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  • Writer's pictureTerry Richardson

A Brief History of Galata Mevlevihanesi in Istanbul

What is Galata Mevlevihanesi?

Galata Mevlevihanesi is a small complex of buildings tucked away in a garden courtyard once home to the Mevlevi Sufi order, better known as the Whirling Dervishes.


Galata Mevlevihanesi

Galata Mevlevihanesi History

Originally built in 1491, this is the earliest tekke (or dervish lodge) in Istanbul – dervishes being the members of a Sufi Islamic fraternity. Following a major fire in the 19th century, the lodge was rebuilt in a mix of Neoclassical and Baroque styles. Its founder, Mohammed Semai Sultan Divani, claimed to be a descendant of Mevlana, better known as Rumi, a religious leader, mystic and poet who founded the Mevlevi sect in the 13th century. Opposed to the rigidity of orthodox Sunni Islam, Mevlana encouraged his followers to be tolerant, loving and charitable. Originally from Balkh in modern-day Afghanistan, he was forced to flee westward when Mongol hordes threatened his home city. He found sanctuary in Konya in modern-day Turkey, then the capital of the Seljuk Turks, and spread the word from there under the patronage of its sultans.


Music as well as dance, which is frowned upon in mainstream Islam, were and remain central to the worship of the Mevlevi order. The most beautiful space of this complex is the semahane, a polygonal shaped room with a polished wooden floor encircled by a double-tiered gallery and complete with Neoclassical columns and capitals, Baroque gilt woodwork and delicate fretwork railings. Here, followers of the order, once they had reached a certain level, would rotate or ‘whirl’ in a synchronised ‘dance’ to a musical accompaniment and thus attain mystical union with God.


The downstairs rooms of the lodge are today a well-laid-out museum, displaying the various accoutrements of the order, from the begging bowls of the wandering ascetics to the instruments of the ensemble who provided the atmospheric music to accompany the ritual dancing in the semahane. Outside, in the pleasant, leafy courtyard is a cemetery where senior disciples of the order are buried, their graves marked by elegant marble tombstones topped by representations of the distinctive conical wool caps they wore.


The Mevlevis, along with all other Sufi orders, were banned in 1925 by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as he felt they threatened his secular reforms, which is why the Galata Mevlevihanesi is today a museum. Although the order has been shut down, the ethereal dance and musical performances of the Mevlevi still take place here on a regular basis.


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