Thursday, June 30, 2011


After the balloon flight we got under way on the ride proper, I on my dappled grey mare Kelebek, all of we dozen or so riding in a line behind the head horseman Ercihan.

After several hours, a large square fort made of stone and flying the Turkish flag came into view as we rode up a grassy hill.  We were approaching a 13th-century stone Karavansaray – a caravan outpost – on the Silk Road, just as traders would have done hundreds of years ago.  We tied the horses up outside the eight-metre-high walls, walked through the tall gate into a large open courtyard with a central fountain, and then into the dark belly of the Karavansaray.  It is like a cathedral inside with a cruciform plan and a domed apex.  It was built in the style of the Siena school of architecture, which seems unlikely in Turkey, but this is the route along which all travelled between Italy and Asia for centuries.

In the centre of the dim church we were quietly seated around a square floor.  One by one, five musicians and five dancers, each in a black cloak and a tall beige fez, entered the square, bowed to the audience, and seated themselves on the floor.  These are the sufis.  An eleventh wore a white fez and sat at the head of the group. 

One of the musicians stood and sang Arabic chants in beguiling oriental scales, and then another played a breathy and moving melody on the ney, a Turkish flute.  Another ney played and the other musicians then joined on drums, a zither-like stringed instrument called a kanun, and an oud which is similar to a lute. 

The five dancers rose and walked slowly around the square, bowing to one another repeatedly before removing their black cloaks to reveal white robes beneath.  Slowly they began to spin.  They moved around the square floor to find their positions – four at the corners and one in the centre.  As they spun faster their floor-length robes bloomed and they raised their arms with open hands, one above their heads in receiving and the other outstretched in giving.  The whirling dervishes spin in the same spot to induce a trance.  White Fez would walk onto the floor to rotate them and, still spinning, they would change positions, one moving to the centre and the others rotating corners.  This spinning to the music and rotating positions would go on for ten minutes before they would pause and stand stock-still, not wobbling or dizzy, and then they would begin again.  Some of the sufis had their eyes half open but fixed, never flickering, while others had theirs closed, intuiting their positions on the floor.  For forty-five minutes this went on with precision, and never did they stumble.

At last they finish dancing and seat themselves on the floor again, and White Fez sings a sermon.  Though it is in Arabic, it is surprisingly moving. 

Sufism is not a religion.  It is a way of living.  It is a culture or a sprituality, but there is no institution, no tenets, and no hierarchy.  Sufis are free, liberated intellectuals, philosophers, and they search for a way to find yourself.  The whirling dervishes are the most formulated example of this, but Sufism is about finding your own way.

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