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Change is afoot for 800-year-old whirling dance

From Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
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Mystical dance of Whirling Dervishes
  • The Order of Mevlevi was founded in Konya, Turkey in the 13th century
  • Followers of this sect of Sufi Islam are known for their whirling dance
  • Traditionally only men can take part in the dance but that is changing in Istanbul

CNN's global series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In December, we visit Turkey and look at changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric.

(CNN) -- The dance of the Whirling Dervishes is not only a sight to behold for spectators, it is a sacred ritual for followers of this mystical and philosophical strand of Islam.

The Order of Mevlevi, as the Whirling Dervishes are officially known, is a Sufi movement founded in the 13th century after the death of poet and philosopher Mevlana Rumi.

Their spiritual home is Konya, in the central Anatolian region of Turkey, where the Mevlana Museum contains the tomb of Rumi and his son.

Every December, crowds flock to Konya to commemorate Rumi and watch the Whirling Dervishes perform their iconic dance.

The dance is performed in a symbolic costume of white robes and a conical hat, called a sikke. Accompanied by a reed pipe, the dancers raise their arms towards heaven and whirl in a counter-clockwise direction.

Also known as the sema ceremony, the dance is a central part of the Mevlevi philosophy and has been added to UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In Konya, women are not allowed to whirl, which I hope will change.
--Talat Halman, Rumi scholar

Mete Horzum became a Whirling Dervish 13 years ago after six months of physical and spiritual training.

He told CNN that dancing at the tomb of Mevlana -- whom followers describe as their lover because of their love for him -- was one of his proudest moments.

"Just to be with your lover and to be here just in front of him. It was a big gift for me," he said.

The rotations represent the earth's orbit around the sun, and the dance is a symbolic journey in which the dervishes are meant to get closer to God and truth.

Traditionally, only men can dance as Whirling Dervishes, although that is beginning to change. In Istanbul, men and women can now take part in the dance together.

Sevtap Demirtas, a female Whirling Dervish in Istanbul, said: "When you turn to God, or if you're thinking of connecting to your inner self, it doesn't matter if the person beside you is a woman or a man."

Talat Halman, a former minister of culture in Turkey and one of the country's most well known Rumi scholars, said Konya, a more conservative town, may one day follow suit.

"In Konya, women are not allowed to whirl, which I hope will change," he said.