July 26, 2023
THE WHIRLING DERVISHES OF KONYA
Photography and story by Rpnunyez
Introduction by Melanie Meggs
Rpnunyez, a man of science and an atheist, has been pushing boundaries with his photography, exploring the depths of human belief in the intangible.
During 2017-2018, Rpnunyez made two trips to Iran, during which he was able to experience the legacy of Sufi poet and scholar Jalal-ud Din Mohammed (known as Mevlana) first-hand. Rpnunyez was working on his project ‘Persian Diaries’ (50 days on the “axis of evil”) at the time. According to Rpnunyez, who had many long conversations with the Iranians, Mevlana’s teachings are “like fresh air coming through the window of the room with unbreathable air that today’s Iran has become.”
Since then, his most genuine followers, the ‘Whirling Dervishes of Konya’, have never ceased to be in Rpnunyez’s thoughts and served as the inspiration for Rpnunyez’s photography project.
Through his photography, Rpnunyez is able to capture the pride and joy of the dervishes as they perform their ritual dance. His photographs display the connection between respect, tolerance and freedom on one hand, and force and aggression on the other.
Rpnunyez says, “Asking questions and looking for answers has always been my approach to photography.” Rpnunyez hopes that through his work, people can gain a deeper understanding of the power of belief and how it affects our lives. He believes that everyone has a right to choose their own myth and to decide how intensely to follow it, as long as respect and tolerance are maintained.
I am a man of science. With its immense advances, and despite its limitations, it never ceases to reveal to me the secrets of the universe. But the elusive secrets of the human being are something else.
I am also an atheist, and I never cease to be surprised again and again by how myths and intangible beliefs are able to shape so intensely the lives of millions and millions of people worldwide. That capability of imagination and belief in the intangible is able to awaken the cruelest manifestations of wickedness or of developing all the good and beautiful that can be within us.
I approached the world of the Dervishes with enormous curiosity and many questions in the air. Asking questions and looking for answers.
They allowed me to enter their rich world eager to share it with others, and under a serious, even transcendent appearance, while I portrayed them or during the ecstatic moments of their ritual dance they never ceased to show their pride in being what they are.
Unveiling their secrets, understanding their way of facing life, reaffirms my idea that every human being has the right to choose his or her own myth and the power to decide how intensely to follow it.
Is there a limit to all this? Of course there is: the boundary between respect and intrusion, between tolerance and force or aggression - however slight - the boundary between freedom and coercion. The boundary, in short, between good and evil.
For more than 800 years, Mevlana's remains have been resting in Sille Subaşı, a small Anatolian village near Konya. Until the Turkish-Greek population exchange agreements of 1923, a peaceful coexistence was shared between the small Greek community and the Ottoman Turks, with the former faithfully practising the Orthodox religion and speaking their own language.
This was all thanks to the universal vision of Jalal-ud Din Mohammed (1207-1273) - also known as Mevlana (Our Master) or Rumi (of the Sultanate of Rum). An Islamic Sufi theologian, scholar and one of the greatest mystical poets of all time, he is the author of the Masnavi-ye Manavi; a masterpiece of universal mysticism which is, for many Sufis, the second most important work after the Qur'an.
The Masnavi's greatness and longevity in time lies in its universality; allowing each of us, regardless of social condition, race or belief, to approach it like a mirror in which we can see the innermost corners of ourselves. Poetry, fable and metaphysical themes are entwined in its vast and complex tapestry; however, Mevlana is not simply a poet, storyteller or philosopher – he is first and foremost a master of the soul, an 'Insan Kamil', an Arabic term for the perfect human being.
His legacy and teachings of tolerance and respect for others, regardless of their condition, are revered around the world as proof that it is possible for individuals and groups to focus on what unites them rather than what separates them.
Mustafá Holat, at the age of 76, is the revered spiritual master, or Dede, of a large group of whirling dervishes, including his own son, Huseyin. His father, his father's father, and countless generations before them all belonged to the Mevlevi, a Sufi order founded by Mevlana's followers and widely recognised throughout the Ottoman Empire.
