Whirling in Religion


whirling dervish bursa turkey

Getting a different perspective on the whirling dervishes

We arrived at the Dervish Lodge of Karabash-i Veli and I was full of anticipation. Intrepid Travel had arranged for us to see a very local experience of Turkey’s whirling dervish culture. I was busy trying to arrange my scarf over my head in order to be in compliance with the cultural norms for this religious ceremony. Our guide started to explain the evening ceremonies and what we should expect and that’s when I heard him say it.

“The women will have to sit upstairs and the men will sit downstairs.”

My bubble of elation quickly deflated. I had visions of taking photos at ground level of the spinning and hadn’t even considered the fact that this was a religious ceremony that would bring into play the gender differences present in Muslim religion.


women view from above

Women sit above and watch dancing from a different perspective

Many of the Whirling Dervish ceremonies you can attend around Turkey are put on specifically for tourists and even though they are still a religious ceremony and meditation, the religious side of it takes a back seat to the ‘show’ aspect of it for tourism’s sake. This gender rule I was being confronted with was a good reminder that I was not at the tourist performance.

Whirling or spinning is essentially a physically active meditation which originated among Sufis, and which is still practiced by the Sufi Dervishes of the Mevlevi order according to Wikipedia. It is a customary dance performed within the worship ceremony, through which dervishes aim to reach the source of all perfection, or kemal. This is sought through abandoning one’s egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun.

I approached Yenner, our guide, and asked if there was any way I could take photos at ground level or at least take a few photos at ground level and then go upstairs with the women. He at first said no, but then he must have seen the disappointment in my eyes and put up his finger and said wait here and walked off. He chatted with an older man drinking tea and soon came back to me and said – it’s ok, you can sit downstairs. Sometimes having a blog and a big camera has its advantages.

As all of the women filed in and went up the stairs I tightened my scarf around my head and tried to sit inconspicuously in the entrance on the ground floor. No one seemed to mind my presence there and I really thought that I would just take a few photos and then go upstairs where I belonged.

Dervishes enter the room

Dervishes enter the room

However, as the ceremony started I was mesmerized by the dervishes’ (made up of men and boys) concentration, and technique. This was not just a dance – it was a spiritual ceremony of motion in which they clearly were operating at a different level than all of us watching.

The head of the Dervish Lodge and Cultural Center provided me with more explanation about the ceremony which was crucial for me to understand further what all of this spinning was about. The ceremony began with the dervishes walking in with their arms crossed about them which represents the number one, and testifies to God’s unity. There is a short eulogy and then music begins. The dervishes begin by greeting each other and walking in a circle around the room 3 times and suddenly the whirling begins.

I felt a rush of air as my scarf was nearly blown off from the wind that was created from the whirling of the heavy dervish skirts. Their arms, now unfolded, were slowly and perpetually performing one of the four salutes to God during the entire ceremony.

I was able to concentrate on their feet and see how they used one leg as a solid balance while the other pivoted around it.

Watch my YouTube Video of The whirling patterns

Watch my YouTube Video of what goes on underneath the skirt!

Then after about 40 minutes the twirling wind on my face suddenly stopped. And there they all stood with their arms wrapped tightly against their body again in their unity position. I watched each of them stand solid as a rock, no dizziness, no swaying, nothing. I was shocked. I could see the beads of sweat drip off their faces reminding me that even though it looked like fluid easy movement – it wasn’t.– it was work.

I had stayed the entire time downstairs mesmerized by the movement, the wind, and taking photos.

Dervishes move around each other in a circular pattern

Dervishes move around each other in a circular pattern - circles upon circles


The footwork under the whirling dervish skirt

The footwork under the whirling dervish skirt

Whirling is a form of meditation

A whirling dervish in a meditative state

whirling dervish skirt

A skirt whirls by me on the floor

whirling dervish finish the spinning part of the ceremony

The dervishes stop promptly and stand sturdy as they finish the ceremony

The ceremony concluded with a reading from the Quran,

“Unto God belong the East and the West, and whither over ye turn, you are faced with Him. He is all-embracing, all-knowing.”

A beautiful thought in any religion.

Disclosure: As I traveled through Turkey I was a guest of Intrepid Travel – however all of the opinions expressed here are my own.

Your Comments

13 Comments so far

  1. Cat says:

    I spent a week in Turkey and went to one of the touristy shows, a gift arranged by my friend. While I can’t say it was as inspiring as your photos show, I was taken aback by the performance. I was fiddling with my camera, so the pictures I snapped weren’t nearly as nice!

  2. Siwa Sue says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience. I love watching these.
    See some of my photos of an Egyptian performance in Berlin earlier this year at http://mindseyewritingandphotography.wordpress.com/photographs-available/
    But your photos are exquisite!

  3. Ooh! I wished your videos were longer. So lucky you got to witness this.

  4. Sherry, thank you for taking me to this experience that I regretfully missed when I traveled in Turkey. Beautiful writing. And the photos are so amazing, so poignant – especially the one when the dervishes enter the room.

  5. Remarkable post and photos, Sherry, and description of the patterns they move in. I’ve often encountered dance as devotion but this must be one of its most unusual manifestations.

  6. You can really tell how concentrated they are through the photos!

  7. This is truly amazing. I do hope to witness this myself one day. The photos and video are fabulous. Thanks so much. So glad you made an effort to watch from ground level.

  8. Lovely description, Sherry! I’ve been fascinated by Whirling Dervishes and other aspects of Sufi culture ever since I discovered the music of Pakistani Sufi music legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan back in the early 90s. I’ve never had an opportunity to witness the dervishes in person, but I loved getting your perspective on this sacred spiritual ritual.

  9. What a privilege to see such a performance up close and personal! Such beautiful movements and such a beautiful representation of their faith. I hope I can have the honour of seeing something so lovely (non-touristy) when I visit Turkey! You did a wonderful job of capturing the emotions of this ceremony in your photos!!

  10. Susan says:

    So great to see these amazing photos of this wonderful ceremony! We were lucky enough to see it in Istanbul last year, but we were not allowed to take pictures at all! I was SO disappointed, especially since it’s so incredible, visually! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Majida says:

    You almost had me there!

  12. Aabid says:

    Thanks for yr respect !
    As you say, it’s not dance, it’s reverance and hard work. Or otherwise said: it is Love.

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