Turkey.  This country excited me more than any other in Europe.  In the south and east Turkey borders Syria,
Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and on the west it borders Greece and Bulgaria.  Turkey is an Islamic
country with a secular government.  In an Istanbul day you will see women in headscarves, hear the Islamic call to
prayer, and stroll through a beer festival on the side streets of Istiklal Caddesi.  Western and eastern civilizations
truly collide here, but instead of colliding they appear to gel.  Erin and I knew Turkey would not disappoint, but little
did I know that a Sufism ceremony, Sema, would awaken all my senses.

   Sufism is a branch of Islam that was founded in Turkey during the 13th century.  To my knowledge, Sufism
follows all the tenants of Islam.  There are a few defining characteristics of Sufism.  The major one is their Sema
ceremony in which the whirling dervishes are the center piece.   Most people including myself don’t know what a
whirling dervish really is.  Of course like many other people I had heard the phrase “spinning like a whirling
dervish.”  A dervish describes someone who practices Sufism and whirling is a distinct and integral part of their
worship ceremony.    Thus, this is where the term whirling dervish comes from.  In Istanbul, you can easily witness
an inauthentic whirling dervishes’ dance at many tourist sites, but our goal was to see an actual Sema ceremony.  
Luckily for us, we found an organization that could arrange a visit to a true dervish Sema ceremony at a local
monastery.  And therefore, on a beautiful Monday night, we witnessed the devotional service of a dervish

   Seven of us stumbled into the side streets of an Istanbul district.  We walked onto the monastery grounds and
left the crowded streets of a city of 10 million people, and entered a small and quiet community.   I removed my
shoes and entered the monastery.  The building is comprised of several rooms with men seated in small groups of
four to five people drinking Turkish Cay (tea).  I settled on the floor near a few older Turkish men and immediately
felt a deep sense of community encompassing me.   I listened to men engaged in quiet conversation. One English
gentleman who practiced Sufism in the States struggled to bridge the language barrier, but he still seemed at
peace and reverberated the excitement of a child. The multitude of quiet conversations created a vibrant energy
that swelled throughout the monastery.  For the next thirty minutes, men moseyed their way into the monastery.

   Conversation grew quiet and men started to congregate into a central room.  The service was beginning.  
Worshippers are seated in three areas.  The large majority of men crowd onto the floor in the main room.  Some
spill out into an adjacent room which was comprised of a wooden floor and a small enclave.  I’m seated in the
enclave.  As my mind is processing my surroundings I glance up and see an octagonal balcony with limited lighting.  
With a second glance, I notice a crowd of women seated on the edges of the balcony.  Under the dark lighting one
cannot make out any faces in the balcony.  The women are focused on the wooden floor below or on the balcony’s
television which is broadcasting the dervish ceremony.

   The sound of a guitar then began to radiate from the main congregation.  The English gentleman played his
guitar and sung praise to Allah.  After a few songs the entire male congregation began to sing.  Twenty minutes
later the intensity quickened as nine men entered the adjacent room and proceeded to the wooden floor.  These
are the whirling dervishes and they are standing right in front of me.
    The Sema ceremony began.  The whirling
dervishes wear black coats and long cylinder wool
hats.  The oldest man of the nine is clearly the
leader.  They remove their black coats to reveal a
white tunic and a long white skirt.  They slowly circle
the floor in unison and at every stop they cross their
arms.  The singing intensifies and the dervishes
proceed to the ceremony’s next stage.  The dervishes
greet each other with a bow.  A dervish man kisses
the hand of the leader and receives permission to
enter the next stage of the Sema, the whirling.  The
dervish slowly raises and extends his arms.  He
focuses his gaze on his left hand which is pointed to
the earth, while his right arm is extended to the sky.  
The dervish is now spinning around the dance floor.  
Soon, eight dervishes have consumed the floor in a
whirling dance.  Every now and then the congregation
Whirling Dervishes
glances over their shoulders to see the dervishes but for the most part they are engaged in their individual
worship.  The singing is getting louder and the congregation is actively participating in the ceremony by voice and
movement.  The eight whirling dervishes are fully focused on their movements as though in meditation.  The
congregation is slowing swaying their bodies and head to the music.  The men are now chanting to the movement
of their bodies.  Their actions and voice are in cadence and intensify with each passing minute.  The ceremony has
reached its pinnacle and everyone is fully engaged in worship.  The power of the ceremony is gripping. I now see
the ceremony before me as a complete mind, body, and soul experience and not a “dance.”  The chanting softens.  
As the intensity resides and silence returns the dervishes complete their movements.  At my close vantage point I
saw the sweat and tiredness on their faces.

   The service entered its final stage with various readings of the Quran.  Before the service concluded the reader
of the Quran prayed for a local man who was sick and for the children in the community who were about to take
the most important exam of the school year.

   As I ventured back into the side streets of Istanbul, my mind continued to process all that I had witnessed
tonight.  I have many competing thoughts on the ceremony.   In such an active service only the men could worship
with mind, body, and soul whereas the women participated amidst the dark and in quiet.  I also witnessed a great
sense of community among the men, which the women were not apart of.  But, I imagine the women one floor
above me have built their own community which is even stronger then the one I saw, albeit with less privileges.  
There will always be things I don’t understand or agree with, but one thing was for sure.  Tonight, I witnessed men
of all ages in close communion worshipping with more energy and dedication then I have seen in a very long time.
Whirling Dervishes
Turkish Carpets