Getting There - Aneel's Travelogue

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Bazaar, Dervishes Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, 18 January 2010 11:30pm

It's funny that, having purposely gotten a hotel on this side of the Golden Horn, I ended up spending most of today on the other side. I dropped by the offices of a local arts group that the guidebook had recommended for authentic semas (whirling dervish ceremonies) and arranged to visit one in the evening.

I had lunch at the Pudding Shop that, according to the newspaper articles from the late 80s that they print on their placemats, was once the starting point for hippies traveling through Iran and Afghanistan. It's a little odd that they'd put these particular articles on their placemats, since they have a "well, this was once an important cultural landmark, but now it's just an ordinary restaurant" tone. It was pretty good, but not outstanding.

I whiled away the afternoon in the Grand Bazaar. It's a dangerous place to do that, but I have been steeled against that kind of thing by the markets of Morocco, so I managed to not buy any carpets and didn't end up with anything that I immediately regretted.

The ceremony was very much like congregational religious ceremonies I've attended in the past, but in a language I didn't understand. Maybe there was a bit more singing than I would see in an average church. Very normal. Little boys getting into arguments in the waiting room while their parents prayed. Toddlers running between their parents and throwing tantrums and having to be taken outside. The actual whirling was interesting to watch, and it did seem that the men who were whirling were in a trance state, but there was a weird feeling of disconnection between what they were doing and what everyone else there was doing. I had expected more of a vibe of interaction between them and the congregation. Oddly, I think I might have gotten more context if I'd gone to a non-authentic performance. I'd been given a description of the ceremony and some background reading, but no explanations as it happened.

One of the recurring themes of this trip has been "why am I visiting all of this religious stuff?" Ancient temples. Byzantine churches. Mosques. Sufi ceremonies. None of it means anything to me on a religious level, so why bother? I think that it comes down to the fact that religion has been the artistic focus (and to some extent the scientific focus; a lot of the displays in the technology museum I visited were framed as "Islam encourages knowledge about Allah's creation") here for so long that many of the artifacts that have been preserved or maintained have been so because of their religious significance. If I'm interested in the greatest dome for a thousand years, or the most intricate decorations, they're going to be religious.

I guess the counterexample is the Grand Bazaar, come to think of it. It's definitely the most vital ancient place I've visited in Istanbul. And the most vital modern place has definitely been the bustling shopping district between Taksim Square and Tünel. There's definitely a lot of turnover in each place, less permanence, but they're where people are actually living their lives.