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Journal of a tour in the Levant. London, John Murray, 1820, 2 vol.

 William Turner

 

 

Howling dervishes at Constantinople

 

 

Constantinople, 19.09.1816

On the 19th of September 1816, I went for the second time to see the religious ceremonies of the howling Devrisches at Scutari; the room in which they were performed was about thirty feet square, inclosed by a rail round three sides, between which rail and the wall was left a space of about four feet for spectators, to whom also a small gallery is appropriated above; we were a party of three, accompanied by a dragoman and a janizary; there is no difficulty in entrance, and Franks are readliy admitted as they pay more than Mussulmans; women are not admitted, probably because in the concluding ceremonies the Devrisches are naked to the waist; yet one old woman remained looking in at the door during all the time of performance; we entered at twenty-five minutes past two, without being obliged (as I had expected we should) to take off our boots and shoes, and found the performers thus disposed; at the head of the room (before the niche turned towards Mecca) sat the superior who was an Emir, i. e., a descendant of Mahomet who wore a green turban; at his feet stood an assistant to him, a sort of master of the ceremonies, who wore a white turban; both he and the superior had nothing in their dress to distinguish them from ordinary Turks; on the floor sat eleven men in a semicircle; of these six were Devrisches, two Emirs, two Effendis, and one a janizary. One of them, an Emir, sung solo a chapter of the Koran, in which I distinguished “Bismillah” at the commencement and frequent repetitions of “Allah” and “Mohammed:” while he was singing, some of the others would frequently lean forward as in a revery, with their heads almost on the ground; and sometimes they would all join chorus, frequently, while singing, rubbing their eyes, beards, and mustachios; the superior joined chorus with the rest: after sitting and singing thus ten minutes, they all prostrated themselves to the ground, rose and retired to the bottom of the room, where they stood in a line, two of them, an Emir, and an Effendi, sitting before them; here they began singing a deep bass, the superior standing before them and dictating the song; they bowed frequently while singing thus, at first slightly, but soon with more action, making a step forward to bow, and interrupting their song by an occasional convulsive exclamation “Oh;” after continuing this for three minutes, one of the Devrisches being called forward by the superior (who had reassumed his station at the head of the room, after dictating to the others at the bottom of it for three minutes, and remained there standing, while his assistant always stood or moved about) advanced and girded himself with a black sash (the others till singing behind him), having done which he kissed the hands of the superior and his assistant, and rejoined the dancers: a boy now came in, and after kissing the superior’s hand, joined the dancers: another Devrisch then advanced from the dancers, and like the first, after a short prayer, girded himself and returned to the party behind; soon after another old man, an Emir, came in and took the place of the superior, who replaced himself before the dancers, whose movements he followed, but with less activity: at this moment a young Emir rushed in and threw himself down in a (feigned) trembling convulsion; the assistant chafed his limbs and raided him up, when he affected to revive and joined the dancers, who now took off their turbans and upper garments, which were all laid by the assistant at the upper end of the room: the old man who had superseded the superior went away after a few minutes, when the latter resumed his place and sat down; his assistant still stood at his feet, and two devrisches left the dancers and stationed themselves, standing before the superior, but still, as well as the superior and his assistant, feebly followed the movements of the dancers; the dance now became by degrees more animated and rapid; the dancers waved their bodies, bending to the right and left more or less actively, clapping their hands, and constantly singing; their number was soon increased to thirteen in a row, and towards the end there were fifteen, besides the two sitting before them, who always sung and seemed to set the song for the others; the burden of their song was, “ There is but one God,” in Arabick, but frequently they would break this to howl out “Allah” with convulsive wildness; they occasionally doubled the rapidity of the dance, jumping violently, clapping their hands with great noise, and howling out “Allah” very loudly, and then suddenly relapse to their common pace, which was a slow bending of their bodies from side to side; they would frequently bow forward violently; sometimes one of them beat time with his hands; one of the devrisches being very much fatigued, left the dancers and took the station of the superior’s assistant. After dancing thus thirty-one minutes the dancers dispersed, but the two sitting before them still kept their place, and one of them, the Effendi, sung a chapter of the Koran; when he was tired, the Emir sitting by him relieved him, the superior during their song sitting bowed forward as if in a revery; the Emir, while singing, was once or twice interrupted by the Devrisches standing before the superior shouting out “Hou” very loudly (“Hou” is “He” in Arabick, and signifies “God”), and by some others joining chorus in a deep-continued bass tone; after this singing had continued nine minutes, the dancers re-assembled ten in a line, and for three minutes only sung in a deep bass “Hou, hou, hou, hou,” with occasional convulsive exclamations; then the dancing recommenced as before; the Emir and Effendi continued singing during this recommencement of the dance; an Emir now entered from without, whispered the assistant, and then lay down, when the superior pressed his foot on all his body except his head, blew on him, stepped over him, and dismissed him; a child about seven years old followed him, whose ears the superior covered with his hands, prayed over him with great apparent devotion, blew on him and dismissed him. These two, probably, came to be cured of some infirmity; when these were gone, the assistant brought a small jug of water, held it to the lips of each dancer, and then took it to the superior who blessed and tasted it; he (the assistant) then brought three irons shaped thus: to the superior who blessed them, after which they were taken out to be heated: the renewed dance was much more animated than the first, the bowing and bending sideways more frequent and active, and the singing, with the occasional “Allah” which they howled out, much louder; after it had lasted eight minutes, they all stopped and sung “Allah” in chorus, in a low bass, occasionally stepping forward, howling and growling (which latter they did by closing their mouth and emitting the sound from the bottom of the throat) most frightfully: one man (the same as had at first thrown himself into the room in convulsions) then wildly shouted “Allah” twice, and toppling twice over from his place in the line to the feet of the superior, remained sitting there with his body bent and his hands tightly pressed on his face, till the assistant, apparently with great effort, straightened him and laid him flat, (his limbs trembled violently all the while), lifted him up, and carried him to his place among the dancers, whispering him while he straightened his limbs: towards the end, the shouting became much louder, and the movements much more rapid; the assistant gave one of the devrisches two sharp instruments, who immediately threw off his benisch (outer garment) and being naked to the waist, ran two or three paces forward, howling “Allah” and extending his arms, rapidly brought them back to his body, and apparently stuck the instruments into it, below the breast; I do not know how he contrived not to hurt himself, for he did not, as I clearly saw, hold his finger over the point; he pretended when one instrument was apparently in his body (nor were the instruments made, like out theatre daggers, to lose themselves in the handle) to hammer it with the other; the assistant brought in the irons red hot, and gave them to three other Dervishes who licked them rather slowly, and one of them held his between his teeth for half a minute; another stuck a small sharp iron apparently through his cheeks, and held it there; while these tricks were going on, the superior played on a pair of cymbals, and the few dancers who were left at the bottom of the room on tambourines; some of the Dervishes pretended to be overcome by the torments of the irons, and to swoon, till revived by being touched with the ring of the superior; the dervish who had the large sharp irons, appeared to pierce himself four times; I observed that the jeux de main were intrusted only to Dervishes; they finished dancing at six minutes before four: they then, some of them, said some prayers with the superior for three minutes, when the party broke up and dispersed; I remarked that during all the movements of the different ceremonies, they all of them cautiously avoided turning their backs on the Superior.

 

 

 

 

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