Istanbul has been the center of both Christianity and Islam during its long history. Today, visitors can still find that spirituality with a visit to the whirling dervishes, who worship through dance and music.
The whirling dervishes trace their origins back to the 13th century Sufi poet and mystic Rumi
The Mevlevi Order is one of the most well known of the Sufi orders and has existed for over 700 years. Members are also known as "whirling dervishes" -- a reference to their practice of whirling in worship to Allah.
"The dance's movements seek to unite humans with nature," says Attila Osman Baran, the head of the Rumi Mevlevi ensemble. "Rotation is so important to nature and so to worship, we use this rotating dance. Through the turning, worshipers learn to know themselves and God."
But visitors to the Mevlevi's centuries-old house in Istanbul can also connect to God by watching the dance and music ceremony known as Sema, he says.
"If the dervishes succeed in helping spectators get in touch with their spirituality, then the dancer has succeeded in his worship," Baran says.
Rotating into a mystical trance
The Mevlevi house is a peaceful haven on top of a hill in the city's old Galatta quarter. The calming sounds of a flute take visitors back to another time, helping to forget the intense noise and stress of Istanbul and its 12 million people.
Dancers have to learn to overcome dizziness during the Sema
In the octagonal worship hall, three men slowly walk in wearing their traditional white flowing gowns and beige tall conical hats. One of the men lays a small red carpet on the ground to symbolize destiny. He then bows to it and joins the two others in a line.
One by one to the slow beat of the music, the men begin walking in a circle and then gradually start to rotate with their arms across their chests. Picking up speed, their arms slowly extend above their heads, always in perfect harmony with the music.
As they rotate faster and faster, they appear to enter a mystical trance. Their white gowns form a large bell shape as the dancer rotations continue to increase in speed.
Overcoming nausea is the hardest part
Bulent Sefermendi has been performing the Sema for 20 years. Sefermendi says that learning this dance took him many months of hard work.
"The hardest part is to overcome the feeling of nausea from spinning," Sefermendi says. "This involves learning to control your body, through special breathing techniques."
In Egypt, Sema dancers wear more colorful robes
Sefermendi started his training in 1983 with two teachers and trained for six months at a special school, just learning this dance. He says you can only perform it if you really understand the philosophy behind it.
"It calls for brotherhood, love and unity of all people," Sefermendi says. "This is the real philosophy of Islam, which is not understood in the West. It is about reaching a level where you see love in all people -- irrespective of who they are and what their faith is, because there is a part of God in everyone, and to love people is to love God."
Offering a different perspective on Islam
The Mevlevi order was founded by the followers of the Persian philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi in 1273 in Konya. For more than a thousand years, this city in central Turkey was a melting pot of various religions. Baran says the dance and music of the whirling dervish ceremony draws on many faiths.
"All of these traditions of dances and beliefs came through centuries of fusing beliefs and civilizations," Baran says. "It has its roots in the Middle East through Islamic prophets of the 8th century. But it is also influenced by the shamanism of central Asia."
Istanbul has been the center of both Christianity and Islam during its long history
According to Baran, the raising of hands in the dance ceremony comes from ancient Greek races which used to leave in central Anatolia.
"It really is the fusion of three important cultures and religions: that of Christianity, shamanism and Islam," he says.
This fusion of different faiths and philosophies may be the reason why the whirling dervishes continue to amaze and mesmerize so many people from different cultures and countries.
At a time in which there is frequent talk of a clash of civilizations, the whirling dervishes hope that their philosophy of love, understanding and tolerance will offer a different perspective of Islam to all those who see their performances, whether in Turkey or abroad.