Whirling Dervishes and Iskender kebaps in Bursa

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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Bursa
June 16th 2012
Published: June 22nd 2012
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We woke at 5.15am to catch up on our trip notes and pack our bags for the trip from Istanbul to Bursa. We headed to breakfast at 7.30am, checked out at 8.15am and jumped on a mini-bus to the ferry terminal. We cautiously navigated the ferry’s shifting gang plank (it had already upended an elderly Kurdish lady) and tried to find our allocated seats. Having no luck whatsoever, we just grabbed a few spare seats and hoped the ticket holders didn’t turn up. We were on our way to Bursa.

We arrived on the southern side of the Sea of Marmara at 11am. We jumped onto a local bus and wound our way up the coastal hills to a metro station, caught a crowded train to the heart of Bursa and then walked through the city’s busy streets in the searing heat to our hotel – The Arctic Hotel. A cold glass of sour cherry juice greeted us, which was very welcome. We checked in and unpacked. The rooms were OK but there was no remote for the air conditioning, so we were very hot. We didn’t realise we needed to pick up the remote from reception. Once that was sorted, we finally cooled down.

We headed out into the city at 1.15pm for lunch. We shared a lentil soup and Iskender kebap. The food was sensational. The lentil soup came with a slice of lemon, and when the fresh lemon juice was added to the soup, the taste was incredibly refreshing.

After lunch we went for an orientation of the city. The main mosque was only a stone’s throw from our hotel, and it held an amazing communal feel. People were praying, sleeping, talking and generally just catching up. The atmosphere was incredibly friendly and warm, which was very welcoming for weary travellers seeking solace from the mid-afternoon heat. We walked to a silk market behind the mosque, and while Ren wandered through the multitude of silk shops, I sat in a communal meeting area underneath the market and enjoyed a cay (Turkish tea) with hundreds of locals. If there is one thing I love to do on holiday, it is to sit and watch a typical day unfold. This was a very relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

When I paid, a young local guy asked where I was from. When I said Australia, he said he didn’t like Australia because we interfere too much with Palestine. He smiled as he said it, and I smiled back.

We shopped a bit more, picked up a few silk scarves, sat in the communal meeting area and cooled down with ice cream and then wandered through the various market lanes back to the hotel. After showering we headed out at 5.30pm for a meal with a local family. After a walk through the back streets of Bursa, we found the street and headed upstairs to a fairly affluent apartment. We dined on lentil soup, rice, mushroom and eggplant, honeyed dessert and cay. At the end of the meal, our guest gave us a performance on a ney, a reed-based wooden flute. He was a professional musician, and he had a gig to go to that night (after we left). The food was tasty (typical Turkish family food). While not sensational, it was hearty stuff. We didn’t get the same insight into this family as we had in Istanbul, as they didn’t seem interested in conversing with us at the end of the meal. It’s easy to forget that tourism is nothing more than a means to an end for many people, and rightly so.

We headed back to the hotel, freshened up and then walked to a tea house where a small group of local musicians were playing. This was a fantastic experience. One youngish guy was playing the saz (a traditional stringed Turkish instrument) and singing. Three older men sat to one side, occasionally remembering to sing. A young girl and old man sat on the other side. The girl sang in most songs, and the old man mumbled every now and again. The main performer was the saz player (Turku Turkum). After a while the songs started sounding very similar, but it mattered little, because the experience was fantastic. It had the feeling of an open mic(rophone) night at a small club. We were served cay and could participate if we wished to. I just sat, watched and listened to traditional songs interpreted and played by two young (and four old) musicians. I grabbed his facebook details at the end of the performance to download a few recordings.

We left at 9pm and walked back to the hotel. We freshened up for the second time and then headed to the Cultural Centre to witness sema, the whirling dervish. We made our way through the thronging crowd gathered outside and were guided to a private room. As we sat, the Imam’s sermon was broadcast through speakers. This was passionate stuff. The sermon was also broadcast onto a large screen outside the Centre for the gathered masses. I couldn’t understand the sermon (it was in Turkish), but at times I felt I was listening to recordings of the Nuremburg Rally. His screaming often distorted the speakers. It was difficult to listen to, let alone sit through. It lasted around an hour, and after 15 minutes I was looking forward to the whirling! My ears (and sensibility) were protesting and I’d started to question if sema was worth witnessing after all. I was just hoping the whirling would be a touch more existential. Some fellow travellers had to leave, and I completely understood why.

