Howling dervishes and Madonna

The western view of dervishes in the Orient

Zurich - Begging journeymen or ecstatic dancers: Western reporters have been creating a panorama of portraits of dervishes since the 16th century. The exhibition «Made Pictures. Dervishes as Orient Cipher and Fascinating »in the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich exemplarily shows how images of religious cross-border commuters from Islam were created and passed on.

When you hear the word dervish, who doesn't think of the fascinating turkish revolving dancers who express their spirituality with music and dance? The Persian word «dervish» has a long and eventful history. Like the equivalent Arabic "fakir", it describes a poor person, a beggar knocking on the door. Dervishes first appear in the 12th century; they stand out for their wild or ecstatic rituals and, depending on the practice of their order, are known as dancing, whirling or howling dervishes.

Ambivalent western perception
In an effort to describe the Islamic religious system, Western reporters have used the term "dervish" to refer to a variety of religious cross-border commuters since the early modern period. Rejection, fascination, admiration, but also efforts to classify them scientifically characterize these descriptions. They fit in with an ambivalent Western perception of the Orient and shape many of our views on Islam to this day. The exhibition «Made Pictures. Dervishes as Orient Cipher and Fascination »in the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich shows a selection of text and image sources from early travel reports and publications on the Ottoman Empire.

Archaic-looking beggar
Nicolas de Nicolay illustrated the «Deruis Religieux Turc» in 1567 as poorly clad in furs and injuring himself. The French geographer and embassy worker in the Ottoman Empire has published pictures of courtiers, professions, religious representatives and ethnic groups in his work. Nicolay's illustrations were advertised as well-founded and entertaining and were widely received. "In the 16th century, Nicolay's illustrations had a powerful influence on how people were categorized and perceived in the Turkish Empire," explains exhibition curator Andreas Isler.

Wanderer asking for alms
In the 17th century, new names for Islamic religious became established. The British diplomat, trader and historian Paul Rycaut refers the term dervish mainly to the order of the Mevlevi - also known as "rotating dervishes" because of their rotating dance during prayer. Rycaut describes another type as a "wandering dervish" who goes from house to house asking for alms. Its central utensils, the alms bowl, long flute and brass horn can be seen in the exhibition.

What is striking about Rycaut, in contrast to earlier representations, is the posture and physiognomy of the people referred to as dervishes. "Rycaut's illustrations, this makes their style clear, were based on Ottoman miniatures", explains co-curator Paola von Wyss-Giacosa.
Dancers immersing themselves in captivating circular movements

The prayer practice of the Mevlevi has fascinated European visitors from the earliest times. Conversely, it was difficult to bring the mood and dynamics of the Mevlevi prayer practice experienced in the convents into a pictorial form. A depiction of the spiritualized dervishes turning in circles by Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, a Flemish artist, proved to be powerful. Illustrators repeatedly took up his subjects, published in copper engravings in 1715.

Tourist attraction for the guide
In the course of the 19th century, the religious rituals in the convents became accessible to the public - and thus became an attraction for tourists. Having seen dervishes was part of the program of a trip to the Orient and was mentioned in travel guides. “The tourists took with them what impressed them the most, be it the rituals that got under their skin or the respect for a strange spirituality. The effectiveness of the word 'derwish' continued in different ways, ”explains Andreas Isler.

Pictures staged for postcards
The emergence of postcards at the end of the 19th century led to a further dimension in the spread of dervish representations. They transported the pictures taken over long distances. The pictures came from photo studios in the oriental metropolises and created conscious presentations. Last but not least, they should satisfy strangers' hunger for exotic images. “As different as the types designated by the term“ Derwisch ”were: Something free-spirited and resistant has always characterized them and made them symbols of an unsuitable, free practice of religion”, summarizes Andreas Isler.
«Made pictures. Dervishes as oriental cipher and fascination »(UZH / mc / ps)

Exhibition information
October 22, 2017 to January 28, 2018
Ethnological Museum of the University of Zurich