The Dervish Theater in Cairo
by Seif Kamel
Many of the people who visit Egypt come across a type of dancer called the whirling dervish. They perform in hotel night clubs, Nile dinner cruise boats, and sometimes even on the street. I have watched dervish dances many times in hotels and the last time during the Korba festival of Ramadan. Most tourists are properly impressed and entertained by these performances, and may believe that the dance is only for entertainment, but it is not.
The dance is an invention of a branch of Islam known as the Sufi, and its history dates back some 700 years.The followers of this Sufi sect used to always wear wool garments over their bare skin. Hence, the term Sufi is derived from the word "suf", which in Arabic means "wool". However, some believe that the term Sufi comes from the word, "sophos", which means "wisdom" in the Greek language. On the other hand, the word Dervish comes from the Persian word "Darwish" which can be translated as "on the still of the door". It implies that the Sufi are at the door of enlightenment.
To explain the Sufi sect in broad terms, they are similar in the Islamic world to monks in the Christian world. It should be noted that most of the performers found in hotels and on dinner cruise boats, and elsewhere at entertainment venues, are not really Sufi, but simply entertainers. However, there exists in Cairo, the Dervish Theater, where one may visit to watch the ultimate true whirling dervish performance. The day that I set out to visit the Dervish Theater, it was very windy and the air was full of sand. Those who have not visited Egypt might think this is typical of Cairo, but it is not. It is true that we have our sandstorms, but they are actually very rare. Nevertheless, I took a taxi to the Salah El Din square near the Citadel and I decided to walk to the theater from there.
After exiting the taxi, I had to stand for a minute and admire the two great mosques: the Sultan Hassan Mosque which was built in 1256 AD and the Refa'i Mosque which was completed in 1912 by Max Herz Pasha. The two mosques are in the middle of this big square, and I tried to take a few pictures, but that was difficult in the sandy weather.
I kept on walking and, because I had never visited the Dervish Theater, I had to ask two or three people for directions. The only one who could help was an old man who finally sent me in the right direction. I kept walking in these narrow streets until I found a huge Qubba (dome) to my right. It looked amazing although it seemed so old. No wonder. It was built in the year 1322 by Sandjar Al Muzaffar. When I saw it I knew I was on Suffia Street.
I continued walking until I saw the Minaret of the Hassan Sadaqa, which is the only remaining ruins of his mosque and Madrasa which was built in the year 1315. However, its foundation was threatened by the rising groundwater in the area. Now, I knew I was at the entrance to the Dervish Theater which was part of a Mawali complex that once stood in the area..
The term Mawali came from the Arabic word "Mawla", which means "master" or "leader". The Mawali was a sect of Suffia originated in Konya, Turkey by the Sufi poet, Jalal El Din El Rumi in 1273. Afterwards, the Mawali ideas were spread all over the Islamic word and the Mawali of Egypt settled in an area near the Citadel. They constructed a complex with an entrance off of Suffia Street. The complex was built during the 19th century but does have some older sections. It was restored in 1979 and 1989 by the Italian Cultural Center. Some restoration appears to be ongoing today.
The entrance of the complex is through a very narrow lane covered with ancient stones. To the left there are many posters of performances that will take place in the theater. At the end of the lane, I found a very old man wearing the traditional Egyptian galabeya and some men doing restoration work.
The theater is a huge circular hall. Its walls are covered with dark brown painted wood with many windows to enable light to enter the hall. There is also a beautiful metal chandelier that hung from long wires from the Qubba over the middle of the stage. The Qubba ceiling is the most attractive part of the Dervish Theatre. It represented the sky for the Mawalies, who used to dance in the theater. It made them feel as if they were dancing under the sky. On it there are gold plated verses from the Quran in the center, with radiating orange lines that represented, to the Sufi, the sun. There are also drawings of many birds flying about the sun. This is because the Mawalies believed that when they dance, they achieve oneness with god and their souls wander freely in the sky like birds.
Outside of the circle of the Qubba, there are some Ottoman decorations and under them there are some Arabic inscriptions that emphasis the love of the Mawalies to their leader Jalal El Din El Roumi.
The performances used to take place in the circular stage in the center, which seems to be polished regularly even today. The stage is surrounded by a small wooden partition to separate it from the audience area. At one side of the circular stage is a big wooden sign inscribed with, " Ya Hadret Mawalana" in a large font and "Jalal El Din El Roumy" in a smaller font. It refers to the great master, Jalal El Din El Roumi.
The old man whom I met at the entrance of the theater was informative He told me that the theater was used by the Mawalies who believed that listening to religious music and performing the dervish dancing would get them close to God. They wore black robes that symbolized the grave and very long camel hair hats that looked somewhat like the traditional Tarbushm, but was much longer It represented the headstone.
The Mawalies believed that the world began at a point and ended at the same point. This was why they used to gather in the circle in the middle of the stage and then rise up, dancing slowly to the ritual music. They first greet their master, and then start to dance, moving in circles at a very quick pace. Then they cast off the black robe, that represents the tomb, and therefore discard all worldly ties. They spin with their right arms extended to heaven and their left arms to the floor. Grace is received from Allah and distributed to humanity. The dancers themselves represent the heavenly bodies circling the sun, who is their sheikh, the spiritual leader. Later they may sit, pray, and begin all over again. The ceremony always ends with a prayer and a procession.
The area around the circular theater is designed as an audience section for people to gather around the Mawalies dervishes and watch them while they dance and perform their rituals. There are no seats as the audience just gathers around the circular stage. There are wooden stairs that lead to the second floor of the audience section.
The second floor consists of three parts. The first part is like the first floor which is just a section to stand and watch the performance. The second part is the Harem section for the women. In the Mawali belief, women should not be amongst the men, so this section is covered with wooden screens so that the women can view the performance without anyone watching them. Next to the Harem, is the orchestra section where the musicians would stand with their drums and musical instruments. At the back of this section, two wooden doors allow entrance for the musicians.There is an opening in the wall of this section to enable the music to fill the building.
Beneath the Dervish Theater is a small museum, but unfortunately I could not gain access to it because of the restoration work that was taking place. However, some displays can be seen from the theatre. There is the "Mensnevi" book written by Jalal Al-Din Rumi, which was donated to the Italian Center by the Turkish Ministry of Culture during the ceremony held during the Sama Khana on January 18th, 1998. There is also a Mawali dress donated by the "Istanbul Sama group" during the Sama that took place on June 30th, 1998. There are still some performances taking place in the theater. The Dervish Theatre is not a part of most tourist programs, even though the Sultan Hassan and Refa'i Mosques are usually full of tourists. For people who do manage to visit the theater, it is usually a great treat, and there are actually a number of other grand monuments in the district. They include the minaret of Sunqur Sa'adi Mosque and the beautiful Qubba of the Hassan Sadaqa Mosque.