When the sermon finished, we were quickly ushered through a narrow corridor into a small room where the sema ceremony had already begun. People were packed two deep against three of the four walls, and the room also had a mezzanine floor, where people were also packed in like sardines. The whirling floor only had room for five dervishes, and a small orchestra and choir were lined against the remaining wall downstairs. On the way into the room I noticed a number of young and middle-aged men in tears. The sermon had obviously had a significant impact upon them (the Imam had cried often, and he often forgot to move away from the microphone when he blew his nose). I suddenly felt I was intruding on a very important part of their lives. I was a tourist in a place of worship, and I was able to enter the tiny ceremony room while they had to stand in the narrow corridor, unable to witness the sema. They prayed throughout the ceremony. I really should have given them my place. Not that I had a great vantage point. I was told to sit as soon as I entered the room, and a guy was standing right in front of me (he was filming the entire ceremony, which was being broadcast on the large screen outside for the masses). Apart from a small corner of the whirling floor, he blocked my vision of the entire ceremony. I couldn’t see the Imam, orchestra or choir, but it mattered little – this was an exhilarating experience. The music was mesmerising (nay and drums) and the chanting was powerful. Ren had a fantastic vantage point, so she witnessed the ceremony with no obstacles (apart from the occasional playful kid who ran into the room, clambered over everyone and plonked down beside her).

This ceremony apparently occurs every night of the year, and few tourists attend. We were the only tourists amongst the hundred or so worshippers inside the ceremony room. This was a poignant experience that will stay with me for a very long time. The music stayed in my head for days, as did the image of the Imam turning in a small circle in the middle of the floor as the dancers whirled around him at an ever increasing tempo. He was facing upwards, his eyes were closed and his mouth was open – breathing out a regular gasp every few seconds in time with the music. The worshippers were mesmerised with this performance, and so was I.

When the ceremony eventually ended at midnight, we wandered back to the hotel. I sat and stared at the picturesque Bursa skyline with a cold beer while Ren worked on her travel notes. I needed to calm down! This had been a highlight of our travels so far. However, we had planned an early morning walk into the Bursa hills, so sleep was imperative. We eventually crashed at 1am.

We woke at 7am for a pre-breakfast walk. We headed uphill from our hotel, climbing the steep cobblestone streets alongside a ravine that cut through the hillside. A small rivulet poured down through the ravine into the city. The houses were very basic, so we had obviously wandered into a poor part of Bursa. We eventually found an incredible vantage point that gave panoramic views of Bursa and beyond, including an imposing nuclear power plant on the horizon. We walked back down to the hotel and grabbed a quick breakfast. We had a six hour trip to Selcuk ahead of us.

We left Istanbul in the early morning and caught a private mini bus to the ferry terminal at Kabatas, a ferry to Yalova (two hours), an intercity bus to Bursa in Western Anatolia, and the metro to the hotel stop. The ferry was very comfortable, however we missed the bus that would have taken us directly to our hotel, so we had to catch the metro and then walk. The walk uphill from the metro station to the hotel was hot work and made harder by the fact that it was Saturday and everyone and their dog was out in the bazaar we walked through.

All the public transport we caught today was clean and efficient - so far I’m highly impressed with the Turkish public transport system. Bursa is the fifth largest city in Turkey and was once the Sultan’s capital of the Ottoman Empire. It’s a busy and noisy city teeming with commerce and life, but even for a city this large it’s immediately apparent that the culture is traditional. Bursa used to be famous for silk production, but apparently the car manufacturers have moved in – which I suppose is what gives the town an industrial and gritty feel.

The Arctic Hotel is every bit as cute as its self-description: ‘our hotel has accepted serving tourism as essential, it has changed Turkish hospitality to permanent feelings and it has placed in your hearts with these feelings’. I love it. We were welcomed with a glass of chilled sour cherry juice and lemon – so refreshing. Our room was small but had gorgeous views of the hillside.

We dropped our bags off and went out for lunch. Suleyman walked us across the road to Cinar Izgara for an iskender kebap, which originated here in Bursa. It was everything a good kebap should be and much more! The iskender kebap is a doner kebap (slices of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie) laid on pieces of flat bread, baked quickly, then topped with browned butter and savoury tomato sauce, and served with yogurt. It is with good reason that this is known as the best meal in Bursa.

It’s a good thing that Andrew and I like immersing ourselves in local food in new countries, because if you don’t like the local Turkish food, there is very little else available (and you have to travel to get it). They are very proud of their food and don't seem at all interested in anything else. And even after being here for the short time we have, I’m likely to agree with them.

