The rite of communal recitation – mukabele- practised by the Mevlevis was traditionally performed in the semahane, or assembly hall of the convent. It was a form of structured ritual symbolising the attainment of the various levels of mystical union with God and of absolute perfection through the performance of certain acts of spiritual fervour and controlled ecstasy. The sema meydani or ceremonial hall was flanked by a musician’s gallery or dais- mutrib- where the mutrib heyeti, or musicians performed their accompaniment to the ritual on the flute and double-drum. The leader of the ritual -ayinhan- and chanters – na’athan- also took up their position on the mutrib, opposite which was the sheyh’s pelt, or throne. From the sheyh’s pelt extended an imaginary line across the floor of the chamber to the entrance of the semahane, which was regarded as the axis- hatt-i istiva- or cosmic guide to the ultimate truth and to unicity. The performing dervishes never stepped on this axis.
The sheyh, when seated on his pelt, was the representative of Mevlana on earth, possessed of all his divine attributes, who interpreted in his stead the sacred wisdom of Muhammad. The pelt, which was red, was the greatest office in the mystical hierarchy of the order, the sufic throne. Red was considered the colour of the manifest, the visible, and of perception of God’s grace. The red of sunset hails the beginning of the nightly cycle. Mevlana passed into the world beyond as night was falling in Konya on 17 December, 1273, on a Sunday evening when the sky was aflame with the dying rays of the sun. The dawn is also heralded by the first reddish rays of the sun. This is why the sheyh’s red pelt is regarded as a symbol of mystical union and of God manifest, as it is set on the threshold to the spiritual world.
The ceremony begins when the musicians, the performing dervishes and the sheyh have taken their places in the hall accompanied by communal recitation. First the na’athan chants a eulogistic litany of the prophets -na’at-i serif then follows the laudatory oration of Mevlana -na’at-i Mevlana composed by the Turkish composer ltri. This is a eulogistic litany of particular intensity addressed to the prophet, beginning “Ya Hazret-i Mevlana, Hak dost… “Oh blessed Mevlana, beloved of the Almighty”. This is followed by a recital of the ney-flute, which expresses the longing of the flute for its true home, the reed bed. The ney is the symbol of perfection in existance, its deep-throated wail expresses longing for the attainment of the Ultimate. Then follows cyclic devotions, or communal procession around the semahane by the performers, paying homage to the pir. This procession is named the Devr-i Veled, after Sultan Veled, the son of Mevlana. During this part of the ritual, the semazen process three times around the hall, bowing in pairs in mutual respect before the sheyh or taking the stance of supplication, head bowed, feet crossed in veneration. This ritual celebrates the perfection of the Absolute.
The tall conical dervish hats worn by the semazen symbolise the headstone of their own graves. Their mantles represent their graves and their white shirts their shroud. In this garb they are divested of the physical world, and become satellites aspiring to enter the sphere of the esoteric.
The semahane itself is split into two ‘spheres’ by the central axis, with the manifest world on the right and the invisible world of the esoteric on the left. The semazens represent the ethereal beings of the esoteric world. The Devr-i Veled symbolises their rebirth after death to the manifest world and their dedication In seeking the path to eternal existance through the guidance of their mentor, the sheyh. .The dervish circles the hall three times. The first round symbolises their Mystical recognition of God through the revealed knowledge of the Absolute, or religious certitudes, the second round symbolises recognition through empirical knowledge while the third and final round symbolises the attainment of gnosis. or comprehension of the Absolutes. At the end of the first round, the sheyh comes face to face with the youngest, lowest ranking dervish-elect -the nev-niyaz. They perform mutual homage, bowing to one another in an attitude of supplication, a form of reciprocal devotion which also implies veneration of the axis of their mutual aspirations. After the third round, the sheyh returns to his pelt, and the performers to their places by the side of the sema hall.
Then begins the actual sema. First the dervishes carefully take off their mantles, freeing them selves of their worldly garb, and releasing themselves from their graves. The sheyh moves away from his pelt into the centre of the hall and inclines his head. The dervishes follow suite. First the semazenbasi or leader of the performing dervishes moves forward and kisses the sheyh’s hand. The sheyh kisses the edge of his sikke in return. This is known as receiving permission or licence for the performance of the ritual dance. He is followed by the other semazen, who each kiss the sheyh’s hand in turn, and begin to whirl, slowly opening their arms with the right hand outstretched and turned upwards, palm-open, the left hand turned downwards. This symbolises the Mevlevi principle: “We take from God and give to man. We ourselves possess nothing, we are nothing but an apparition, a vessel, an image”, or ‘We open our arms to the heavens, spread grace to the earth, our existance is annihilated in God’s munificence”. The dancers whirl around the hall at the same time pivoting on their own axis… as if spinning around the sun, like the earth, the planets and the stars, caught in its gravitational pull, while at the same time spinning on the spot. The sema is a cyclic ritual in the presence of the greatest of suns, God himself. The purpose of the Sema is to induce controlled ecstasy in the individual through which he may divest himself of his physical self and attain the ultimate truth. Whirling induces a form of spiritual inebriation in the performer. In the words of Mevlana, it was “the dervish’s way of girding himself with the power to raise the veils of mysticism, the strength to confront and to penetrate the ultimate love.”
The first round of the sema represents the passage of the soul through the spheres (the cosmic realms), and implies attainment of the perception of God’s power and greatness. The mystic cycle then moves on to the salutations – selam. During the first salutation, the dervishes are freed from doubt, and express their faith in the uniqueness of God. The second salutation represents their attainment of the certainty of God’s unicity, through the conception of it as a mystic truth; and during the third salutation, the performers embrace gnosis through their perception of received and intuitive mystic truths. At this point, the dervishes have become completely immersed in the attainment of spiritual enlightenment through the abandonment of self. The fourth and last stages of the cycle concentrate on the attainment of the Ultimate Truth, of absolute reality. Then the dervishes turn on their own axis at the pivot of unicity, or the absolute centre of the universe in ultimate abandonment.
The dervishes are guided through the motions of the” dance by the semazenbasi, or leader of the dance, who by subtle movements of his hands and feet, regulates the position, the stance of the performers. During the third cycle of the sema, the sheyh also begins whirling on the central line of the semahane. He clearly represents Mevlana at this point. At the end of the sema, the sheyh moves slowly towards his throne. When he reaches it, the ritual is brought to a close. The dancers stop whirling and the ceremony is terminated with prayers, recitation from the Koran and finally a reading of the openning chapter -the Fatiha.