The phrase “whirling dervish” – as it is used in English – suggests someone out of control, spinning madly, directionless. In fact, true whirling dervishes practice a very controlled art with roots in Sufi beliefs. Their rituals – ceremonies known as “Sema” – are far from spontaneous, requiring intense training and rigorous discipline. With arms raised and wearing voluminous robes which spread out as they twirl, the dervishes aim for a trance-like state intended to intensify contemplation. In 2005 the Sema ceremony was declared a masterpiece of intangible heritage by UNESCO.
The dervishes’ spiritual home is the city of Konya, in Turkey’s south. This is where Persian poet Rumi, the best known bard of Sufism, lived and died. While Sufism has been suppressed at various times by Ottoman and Turkish authorities, it is still possible to see whirling dervishes performing the Sema ceremony in Istanbul.