Suleyman gave us a quick orientation walk of the city - we visited the exquisitely simple and beautiful Ulu Camii (Greatest Mosque) which is a sprawling 20 domed space with an ablution pond in the central courtyard. Apparently the Sultan wanted to build 20 mosques, but a lack of funds turned his wish into a compromise of one mosque with 20 domes. Its Seljuck architecture is clean but works on a ‘more is better’ premise. Of all the mosques we’ve visited this felt the most accessible, because there was no demarcation between worshiper and visitor, nor was there a separate space for women; it had a very community feel to it and I loved seeing families and friends sitting together chatting and occasionally facing westward to pray. I was overwhelmed by the buzz of activity here and cannot begin to describe it in words nor was I able to capture it in my photographs.

The Kapali Carsi (Covered Market) behind the Ulu Mosque is a sprawling covered bazaar that is very local and vibrant, and far less touristy than the bazaars in Istanbul. We also visited old Ottoman Hans (early versions of motels built for caravans). Bursa was on the old Silk Road and there were many internationally travelling caravans coming into town, which meant feeding, watering and rooming camels, horses and businessmen for the night. The Han was a square courtyard with a two storey building built around it. The ground floor was for animals and the second floor for people. Now the building is filled with shops and restaurants, and the courtyard is full of tables and chairs.

We visited the Koza Han and the Emir Han which used to be important inns in their time; but have now been converted into silk shops upstairs and cafes downstairs. Viv, Cath and I did circuits of the shops looking for a few small silk souvenirs from this town that is so famous for its silk. While we were shopping, Andrew and Chris settled in the downstairs courtyard tea house. After a successful shopping trip, we joined them for ice creams in the courtyard full of old gnarled Chestnut trees.

That evening was very interesting and full on. First of all we went to dinner with a local family who lived about 10 minutes from the hotel. We were served a regional meal beginning with lentil soup with carrots and potatoes, followed by a tasty casserole of eggplant and vegetables accompanied by rice, bread and salad. We finished with a dessert of Turkish fried dumplings served with ice cream. Our host was also a professional bamboo ney (reed flute) player, so he gave us a recital after dinner, which was a nice surprise. It seems like a very difficult instrument to master, and Wendy in our group (who is a flutist) was very complimentary of how long he could hold a note. I’m not familiar with the sound of the ney and the high tone is not very pleasing to my ears, but I have to admit that it has a mesmerising quality (not unlike a snake charmer’s flute).

We then visited Asiklar Caybeci a traditional tea house where men (usually no women) get together and play, listen and dance to old-style Turkish folk music. We sat down to a glass of cay (Turkish tea), while a man played saz / balama (a guitar like Turkish instrument), his young student sang along and more men played wooden spoons and drums. The local men were really getting into it, singing along and clapping. The closest reference I have to this style of music is belly dancing music, and it was very very entertaining.

The streets seemed very boisterous, but when we looked into the shops and local tea houses, the men in there seemed relaxed and were either napping or chatting over a glass of cay. It’s a good life! The traditional tea houses and cafes are full of greying stocky men with hard faces and dark clothes, but they seem friendly enough when we catch their eye and say hello. Although it’s a bit odd not seeing any women in with them.

I had heard the men in Turkey could sometimes come across as sleazy, and while I didn’t find them particularly sleazy, it was a bit weird that a man in the silk bazaar – as well the balama player in the tea house – asked to have their photo taken with me. I could hardly refuse when I had asked if I could take a photo of them. Like I said, it’s wasn’t sleazy, although it may have felt different if I was travelling alone and Andrew wasn’t with me.

After this we were invited to a sema (Whirling Dervish) meeting at a Dervish Lodge at 9pm. Generally speaking, there seems to be a sense of flippancy in the guide books about going to see a Whirling Dervish performance. There are often called touristy and tokenistic, and I suppose in reality they are both these things (because in a traditional setting we wouldn’t be allowed to witness this). But for me, this was something I have been fascinated with since I was a child, and to see a live sema performance was an experience of a lifetime. The Whirling Dervish men taking part in the sema performance are ‘Mevlevi’ – followers of Celaleddin Rumi who is called Mevlana/Guide, the founder of the Mevlana Sufi sect of Islam. Rumi was a philosopher and mystic of the Sufi sect, and believed passionately in the use of music, poetry, and dance as a path for reaching God. This was a very local Lodge and a place of gathering for families on a Saturday night. It was definitely NOT tokenistic or touristy.

When we walked in, the courtyard of the Dervish Lodge was already packed to capacity with people drinking cay and snacking on gorgeous smelling little donuts while they waited for the performance to begin. As invited guests we were ushered into a front guest room at the Lodge, and the ceremony started with a very long, passionate and emotional sermon from the imam. Admittedly we could not understand what he was saying, but there was no mistaking his passionate tone and the couple of occasions when he cried as he talked.

