Banned officially in 1925, but still very much alive in Turkey, is the Mevlevi Order, a spiritual Islamic sect. Most people know them from the ‘whirling dervishes’, a ceremony performed by the followers of the order (called ‘dervishes’) as a way to connect with God. Up until now I never really got into it very deeply, probably because they are hardly ever in the news, and because from the outside all you see are whirling dervish ceremonies announced in tourist areas. But since I met a dervish, I’ve become more intrigued.
The dervish I met invited me to a special ceremony this week. A ceremony to make asure, a traditional Turkish dessert with ingredients like rice, chickpeas, barley, white beans, rose water, walnuts, pomegranate seeds and cinnamon. Asure is a very old recipe, and it is a symbol of love and peace. After the dervishes spent the day preparing ingredients and churning the asure-in-progress, I saw the result: tables full of small white buckets filled with asure. Ten thousand kilos altogether. It had to rest for a day, and then after a whirling ceremony the next day the asure would be distributed to anybody who wanted some.
It made me realize how very much alive the Mevlevi Order still is in this country. It was banned by Atatürk in 1925: from those days on, only state Islam was allowed. Much later, in the nineteen-fifties, they were once again allowed to perform Sema (the whirling ceremony), but only because the Turkish state saw tourist potential in it. Many of their ‘lodges’ turned into museums, and they are still forbidden to lead their lives totally according to their old traditions.
When you think of that harsh reality, it’s amazing that the order didn’t fade away in the past eighty five years. New dervishes are being trained – when I visited a whirling dervish ceremony some months ago, I saw two very young men of around twenty years old performing in it. Okay, the dervishes don’t live their lives anymore like the dervishes in previous centuries and they all have a job besides their spiritual task, but still many men all over Turkey devote a good share of their lives to Sufism (the mystic Islamic tradition that the Mevlevi Order is part of). That means that it’s rooted in society very deeply. I hope through my new friend I will learn more about the old traditions, but especially about the vibrant order that Sufism still is in Turkey today.