Monday, November 15, 2010

Syria : The Whirling Dervish in Damascus

During a dinner at a restaurant in the Christian Quarter in Damascus, we had the privilege of being entertained with a whirling dervish dance.

I have seen this dance many times on TV's travel channel; this is the first time live, and it was a lone dervish. He performed a few sets of the dance, and spun so fast it was amazing that he didn't lose his balance or trip or feel giddy.

Each dance was to the tune of (Sufi?) music - which I find haunting- and ended abruptly with a loud stomp on the floor. The skirt swirled and billowed perfectly it seemed like it was either made of a stiff material or starched to perfection.

Although it was understood that the dervish dance was put up for the tourists, I thought the dancer was in an actual trance as his expressions and his eyes appeared so. He has to be, right? I don't think they can just perform the dance 'for show' only.

The information for the captions below are sourced from here; and there is a whole load of further information on dervishes and Sufism out there in the great big world of Google.

"The whirling dervish dance originated in Konya, Turkey, inspired by the songs and teachings of the poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, who lived from 1207-1273. Rumi was a Sufi, a branch of Islam that started in the 8th century. Sufis assert that through their religion they are brought closer to the heart of all modes of belief. Rumi himself was moved to begin dancing in dervish fashion after meeting a holy man known as Shems of Tabriz. The dance, in which he spun incessantly, was done in devotion to Allah and the organic powers of the universe. While he whirled, he repeated the name of god until he fell into a trance state of deep worship".

"The whirling dervish is known as a Semazen. Dervish itself means doorway to god or enlightenment. Sufism is derived from the word for a rough, woollen cloak, its material designed to diminish the superficial pleasures of worldly existence. Mevlevis are the order of Sufis that perform the whirling dervish dance, refered to as the Sema. The leader of the group is called the Sheikh; he often stands in the middle of the room, representing the sun, while the other members dance around him in imitation of the cycles of the planets. The repetition of god's name is the Zikr".

"Whirling dervishes sport a conical hat and a white shirt and skirt. The skirt is made of billowing material that flows out and around the dancer as they spin. The headgear symbolizes the need to seal off one's ego in order to connect to god and the universe. The skirt represents a shroud but also the sky, which is revealed as the dancer removes their black cloak and begins the journey towards spiritual enlightenment".

"As they whirl, always from right to left, thus in the motions of the blood circulating around the heart, the Dervishes hold their hands in a unique position. The right hand is lifted, palm-out, towards god and his gifts. The left is palm down towards the earth, to both draw forth its sustenance and to deliver god's gifts of the spirit to humanity. The dancers usually spin to the sounds of a reed flute. The flute symbolizes how human pain (the holes in the flute) can be transformed into beautiful music and a source of celebration".

At the end of his performance, the dancer - hot and sweaty - changed out of his attire and into his daily clothes. Maybe after this restaurant he's off to another place for his next show.

To sum up the experience : fascinating. Made me wish that one day I can watch a big group of dervishes perform the dance in perfect unison. Preferably in Turkey.


  1. Hmmm, I don't know abt others but I don't subscribe to the idea of dancing or being in a trance as being closer to God (just like I don't subscribe to the notion of Shia who beat themselves up). Btw do you know that yr site opens up a pop-up window?

  2. It's a very interesting dance. I've seen it a lot on TV and even Video games and all but I really wanna watch it live. The dancer has to be in a trance. Otherwise he'd get a spin in the head I think. And yeah, there's a pop-up every time I open your site. It's not really a problem unless I read ur blog on my handphone.

  3. Maybe that is how 'sects' branch out of the 'main school of beliefs' in religions.

    Oh, I can't see the pop-up! Hope to get rid of it. How did it get there???

  4. Your pics of the swirling dervish came out well. Mine were just a flash of light. Maybe the camera setting was wrong, hmmm ...

  5. Julie - I am quite surprised too since these were taken with my handphone; my camera battery died off already by then.