The semah performed during the service (cem) as required by Alevi and Bektaşi belief is a means of reaching God through mystical and aesthetic movements executed in harmony with the rhythm of music and song accompanied by a saz (Turkish stringed instrument) played by the zakir who conducts the service.
The semah is a living practice throughout Turkey. It is referred to as samah, semağ, zamah, and zemah depending on the geographical areas where the Alevi – Bektaşi communities that practice and preserve the tradition are found. Variations in terms of music and rhythm can be found in different regions. The fact that semahs are performed with different melodies and lyrics demonstrates the richness of semah culture.
The semah is divided into two parts. İçeri Semah (internal semah) is performed in religious ceremonies where the twelve services are conducted with sect adherents and doing this in front of outsiders is not considered proper. There is also the Dışarı Semah, which is performed outside of the twelve services but without compromising semah discipline for the purpose of teaching and encouraging younger generations about semah culture.
The semah consists of three primary segments: ağırlama, yürütme and yeldirme. The ağırlama segment is the beginning of the semah and is characterized by slow moves. Yürütme is when the semah starts to get more lively. Yeldirme is the most fast-paced part of the semah and the most difficult to perform. Although this is the general pattern followed in the semah, there are alternative ways of doing it.
The semah dancers come to the floor floowing 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 troubles be resolved. May Mohammed-Ali make our existence, our unity and solidarity our goal. Greetings!”
They dance the semah in a circle without touching each other but standing across from one another. During the semah, no one turns their back on the dede, who sits in the corner. Different parts of the semah have various symbolic meanings such as the cycles of the universe, where they soar and fly like cranes in a circle. For example, the motion where the palm of one hand faces the sky while the palm of the other hand looks at the ground shows that, “You are God. I am human. I came from you and bear your essence. I am not separate from you”. The idea expressed by the action of turning both palms toward the sky and then reversing them so that they face the earth is the same. When the dancers put their palms in front of their faces during the semah, it means that they are looking at their own beauty in the mirror and therefore see divine beauty. There is a movement where the palms of both hands are turned to heaven and then brought to the chest and united over the heart. This is interpreted as God I am Adam, in other words God is in me, or God is in man.
The semah has different musical characteristics and rhythmic structure in various Anatolian regions, and it includes humanist elements. During the semah both men and women dance without discrimination, and everyone raises their hands towards heaven while the prayers are recited, confessing the unity of God regardless of religion, language or race.
Those who dance the semah wear no special costumes. Generally, they make a point to wear red and green, which have special significance in the Alevi belief and to be sure their clothes are clean. The dress varies from region to region, but women cover their heads with colorful clothing that reaches to their waist, and a belt is worn over the top of this attire.
Generally, the bağlama (Turkish stringed instrument) is played for the semah, which is closely intertwined with folk music. In some semahs, twelve instruments, either the same type or different, are played instead of the bağlama. Percussion instruments are not used. The ritual symbolizes unity, tolerance and reaching God, all of which are addressed in folk music. The semah is performed to songs from bards such as Pir Sultan Abdal, Kaygusuz Abdal, and Nesim, but most importantly Hatayi. Lyrics that focus on the themes of love and unity have created an exuberant and touching poetic tradition. There is a harmony between the semah songs and the movements. The ritual ends when the dede prays for the dancers.
The semah plays an important role in terms of enriching and keeping alive traditional music culture in Turkey. Because it has an original lyric structure and expressions, it gives visibility to elements of folk literature and adds diversity to the literature of society.
To ensure that the Alevi-Bektaşi Ritual Semah is transmitted to future generations and guarantee its viability, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is coordinating work with concerned communities and civil society organizations. Fieldwork is conducted for research, identification and inventory of Semah-related issues, which are turned over to the Archives of the Information and Documentation Center of Folk Culture.
The Hacı Bektaş Veli Memorial Ceremonies are held August 16-18 every year in Nevşehir, the location of the tomb of Hacı Bektaş Veli, who has influenced a huge segment of society with his ideas even after his death. In addition to the semah dances performed at the memorial ceremonies, there are panels and conferences about Alevi and Bektaşi culture. Folklore teams dressed in colourful costumes also perform dances. The Memorial Ceremonies have a special emphasis on peace and tolerance, creating a friendly atmosphere that includes people from all cultures.
The Nevşehir Hacıbektaş Semah Group established within the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has continued its work since 1997, and the group’s participation in national and international events is supported.
Established in 1987, the Gazi University Turkish Culture and Hacı Bektaş Veli Research Center conducts scholarly, objective and document-based studies related to Hacı Bektaş Veli. The Turkish Culture and Hacı Bektaş Veli Research Journal includes articles about Alevi-Bektaşi beliefs as they relate to Alevi and Turkish culture and has been published as a periodical since 1994. This center conducted the following projects with support from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism: “Printing and Distribution of the Works of Hacı Bektaş Veli to Commemorate the 800th Anniversary of His Birth” and “Celebrations on the Occasion of the 800th Anniversary of the Birth of Hacı Bektaş Veli” in 2009 as well as “The Semah Documentary of Our Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2010. Moreover, a documentary project about the semah including the provinces of Adıyaman, Aydın, Ordu, Eskişehir, Isparta and Kütahya was executed in 2010 in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT).
The Alevi-Bektaşi Federation, which was established for the purpose of researching, safeguarding and promoting Alevi-Bektaşi culture, holds informative meetings about the doctrinal aspects of the semah, and leads the way in practical aspects by participating in many events and putting on semah performances. The Federation also organizes events to teach instruments such as the saz and bağlama because of the critical role music plays in the semah. The release of periodical and non-periodical publications in this area also provides an opportunity for academic discussion of the semah’s profound underlying significance. In 2013, the Alevi Bektaşi Federation organized “Alevi lyrics / National music” concerts that aimed to bring together examples of Alevi music in Turkey and Iran.
Semah ceremonies were conducted in the Louvre Museum Auditorium on April 13 and 14, 2013 as part of the 17th Festival de l’Imaginaire with support from the National Commission for UNESCO. The festival organized by La Maison des Cultures duMonde (World Cultures Institute) in France invited a team from Afyon and Tokat to dance the Semah, which was performed under the “Chants et danses du djem alevi” category, thus introducing the semah to the world.
Many civil society organizations conduct activities so that future generations will maintain and safeguard the semah ritual. The Şah Kulu Sultan Lodge offers courses related to semah training as part of the Fundamental Alevi Education Principles. There is separate semah training for the following age groups: 7-12, 14-25 and 40+. Each class is made up of 30 people, the majority of whom are women. The instructors use their knowledge and skill to teach students the historical, religious and philosophical aspects of the semah. After learning the theory of the semah, students learn the semah ritual with a hands-on approach.
The Karacaahmet Sultan Culture and Solidarity Association has been offering semah training courses for twenty years. Each training course consists of fifty male and female students. The classes are divided into two parts: 12-15 years of age and 20-25 years of age. Those who successfully complete a one-year program of instruction earn a “Semah Training Course” certificate. The programs make sure students understand specific semah dance moves. Veli Aykut, one of the representatives of the zakir tradition which clearly plays a crucial role in performing the semah ritual and transmitting it to younger generations, was proclaimed a Living Human Treasure in 2010.
The Semah, Alevi-Bektaşi Ritual was registered on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.