Following the semah, the candles are extinguished, the pir’s carpet is rolled up, and some food, called lokma, is shared by all – perhaps there's a full meal, including the meat of a sacrificed sheep, or perhaps a few pieces of buttery cake baked in large, shallow, round pans.


Play the video below to see a semah performed in the Munzur Valley:


Some Alevis (mainly the Bektashi) trace the origin of the cem ceremony to the story of the mi’raj – Mohammed’s ascent into heaven. According to the Alevi version of the tale, when the prophet is on his way home after meeting with Allah, he joins a spiritual gathering of a community of enlightened men and women of different ethnic backgrounds, with Ali as their pir. At one point in the evening, everyone, including Mohammed, dances together in a state of ecstasy - which has been reenacted ever since in the semah. Click here to read a re-telling of the Bektashi mi'raj story


The Alevis of Munzur, however, reject this origin story. “Alevis were making cems long before Mohammed was ever born,” says Hayri Dede – and his claim is echoed by the Zeynal Dede and other knowledgeable Alevi elders in the upper Munzur Valley. The Alevi version of the tale of the mi’raj, they say, was written after Islam swept through the region, and was created to make the cem, and the semah, seem more acceptable to Muslim sensibilities.


If the goal of this tale was to embed ancient Alevi beliefs in an Islamic storyline, merging Alevi principles with Muslim symbology, it was quite successful. Mohammed and Ali are inserted into a scenario that elevates internal truths over external appearances, favors the mystical interpretations over literal ones, and promotes the notion of equality between different races and genders.


If, on the other hand, the aim of rooting the cem in the mi’raj was to make it less outlandish to the majority Sunni community, it didn’t work. To faithful Muslims, the idea of men and women dancing together as a form of worship is simply profane, no matter what “historical” event inspired it


This sentiment reflects the vast difference between Muslim and Alevi attitudes toward women, with Alevis being much more liberal, in ways that are similar to secular Western cultures. In addition to playing an essential role in prayer ceremonies, Alevi women can dress and wear their hair as they please. They can smoke; they can drink; they can get tattoos. Once, when an elderly woman was asked what she thought of her granddaughter’s tattoos, she replied, “Well, I wouldn’t get them, but it’s her body – she can do what she wants with it!” This is not a sentiment that you’d hear expressed in most parts of the Middle East.


Men and women dance together in groups at weddings.


Even in Munzur, however, women are subjected to some of the same gender-based double-standards held by many cultures around the world. They fulfill well-defined roles as child-raisers and keepers of the home. Before they are married, girls and women are expected to obey their fathers and to avoid romantic and sexual relationships.  Marriage is monogamous, but social status is patrilineal, hence unions between seyit women and talip men may be discouraged by the women’s families, since the children of such a couple would have no claim to their mother’s sacred lineage.


Still, in most ways, women are thought of as equal to men. “Everyone is created by God, everyone is a manifestation of the divine, men and women alike,” says the pir in Guney Konak. Men and women alike follow the same path.


Men and women pray together in an outdoor ceremony on a sacred hill in the upper Munzur Valley. 


One social/religious role played exclusively by men is that of the musahiplik – a special relationship in which two young men who are not blood relatives choose each other to be musahips, or “brothers on the path.” This bond is sealed by a dede, and has profound implications. Musahips are ethically responsible for each other, with each held accountable for the others deeds, as though the two have been fused into a single moral being, each of whom is meant to help the other be the best person he can be. 


Musahips are also responsible for each other’s material well-being and, technically speaking, what belongs to one literally belongs to the other. While in the past, musahips may have shared virtually everything, these days they are less likely to do so. But if one needs help, the other readily gives it. Musahips are considered to be so close that, while it’s perfectly normal in Alevi culture for cousins to wed, the children of musahips are absolutely forbidden from marrying each other. They are closer, even, than blood.


Entering into a musahip relationship is considered an important step on the Alevi path – and even though the bond is between two men, women are not left behind. According to Dilsah Deniz, the sacred contract that joins the men is, ideally, “completed with their spouses;” the perfect musahip relationship, thus, actually includes four people. Men must declare a musahip before they get married, as their musahip should accompany them during the ceremony. Once they are both married, the spiritual union of the four is created, and husbands and wives follow the Alevi path together, as equal partners in their journey toward Truth.


Alevism, of course, tends to shun rigid doctrine, so unmarried men and women are not excluded from following the Alevi path; those who remain single are seen as an exception to the general rule, and their marital status does not inhibit their spiritual growth. This is particularly important for women, since single men can still enter into musahip relationships, but women without husbands lack a connection to this auspicious arrangement.


What matters most for any Alevi, man or woman, married or unmarried, is the way they treat other people, and the way they treat the natural world.


For more about the customs, beliefs, and stories of the Munzur Valley, continue to Other Customs.