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Dervishes and Death

di Piero Castellano

tempo di lettura stimato: 3 min e mezzo

Istambul (Turkish)
There are many Istanbuls: a megalopolis, a historical city, rich in art and architectural treasures, a crucible of humanity, a tourist attraction. All of them, have a soul.

Every tourist who has wandered around the ancient part of the city on the Bosporus has noticed the countless cemeteries, scattered among cafes, buildings, and tiny mosques. Many tourists have been impressed by the sight of the living strolling, working or even having fun side by side with the dead. And some would probably wonder why the peculiar shape of the ottoman tombstones on the graves, usually depicting a turban, headgear indicating the rank of the deceased, is sometimes a truncated cone, more or less decorated.

All tourists in Istanbul are invited to see the attraction famously known as the “Whirling Dervishes Dance”, generically explained to them as the effort to reach ecstasy through a holy dance. It is a tradition that was included on the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” list of UNESCO in 2005, though most often it is performed for tourists by simple dancers. Unfortunately, only a handful of tourists recall the unusual tombstones when they see the dance and it is rarely explained to them that when watching the dance, they are actually witnessing a sophisticated representation of life, love and death. Even less often it is explained the way Death plays a vital role in the Dervishes’ symbolism.

The Sufi religious order of the Mevlevi is that which teaches to its followers the elaborate ceremony of Sema, the “dance” culminating into the ritual whirling. They follow the teachings of the great Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, known in the West simply as Rumi. Many scholars trace the whirling dance’s lineage back to the times of Cybele’s priests. Cybele was a very ancient Anatolian goddess, later Romanized, and her priests also performed whirling, robed in attire similar to that of the Dervishes. But Mevlevi are Muslims, the most notorious followers of Sufism, a mystic and ascetic branch of Islam.

Muslims believe that they can become close to God after death, and after a righteous life.

But Sufis believe that it is also possible to draw closer to the divine presence during life, through a difficult process of restoring the initial perfection innate in every human being, into a union with God more perfect than that reached by everyone in the afterlife. The seeker has to abandon any worldly interference, with love as the single motivation towards purity, love towards God and His creation: “All loves are bridges to Divine Love”, Rumi wrote. Death, as an interruption of the pathway, is almost an obstacle, a door that the seeker has to open and step through. The Persian word darvish has been interpreted as “the one who passes from door to door”.

In this context, the Sema is only a step of the teachings that can lead the dervish closer to his goal. The symbolism is minute, almost didactic: the “dancers”, the semazens, enter robed in a black cloak, a symbol of the grave. After an initial praise to the prophet and a procession, the seeker is reborn. Due to the submission to God, the black cloak is abandoned, and the performers are left with the long white gown, representing the shroud: death of the ego is the liberation from distractions that polluted its initial perfection.

The “whirling dance” itself is a metaphor of life, the seeker’s pathway, where four performers whirl around their teacher, who is the only one rotating only on his own axis. In Sufi symbolism, abandonment, detachment, surrender, can lead to the peace of heart that only union with God can bring. The ceremony ends with a thanksgiving prayer: the process is completed, the metaphor of the pathway accomplished. Only the inevitable detachment from life remains.

The tall brown camel hat, worn by everyone taking part in the Sema, including the musicians, symbolize the tombstone that is waiting for everyone, in the final union with God, whatever path has been accomplished. The Ottoman cemetery tombstones, with their stylized dervish headgear, tell that the deceased lying underneath belonged to a Sufi order.

It is in those cemeteries scattered all over Istanbul, by gardens, parks, shops or cafes, that old time dervishes keep secret their lives’ pathways.

Piero Castellano [ 16/11/2012 ]


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