He was born during a tumultuous time when the order was banned after the proclamation of the secular Republic of Turkey in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and members were forced to practice their rituals secretly in their homes.
In the 1960s, he was among the first to be initiated in the practice of Sema - ritual dance - in Konya. He received Mevlevi training from the great masters of the time and has since dedicated his life to passing down this knowledge to new generations, preserving the authenticity of the ritual.
When the Turkish government realised the tourism potential of the whirling dervishes in the 1950s and relaxed the bans, Semazen (Mevlevi who practise the Sema) of all ages and conditions began to practise the ritual once more, now seen by tens of thousands of tourists every year.
This presents a double dilemma for the Mevlevi community: private practice or mass spectacle, mystical experience or professionalisation. Ismail Fenter, 67 and Semazen at the Mevlana International Foundation, believes that the essence of Sema should remain strictly intimate and private and that no one should practise it for any reason other than to connect with the divine.
Osman Sariyer, 33 and Semazen at the Irfan Civilisation Research and Community Centre, however, takes a different approach. He insists that “The Sema is not a dance performance, it is, in a certain sense, the essence of Mevlana's teachings; it is the direct connection with God.” He argues that, “being a Mevlevi involves great responsibilities; we must follow in Mevlana's footsteps by being more understanding, tolerant and helpful to others. Being Mevlevi radically affects our lives and never affects us if others witness our rituals because, according to our belief, they also receive Allah's reward for being with those who do good.”
Regardless of their differing views, both Ismail and Osman continue to whirl in adherence to Mevlana's teachings – in private or in public – to the sound of the reed flute.
THE WHIRLING DERVISHES
Legend has it that strolling through a Seljuk bazaar in Konya, Mevlana began to whirl when he heard the musical metallic sound of the hammering of the bazaar's goldsmiths.
That was the beginning of it all, Mevlana passionately believed in the use of music, dance and poetry as a means of seeking God and in the opening lines of the Masnavi he says: ‘Listen to the reed flute, how it wails as it tells a tale of estrangement and separation saying: since I was separated from the reed bed my lament has made man and woman moan. This lament is fire, it is not wind, whoever doesn’t have this fire, let it be nothing! It is the fire of Love.”
Seven centuries later, the soft sound of a flute, called ney, initiates every Sema ritual. From it comes the “Hu” which symbolises the insufflation of the divine breath into the human being. From there, there is no sound, colour, movement, gesture, exclamation or attire that doesn’t have its own symbolism.
The frustoconical headdress, called “sikke”, symbolises the spiritual independence of the dervish. The long white robe, called tennure, that protects the dervish from the worldly fire. The black cloak, called hirka, symbolises their ego, which they take off before starting their turns. The position of the hands during the turns, one towards the sky to receive the divine breath, the other towards the ground to transmit it to the world.
At the beginning (and at the end) of the ritual, a group of dervishes in the presence of their spiritual master, seem to be nothing more than a group of believers gathered for a common interest. But at the climax of the ritual:
White robes unfolded by the centripetal forces of the spinning, arms unfolded, heads tilted back, eyes closed in maximum concentration or half-open in ecstatic expression, the whisper of feet spinning on the ground, the soft wind arising from the robes like circular butterfly wings.
It is all hypnotic, beautiful, electrifying.
Without a solution of continuity, it seems that the feeling of community has disappeared and each one of them floats, in direct connection with the divine, in an individual and transcendent universe.
In those moments, especially in those moments, the whirling dervishes, the Semazen, represent the quintessence of Sufism seven centuries after Mevlana left his legacy, declared by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Through Rpnunyez's photography project, we have been able to experience the spiritual and human connection between belief, respect, tolerance, and freedom. His work has pushed the boundaries of what is possible in photography and has allowed us to gain insight into the power of belief. We can take from this project that everyone should have the right to choose their own myth and to decide how intensely to follow it, as long as mutual respect and tolerance are maintained. Let us all learn from this project and strive to live by these principles in our everyday lives.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.