The Whirling Dervish ceremony, the SEMA, is a unique religious experience in Turkey and it’s relatively easy to see while you’re visiting Istanbul. The very name “Whirling Dervish” indicates mystery and the exotic. It’s a unique religious experience in Turkey and the Turkish Whirling Dervish experience is a must-do in Istanbul. Here’s the history of Whirling Dervishes, what the ceremony means, and how to see a Sema ceremony in Istanbul plus where it’s possible to see free shows of the Whirling Dervish in Istanbul.
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What is a Whirling Dervish?
The Whirling Dervish Turkey began here and is an Islamic sect of Sufism. It’s not a religion as such, but more a philosophy and a set of beliefs that emphasize love, peace, and the acceptance of spiritual paths. Instead of asking what’s a Whirling Dervish, we should be asking about what dervishes believe in and stand for. The dervishes believe in the harmony of coming together as one voice.
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Why do Dervishes Whirl?
The art of whirling, their dance, is a traditional form of Sufi worship. They constantly twirl with one hand pointed upward reaching for the divine, the other hand pointed towards the ground. The whirling is one part of their religious ceremony, a way of communicating with the divine and meditating. They aim to reach perfection by abandoning their ego and personal desires, imitating the planets in the solar system around the Sun.
The Turkish whirling dervishes whirl and dance to music that is intended to be mesmerizing.
The Whirling Dervish History
The Whirling Dervish sect was formed by Mevlana Jelauddin Rumi, a native of Balkh – now located in Afghanistan. Its creation came about between 1200 and 1207. Rumi was a mystic, and a poet, and said to have become so overwhelmed with ecstasy when he heard the call to prayer that he started moving around in divine ecstasy.
Years after Rumi’s death, his son Sultan Valad founded the Mevlevi order – often more commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes. The ancient Sufi practice of whirling meditatively is practiced by the whirling dervishes. They named Rumi their leader – Mevlani, who practices their Sema (ceremony), at a Semahane (whirling dervish hall), which is at the center of their tekke (lodge).
Dervish orders were banned in the Turkish Republic’s early days. There are now just a few tekkes in Istanbul and other areas of Turkey. There are some tekkes where it’s possible to see the Sema. The most well-known tekke in Istanbul is Hodjapasha. The Hodjapasha Whirling Dervishes perform their ceremony but also sell tickets. You can find Hodjapasha ticket prices here.
The Whirling Dervish Ceremony – the Sema Ceremony
The Whirling Dervishes ceremony represents a spiritual journey, with those taking part turning towards God and towards truth, heading towards a union with God. Those who take part in a ceremony are called a Semazen. The Whirling Dervish hat is made of felt and represents a tombstone and a wide white skirt which represents a death shroud.
To begin the ceremony they take off a black cloth coat, which symbolizes that they are being born. Semazens then stand with their arms crossed across their body. Each Semazen bows to others to honor the spirit within. As they begin to turn their arms unfold, the right arm opens towards the sky in prayer to receive the benevolence of God. They turn their face to their left arm which turns towards the earth.
One foot remains fixed and they spin around it. This fixed foot provides contact with the earth and provides a point where divine blessings can flow.
There are four salutes or Selams. The first is of the birth of truth. The second is about expressing rapture by witnessing creation. Selam three is for the transformation of rapture into love – the complete submission and communion with God. Finally, the Semazens come to terms with their destiny.
There is a concluding prayer and part of the Quran is recited.
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Where to see the Whirling Dervish ceremony
If you want to see a Whirling Dervish Show Istanbul is the best place to come. While you can also travel to Konya, the home of the Sufi sect, there are more opportunities to see Whirling Dervishes Istanbul.
What’s the best place to see Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul?
There are several places to see the Whirling Dervish ceremony in Istanbul. The easiest is to book a ticket online or with your hotel to see the Hodjpasha Dervishes. You can also see Dervishes at the small Mevlevi museum in Galata, but this ceremony only takes place once a week in the summer and twice a month in the winter.
The most famous place to see a Whirling Dervish ceremony is at the Hodjapasha tekke in Istanbul. Buy tickets to see the Hodjpasha Dervishes either online NOW! or via your hotel. No photographs or videos are allowed. If you want to take or see a Whirling Dervish video then go to the Dervish cafe in Sultanahmet. Here, at Hodjapasha however, you can, however, take photos and video in the small exhibition area outside the ceremony area. The ceremony lasts about an hour.
