Whirling Dervishes and exploring Turkish food: an Airbnb experience in Istanbul

This was my first Airbnb experience. They’ve been expanding a lot this year, and I felt like Istanbul was a good place to test it out – I could use some local guidance in a new city where I don’t speak the language. Now, I’m absolutely making this a regular part of my travel, because it was an amazing evening!

Listed on Airbnb as the ‘Traditional Dinner & Dervish experience”, we met with our hosts at 7pm. It ended up being a group of 8 of us tourists, visiting Istanbul from Mexico, the US, and India. We walked as a group to our first stop of the evening, pausing to get a quick sweet snack.

Part I: Whirling Dervish performance

Our night started with an hour long Whirling Dervish performance.

The Whirling Dervish tradition stems from the Sufism order of Islam. The Mevlevi Order, in particular, which was led by Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi. A highly spiritual sect, there was a strong focus on meditation, music, and poetry as a way to connect with God. Whirling is one part of that.

Legend has it that Rumi started to whirl one day when he was moved by God’s love – and the rhythm of hammering sounds – in a marketplace, and it became a weekly ritual practiced by his order. Meant to demonstrate the death of the ego in order to focus more fully on God, the outfit is symbolic. The hats represent tombstones and the white skirts, a shroud.

The practice begins with music and religious chanting, after which the Dervishes proceed out in single file, their iconic white skirts covered up by black cloaks. Eventually, they remove them, circle one another and bow, and then – one by one – begin to spin. Their skirts open up around them and they rotate around themselves and each other, eyes closed.

The dervishes start with their arms crossed, but when the whirling begins, they open their arms and tilt one hand towards the sky (to receive God’s love and messages) while the other gestures downwards (where he conveys God’s love back to humanity).

We were told that this group trained for 3 years to perfect the practice, and that they enter a trance-like state which prevents them from getting dizzy.

This particular performance was blended with another interesting piece of history – it took place in the Orient Express train station.

Part II: Quick walk by the Suleymaniye mosque for nighttime views and photos

When we left, one of our hosts had a car waiting. He took us to Suleymaniye Mosque (built for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent). It’s the largest mosque in Istanbul, and looks out over the Golden Horn. It was very peaceful to be up on a hill on a quiet evening, surrounded by beautiful architecture.

Part III: Rooftop Terrace for blackberry tea

The evening was a bit chilly, so we had the rooftop to ourselves at this 90’s themed bar (Cafe 90’lar) – but they were thoughtful and provided blankets! We all ordered blackberry tea (suggested by our hosts) and it was sweet, warm, and delicious.

Part IV: The feast!

Properly hungry now, we moved onto Cigeristan. The managers were ready for us, since this experience takes place around 5 days a week and they stick to the same agenda daily. We started with a very nice lentil soup, then got Ayran (a traditional salty yogurt drink, which is an acquired taste; I happen to really enjoy it with this kind of food), and plates and plates of meat! Ground meat kabob, lamb, liver, and chicken, with wraps, tomatoes, onions, and more to eat it all with.

Our feast completed with pistachio based Kurdish coffee, which was served half-boiled on a saucer that was lit on fire to complete the process. Our dessert of Kanafeh (shredded pastry covering cheese covered in syrup) was similarly served on a flaming platter. And then they lit some sparklers and took a bunch of pictures! They seem to really enjoy fire at this place…and it was a lot of fun as a way to end the night.

Finally, when we were stuffed and sleepy, our hosts presented us with gift bags containing samplings of Turkish teas and coffees to bring home with us, and helped everyone find their way back home. The next day, we got a follow up message with photos and reminders about local spots they recommend. Could not recommend this more – we got so much out of one experience!

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