Mevlâna Festival: a guide to the festival of whirling dervishes

Konya. Turkey. Dervish. Whirling. Dancing. Trance.39_DervichesTourneurs by cvalette. Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

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Location: Sports stadium, Konya, Turkey

Dates: 10–17 December

Level of participation: 1 – be mesmerised as the dervishes whirl

In the Islamic world the 13th-century Sufipoet Celaleddin Rumi, or Mevlâna (Our Guide), is all but considered a saint. One of the world’s great mystic philosophers, his poetry and religious writings are among the most beloved and respected in Islam and beyond. Madonna is an unabashed fan, and Mevlâna is said to be one of the biggest-selling poets in the USA. He also believed that union with God was possible through dance.

After Mevlâna’s death, his followers formed the brotherhood called the Mevlevi, or whirling dervishes, with dance as one of its foremost worship semas (ceremonies). Today, the chance to witness this sema draws more than one million people to the Anatolian city of Konya for the Whirling Dervishes Festival, which commemorates Mevlâna’s death on 17 December 1273, the Date: now known as his ‘wedding night’ with Allah.

Throughout the festival, the dervishes dance their famous whirl, but it’s the final night – 17 December – that’s truly special, with the dervishes dancing to commemorate Mevlâna’s wedding night. The dance is smooth and pure, more of an elegant trancelike dance than the raw energy seen among other dervish orders. The dervishes dress in long white robes with full skirts that represent their shrouds. Their voluminous black cloaks symbolise their worldly tombs, their conical felt hats their tombstones. The ceremony begins when the hafiz, a scholar who has committed the entire Quran to memory, intones a prayer for Mevlâna and a verse from the Quran. A kettledrum booms out, followed by the plaintive sound of the ney (reed flute). Then the seyh (master) bows and leads the dervishes in a circle around the hall. After three circuits, the dervishes drop their black cloaks to symbolise their deliverance from worldly attachments. Then one by one, arms folded on their breasts, they spin out onto the floor as they relinquish the earthly life to be reborn in mystical union with God. By holding their right arms up, they receive the blessings of heaven, which are communicated to earth by holding their left arms turned down. As they whirl, they form a ‘constellation’ of revolving bodies, which itself slowly rotates. The seyh walks among them to check that each dervish is performing the ritual properly. The dance is repeated over and over again. Finally, the hafiz again chants passages from the Quran, thus sealing the mystical union with God.

Essentials: Tickets (and accommodation) should be booked well in advance; contact Selene Tourism in Konya for help. If you can’t get a ticket, other venues around town also host dances during the festival. Konya is a conservative city, so you should dress appropriately. Women might consider wearing a headscarf, and shorts should not be worn.

Local attractions: The Mevlâna Museum is housed in the former lodge of the whirling dervishes and contains Mevlâna’s tomb and other displays about the whirling dervishes.

See other festivals in December here.