We entered a cave and passed through a tunnel that opened into a theater carved from rock. The blistering heat of the day couldn’t reach through tons of insulating rock. We were in Cappadocia, here to see the famous Whirling Dervishes.
I knew little about them, aside from that song “Maria” in The Sound of Music, where singing nuns complain that Maria could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl. I remember wondering what this meant but never bothered to find out. Here I was, forty-seven years later, about to find out.
As the lights darkened I remembered how, as a kid, I’d fling out my arms and spin around as quickly as I could until I was so dizzy I’d collapse on our front lawn. Was that what this was all about? Watching grown men in skirts spin around without getting dizzy?
A voice in broken English admonished us against taking pictures until after the ceremony. I noticed this wasn’t referred to as a show. It all felt rather illicit. I was reminded that the monastic life of the Whirling Dervishes was outlawed in the 1930s by Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Atatürk wisely felt that young Turkish men shouldn’t be hidden away in monasteries. He wisely wanted the country to shift its attention from religion to the progressive ways of the West.
A curtain was pulled back and figures emerged in a blade of light, a half dozen cloaked musicians with medieval instruments. Behind them came the Dervishes, dressed in black with the exception of their towering beige camel-hair hats. The music started, reeds, drums and unfamiliar string instruments. It was surprising how these primitive devices could create such a palpitating mood of expectation. The Dervishes bowed to the empty hat on far side of the circular stage, their tall hats (tombstones for the ego) seeming to defy gravity by staying on their heads when touched to the ground. According to our guide, the bow was to honor Mevlânâ, their thirteenth century spiritual leader. Mevlânâ, creator of the Whirling Dervishes, was said to have whirled for two full days. It was his belief that the fundamental condition of existence was to revolve. He knew the world to be made of revolving atoms, knew that blood revolved within the bodies of men and animals and understood the revolving nature of the planets and stars. His achievement was to acknowledge and embrace this feature of existence through an act of homage—whirling.
They looked exposed when they removed their black cloaks, as if the whiteness beneath was not only purity but vulnerability. They lined up and acknowledged each other, and slowly, one by one began to spin, giving the impression of dropping into a fathomless void like falling snowflakes. We sat close enough to feel the uplift of wind from their skirts as they spun in the same direction as the Earth on its axis, one hand pointed upward to receive the blessings of Allah while the other was turned downward to pour Allah’s blessings onto the people. Nothing was kept for themselves.
I finally understood that this was not a performance, it was a ritual, a re-creation of infinity and Creation on a subterranean stage, a thousand year old version of a high energy particle accelerator.
No one has ever been able to point out for me the differences between Allah and God, and I’ve come to assume that, if there are any, they’re insignificant. I can’t claim to know what these Whirling Dervishes believe, what thoughts animate their spirits, but their sincere commitment to Allah and His universe lead me to accept that they’ve achieved a harmony with existence that I can only imagine. I might not understand their beliefs, just as I don’t understand many of the tenets of my own religion, but this manifestation of faith was enough to set me whirling.