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UNESCO Recognizes Mevlevi Sema Ceremony


by Emin PAMUCAK
LM-South, North Carolina

UNESCO, United Nations' cultural body, aims to "build peace in the minds of men" by promoting "the intellectual, cultural and moral solidarity of mankind." This year, on its 60th year anniversary, UNESCO declared such cultural treasures of our planet as the Brazilian "Samba," Japanese "Kabuki" theatre, Armenian "Duduk" Music, Palestinian "Hikaye" narration and the Turkish "Sema" ceremony on its list of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity." http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/

UNESCO states that "wars begin in the minds of men and it is also in the minds of men that lasting peace must be constructed." In addition to building classrooms in devastated countries and publishing scientific breakthroughs, UNESCO also contributes to world peace by "promoting collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion."

UNESCO's objectives for our planet sound remarkably similar to the teachings of a sufi mystic philosopher and poet who lived more than 700 years ago in the heartland of Anatolia. Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, welcomed all men and women, irrespective of religion, race or creed to the fundamental humanist ideals of peace, dialogue, mutual respect and fraternity for the mankind. Mevlana's doctrine advocates self development, awareness and knowledge through Love by observing unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity. Here is one way in which Mevlana described himself:

My Mother is Love
My Father is Love
My Prophet is Love
My God is Love
I am a child of Love
I have come only to speak of Love

Mevlana and his dervish followers often practiced his Mevlevi sufi philosophy in combination with a ceremonial whirling dance. This central ritual of the Mevlevi sufi order, which is called a "Mevlevi Sema," is generally referred to in the West as the ceremony of "Whirling Dervishes." In a Sema ceremony, the whirling dervish becomes a rotating hypnotic blur, abandoning his earthly concerns to achieve spiritu! al union with God. His own Self and that of the Creator become one, just as the waves of an ocean are an inseparable part of a greater body.

"Semahanes" (whirling ceremony rooms) were the meeting places and community centers where sufism rituals were practiced and propagated. Although at the core, the basic principles of sufism are essentially apolitical, they were characteristically lumped together and regarded with the rest of the "Tekkes" (lodges) and Tarikats" (religious orders) which had existed throughout the Ottoman lands. Tekkes and Tarikats held significant influence over the Ottoman subjects of Muslim origin till the formation of the modern Turkish Republic. They finally gave way to modernity in 1925 as part of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's drive to create a secular state, when public performance of dervish practices, tekkes and religious orders were abolished.

Although in 1927, Ataturk allowed the tomb of Mevlana to re-open as a museum, he reiterated that Turkey is a modern country and should do away with such religious orders. As the tarikats were ordered closed many disappeared and many others, especially those that were against changes of modernity, slipped underground and survives to this date.

In 1953, under the first multi-party government of republican Turkey, rules were relaxed and Sema performances, only as public shows, were allowed once again with government control. The Konya festival which has since been held every year is financed by the government. Dancers are paid employees of the Ministry of Culture and also perform regularly abroad in America and Europe.

Today, in Istanbul tourists can sit in bars drinking beer and watch a whirling dervish perform for approximately $25 per show, while the Tekkes and Tarikats remain shut.

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