Why you should see whirling dervishes in Turkey

Watching a performance of whirling dervishes – who worship God by twirling into a mesmerizing spiritual frenzy – are a hallmark of any visit to Turkey.

As a souvenir, you can buy figurines depicting the mystical dancers, and if you go on a tour, such as an evening Bosporus Tour, you might see a performance as part of the packaged tour price.

I recently joined an American friend on an evening Bosporus tour, where a whirling dervish performer decked out in a black sequined robe delighted us with a dizzying performance set to soothing instrumental music – the kind of music you might listen to while sailing.

But if you would prefer to see a more authentic rendition of whirling dervishes, you might consider visiting a dergah (house of worship).

My friends and former Airbnb hosts, Kubilay and Zeynep took me out Monday night, June 17, for an authentic evening of whirling dervishes. By authentic, I mean that we went to an actual Sufi worship service, not a whirling dervish performance arranged for the pleasure of tourists.

Every Monday night, Nurettin Efendi Dergahı – an authentic Sufi order in the Fatih district of Istanbul – holds a “sumi,” the name for the worship service. It’s usually held around 9 p.m., but in the summer, they begin as late as 11 p.m.

And unlike professional performances for tourists, seeing these whirling dervishes is free of cost.

Zeynep and I were required to cover our hair for the sumi. Women ordinarily are required to worship up in a latticed loft above the ceremony hall, but Zeynep managed to convince the lady in charge to allow us to sit away from the men in the main ceremony hall, where we could see the action.

As a side note, the mosque has a dresser full of scarves, so if you arrive with an exposed head of hair, the mosque is equipped to cover you. With typical Turkish charm, the ladies searched their cache of scarves for scarf colors that flattered our complexions.

Before I continue, for those of you who are new to the subject, whirling dervishes are part of Sufism, a mystical style of worship within mainstream Sunni Islam, the origins of which remain in dispute even among Sufi scholars.

The followers of world-famous poet Rumi (Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi to be exact) founded the Mevlevi order of Sufism shortly after his death, and the Mevlevi order gave the world whirling dervishes, according to tour guide and blogger Burak Sansal.

Rumi, who was born to Persian-speaking parents in present-day Afghanistan and lived most of his life in Konya, Turkey; is wildly popular in the United States and worldwide. In 2014, he was America’s best-selling poet, more than 700 years after his death, according to the BBC.

The rituals established within the Mevlevi order focus on spiritual introspection and closeness to God through poetry, chants, music and you guessed it, dancing.

And that’s where the whirling dervishes come in.

The best place to see whirling dervishes is in Konya, where Rumi lived and died, but if you can’t make it to Konya, Istanbul has some alternatives that are just as authentic.

Inside Nurettin Efendi Dergahı, the dervishes, dressed entirely in white, began with slow turns and gradually worked themselves into a state of transcendence through whirling and reverberating chants and music performed by worshippers.

As the worshippers chanted and swayed in a swirling motion with their upper bodies, I felt myself involuntarily swaying along with them.

As they prayed – a ceremony called the “zikr” – they held their palms up. As a yoga practitioner, it reminded me of yoga meditation: Upward open palms position the mind and body to be open and receptive.

We couldn’t see the whirling dervishes that well because on that particular night, they were in an adjacent room. We just saw their reflections in the glass. Occasionally, the corner of a whirling white robe whipped out of the door frame into view.

Typically, whirling dervishes perform their worshipful, meditative twirling in the main part of the mosque (the equivalent of a church sanctuary). On Monday night, however, the dervishes were trainees and were not yet ready for their public debut, Kubilay said, after speaking to someone at the dergah. (Update: To see the whirling dervishes performing in the main part of the mosque in September 2019, click on this video.)

Apart from the experience of seeing this moving form of worship, going to a suma can be informative to a visitor to Turkey, because whirling dervishes played a pivotal role in the evolution of Ottoman culture. They obviously influenced the visual arts, but they, additionally, shaped music, classical poetry and calligraphy, according to Sansal.

Look for Kubilay and Zeynep among Airbnb’s selection of Istanbul experiences. They regularly hold Airbnb events to showcase the best of Istanbul’s whirling dervishes.