The Ottoman Mystique

In Turkey, there are dancers, and there are dancers.

The common name, whirling dervishes, sounds silly; the dance is anything but.

Before going to Istanbul, I barely thought about the place. Now, a year later, it is often on my mind. That is mainly because it provides what is rarest in travel: an aesthetic and even sensual surprise.

You learn something from every place you visit, even when what you learn is that you should not have come. (Ever been to Lagos?) But so familiar does our world seem from movies, pictures, TV, blogs that often the effect of travel is to leave you thinking: I knew that already. Yes, that’s the Alamo, but it’s so much smaller in real life!

Therefore parts of my brain are permanently marked by encounters with places that really are different from what I had envisioned. The sound and smell of Indonesia: seconds after the airplane door opened on our first arrival in Jakarta, my wife and I were swimming in hot, wet Javanese air that carried the sweet smoke of clove-flavored kretek cigarettes and the tones of brass gamelan gongs. The look of the temple field at Pagan, in central Burma, as we walked over a rise and all at once saw the broad plain filled with countless hundreds of ancient, bell-shaped brick stupas.

I have more items on this list, though there can never be enough. One of the most vivid is the Ottoman motif of Istanbul, especially as expressed by its dancers.

Now, there are dancers, and there are dancers, in Turkey. As one whose nightmares involve being forced to sing or gyrate in front of a crowd, and who crosses to the other side of the street, just to be safe, whenever passing a karaoke bar, I was horrified early in my visit to Turkey to wind up as an involuntary participant in a belly-dancing show where I had been taken by “friends.” The belly dancers we saw—twirling sabers, holding and beating drums, their faces covered with sequined masks but with acres of torso exposed—came not from Turkey but from Georgia and former Soviet Stans. Still, they exactly matched one travel guide’s description of Turkish dancers as having “exceedingly well trained abdominal muscles,” which was one of several ways to distinguish them from the male victims pulled from the crowd to dance alongside them, shirts tugged off and red fezzes planted on their heads.

I have suppressed the rest of this memory—and replaced it with memories of the sublime: watching the Sufi dancers known as Mevlevi, or whirling dervishes. In English, the name sounds silly. In truth, this was about the least silly and most gripping religious performance I have ever seen.

Everything about Istanbul, from its performers to its architecture, expresses the Ottoman motif.

My wife and I caught our first glance in the most touristy of places. We had spent the day at the Topkapi Palace, whose spectacular setting on a bluff overlooking the Bosporus and Golden Horn rivals in majesty anything implied by Versailles or the Forbidden City, and whose decorative touches, angles, and proportions are just different enough from Western European standards to make me think of movie sets by Tim Burton. We were walking down toward the adjoining grand structures of the city’s monumental heart: the Hagia Sophia—for a thousand years a cathedral, for 500 years a mosque, in modern times a museum—and the Sultan Ahmet, or “Blue,” Mosque. Around us were festive family groups, accompanying preteen boys in shiny satin, sultan-style outfits, with capes, turbans, and scepters, indicating that this was their circumcision day—a rite generally performed long past infancy in Turkey.

Across the square we glimpsed a tall, lean, broad-shouldered man standing motionless on an open-air stage. At tables around him people ate and drank, oblivious. The man wore a pure white jacket and skirt over white trousers, and a very tall dun-colored cylindrical hat. He looked straight ahead—and then, as music rose from the reed-flute player and the drummer seated next to him, he began to rotate exactly in place, faster and faster.

His white skirt stood out full around him; he extended his arms, airplane style, one pointed toward heaven and one toward Earth. He cocked his head so the long hat was parallel with his outstretched arms. And for improbable minutes and minutes, he turned.

During those minutes, we did not move, nor did our eyes ever leave him. He had put himself into a trance, and had done something similar to many of the onlookers, who one by one stopped whatever else they were doing to simply gaze.

Eventually the dancer slowed, then left the stage, with no acknowledgement of any sort to the crowd. He sat by himself at a table to recover, drinking water. During the rest of our time in the city we learned more about the symbols expressed in this dance—the eerie hat evoking the tombstone that awaits us all—and sought out other Mevlevi, in less obvious settings. And now, when I think of that dancer, I still hear the first notes from the reed flute, and see the look, into nothing, in his eyes.