I only have a night in Cairo before heading to the remote town of Siwa Oasis and I have seen most of the interesting and popular touristy sights of the city. With several attempts I failed to see the whirling dervish show near the souk of Khan EL Khalili, either it wasn't a performance night or I missed the timing.
Luckily, it is a performing night for the Al Tannoura Show at Wekalat El Ghouri as I was told by the friendly owner of the hostel I was staying at. I just arrived from the Turgoman bus terminal to buy a bus ticket and it was still early in the afternoon. I don’t want to be late and I am not very familiar with the bus routes so I hailed a taxi from my hostel at Talaat Harb Street and got off at the Al Azhar Mosque. I handed EGP10 to the driver as the taxi meter indicated, it was actually even less but, well. I’ve been to this place before so I know exactly where it is.
As it's still early, the queue at the entrance is not long, a mixture of local and foreign tourists. I asked the friendly staff at the gate how much is the entrance fee and surprisingly I was informed that it is free of charge. Say it again?
If you have been to Turkey, then you probably have seen similar performances held at either any of the popular venues like the Hodja Pasha Art & Culture Center near Sirkeci train station or at the Galata Mevlevihanesi, or perhaps some short performances at the park during holiday events at Taksim Square.
The whirling dervish performance called “sema” is a spiritual spinning dance that has been in existence for more than 700 years by the mystic order of the Islamic faith called Sufi. In comparison, the sema performances of the Mevlana order in Konya (Turkey) is a religious rite and therefore more traditional, the Sufi dervishes wear an all-white costume of flowing skirt.
However, the sema has evolved into the performing arts and one of those is presented by the El Tannoura Dance Troupe in Egypt. The performers wear a very colorful skirt that they twirl around their body and up in the air creating a kaleidoscope of colors, accompanied by instrumental music.
The repertoire starts from a subtle playing of musical instruments to chanting and progresses into compelling almost hypnotic movements.
It is divided into three or more acts commencing with the parade of performers playing Arabic musical instruments like the Egyptian drum or “tablah”, “ney” (flute), tambourines, and a string instrument called “rababa”. This is followed by spiritual vocal performance reciting verses in praise of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed.
The second act is the Sufi dance that started with a solo performance that develops into group routine, with dancers circling around the only performer wearing a colorful costume while playing the tambourine and chanting.
The most exciting part is the third and final act where the dancers garbed in colorful costumes and the reeling dance sequence become more intense, stunning and bursting in colors.
The spinning of the detachable skirt while standing or sitting or lying on the floor or moving around by the three young performers is an exhibition of exceptional skills and artistry. (See photos below)
The Wekalet El-Ghouri Arts Center was originally built as merchants facility in 1504 by Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh Al-Ghawri, who reigned the Burji Dynasty from 1501 to 1516 during the Mamluk era. The architecturally impressive wekala is a part of the huge Sultan Al-Ghouri Complex which consists of a mosque, madrasa, and mausoleum, among other structures. The restoration of the wekala was completed in 2005 and serve as a venue for cultural events and performances, and operates under the Ministry of Culture and the Cultural Development Fund.
The El Tanoura Troupe for the Cultural Heritage are composed of Egyptian musicians and artists who have performed in various venues, performing every Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8:30pm at the Wekalat El-Ghouri.
Be there early to avail of a front seat and don’t forget to bring your camera with you. Although video recording is not allowed, though not strictly as I have seen the audience using their smart phones and gadgets recording portions of the events especially the last part, and the security staff can no longer control it.
Entry is Free of Charge
Address: #3 Mohamed Abdu Street, Off Muizz ElDin Street, Al Ghoureya, Islamic Cairo, Cairo, Egypt