Whirling dervish ceremonies were started as a form of meditation by Jalaluddin Rumi, the famous Sufi Muslim mystic and poet, in the 13th century. The Persia-born Rumi — who was living in Konya, then the capital of the Turkish Seljuk Empire — told his followers, “There are many roads which lead to God. I have chosen the one in dance and music.” He would fast, meditate, and then dance to reach a state of unparalleled enlightenment. Inspired, other sects started to spread his dance, called the Samah, throughout the Ottoman Empire. The most renowned sect was the Mevlevi order; dance participants were called Semazen. By the 15th century, the order had established rules for the ritual to maintain its myriad traditions.
Dancers wear long white robes with full skirts, which symbolize the shrouds of their egos, art historian Nurhan Atasoy of the Turkish Cultural Foundation wrote in “Dervis Ceyizi,” her book on dervish clothing. On the dancers’ heads sit tall conical felt hats called sikke, ranging from brown to gray to black depending on their sect; these represent the tombstones of their egos. Over the robes, the dancers wear long dark cloaks, which embody the wearers’ worldly life and are cast-off during the ceremony. When the dancer is finally wearing only his long white robe, he is assumed to be without fault and ready to start the mesmerizing complex whirls that define the Samah.
The dancers, who fast for many hours before the ceremony, start to turn in rhythmic patterns, using the left foot to propel their bodies around the right foot with their eyes open, but unfocused. Their whirling is fueled by accompanying music, which consists of a singer, a flute-player, a kettle-drummer, and a cymbal player. As the dancers turn, the skirts of their robes rise, becoming circular cones, as if standing in the air of their own volition. A team of researchers found that the edges of spinning skirts experience accelerations “of about four times Earth gravity”, reporting that the skirts “carry cusped wave patterns which seem to defy gravity and common sense.”