First, a short history lesson. One of the main tribes in central Asia a thousand or so years ago was the Seljuk Turks. When these nomads wandered the Silk Road they needed places to rest their camel caravans for the night. The sultan used money from trade taxes to build road houses for these travelling merchants. Animals were kept on the ground floor and traders slept in the upper floor (taking advantage of the rising body heat). Basically, these were old school rest stops. To this day, historic caravanserai buildings are scattered throughout Turkey.
Now, a short lesson on religion. A sub-sect of Islam is called the Mevlevi. One of their core practices is based on the recurring theme of revolution in the universe (think atom particles, circulating blood, and orbiting planets). The Mevlevi have a meditative ceremony called a sema in which worshipers share in this universal revolution by spinning. Heard of a whirling dervish? This is it.
I recently attended a whirling dervish ceremony in an old caravanserai. The building, a 20-minute drive from the town I was visiting in central Anatolia, was a glowing stone beacon in the middle of nowhere. Inside, the cavernous domed hall was a solemn setting for the spiritual practice it housed.
The ceremony has several steps, including prayers from the Quran, a musical interlude (featuring instruments like the saz and reed flute), bows and greetings. But the famous part is when the dervishes spin.
As Lonely Planet explains, the dervishes make smooth revolutions to “relinquish the earthly life to be reborn in mystical union with God… As they whirl, they form a ‘constellation’ of revolving bodies, which itself slowly rotates.” They do this four times, which the ceremony brochure explains represents four salutes: 1) man’s “complete conception of the existence of God as creator,” 2) “the rapture of man witnessing the splendor of creation,” 3) submission to love, and 4) “termination of [the] spiritual journey” and a return to servitude. I found the ceremony calming and mesmerizing. The twirling coupled with the traditional music was almost hypnotic. I was transfixed.
I will write about the rest of my whirlwind weekend in Cappadocia later. For now, I will end with a quotation from Rumi, a Muslim poet who helped to found the Mevlevi branch of Islam:
“Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving – it doesn’t matter,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.”