2. Watch Whirling Dervishes in Galata, Istanbul
There is also a small museum of the Mevlevi Sufi Islam sect and the Whirling Dervishes at Galata in Istanbul where you can learn about the Whirling Dervishes and also watch a ceremony. The Galata Mevlevi Museum is located on Galipdede Caddesi 15 (just south of Tünel Square,) and is open from 0930 – 1700, but is closed on Tuesdays. The entrance is 10 Turkish Lira.
This tekke was built originally in 1491 and renovated twice, in 1608 and 2009. It’s the oldest of the 6 remaining Mevlevi tekkes in Istanbul and has been a museum since 11946.
Sema ceremony dances are held each Sunday at 1700 (during the summer) and alternate weeks during the winter. Tickets for the Sema ceremony at Galata cost 70 Turkish lire per person. Buy in advance as they do sell out, there are only 150 tickets. Seats are first come first served, so arrive 45 minutes early to pick up yours. If you’re unable to get a ticket for the Galata Whirling Dervishes, you can reserve online for the Hodjpasha Dervishes here.
3. Find Whirling Dervishes in Konya, Turkey
Konya is the home of the Mevlevi sect, where the primary Mevlana museum is based. It’s possible to see the ceremony and understand more about Whirling Dervishes here too. There is a ceremony here that you can watch for free every Saturday.
4. Watch Whirling Dervishes for free at The Dervish Café, Istanbul
If you just want to see the Whirling Dervish Istanbul free show, then go to the Dervish Cafe. The Dervish Café in Sultan Ahmet Park puts on a nightly Whirling Dervish show, where a single whirler stands on a stage and whirls. This isn’t a proper Sema ceremony, but you will get to see a Whirling Dervish show in Istanbul if you come here. So if all you want is a quick picture and a video head on over here. It’s not particularly authentic but you can see it from the edge of the Dervish café (and therefore don’t have to go in), so it’s also free.
Whirling Dervish Dance Video
Where to Stay in Istanbul
There are some great places to stay in Istanbul– here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Istanbul, mid-range places to stay in Istanbul, and budget accommodation in Istanbul.
Sultanahmet Palace Hotel, Istanbul: The luxury Sultanahmet Palace Hotel is situated in central Istanbul, perfectly located within this popular neighborhood surrounded by some of Istanbul’s main attractions. This four-star Istanbul hotel has rooms with a central heating and cooling system, a flat-screen TV, a private bathroom with a hairdryer, a mini-bar, an in-room safe, and a complimentary WiFi connection. The luxury Istanbul hotel has an in-house restaurant with a view of the sea, serving both delicious and healthy options. The Sultanahmet Palace Hotel offers top-notch services and is an ideal high-end place to stay when in Istanbul. See room rates and availability here.
Atlantis Royal Hotel, Istanbul: Situated in central Istanbul, the Atlantis Royal Hotel is an ideal place if you want a great central location for exploring Istanbul. This three-star Istanbul hotel has rooms equipped with air-conditioning, a seating area, a private bathroom with a shower, an iron and ironing board, and an in-room safe. 24-hour room service is available along with laundry and ironing services. A free WiFi connection is also available throughout the accommodation as The Atlantis Royal Hotel is a great place to stay in Istanbul. Check out room rates and available dates here.
Divas Silver, Istanbul: The Divas Silver Hotel is located close to central Istanbul and a few meters away from popular landmarks like the Column of Constantine. The Divas Silver’s rooms are equipped with a flat-screen TV, a private bathroom, and air-conditioning, and select rooms have either a view of the city or a view of the sea. There is a restaurant and a bar at this budget Istanbul Hotel, and there’s a WiFi connection is available throughout the property as well. The Divas Silver is a great budget-friendly accommodation when staying in Istanbul. See rates and availability here.
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Final Words on Seeing Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul
Far from being just for the tourists, the Sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes is a spiritual journey that believers undertake. It can of course, just be an interesting way to spend an hour or so, watching the ceremony and grabbing a few photos. (You can’t do this in an official ceremony, where photos are banned, if you want photos, go to the cafe). Whichever way you view it, taking the time to understand the beliefs of those different from ourselves is a great way to find out more about the culture of the places we travel to. In much the same way that I felt the spiritualism of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, there’s a peace and serenity about the Sema that envelops those who choose to attend. The fact that videoing and photos are not allowed during the ceremony very much helps this.
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