook) and given his first test.
The meaning of cook in the Mevlevi order was important not only because of the preparation of food, but because man is raw material which has to be cooked into a dish that is edible. Those who were "raw" were men who were involved in the exterior side of life while the "ripe" were men of the heart involved with the interiorization of self. The raw could not comprehend the state of the ripe.
The first test was to be brought to the matbah (kitchen) which was actually a small room where the initiate sat on his knees upon the saka, ( post, a sheepskin) for three days. Here he did not speak or sleep. He moved only to pray five times a day, to go to the toilet and to eat the food brought to him. He was observed to see if he was prepared to continue as a chille initiate.
On the fourth day the initiate was taken to the hamam (Turkish bath) to be bathed and shaved and given a chille tennuresi (a black dress) to wear throughout the retreat. He was brought back to the ahchi dede who gave him a zikr (prayer) to repeat while he performed his daily work. At this time the initiate was turned over to the kazandji dede (kazandji means a large pot for cooking soup) who became responsible for his education as a dervish.
The kazandji dede oversaw the maintenance of the tekke and assigned the initiate to kitchen and cleaning duties. During the day the initiate must also learn to be a semazen, or whirler and work with the semazenbashi, or dance master. His preparation in learning the Mevlevi turn was the same one used by initiates in the order since its inception.
A smooth-surfaced board, three feet square and one inch high, is placed on the floor. In the center of the board is a large round-headed nail. Before each class and each sema, the whirler is required to perform abdest, or ablutions. This is the washing of hands, mouth, nose, face, arms, head, ears, neck and feet with cold running water. The initiate kneels on the board and kisses the nail. He takes some salt, and, with his right elbow in his left palm and his left elbow resting on his left knee, he carefully places a small amount of the salt on the nail. He then rises and steps onto the board placing the nail between the big toe of his left foot and the toe next to it. His right foot crosses his left at the toes. While his arms are crossed, right over left, at the shoulders, he bows his head and says eyvallah (with the permission of God.) Now he is prepared to begin the lesson taught by the semazenbashi.
Once he has learned the Turn, which usually takes ninety days, the initiate is placed in the muptedi status where he actually participates in a sema. After reaching the station of dede in the Mevlevis, the initiate was given the choice of remaining in the tekke or going to live in the city.. If he chose to reside in the tekke he could not marry, because women were not permitted to live in the tekke. He was taken care of by the government which gave money to support the tekkes. He functioned as a teacher and participated in the weekly sema. If the initiate chose to live outside the tekke, he was allowed to marry and come to the tekke on Thursday nights, but he was under no obligation to do so.
On Thursday nights Mevlevi women were allowed to view the sema. Some would retire to another room and whirl without costume. There have been women who were sheikhs in the Mevlevi order. The most famous was Destine Hatun, the daughter of Sheikh Sultan Divani of the Afyon tekke. Afyon, which means opium, is midway between Istanbul and Konya, and the tekke welcomed visitors going to and from the tomb of Mevlana.
Some Dervish History
Mehmet Celebi, a direct relation of Rumi and founder of the Galata tekke in Istanbul, is buried in the Afyon tekke. On his tomb is written,
Sultan Divani was a great sheikh. When he died the post was given to his daughter, Destine Hatun, who wore a sikke, Mevlevi dress, and led the whirling dance in the semahane. During the time that Destine Hatun held the sheikh's post, the tekke at Afyon burned to the ground. The community was poor and there seemed to be no way that the dervishes could rebuild. One night, before sleep, Destine Hatun asked for the help of her father. Dressed in his sheikh's robes, Sultan Divani told his daughter to go to a certain place near the stone fountain where the dervishes performed ablutions; there she would find a silver vessel filled with water. Destine was to pour out the water and, when she reached into the vessel, her hand would emerge filled with gold coins which would forever replace themselves in the vessel.
The following morning Destine went to the designated place, found the vessel and the gold, and began the reconstruction of the Afyon tekke. Whenever she needed money it was always waiting in the silver vessel.
Banning of the Order
In 1925, Kemal Ataturk introduced Law 677 into the Turkish Republic. According to the law holding meetings in the tekkes, the profession of tomb-keeping and the office of sheikh, and other dervish initiations were banned.
In 1927, Kemal Ataturk allowed the tomb of Mevlana to open as a museum, a place where the lovers of Mevlana could come.
In today's modern
Turkey there is a freedom of belief such that those who
want to perform any rite can do so in private, but not
under the aegis of an organized religious body.
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