The Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul ~ What Makes Them Whirl?

The Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul ~ What Makes Them Whirl?

February 6, 2015

Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.
— Rumi

I remember when I was a very little girl seeing the Whirling Dervishes on television and being completely mesmerized by them. For days afterwards I asked my mother questions about them ad nauseam but as I recall, she had very few answers for me. It wasn’t until many years later that I would learn in a class on World Religions that the whirling men in white robes that had fascinated me so when I was young, were actually Sufi’s performing an ancient meditative ritual known as the Sema.

The Whirling Dervishes are part of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism which was founded in the 13th century by the famous poet and mystic, Mevlana Rumi, whose peaceful and tolerant teachings focus on “unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love.”

The word Dervish literally means “doorway” and it is believed that during the Sema, the soul is released from the material world unto the heavenly and is able to freely commune with the Divine. A Dervish will easily complete more than 2000 spins ( yep …. 2000! ) during a Sema and every spin as well as every position of the body has meaning, the intention being the embracing of the benevolent. 

Mind boggling to say the least and for sure a rare treasure to behold.

Being able to finally experience a Whirling Dervish ceremony was without a doubt, very high on my list of priorities during my trip to Istanbul. My travel partner and I decided to attend a ceremony at the historic Serkeci Train Station which was once the terminus of the legendary Orient Express. A bit musty and neglected these days, it is still beautiful and so filled with history it seemed to us to be the perfect venue.

Following the recommendation to arrive a half hour early to obtain good seating, we arrived early and were pleased when we were very graciously served the customary apple tea while we waited. It was perfect given the chilly temperatures and our already long day of site seeing Istanbul.

The Sema ritual begins with a specific musical repertoire known as Ayin that is usually performed by at least one singer, a flute known as a neyzen, a kettle drummer and a cymbal player.

Black robes signify the tomb and brown hats signify the ego of man.

Arms are crossed to signify oneness with the Creator.

One Man in the middle symbolizes the sun, four Whirling Dervishes circling symbolize the movement of the planets.

Arms are extended to the heavens to let go of the world.

The whirling white skirts symbolize the shroud. 

Right hand looks to the sky, left looks to the earth symbolizing that what comes from God should be shared with the people.

I noticed that there were no women in the ceremony we witnessed and I couldn't help but wonder … are women allowed to participate in this traditionally male oriented ritual? I was pleased to find that in the last 10 years things have begun to change and men and women can now take part in the ceremony together though the number of women Dervishes is still quite small. I found this quote from Sevtap Demitras, a female Dervish in Istanbul:

“When you turn to God, or if you are thinking of connecting to your inner self, it doesn’t matter if the person beside you is a woman or a man”.

A senior Dervish was even quoted as saying:

“All men/women are equal for God. Men and women complete each other like two halves of an apple”.

I loved hearing this …. how 'bout you?

Seeing the Whirling Dervishes was a dream come true for me and a completely awe inspiring experience. If you are planning a trip to Istanbul, I would definitely recommend adding it to you list of things to do. 

If you would like to see the complete gallery of images from my trip to Istanbul click here:


Until next week when we visit the Asian side of Istanbul!

XOXO, from me and lu