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Abbott, G. F.: The tale of a tour in Macedonia. London, Edward Arnold, 1903.

 

 

 

Dancing as a religious function

 

 

 

Thessaloniki, 1900

A long dusty road, with broad acres of Mohammedan tombs stretching on either side of it, leads from the Vardar, or western, Gate of the town to the Mevlevihaneh, the abode of the Dancing Dervishes. The ballet, though not advertised in the ordinary way, is extremely popular. On Mondays and Thursdays through the spring and autumn people of all sorts and sexes throng the Convent, and are freely admitted to the gallery, whence they can witness the performance, while refreshing themselves with oranges and lemonade, or anything else they chose to bring with them.

It was on a Monday, late in the season, that I followed a group of these playgoers, and I never enjoyed a matinée more thoroughly. The heat of the afternoon was tempered by the gentle breeze from the sea, and the shady cloisters of the Convent formed an agreeable contrast to the glaring light of the outside world. Having slaked my thirst at the cool fountain in the middle of the court, I proceeded to secure an advantageous corner in the strangers’ gallery. Soon after commenced the perfomance.

The worshippers, having divested themselves of their flowing cloaks, stretched out their arms and began to revolve, at first slowly and rhythmically, but gradually warming to it. In a few seconds the hall beneath was alive with a host of figures reeling and twirling round and round with ever-increasing rapidity, to the weird music of reed-flutes and cymbals - both instruments conducive to spiritual exultation. In a few more seconds their long white robes bulged and expanded like colossal parasols, until the whole mass merged in one immense cloud of calico, while their towering head-dresses assumed in the spectator’s bewildered eyes the appearance of a large congregation of chimney-pots suddenly gone whirling mad.

After several hours of severe, but highly decorous and disciplined, waltzing, the mystic enchantment commenced to overpower the pious revellers. Their eyes closed by degrees, their heads drooped on their chests, their arms dropped to their sides, the white parasols flagged and shrank, and one after another the demented chimney-pots collapsed upon the floor in a state of utter exhaustion. The music has ceased, most of the spectators have departed, and nothing is to be heard except the short gasps of the white-clad figures, dimly seen through the gathering darkness lying prostrate below. They are in the full enjoyment of their sema, or communion with God.

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