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Julia Pardoe:

The Dancing Dervishes, 1902

THE tekie [convent] is a handsome building with projecting wings, in which the community live very comfortably with their wives and children; and whence, having performed their religious duties, they sally forth to their several avocations in the city, and mingle with their fellow men upon equal terms. The dervishes are forbidden to accumulate wealth in order to enrich either themselves or their convent. The most simple fare, the least costly garrnents, serve alike for their own use and for that of their families: industry, temperance, and devotion are their duties; and, as they are at liberty to secede from their self-imposed obligations whenever they see fit to do so, there is no lukewarmness among the community, who find time throughout the whole year to devote many hours to God, even of their most busy days; and, unlike their fellow citizens, the other Mussulmans, they throw open the doors of their chapel to strangers, only stipulating that gentlemen shall put off their shoes ere they enter.

This chapel, which has been erroneously called a "mosque," is an octagon building of moderate size, neatly painted in fresco. The center of the floor is railed off, and the inclosure is sacred to the brotherhood; while the outer circle, covered with Indian matting, is appropriated to visitors. A deep gallery runs round six sides of the building, and beneath it, on your left hand as you enter, you remark the lattices through which the Turkish women witness the service. A narrow mat surrounds the circle within the railing, and upon this the brethren kneel during the prayers; while the center of the floor is so highly polished by the perpetual friction that it resembles a mirror, and the boards are united by nails with heads as large as a shilling, to prevent accidents to the feet of the dervishes during their evolutions. A bar of iron descends from the center of the domed roof, to which transverse bars are attached, bearing a vast number of glass lamps of different colors and size; and against many of the pillars, of which I counted four-and-twenty, supporting the dome, are hung frames, within which are inscribed passages from the Prophets.

Above the seat of the superior, the name of the founder of the tekie is written in gold on a black ground, in immense characters. This seat consists of a small carpet, above which is spread a crimson rug; and on this the worthy principal was squatted when we entered, in an ample cloak of Spanish brown, with large hanging sleeves, and his geulaf, or high hat of gray felt, encircled with a green shawl. I pitied him that his back was turned towards the glorious Bosphorus, that was distinctly seen through the four large windows at the extremity of the chapel, flashing in the light, with the slender minarets and lordly mosques of Stamboul gleaming out in the distance.

One by one, the dervishes entered the chapel, bowing profoundly at the little gate of the inclosure, took their places on the mat, and, bending down, reverently kissed the ground; and then, folding their arms meekly on their breasts, remained buried in prayer, with their eyes closed and their bodies swinging slowly to and fro. They were all enveloped in wide cloaks of dark-colored cloth with pendent sleeves; and wore their geulafs, which they retained during the whole of the service. The service commenced with an extemporaneous prayer from the chief priest, to which the attendant dervishes listened with arms folded upon their breasts and their eyes fixed on the ground. At its conclusion, all bowed their foreheads to the earth; and the orchestra struck into one of those peculiarly wild and melancholy Turkish airs which are unlike any other music that I ever heard. Instantly, the full voices of the brethren joined in chorus, and the effect was thrilling; now the sounds died away like the exhausted breath of a departing spirit, and suddenly they swelled once more into a deep and powerful diapason that seemed scarce earthly. A second stillness of about a minute succeeded, when the low, solemn music was resumed, and the dervishes, slowly rising from the earth, followed their superior three times round the inclosure; bowing down twice under the shadow of the name of their founder, suspended above the seat of the high priest. This reverence was performed without removing their folded arms from their breasts---the first time on the side by which they approached, and afterwards on that opposite, which they gained by slowly revolving on the right foot, in such a manner as to prevent their turning their backs towards the inscription. The procession was closed by a second prostration, after which, each dervish, having gained his place, cast off his cloak, and such as had walked in woolen slippers withdrew them, and, passing solemnly before the chief priest, they commenced their evolutions.

The extraordinary ceremony which gives its name to the dancing, or, as they are really and much more appropriately called, the turning dervishes,---for nothing can be more utterly unlike dancing than their evolutions,---is not without its meaning. The community first pray for pardon of their past sins, and the amendment of their future lives; and then, after a silent supplication for strength to work out the change, they figure, by their peculiar and fatiguing movements, their anxiety to "shake the dust from their feet," and to cast from them all worldly ties.

Immediately after passing with a solemn reverence, twice performed, the place of the high priest, who remained standing, the dervishes spread their arms and commenced their revolving motion; the palm of the right hand being held upwards, and that of the left turned down. Their under-dresses (for, as I before remarked, they had laid aside their cloaks) consisted of a jacket and petticoat of dark-colored cloth, that descended to their feet; the higher order of brethren being clad in green, and the others in brown, or a sort of yellowish gray; about their waists they wore wide girdles, edged with red, to which the right side of the jacket was closely fastened, while the left hung loose: their petticoats were of immense width, and lay in large plaits beneath the girdles, and, as the wearers swung round, formed a bell-like appearance; these latter garments, however, are only worn during the ceremony, and are exchanged in summer for white ones of lighter material. The number of those who were "on duty," for I know not how else to express it, was nine; seven of them being men, and the remaining two, mere boys, the youngest certainly not more than ten years of age. Nine, eleven, and thirteen are the mystic numbers, which, however great the strength of the community, are never exceeded; and the remaining members of the brotherhood, during the evolutions of their companions, continue engaged in prayer within the inclosure. These on this occasion amounted to about a score, and remained each leaning against a pillar: while the beat of the drum in the gallery marked the time to which the revolving dervishes moved, and the effect was singular to a degree that baffles description. So true and unerring were their motions, that, although the space which they occupied was somewhat circumscribed, they never once gained upon each other: and for five minutes they continued twirling round and round, as though impelled by machinery, their pale, passionless countenances perfectly immobile, their heads slightly declined towards the right shoulder, and their inflated garments creating a cold, sharp air in the chapel, from the rapidity of their action. At the termination of that period, the name of the Prophet occurred in the chant, which had been unintermitted in the gallery; and, as they simultaneously paused, and, folding their hands upon their breasts, bent down in reverence at the sound, their ample garments wound about them at the sudden check, and gave them, for a moment, the appearance of mummies.

An interval of prayer followed; and the same ceremony was performed three times; at the termination of which they all fell prostrate on the earth, when those who had hitherto remained spectators flung their cloaks over them, and the one who knelt on the left of the chief priest rose, and delivered a long prayer, divided into sections, with a rapid and solemn voice, prolonging the last word of each sentence by the utterance of "Ha---ha---ha"---with a rich depth of octave that would not have disgraced Phillips.

This prayer was for "the great ones of the earth"---the magnates of the land---all who were "in authority over them"; and at each proud name they bowed their heads upon their breasts, until that of the sultan was mentioned, when they once more fell flat upon the ground, to the sound of the most awful howl I ever heard.

This outburst from the gallery terminated the labors of the orchestra, and the superior, rising to his knees, while the others continued prostrate, in his turn prayed for a few instants; and then, taking his stand upon the crimson rug, they approached him one by one, and, clasping his hand, pressed it to their lips and forehead. When the first had passed, he stationed himself on the right of the superior, and awaited the arrival of the second, who, on reaching him, bestowed on him also the kiss of peace, which he had just proffered to the chief priest; and each in succession performed the same ceremony to all those who had preceded him, which was acknowledged by gently stroking down the beard. This was the final act of the exhibition; and, the superior having slowly and silently traversed the inclosure, in five seconds the chapel was empty, and the congregation busied at the portal in reclaiming their boots, shoes, and slippers.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 573-578.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need to be questioned by modern readers.

This text is part of the Internet Islamic History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November1998

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