July 24, 2019

Semah Alevi-Bektaşi Ritual – Turkish Culture

Alevi Turkish

Every nation has its signature rituals and events sometimes based on their religious beliefs or based on their culture and history. Semah is one such event in Turkey. Semahs are basically a couple of mystical and aesthetic body movements performed on a rhythmic harmony. Followers of the Semah culture believe that practicing Semah helps human in reaching God in mystical ways if executed in harmony. While the “saz” (Turkish stringed instrument) plays along with the rhythm of music and song. Also “zakir” is the person who conducts the service and plays saz.

Semah is one of the twelve main practices in the “Cem” rituals. While these rituals are religious practices performed by stalwarts of Alevi-Bektaşi which is the community based on admiration of Ali, forth caliph of Prophet Muhammad. Natives pronounce Semah differently in different regions of Turkey, depending on the geographical areas where the Alevi – Bektaşi communities exist. Moreover different regions have a different set of music and rhythms too. The fact that dervishes perform the same ritual with different melodies and lyrics demonstrates the richness of semah culture. Semah is perhaps based on the concept of unity with God as it is the rule of nature that human comes from God and the returns to God.

Different Forms of Semah:

There are two types of Semah that are:

  • İçeri Semah
  • Dışarı Semah

İçeri semahs are also called internal semahs. Since they are performed in Cem by the stalwarts of Alevi-Bektaşi only as one of the twelve main practices. In fact, doing it in front of outsiders is considered inappropriate. On the other hand, Dışarı semah is independent of Cem rituals. The main purpose of Dışarı semah is to promote the culture of semahs in youth. Note that this practice does not compromise the Semah discipline despite being independent of Cem rituals.

Main Parts of Semah:

Performers divide Semah into three main segments that are:

  • Ağırlama
  • Yürütme 
  • Yeldirme

The ağırlama consists of slow moves and it comes in the beginning. And then comes yürütme. It the part where semah starts getting faster and livelier. And lastly comes yeldirme which is the fastest and most difficult part to perform. Note that the above mention order of segments is the general sequence of semah however there are alternative ways of doing it.

How Semah is Performed:

Semah plays a very paramount role in promoting traditional music and dance culture in Turkey. The semah dancers come to the floor flowing the zakir’s recital, they state their pleadings and start to dance. After the ağırlama, yürüme and hızlanma segments, those dancing the semah assume positions of prayer before the dede, who is the spiritual leader. The dede may pray the following prayer: “In the name of the Shah, may the semah dance be pure. May God ease our hardships. May Mohammed-Ali make our existence, our unity and solidarity our goal. Greetings!”