Dervish Orders

During the Ottoman Empire there were numerous Sufi Dervish Orders, and their influence was great and widespread. Their numbers have been variously estimated by different sources, some put them at no less than forty, others at eighty, and some over 140, and this figure might be exceeded by including ephemeral suborders. There were strong rivalries between these Orders, and some like the Bektashis, and the Mevlevis (the subject of this paper) had extensive influence in Turkey and were very widespread. These two were more centralised in Anatolia and did not spread outside so much as the other orders. The Mevlevi Order had a few branches in Damascus, Aleppo, Tripoli, and important branches in the European regions of the Empire, especially in Salonika. As the Bektashis were more rural in character, their supporters were more in the villages, while the Mevlevi fraternity was urban, sophisticated and more centralised, supported by intellectuals and the government circles, and culturally attracting greater attention. Many great Turkish composers such as Mustafa Dede (1610-1675), Mustafa Itri (1640-1711), Ýsmail Dede (1777-1845), the Ottoman Sultan Selim III (1761-1808) and others contributed great and inspired musical compositions to the Mevlevi Ceremony.

The Dervish Orders began playing a political role during constitutional period in Turkey starting from 1908. On 13th December 1925, a law, was passed closing all the 'Tekkes' (dervish lodges) and 'Zaviyes' (Central dervish lodges) and also the centres of veneration to which pilgrimages (ziyaret) were made. Istanbul alone had more than two hundred and fifty 'Tekkes' as well as small centres for the gatherings of various fraternities. This law dissolved the Orders, prohibited the use of mystical names, titles and costumes pertaining to these titles, impounded their assets, banned their ceremonies and meetings; the law also provided sentences for those who tried to re-establish them. Two years later, in 1927, the Mausoleum of Mevlana in Konya was allowed to reopen as a Museum. Another change occurred much later in 1953 when the present annual ceremony of Mevlana was revived and an audience was invited to a movie theatre in Konya for a first authorised Mevlevi ceremony, though ceremonies may still be held privately and secretly. This was after Turkey's adoption of the multi-party democratic system, as a government concession to religious revival and as a safety valve to resolve the tension between the ardent Moslem people and their westernized leaders.

December 17, 1954, was the six hundred and eighty-first anniversary of the death of Mevlana, and the following year permission was granted for a public ceremony again in a movie theatre. In 1956 the ceremony was performed in the library in Konya, and in the same year a parallel ceremony was organised in Ankara. As the ceremonies drew large crowds they were transferred to a large auditorium in Konya, and ever since there has been an annual performance in Konya in the month of December. In 1973 the government authorised performances to be given in London, Paris and in the U.S.A., to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Mevlana.

For centuries these ceremonies, especially for those open orders which were more popular and had music and dancing in their practices, such as the Mevlevi Order (known to Europeans as the whirling dervishes) and the Rifai Order (the howling dervishes) performed their rituals as a public spectacle open to tourists as well, even with a fixed entrance fee. An interesting 16th century miniature kept in Topkapi Place Museum in Istanbul depicts the Sultan and a crowd watching a whirling dervish next to a professional dancing boy in the old Byzantine Hippodrome, each with his own musical accompaniment. So the Mevlevi dervish did not seem to mind at all performing in the open air before a vast audience of more than ten thousand onlookers, or performing next to a professional dancing boy, a member of a profession reputed to possess unsavoury connections and extreme lasciviousness.


His Life and Poems