I jolted in my seat as the five cloaked mystics slapped their palms to the ground and rose in unison. The entire room was silent and you could feel an inexplicable energy in the air.
Here I was sitting in a 550-year-old hammam in Istanbul filled with several hundred people, about to witness a spiritual dance so private yet intriguing.
I was here to see the famed Sufi whirling dervishes spin themselves into a trance-like state in what is known as a Sema Ceremony, a whirling dance that is said to free the soul from worldly affairs and elevate it closer to God.
Watching the Whirling Dervishes Ceremony
The ceremony began with an ensemble playing an array of musical instruments I had never seen nor heard before. Cloaked in black, the dervishes emerged and made their way to the middle of the room. There were bows, slow footsteps and muttered prayers, but the entire experience was a mystery to everyone watching as there was no narration explaining what was happening.
Slowly, one by one the dervishes began to whirl themselves into position. It began with a gentle spin counter-clockwise which gained momentum as they raised their arms into the heavens, and their skirts slowly began to flair and rise.
I almost felt like a bit of an intruder to be watching someone undergo a spiritual journey before my eyes, yet at the same time, it was the kind of thing where I couldn’t stop looking. It was fascinating.
History of the Whirling Dervishes
To give you a little background information, the whirling dervishes I saw perform that night were part of the Mevlevi Order, a Sufi order that was founded in Konya, Turkey back in the 13th century.
While today you can see the dervishes perform this dance known as the Sema Ceremony in public, this wasn’t always the case.
The Mevlevi Order spread during the Ottoman period, however, their practice was banned in 1925 soon after Turkey gained its independence from the Ottomans and became a republic. During this period, the whirling dervishes were viewed with suspicion and their tradition was forced to go underground. It wasn’t until 1954 that Sufi dervishes were given partial rights to perform in public again; this was primarily done as a draw for visitors to Turkey.
Today the Sema Ceremony is a part of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. With over 800 years of heritage, the tradition is regarded an important piece of Turkey’s heritage and the ritual is taught by universities and cultural organizations as a way of preserving the history and transferring it on to the next generation.
The meaning behind the dervish dress
The dervish dress has a lot of symbolism behind it. Their white robes, known as tennure, are a symbol of death. Their long, black cloaks worn prior to the start of the ceremony are known as hırka and symbolize the grave. And lastly, the felt, brown hats known as kûlah orsikke, represents the tombstone. In short, their dress symbolizes the death of the ego on their quest to come closer to Allah.
Where to see the Whirling Dervishes
So want to see the whirling dervishes in Istanbul?
There are many halls across where you can watch the whirling dervishes perform the Sema Ceremony. I went through the Hodjapasha Dance Theater which is located in Sirkeci, not far from the main tourist attractions.
What I enjoyed most about going through this particular dance theatre is that it is set in an old Turkish bath which is over 550 years old. This former hammam, which was used by both men and women, was in operation until 1988! Sitting under the dome of the main bath and watching the dervishes whirl in such a historic setting made the experience even more special. It’s one of those things you have to do when in Istanbul!
- The Istanbul Dervishes performance takes place every day at 19:00.
- Adult tickets are 60 Turkish Lira (about 30 U.S. dollars). Book your ticket here.
- Entry fee includes refreshments.
- The performance is 1 hour in length and there is no photography, no video, and no applauding allowed.
- The address is Ankara Caddesi, Hocapaşa Hamam Sok No. 3B
The dervish photos in this post were taken from Hodjapasha Dance Theatre’s website since I sadly didn’t have the opportunity to photograph the dervishes!
Have you ever seen the whirling dervishes? Or have you watched another spiritual dance?
Your articles are always very interesting
I saw a Sema ceremony in Konya, where it originates from. There’s a modern theatre there created just for this purpose, and every evening there’s a free performance open to everyone. It’s quite entrancing to watch, isn’t it?
So entrancing! That’s great to know that they have free performances in Konya. Did you find that there were less travellers there? I think because there are so many tourists in Istanbul, it’s easy for them to charge for the whirling dervish performances. People are more than willing to pay for a glimpse at such a unique practice.
My parents and I are visiting Konya mid week – could you please recommend where to see the free Sema ceremony – you mention a modern theatre – do you happen to have the name?
I saw a whirling dervish performance at a caravanserai outside of Göreme, then later saw one of the twirlers as our cab driver! It was a fantastic experience, very small and private, and a very authentic feeling setting.
That’s awesome! What are the chances of that!? 😉
I had no idea a whirling dervish was a real thing…I thought it was just a quirky saying! Thanks for expanding my trivia knowledge Audrey 🙂
Haha, yup, that’s where the saying originated from. 😉
Lucky you! This is on my list since I saw them in a movie (a Woodie Allen movie…? Can’t remember) years ago as a teen. I found it fascinating.
