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.
“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.”
“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
“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.”
“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
“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.”
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.”
Nature is an elaborate orchestra of interconnectedness, in which timing is everything.