Woman in green dress engages in the ritual of sema

Divine Rite: How Whirling Dervishes Honor Rumi’s Legacy

Photographs by Théo de Gueltzl

The ritual of sema was inspired by Rumi, the renowned Islamic poet, scholar, and Sufi mystic. Today, the Mevlevi Order—or the Whirling Dervishes—continues the tradition, practicing prayer in rhythmic movement as a way to connect with the divine.

Whirling dervish children draped in traditional garb walk in a single file line, holding onto each other's shoulders.

“The purpose of sema is to feel and experience Allah, the universe, and humanity as one—the unity of all existence—as we travel through levels of existence to higher and higher levels of consciousness.”

Ismail C. Fenter
A small tree, trimmed in the shape of a spiral stands on a lawn in front of a gated building.
Several whirling dervishes dressed in white dresses dance together in a large pink-lit room.
A city landscape shows pinkish blue skies in the background and bellowing smoke in the distance.
A glass cup sits on a small saucer on top of several large slabs of concrete that are leaning on a wall.

“The left foot represents the rules and the roots. It is so grounded—it’s your center. With your right foot, you go around your left foot. You have to be very gentle. If the right foot tries too hard to move, you can’t whirl. If your left foot isn’t fixed, you will fall down. What I love about whirling is that you need to be very, very grounded with your left foot, and then you can be free. It’s whirling around yourself. Being connected to yourself in the moment in that place: that itself is stillness.” —Mustapha Maamouri 

An older man sits on the floor facing away from a crowd at a sema ritual.
A home is decorated with traditional Islamic pieces.

“Whirling is preparation for life after death. The whirler takes off the dirty black clothes of worldly life and puts on the bright (mostly white) clothes of eternal life to get ready to fly.”

Nesligül Doğan
A young male whirling dervish waits as an older man is about to place a brown hat on his head.
An older man is helping a young male whirling dervish with his clothing.
A whirling dervish dressed in a white dress engages in the sema ritual by dancing

“You can’t describe Sufi whirling with words. It’s like asking someone to describe a color.” —Mustapha Maamouri 


“The city I lived in, Mardin, is a city of cultures and religions. Our ancestor believed that by whirling, one would synchronize body and spirit and connect to the divine. I started sema whirling when I was 13 years old, led by the images and emotions in my memory towards our ancestors.” —Nesligül Doğan 

A smoky city landscape meets a hazy orange horizon with a mountain in the distance.
A group of young men walk by a large poster of a whirling dervish pasted on a white wall. A bicycle is leaning against the wall and house with a car in the front is on the left side of the wall.
Whirling dervishes stand in line facing the audience, their arms folded across their bodies.

“Everything turns, from the Earth to the blood in our body to the atoms that make up all things. By whirling, the semazen causes his mind to participate in the common movements of existence.”

Ismail C. Fenter
The sun sets in the distance along the hazy orange horizon.

Théo De Gueltzl is a fine artist from Paris, France whose practice includes photography, sculpture, drawing, and film. His formal training is in sculpture at Central Saint Martins, while photography—now an essential part of his artistic expression—emerged first as a way to document his travels. His journeys have taken him throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas. In the past seven years, he’s spent a great deal of time in Colombia, bearing witness to the aftermath of civil war and forced displacement. These travels have instilled in De Gueltzl a profound worldview and deep connection to nature, both of which serve as a deep well of inspiration for his art. 


Théo de Gueltzl’s work explores themes such as the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world and the objectification of the human body. He shoots mostly on film cameras and personally handprints his negatives, thereby creating tangible, three-dimensional representations of the moments he captures. 

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “Divine Rite.”

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