The Lodge had a women’s section upstairs and the men sat downstairs. We were meant to go upstairs, but as it was already full, we were allowed to sit downstairs (which gave us a fantastic view of the sema in deep meditation mode). Four of the five dancers (including a young boy of about 12) were dressed in traditional white robes with wide arms and a tall conical fez on their heads, one dancer was dressed in red robes, the dance master was dressed in black robes and a fez, and the imam in red robes and a turban. The ceremony represents a spiritual journey and is very structured and has a number of components to it, with key choral and instrumental pieces. The dancers whirled with their arms open, the right palm directed upward, seeking god’s blessings and the left palm turned down, passing blessings on to all things around him. Even though it looked all light and airy, their focus was palpable as they whirled. As their white skirts twirled softly, their feet were rock steady and their attention unwavering. They whirled anti-clockwise, each rotating on his own axis, while slowly circling around the room. The initial training for a sema performer includes standing on a wooden plank one square metre large, with a nail in the middle and learning to turn his foot so that the nail is always between his big toe and second toe. The last phase of the ceremony symbolised the dancers attaining the highest station in Islam and the completion of the spiritual journey. The entire one hour performance was utterly mesmerising – the haunting music, the solemn ritual and the serene yet sometimes sad expression on the Mevlevi’s faces – I was totally captivated. During the performance I was aware of men around me getting very emotional as they prayed, including one man behind me who sobbed uncontrollably for about 10 minutes. Under normal circumstances I would have felt very uncomfortable; however, we had been so welcomed into this place, and the feeling of the sema was so palpable, that none of it seemed awkward or out of place.

This Sufi sect of Islam was banned by Ataturk in the 1920s as being backward and too traditional (that’s the official line). Later in the 1950s, the government legalised the Mevlevi order as a cultural (non-political) organisation. Considering this, it’s weird that the Whirling Dervish is now one of the most visible and popular icons within Turkey, found everywhere from fridge magnets to tea coasters and ceramic bowls.

Apparently, the annual sema ceremony at Konya on December 17 (the anniversary of Rumi’s death) is celebrated on a very grand scale and is said to attract thousands of Sufi followers from across the world. The Lodge where Rumi lived is now a museum and the entire town is apparently set up to pay homage to the philosopher-poet. We will be visiting Konya next week and I cannot wait to witness another Whirling Dervish performance if possible. It was so special to experience a spiritual ritual so unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

It has been a very very full and very very happy day. We ended it with a short walk back to the hotel, and then sat in our room enjoying the city lights and night sky of Bursa.

We usually love walking around a new city in the very early morning before it wakes up, but so far we hadn’t managed to do it in Turkey. So the first order of the day was to go for an early morning walk with Viv and Chris and see this area before it started its hectic daily routine... but Bursa woke up early too, even after having a late night – the city had been abuzz until about 2am. We walked uphill from the hotel into the suburbs with apartment blocks, and then passed very basic farm houses higher up on the hill. It wasn’t a very picturesque part of town, but it was nice to see the other side of Bursa, and the view from the hills was great. However, it was troubling there was a nuclear plant so close to a city.

We rushed through a breakfast buffet and checked out just in time to catch a local bus to the bus terminus for a long intercity bus ride.

See you in Selcuk on the Aegean Coast!


22nd June 2012

Dervish Lesson
Fascinating stuff about the sufis. I'll be interested to hear the rest. (Still no news of A-M).
24th June 2012

Re: Dervish Lesson
Hey KD, I was wanted to see a 'real' sema; but now that I have, I think I wouldn't mind going to a tourist performance... The skills of the dancers would still be as outstanding :)
7th November 2012

Tantalizing Turkey!
Hi guys I can still hear the excitement in your writings and get the feeling that you are having more than a great time. Although you say you find it difficult to describe or capture at times Cucks, you two do a great job making us feel part of your experiences. I think I've said this before, you must publish your travel notes as it reads better than "Lonely Planet". Perhaps each guide could have a different name like "Turkish Delight" or would it be Tantalizing Turkey! Love the plates of food and it feels like you are in a place that has not been influenced by KFC and the big yellow M. I wish other countries would follow and stick to strictly traditional food! Enjoy, stay safe! Love and hugs - Rom xxx
7th November 2012

Re: Tantalizing Turkey
Thanks Rom! You say the nicest things. The food is nothing short of fabulous outside the tourist main streets, we are hooked on the mixed meze platters! xx
20th December 2014

Re-reading your Turkey blogs today
Such great stuff. It makes me want to book a trip.
21st December 2014

Re: Re-reading your Turkey blogs today
Merry you will LOVE Turkey! I wish we could go back for more...

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