Model of a Whirling Dervish

Whirling dervish

Materials:  hand-moulded compound, wood, paint, varnish
Dimensions:  12 centimeters high
Place acquired:  Charity shop, Edinburgh, 2007
Place of manufacture:  probably Turkey

Sometimes a religious sect or practice is so unusual or visually interesting that knowledge of it travels way beyond its own community of adherents and becomes well known practically world wide. Whirling dervishes are just such an example. In english the very term has entered the language as a simile: ‘He cut through the crowd like a whirling dervish’. It has become an informal description of someone engaging in a wild and fervent activity.

This little figure, 12cm high, is a comic portrayal of a dervish, a member of the ascetic Sufi sect from Turkey called the Mevlevi Order. Dervish comes from the Persian darvish meaning poor, and the order was founded by the persian poet and islamic theologian Rumi in 1273. The whirling dance forms part of a ceremony called Sama and it is intended to create an altered state of religious ecstacy. The Sama dance is gentle and quite mesmeric to watch and as well as a serious religious ceremony it has also become a tourist attraction. This is probably the context in which the little figure was originally sold. It is quite crudely made. It appears to have been hand modelled in a malleable substance a bit like playdough and then dried or baked hard before painting and varnishing. Although it is a comic caricature it’s clearly an affectionate portrayal, made in all probability by a turkish trader to sell to foreign visitors.

But the image of the dervish has not always been a positive one in the British imagination and this has to do with Britain’s imperialist past. Victorian commercial and military contacts with the Ottoman empire, and the western fascination with all things oriental would have made the whirling dervish well known to people in Victorian Britain as an exotic eastern religious practice. But in the 1880s the term dervish was also used in the British press to describe soldiers in the armies of the Mahdist uprising in Sudan that resulted in the death of General Gordon at the siege of Khartoum. And so in the late 19th century 'dervish' became a pejorative term, tinged with the racism of the time, meaning a bloodthirsty muslim warrior. The term ‘fuzzy-wuzzy’ emerged at the same time to describe the fighters in the Sudanese uprising. Dervish also sounds a bit like ‘devilish’. Gradually the name whirling dervish took on, in english usage, a threatening, martial aspect very far from the ascetic ceremonies of the Sufi mendicants. The echo of this is still found in the way we use the “like a whirling dervish” simile with a vague connotation of violence and ferocity.