Oruc Guvenc inherited the centuries-old art of therapeutic Sufi music from his mentor. And he helped the sick heal until the last phases of his life.
BERLIN/ISTANBUL– It may come as a surprise to some that the Ottoman Turks pioneered the treatment of the sick by means of music therapy long before the notion began to catch on to the West.
This was brought home to me recently during a visit to an old Ottoman hospital on the outskirts of the Thracian city of Edirne, built during the reign of Bayezid II, and called Darussifa in old Turkish.
It was opened in 1488 and it treated patients for 400 odd years, making use of medical theories of Avicenne and Al-Farabi that were far in advance of anything that was being practised in the West at the time. One of the novelties back then was the innovative use of music to treat patients suffering from mental ailments.
The hospital is an exceedingly handsome building, even as far as Ottoman structures go. It stands apart on the periphery of Edirne, single storied, built of light coloured, locally quarried stone, with an eye to prevailing winds and sunshine. In the middle can be found a courtyard, hemmed with colonnades, roofed by a central dome under which stands a pool with a 12-cornered fountain, whose coursing waters were intended to exert a soothing effect on the mind.
Today the various patients’ rooms – spacious and each decked out with a private fireplace – are given over to museum exhibits featuring life-size dummies dressed in the Ottoman garb of the day, some of them with archaic musical instruments in their hands, such as were played to heal the sick.
I was most surprised to identify the soothing, ney-based music that was piped into the rooms through hidden speakers to be that of Oruc Guvenc, the late expert in music therapy and Sufi sheikh, whose work in “active music therapy” was the single biggest influence resulting in the treatment of the sick via music in the West today.
Oruc Guvenc was born in 1948 in Kutahya with familial roots in Central Asia. At the age of 12, he had a prophetic dream which inspired him to take up music. He studied at Istanbul University, became a scholar who undertook studies in Central Asia, in particular with regards to Central Asian healing methods by means of music, in order to apply these methods in clinical therapy. Having studied shamanistic practices, but also the whole history of Oriental makams, he specialized in pentatonic music, an archaic form of music, based on five tones (today we are using octave systems and have seven or eight tones), which can be found in the music of indigenous folk, from African to Native American, as well as in many children’s songs. Among his many ideas, he proposed that children be strictly weaned on pentatonic music until the age of ten.
When Oruc Guvenc died in 2017 he left behind a German widow named Andrea Azize Guvenc, who spoke to me from her home in Yalova on the Sea of Marmara.
“He was a wonderful person, who almost never lost his composure, was at peace with himself, and had an inner connection to the big Spirit, the Spirit of Love,” Mrs. Guvenc recalls. “He was a being of light.”
Like many Sufi sheikhs, Guvenc believed to derive his authority from belonging to a silsila, a “golden chain” of teachers stretching back to the prophet Muhammad. However, unlike many Sufi wisemen, he did not leave a successor to carry out his work after him.
“And so it is, that in my opinion, all of the seeds that he sowed over time, they all together have sprouted to become a big garden all over the world,” says Mrs. Guvenc. “This garden has no walls. These plants can really spread their roots. You can’t hem them in with a fence. It’s a garden that can grow if it is well-tended and watered.”
Michael Bachmaier-Eksi is continuing Oruc Guvenc’s legacy in Berlin. It was there I met with the soft-spoken doctor, who uses Guvenc’s ideas to treat via music therapy people suffering from psychological problems.
“I am doing a special ‘makam therapy’,” he told me over coffee in a Berlin café around the corner from his practice.
“We have the active music therapy and the passive, the makam therapy from the Arabic, Ottoman tradition, where you select special tonalities for special diseases or special states of illnesses according to the old humoral medical field.”
Bachmaier-Eksi was first exposed to the ideas of Oruc Guvenc in 1996 at Bakirkoy hospital in Istanbul. “Every Wednesday there was music therapy. So we decided to go there and to join this therapy. There was a group of musicians, the musical therapists, on the stage, and they were dressed in traditional Central Asian clothing. The nurse brought in around twenty psychiatric patients, which were severely ill, with psychosis, schizophrenia, or something like this, and they were very downcast and withdrawn. The nurse set them down in a row, and then the musicians started to play, and to sing. And some of the women – the therapists – went to the patients and tried to gently coax them to join the dancing. It was very impressive to see how life returned to the patients as if they were awakening from a deep sleep.”
The elder brother of Oruc Guvenc, Yasar Guvenc now tends his legacy from a music center in the Sultan Ahmet quarter of Istanbul.
On the premises of the Otag Music Center is a small but thorough museum of musical instruments from the Turkic world collected during Guvenc’s travels in Central Asia.
“Oruc mentioned his concept of a ‘live museum’,” says Yasar Guvenc. “His idea was to have a museum where a person could take the instrument in one’s hands and examine it and play it a little bit.”
Today, it is an irony of modern Turkey, that Oruc Guvenc’s profoundly Turkish ideas have mainly bore fruit abroad rather than at home in Turkey.
“The problem is that in Turkey, music therapy is influenced by the West. So what is taught in the universities is the Western music therapy,” says Bachmaier-Eksi. “In Turkey, there are few people who are practising Guvenc’s music therapy professionally. For this one has to go to Austria or Germany.”
Sufi Muslims like to quote from a hadith, where it says in the Last Days the sun will rise in the West. Many do not take this literally, but rather as a metaphor for the spiritual rejuvenation that will ultimately come from the West rather than the traditional East. At any rate, this certainly applies to the legacy of Oruc Guvenc’s ideas on music therapy, the light of which is definitely shining from the West these days.
(NOTE: The museum on the premises of the Otag Music Center was closed briefly as a result of Covid 19 measures, but is now open upon private appointment.)