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The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus

The »Lux aeterna« festival opens with religious chants – and a ritual circular dance that is hundreds of years old.

The ritual concerned is a simple and intimate one that has been practised for centuries: accompanied by music and singing, the whirling dervishes of Damascus dance in a circle to get closer to God. The singer and Koran scholar Noureddine Khourchid grew up with this Sufi tradition, and presents it at the opening concert of the »Lux aeterna« festival at the Elbphilharmonie.

Noureddine Khourchid & The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus
Noureddine Khourchid & The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus © Claudia Höhne

Lux aeterna

The »music festival for the soul« from 3 to 27 February 2019

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CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

From northern Africa through the Caucaus to Central Asia, various Sufi orders, and also communities without a spiritual bias, are familiar with the dervishes. The term »darvish« is Persian in origin and means mendicant and wanderer as well as an ecstatic. In its true meaning, it refers to persons who have renounced worldly goods and instead wander through life in search of God. In the process, they cross the threshold from the earthly realm to the world beyond, as expressed in their name: the Persian word »dar« corresponds to »door« in English.

Sufism: A mystic direction within Islam. Sufi communities seek to experience God through an abstemious way of life and ritual meditation.

The so-called sema, a whirling dance that is performed counter-clockwise, is one of the many Sufi variations on the theme of the search for God, all of them marked by music and movement. This dervish ritual goes back to the Anatolian town of Konya, where it emerged after the 13th century amongst the Mevlevi (or Mawlawi) fraternity, followers of the famous mystic Rumi. The dance subsequently crossed the borders of Anatolia and expanded as far as Syria.

Dervishes wearing festive clothing
Dervishes wearing festive clothing

THE BODY AS A SPINDLE

In the sema, the dervishes seek harmony with the cosmos, which likewise revolves around its own axis. The dance symbolises longing to be reunited with the divine, from which Man was only temporarily separated. As he whirls around in the sema, his body turns into a spindle that links earth and heaven, and at the same time embraces the whole of mankind. The soul that is imprisoned within the body thus celebrates its perpetual, ardent longing to return to the transcendental sphere. In the West, the term trance is often used to denote effect that the dance has. But strictly speaking, it does not involve a dissolution of consciousness, but rather the utmost concentration of body, soul and mind on the principle of the all-embracing.

WITH CHOIR, OUD AND FRAME DRUM

In our own time, the whirling dance is often used as a decorative element at bright and trendy stage shows; it has turned into a tourist attraction. But Noureddine Khourchid's ensemble offers the chance to experience the sema in its original ritual sincerity. The dance of the Mevlevis is embedded here into a choir of seven munshid (religious singers) of the Shâdhiliyya fraternity, which can look back on a tradition 800 years old in Syria. Their fervent chants are accompanied on the Arab oud and on frame drums.

Noureddine Khourchid

As one of the great voices of the Ommayyaden mosque in Damascus, Noureddine Khourchid grew up in a family tradition of sacred vocal music. The singer, who was born in 1966, followed the way of the Sufis almost from birth. Today, he is not only one of the greatest singers of the region, he is also recognised as an important Koran scholar. Anyone who hears Khourchid's voice and immerses himself in the sight of the whirling dervishes may experience – even if he comes from a completely different culture – something of the »Lux aeterna«, the eternal light, that is at the heart of this unique ritual.

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