Ooo, I love Woody Allen films – he has such quirky stories and characters. Whirling dervishes would fit right in. 😉
Looks very cool, especially the gorgeous location. Thanks for sharing 🙂
I loved the location, especially since I didn’t get a chance to go to a hamam for the Turkish bath experience. At least I got to see the inside of one.
The whirling dervishes at the Hodja Pasa is the best place, because the whole show is about an hour long. If you go to the Konya shows, you are sitting for much longer. Beautiful, isn’t it?
Yes, I would agree that 1 hour was enough. If the ceremony were any longer I might start to feel dizzy myself. 😉
Awesome Audrey. We saw the dervishes earlier this year and were blown away! So talented.
That’s awesome! Was this also in Istanbul or elsewhere in Turkey?
It’s pretty expensive I would say, but sounds and looks interesting to us! 😀
Yeah, it would definitely eat your budget if you were trying to do the city on $25 a day, but then again, it’s such a unique ceremony with so much history behind it – I’m glad I went. 🙂
Hi Audrey, one thing I regret when I traveled in Turkey was not being able to see whirling dervishes. I enjoyed reading your post and to learn more about their history. The performance you saw sounds like an authentic practice and not just a mere “show.” I also like the you got to see it in this beautiful and amazing theater. A structure of an old hamman indeed make for a great, dramatic theater. I will keep the info in this post in mind when I return to Turkey, because I will certainly see a whirling dervishes then.
This looks fascinating! Great that you were allowed to take photos too! (or did you do that on the sly?!). I just want to say that I really love your photo of Lake Titicaca on your main page too. I’m jealous you managed to capture the reflection of their skirts in the water!
This is awesome though damn expensive. These guys must be talented.
I’ve never been to Turkey but this looks amazing!
I’d love to go and see this!
such pretty outfits
“Today the Sema Ceremony is a part of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.”
Interesting, we have a version of ‘spoken word’ ceremony in my country known as ‘sema’ – Sema in swahili means say or say it loud.
Thanks for the tip, Audrey. I’d love to see the dervishes whirl but, like you, I am apprehensive about intruding on (and paying to see) what appears to be a spiritual practice. Perhaps I should just get over it.
It is always quite intriguing to watch them although not sure I could do the dance myself
This is definitely on my bucket list. Sadly I couldn’t find out enough about it when I was in Istanbul last year, but it’s definitely on my “next time” list. It sounds like a really cool experience.
This is absolutely mystifying and fascinating. I had never heard of this time of performance. I’m sure it was quite profound. I’ve ben reading about a ceremony here in Thailand where there is a performance that the people become entranced or possessed by their Sak Yant blessings tattooed all over their body.
Hey Ryan…the ceremony is called Wai Kru. I know this post is from 2 years ago so I’m sure you’ve run across this answer already. Just thought I’d share with you as I’ve traveled extensively to Thailand and am a devotee of a Sak Yant master
Wow! This looks really awesome. I would love to see this one day. I don’t understand how they don’t get dizzy.
I’ve seen one once, but I think it was as a child in a hotel somewhere. No idea how ‘real’ it was.
great article and information on finding dervish in Istanbul
the Egyptian version of this derwish dance (mawlawiyya) takes place weekly in an old bazaar in cairo (wekalet ilghouri).. I was fortunate enough to watch them a lot and that’s what made me google for this in Istanbul as am visiting it soon and wanted to make sure I know where to find the sufi whirl
thanks a lot
Four of us (family members) will be in Istanbul on Tuesday, May 20th and would have time to witness the Istanbul Dervishes. Exactly where would I go? Do I need to make reservations? How do I proceed?
Your help would be helpful.
Your blog is very interesting. Thanks
Hi Gerry, All the contact info for the “Hodjapasha Dance Theatre” is actually included in this post. If you follow the link to Hodjapasha.com, you’ll be able to make a booking and view a map that shows you the exact address. I would recommend you book several days in advance as it is a popular performance and the theatre is packed every night. Enjoy!
I saw a whirling dervish performance at Mevlana Kültür Merkezi in Konya. The ceremony take place every saturday at 21.00. Unlike in Istanbul and other part of Turkey, in the Cultural Centre, there were 24 performers. Before the ceremony there was a lecture given by Mevlevi University’s lecturer, in turkish, As I do not understand turkish language, I guess it should be about Jalaluddin al Rumi and whirling dervish. What else, isn’t it? It was a very fantastic experience and most importantly, IT IS FREE for everyone. The theatre which they call Sema Salonu was packed with university students locals and tourists. No reservation needed but it is on the first come first serve basis.
I think the spinning symbolizes life as movement equates life while rigidity equates death. Nice photos btw 🙂