A guest post by Kaela La Farge
The narrow street seemed to twist and turn in the darkness around dimly lit apartment buildings. The steep incline wrapped up the hillside in Bursa’s old Ībrahimpaşa neighborhood. Glowing shop lights illuminated the heat we exhaled with heavy breaths into the cold evening air. Dinner had long since passed and my legs were weary from the day of walking. My husband Jason navigated the narrow streets with his smart phone while I warily watched passersby in the dark. We were in search of the small, hard-to-find culture center that we heard housed Bursa’s Whirling Dervishes.
My husband and I had come to town for a weekend of adventure and photography. While we were exploring the downtown area, we spied an advertisement for a Whirling Dervish festival in the city. Intrigued, we immediately tried to decipher the poster’s content in our limited Turkish. Disappointed to discover the event had occurred just the day before, we set out to see if there were any other opportunities to see Whirling Dervishes in the city. After asking a local friend and doing a quick check on The Best of Bursa, we were pleased to discover the Dervishes do nightly performances at the Karabaş-i Veli Culture Center just up the hill from our hotel. Jason called the center to find their showing time and we set out for a late evening adventure.
The practice of the Whirling Dervishes flows out of the traditions of Sufism, a mystic form of Islam. The dancing as a form of worship is said to have originated 800 years ago with Rumi, a 13th-Century mystic and poet. The dance itself is called the Sema and consists of continual whirling intended to represent humanity’s spiritual journey. Although this form of worship was banned in Turkey in the early 20th Century, it was revived in the late 1950s as a cultural practice and has been recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Jason and I knew little of the history of Whirling Dervishes before setting out on our search, but we certainly knew of its cultural appeal. Grateful that my husband’s phone seemed to be finding the way, I was becoming more excited to be able to experience such an ancient tradition. We stopped briefly in directional confusion at a vegetable stand, glancing back and forth at the intersection of the alley way. The owner of the shop popped his head out of the warm store front and swirled his hands around in a question to us. We were relieved, and nodded vigorously. Yes, yes, the swirling people, that’s who we were looking for. He pointed up the dark side street and away we went, extending our thanks to him.
Upon arrival at the center, we entered through renovated gates into a small courtyard where a few people sat drinking tea. They welcomed us in and we asked with our broken language if we were in the right place. Assured that we were, Jason and I were ushered up to the mosque and given tea. We quickly discovered that entry to the performance would cost us nothing—it was simply a gift they wanted to share.
I was glad that I had done a bit of research before attending this event. I had gleaned from another foreign woman’s blog that I would need a head covering and that men and women typically sit in separate balconies. Jason asked an attendant if I could stay with him as we really hoped to experience this together, and the man graciously allowed me to sit on the lower level with my husband. While everyone else sat or kneeled on the floor, we were given stools to sit on. As we sat down, I attempted to cover my head the best I could. Though we clearly stuck out with our massive camera and special seating, Jason and I appreciated that we were warmly cared for as foreign guests.
As the performance opened, nearly twenty musicians entered the room and began to play a haunting Middle Eastern melody. Soon after, a line of five white-robed dancers followed them, accompanied by two sheiks who led the ritual. The dancers ranged in age from about ten years old to perhaps fifty, and they donned white gowns as a symbol of death, black cloaks as a symbol of the grave, and brown caps as a symbol of the tombstone. After a brief introduction, the dancers began to spin. Throughout the 30-minute performance, the Whirling Dervishes never ceased to spin and rotate around the room. They kept one hand extended upward and the other extended outward toward the people around them. It is said that they go through four salaams while they spin, with each salaam representing a state on the spiritual journey. Jason and I were speechless as we watched. I was particularly amazed by the precision of the youngest boy, who spun as if he had done this practice his whole life.
After thirty minutes had passed, the dancers came to a swift and sudden stop. With arms crossed against their chest, they barely swayed from the flurry of movement they had just performed. The musicians offered a closing prayer and a passage from the Quran was read. Worshipers in the room joined in the prayer. When the music ended, the dancers and sheiks gracefully filed out the room, followed by the musicians.
After the ceremony, we were offered more tea to drink and chatted with some of the attendees. Older men explained the traditions of the dance to us and one man with impeccable English even guided us back toward our hotel.
On the way back down the street to the hotel, I reflected on our experience at the Karabaş-i Veli Culture Center. I was warmed by the welcome we received. I was impressed by the history and culture represented in the dance, dating back more than eight centuries. And I was appreciative of the community that seemed to exist in this unique form of worship. From the youngest of children to the most foreign of visitors, all were welcome to experience the Whirling Dervishes of Bursa.
Text and photos © Jason and Kaela La Farge. Published with permission. Please visit jasonandkaelaphotos.weebly.com.