Takiya Al-Mawlawiyah, in Cairo’s historic neighbourhood of El-Darb El-Ahmar, is the only remaining Takiya with dervish theater. It has a rich history that dates back to the 14th century.
Takiya means a place for housing dervishes (Sufis). It is the same as khanqah, which emerged in the Ayyubid dynasty (1171–1260) and the Mamluk sultanate (mid-13th–early 16th centuries).
“Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid era, established khanqah to fight the Shiite, who were prevailing under the Fatimids, the previous rulers. These khanqahs were housed by Sufis. They roamed the streets and alleys to sing Islamic hymns intended to urge people to fight against the Crusaders and the Shiites,” Gamal Abdel Rahim, Professor of Archaeology and Islamic Arts, Faculty of Archaeology, Cairo University told Majalla.
He added that when Egypt reverted to the status of a province governed from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) after the Mamluks were defeated by the Ottomans in 1516–17, the Ottomans replaced the Persian-word khanqah with Takiya, for the same purpose which was to house dervishes.
Takiya Al-Mawlawiyah was previously a madrasa of Prince Sunqur Sa'di, a commander of the "Royal Mamluks" under Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad (ruled between 1293 and 1294). He built it in 1321 as a madrasa (a place for teaching the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, namely, Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali rites), a convent for women, orphanage for children and a mausoleum for himself.
“During the Ottoman period in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became a Takiya, where dervishes perform whirling (Mawlawiyah) so its name became Tekeya El-Mawlawiya,” Abdel-Rahim said.
El-Mawlawiya is a form of dhikr (remembrance of God). It was founded in Konya, Anatolia, by Jalal al-Din Al-Rumi (1207 – 1273), widely known as Rumi, the Persian poet, Islamic jurist and Sufi mystic. Rumi’s life completely changed and he became an ascetic when he met the dervish Shams Tabrizi (1185–1248), his spiritual instructor. His ideas were spread all over the Islamic world.
Rumi’s followers called him Mawlana (our master).
Takiya Al-Mawlawiyah has an intact huge circular theater where dervishes performed their dance.
It is all made of wood. It consists of a round wooden platform as a stage surrounded by a small wooden partition with two doors for the dervishes to enter and leave before and after their Mawlawi performance. It also separates the stage from the audience area.
Above the stage is a cupola based on 12 columns bearing the names of the twelve Shia Imams, who were spiritual and political successors to the Islamic Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him).
The ceiling of the dome resembles the sky. It has drawings of birds flying in the sky representing dervishes’ souls in oneness with God in addition to eight windows indicating the gates of Paradise.
The theater has an upper floor on which the audience and the instrumentalists sit, like the tambourine and flute players. There is a section dedicated for women attendees covered with wooden screens so that they can see the performance without anyone watching them.
There is also a metal chandelier hung by long wires from the cupola over the middle of the stage.
The practitioner of the Mawlawi order enters the theater wearing a wide white skirt representing the shroud, and wearing a long camel's hair hat representing the tombstone.
The whirler stands on his left leg which is always fixed on the ground metaphorically for the creed and the Sharia (Islamic law), which does not accept analysis or discussion or thinking.
The right leg is moving around in a circle which represents life. While spinning, the arms are open: the right one is directed to the sky to receive Allah’s madad (beneficence); the left hand is directed to the ground, as if it transfers the madad to the earth.
This way of whirling reflects Rumi's concept that the soul swayed and danced with joy in drawing closer to God. Rumi was known as the poet of love, because he spoke about love in his books and poetry, as he chose love as a path to reach God.
His creed of love is indivisible. Rumi loves everything in the world – he loves flowers, birds, seas, trees and people, whatever their nationalities and beliefs.
He believed that love is the basis for the creation of the world, of the relationship between a person and his Creator, of the relationship between a person and himself, as well as the basis of the relationships between a person and others.
The ground floor of the Takiya housed the tomb of Mohamed Ghaleb Dora, a great mystic and dervish (died in 1915).
There is also a showcase displaying the distinguished Sufi attire while another showcase displays the Mathnawi, a Persian-language poem with thousands of verses by Rumi. It is regarded as one of the most influential works of Sufism as it includes anecdotes and stories derived from the Islam’s Holy Book and hadith sources.
Abdel Rahim said that the whirlers performed in the Takiya until 1954 after the July 23 revolution that toppled the monarchy.
“The Antiquities Ministry plans to return the mawlawiyah dance to Takiya in the near future to encourage tourism,” Abdel Rahim said.