Review the top 4 venues to watch Sufis perform a sema dance ceremony in Istanbul at the Hodjapasha, Galata Mevlevi, Sireki, and Yenikapi. The Mevlevi Sema ceremony performed by whirling dervishes should be on your lists of things to see in Istanbul. With the number of tourists watching these shows it has almost become almost an iconic image for Turkey’s capital city.
In 2008, Mevlevi whirling dance was declared a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity. The unusual ceremony attracts so many curious visitors that tickets are almost always sold out. But, talking about curiosity, what are whirling dervishes and why do they whirl?
The Whirling Dance Ceremony (“Sema” in Turkish) is over 800 years old and its roots lie in the Mevlevi Order and Sufism. Sufis follow Islamic theologian, poet and spiritual master (Sufi) called Jelaleddin Rumi (or Mevlana). The 13th century is when the Mevlevi order was created in the Turkish city of Konya. This city is, of course, the best place to see a whirling dervishes ceremony, as that’s where it all originated.
Although it might look like a performance, it’s actually a religious ceremony. Sufis (now called Dervishes) dedicate their lives to seek and establish a closer connection with God. According to Rumi, it’s done through prayers, worship, music called “ayin” and the whirling dance ceremony. Followers of Rumi preach tolerance, charity, and love, according to his teachings; music, meditation, and dance were the ways of getting closer to god.
Hodjapasha Cultural Center
The whirling dervish shows at Hodjapasha are held every single night, so not matter when you’re in Istanbul, you should be able to get a ticket. Even though the building is old, every foreigner will feel welcome. The design is mixed with a modern touch and the staff speaks fluent English, they will be glad to guide you.
Located at the heart of Istanbul: Eminönü, Hodjapasha Dance Theater is conveniently located culture center where you can watch the country’s stunning cultural mosaic, including the dervishes whirling.
Don’t forget to read our review of the Hodjapasha Whilring Dervishes Show if you plan on making a visit.
Before the ceremony, I suggest you explore the exhibition. Similarly, as in Galata Museum, the exhibition contains dervish cultural artifacts such as clothes and books. It also has interactive Rumi poems, Sufi music samples and introduction to the ceremony. Take some time and read about Rumi and his philosophy. That will give you greater insight into the philosophy of Rumi and ceremony itself.
The ceremony is not one you would in see in a regular theater, it’s an authentic experience, unlike anywhere else. The room where the ceremony takes part in is actually large, transformed 15th-century Turkish bathhouse (you will be surprised how large they were!), with unique dervish architecture and design.
The dervish whirling is a religious ceremony, not a performance. It’s a spiritual act performed by dervishes, therefore ceremony starts with a short video explanation of Rumi philosophy, as well each part of the ceremony is explained, so the audience could follow through what is happening in the ceremony.
This location is a great choice for people who want to fully immerse themselves in the ceremony and experience the spiritual side of it. In the ceremony, free drinks are served to improve your experience.
Tickets can be bought online or at the center. Prices average around 100 Turkish Liras.
Sadly, this location can’t be accessed by wheelchair.
Sirkeci Train Station
Although the show is held in an old train station, once you’re in the performance hall, you’ll hardly believe it’s the same place.
Sirkeci Train Station is one of the city’s historic symbols. From 1883 until 1977, there were regular departures from Paris to Istanbul. Connecting Istanbul with Europe was seen as high-priority by the Ottoman leaders, therefore now the station is seen as cultural heritage.
This nostalgic environment is also a place where whirling dervish ceremonies are held. This place is less recommended when compared to Galata Mevlevi Museum or Hodjapasha Dance Theater as the experience is less authentic.
Every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday you have the opportunity to attend the ceremony.
Tickets can be bought in online starting from 80 Turkish Liras.
Galata Mevlevi Museum
The Galata Mevlevi Museum is definitely the most well-known place where their ceremony takes place in Istanbul.
It was built in 1491 with the purpose of being a Sufi temple. Over the years it went through multiple renovations, as at that time earthquakes and fire incidents were common until in the 19th century the building took its final form and served as a temple. At 1925 the law forced to close all Sufi lodges. Then it was used as a school for a short period of time until it was turned into a museum.
The Galata Museum is located on Galipdede Cadessi (also known as music street) and is open every day, except Tuesday. There you can see cultural artifacts of Sufi, such as musical instruments, photographs, and art.
But of course, the main aspects are the whirling dervish ceremonies, which are held every Sunday at 5 PM, in winter months – every second Sunday. Entrance tickets can’t be bought online, but only at the location – Saturday, starting from 12 PM.
There are only 150 seats, therefore tickets are usually sold out quickly. Also, keep in mind, that there are no seat numbers, so if you want to watch the ceremony from the first row, make sure you arrive early.
Price for the ticket is 60 Turkish Liras. That’s a very generous price when we take into consideration the experience we receive in return.
Yenikapi Mevlevi Lodge
This is a very unique show, but since it’s only held once a month, arranging tickets can be difficult.
In 1925 the place was banned, together with other lodges, and for a while served as a shelter for homeless children. Afterward, it went through several fire incidents and in 2012 was fully restored to the original architectural design.
Yenikapi Mevlevi Lodge was the second largest and known lodge after Galata Mevlevi Lodge. The large complex had all the necessities for living and providing Mevlevi education. It taught the philosophy of the Mevlevi and gave art lessons, hosting many talented artists.
Currently, it serves as an art and scientific research center and is open for visitors with no admission fee. Center also occasionally holds dervish ceremonies, around once a month.
Sema Riual Tips
As the Ritual of Sema is a religious ceremony, it is kindly asked to not disturb the ceremony by talking, taking pictures or leaving your seat. Complete silence is expected as well.
It’s also important to know that this is not intended to be entertainment, therefore it’s not suggested to visit the show with children who may lose patience and get bored easily.