Monday, 29 July 2013

Whirling Dervishes and the Art of the Ancients

“Four thousand years is an eternity. Just saying it over and over again gives no conception of the ages that have gone by…stop and think of how far off William the Conqueror seems. That takes you only a quarter of the way back. Julius Caesar takes you halfway back. With Saul and David you are three fourths of the way, but there remains another thousand years to bridge with your imagination.”      — Herbert Winlock, Former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing for a 1920 museum publication.

Finger Cymbal Soloist at the Sufi Performance

When I arrived in Cairo, I saw a truly profound example of art at its most sacred: a performance by the Tannoura troupe of Sufi Whirling Dervishes. I was drawn to the Dervishes by my kinetic curiosity. What would a show look like if the key performers spun throughout the entire program? I wanted the chance to marvel at individuals who could physically withstand such a long spin, and I wanted to know how they would keep the performance entertaining.
            The show started with music, beginning with an instrumental ensemble and breaking into solos. The star performer was an elderly man, clearly in his seventies, who played a set of large finger cymbals. He performed with rhythmic sensitivity and an exceptional ability to connect with his audience. We were awe struck by his musical dexterity and poise onstage. The age in his face served only to enhance his graceful gestures and balletic poses by means of contrast. His joyful expressions and playful demeanor delighted everyone in the crowd.
            As the show developed and grew richer, movement came to accompany music. The Dervishes began to whirl, first in pairs and small groups, then receding to allow one performer the prominent center position. He whirled for over twenty minutes, building on the musical crescendos and riding the rhythms with uplifted arms. At times, the other Dervishes performed simple steps in a line upstage. At other moments, they created vibrant, swirling patterns around him. For the audience, this spectacle of motion was endlessly entertaining – but it also served to create an enlightening experience for the featured Dervish.  He had a combination of powerful stimuli: the music, his whirling, the whirling of those around him, and the supportive presence of the audience. He gestured to the heavens, at times closing his eyes with an expression that conveyed both exhalation and spiritual serenity. The enraptured exchange between the audience and the Dervish became a spiraling cycle of energy and excitement, giving and receiving. I was in love with the show – indescribably happy to witness to a tradition that served to invoke the physical, joyous sensation of the Devine through movement.

Sufi Whirling

After the show, I felt an obsessive desire to relive the Sufi performance over and over – to hold it constantly in the foreground of my memory. I found articles on the Mevlevi Order of the Whirling Dervishes and cherished every piece of information I came across. It was founded in the 13th Century A.D by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī. A huge part of the Sufi doctrine emphasizes the need to give up all one’s worldly possessions in order to focus on spiritual matters. The simplicity of the white robes the Sufis wore onstage throughout most of the performance I saw demonstrates this aspect of their faith. By whirling and listening to music, the Sufis seek to temporarily induce an intoxicated state of mind in which they abandon all rational awareness, feeling only the presence of God. Since its naissance, the Order of the Whirling Dervishes has been taking this experience into the performance realm and sharing it with observers.

Lorna Dances on the Nile Pharaoh


Aaron and I in front of the Egyptian Museum

            Unlike the art of dance, the mask of Tutankhamen (c. 14th Century B.C.) is remarkable because it is static – frozen in both time and form. At the Egyptian Museum, Aaron and I paid homage to this treasure. The face of the Pharaoh has the soft, harmonious quality of living flesh. One can sense the muscle structure beneath its surface. This illusion of life is so complete that when I looked at the mask, I was amazed that it could not, in fact, move. According to the ancient Egyptians, the mask of a mummy must replicate the features of the deceased with absolute accuracy to ensure the spirit’s ability to recognize its resting place. The brilliantly realistic quality of the piece, therefore, resulted from the spiritual purpose of its creators.
            On our last day in Cairo, Aaron and I traveled out to the Pyramids of the Giza Necropolis by camel. The site includes the Great Pyramid of Giza (c. 2560-2540 B.C.), the Pyramid of Khafre (c. 2558-2532 B.C.), and the Pyramid of Menkaure (c. 26th Century B.C.). Rhea did not want to join us. She has already seen them, and found them to be “dead things”. In her view, the Pharaohs built them out in the desert because they did not want thousands of people gawking at them every day – much less going inside. According to her, they were meant exclusively, and unaestheticly, to serve the pursuit of a peaceful afterlife. I tried to reconcile my desire to see the last surviving example of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World with my belief in her reasoning via a compromise: I went up to the Pyramids, but I did not enter the shrines.

An excursion to see the Pyramids of Giza

There are works of art which unite humanity in their ability to touch all peoples, regardless of nationality. The pyramids and the ancient artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamen obviously rank in this category. They have a curio-like appeal by virtue of their age alone, being material structures that have somehow escaped the decay of many passing millennia. Like dance and circus, they have the ability to make those who see them proud to be human. When audience members see a dancer perform an extraordinarily complex sequence of steps in perfect time, or when they see a tight rope walker fearlessly cross a perilous divide, the joy that they experience comes from their renewed faith in human ability. They share the glory of the achievement because they can identify with the performer as members of the same, capable species. The wonders of Ancient Egypt stand testament to the universal human instinct to create –an instinct that we share, amazingly, with individuals who lived and died over 4,000 years ago.

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