Since Konya is the spiritual and temporal home of the whirling dervishes, the city plays host to the annual dervish festival, held between December 7 and December 17, during the week prior to the anniversary of the Mevlâna’s death. Unfortunately, with sub-zero temperatures, doubled hotel rates and shops full of whirling dervish kitsch, this is not the best time to witness a dervish rite. In fact the most authentic place to watch a ceremony is in the restored semahane in İstanbul, the Galata Mevlevîhane. Unlike the dancers in Konya, its members are also practising dervishes who live according to the teachings of the Mevlâna. Alternatively, in July and August, official sema performances are staged in the gardens of Konya’s Mevlâna complex, priced at TL20, while free shows at the Mevlâna Culture Centre, 500m up the road from the Mevlâna Museum, take place every Sat night year-round, except during the festival period (May–Oct Sat 9pm, Nov–April Sat 8pm).
The whirling ceremony – the sema – for which the Mevlevî dervishes are renowned, is a means of freedom from earthly bondage and abandonment to God’s love. The clothes worn by the Mevlevîs during the observance have symbolic significance. The camel-hair hat represents a tombstone, the black cloak is the tomb itself, and the white skirt the funerary shroud. During the ceremony the cloak is cast aside, denoting that the dervishes have escaped from their tombs and from all other earthly ties. The music reproduces that of the spheres, and the turning dervishes represent the heavenly bodies themselves. Every movement and sound made during the ceremony has an additional significance – for example, the right arms of the dancers extend up to heaven while their left arms point to the floor, denoting that grace is received from God and distributed to humanity.