round and round and round they go



Many people who come to Egypt want to see a whirling dervish (mowlawlyya).

Who are these people who spin around and around in a religious dance?

The dervishes are a branch off of the Sunni sect of Islam. In Egypt at present the Order of the Whirling Dervishes is a very small number indeed, and are usually only seen at Moulids/festivals/tourist stages. But this order was founded in Konya (in Turkey) almost 800 years ago, the original master was a Persian poet named Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. The Mevlevi or Semazens (as the Dervishes are also called) extol music and dance as a way of shedding earthly ties and abandoning oneself to God’s love.


Their aim is to attain union with God, the source of all perfection. During the Ottoman and Mamluk times Sufism flourished. They propose that the way of life is to love, and be of service to people, deserting one’s own ego/false self and all illusions to become mature and perfect. Sufi followers were known for their extreme poverty and austerity, and were often said to be thin, unkempt and sometimes frighteningly mystical when they arrived in a village! Many followers of the order of Dervish were great artists: music, calligraphy and painting.

But many orthodox Muslims think Sufism and the order of the dervishes is blasphemous.


The actual dance of the dervishes is called the Sema Ritual: Sama meaning hearing/listening. It is said to be physically active meditation and represent one’s spiritual journey.

The aim of the dance is to abandon one’s ego by listening to the music, focus on God and spin slowly in repetitive circles: trying to find God and become quiet and peaceful in finding him.

As you watch the circling worshippers, it is good to understand the symbolism they attach to each element of the dance:

  • the music: this represents the solar system
  • the spinning: represents the heavenly bodies (planets orbiting the sun)
  • right hand up: is pointing to heaven, where grace is being received from God
  • left hand down: is pointing to earth, where this grace is being distributed
  • camel hair cone hats: tomb-stones of personal desires (selfish ego)
  • black cloaks: the tomb (of ego) which they discard to signify spiritual re-birth to the truth
  • white skirts: the funeral shrouds

The revolving is said to signify the harmony with all things in nature and they join the choreography of the cosmos by dancing to its rhythm in the spinning action of the universe.


There is strict order and structure in the dance. The order begins with a novice learning from a teacher who has in turn learnt from his teacher. This chain or order (Silsila) is said to trace finally to God himself. The novices first have to go through the strict discipline of the body to enable the mind to become free before they can even begin to dance. There is a chief dancer (Sheik) for every dance, and they stand in an honored corner. As the plaintive and insistent call of the Turkish flute (ney) begins, each dervish will pass him 3 times to greet, with both hands crossed on their shoulders.  Then they begin to slowly rotate, revolving with ever increasing speed. They revolve from left to right, rotating on the ball of the left foot, using the right foot as the impetus to spin. And during the dance, should any of the dervishes become too enraptured with their whirling, they will be corrected by the chief dancer touching their robe.


In 1925 in Turkey, public religious performances of this order were banned. Finally in 1954 the Mevlevi order were given permission to whirl twice a week for tourists. So the following is very small, but if you look, you might just be able to get a glimpse of these whirling dervishes as they spin and seek connection with God.

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