Théophile Gautier during his voyage to Constantinople in 1852, visited the Mevlevi Tekke of Pera. The Mevlevi order, commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes are the followers of Mevlâna Celâleddin Rumi, a Sufi master, poet and mystic who lived in the 13th C. Tradition has it that Rumi, passing through the marketplace one day, heard the hammering of goldbeaters and the invocations they were repeating, and got so filled with joy that he started spinning in a circle with his arms stretched out: this is the presumable origin of the Sema ceremony, during which the dancing monks reach communion with Allah.
The following text is an extract of Gautier’s description of the Sema ceremony:
“ They waltzed with their arms extended, the head leaning upon the shoulder, the eyes partially closed, and the mouth half open, like bold swimmers, who abandoned themselves to the current of some flood of ecstacy. Their movements were regular, undulating, and showing an agility quite extraordinary; no apparent effort, no appearance of fatigue.
The most intrepid German waltzer would have dropped down dead with suffocation and giddiness, while they continued to turn, each upon his own centre, as if driven by some irresistible impulse; and appearing like tops, which seem immoveable at the moment when they revolve with the most dazzling rapidity, and appear to sleep to the sound of their own whirling… One old man, with a ‘Socratic’ kind of face, ugly enough while in repose, waltzed with a vigour and persistency, amazing in one of his age; and his commonplace visage took, under the magical excitement of the dance an aspect of positive beauty. The soul, so to speak, shone in the face, and overpowered its physical defects, by the glow of enthusiasm with which it brightened the visage. Many other and very singular varieties of expression and attitude were traceable among the throng; and not a few countenances and forms of most surpassing majesty and beauty; all pervaded by the one indescribable expression of a bliss almost superhuman.
What could they see in their strange and enraptured visions? The forests of emerald with fruits of rubies; the mountains of amber and of myrrh; the kiosks of diamonds, and tents of pearl, of the Paradise of Mahomet? Their smiling lips were, surely, tasting the perfumed kisses of the many-coloured houris of that sensual heaven; their fixed gaze was fastened, doubtless, upon the splendours of that Throne of Allah, which is wrapped in light too dazzling for ordinary human conception; and this dull earth, which they barely touched in their aërial movements, had disappeared like a light mist, before these surpassing splendours, while the ecstatics were floating passively in the great infinity of space.”
Théophile Gautier, Constantinople of to-day, Translated from the French by Robert Howe Gould, London: David Bogue, 86, Fleet Street, 1854, pp. 140-143
Ed. Adzhoa Makkonen