Thursday, November 2, 2017

Konya, Turkey: A Large but Modest City

My first three nights, I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about Konya, Turkey. It's a large city of two million people that feels much smaller, as if it's unsure of its own place in its own country. Harun Turkmenoglu echoes similar sentiments about Konya, writing, "Imagine why this metropolitan city, in the very middle of the country, which is close to almost everywhere, is not well known... I think it has something to do with the fact that the people who live in this city do not live the city." 

Some of Konya's relative anonymity is due to its divergent geography: many residents live in the highly developed (and easily walkable) city center, including numerous university students, but much of its population lives on rural land with no urban connection. 
As a result, it's possible to see the city but miss half its landscape. While Konya has a rich history of carpet-weaving, it has decided instead to emphasize its crown jewel, the tomb of famous Sufi mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi: "Either exist as you seem, or seem as you are." 
Bardakci Mosque's carpet
Selimiye Mosque's carpet

Mevlana (aka Mawlana) Muhammad J. Rumi is buried at the Mevlana Museum, and his name is typically prefaced with Mevlana--meaning, "our master"--as a sign of respect. Rumi is famous for creating not Sufism--which has multiple sects--but its mesmerizing whirling dervish ceremony. 
Getting jiggy with it.

Author Martin Gray summarizes it expertly here, and I will quote a short passage from his Konya page: 

"The Sema ceremony, in seven parts, represents the mystical journey of an individual on their ascent through mind and love to union with the divine. Mirroring the revolving nature of existence and all living things, the Sufi dervish turns toward the truth, grows through love, abandons ego, and embraces perfection. Then he returns from this spiritual journey as one who has reached perfection in order to be of love and service to the entire creation. Dressed in long white gowns (the ego's burial shroud) and wearing high, cone-shaped hats (the ego's tombstone), the dervish dances for hours at a time. With arms held high, the right hand lifted upward to receive blessings and energy from heaven, the left hand turned downward to bestow these blessing on the earth, and the body spinning from right to left, the dervish revolves around the heart and embraces all of creation with love. The dervishes form a circle, each turning in harmony with the rhythm of the accompanying music as the circle itself moves around, slowly picking up speed and intensity until all collapse in a sort of spiritual exaltation." [Link to Martin Gray's webpage,, is HERE.] 

According to legend, Rumi passed a jewelry market and upon hearing workers hammering gold, began turning in harmony with the rhythm. Henceforth Sema was born. If you visit Konya, the city provides a complimentary Sema show most Saturday nights at 7pm at the Mevlana Kultur Merkezi (Mevlana Cultural Center). It's the highlight of any Konya trip. If you're looking for convenience, the Hilton Garden Inn is right next to the Mevlana Cultural Center.  

About half a mile away from the Mevlana Cultural Center is Rumi's tomb at Mevlana Museum. 
Most colorful tomb I've ever seen.

The museum, located right outside the tomb, is also interesting. I didn't know Sufis refer not only to the Koran and the Hadiths, but to something called Masnavi, a series of six books of poems. 

To do a lengthy walking tour encompassing most of the city's sites, you can start at the Mevlana Museum, then visit Selimiye Mosque; Aziziye Mosque; Karatay Medresesi/Madrassa (beautiful turquoise tiles); 
Does anyone else see Chinese influence?

Ince Minare Muzesi or Inceminare Medrese (Stone and Wooden Works Museum), which has the Wrestler's Stone; 
Observe the handle. With one hand, a wrestler would lift the stone to train and build arm strength. 
Konya's small Archaeology Museum (10 minutes is all you need); 
Is this the origin of the "evil eye"?
and finally Sahip Ata Vakif Muzesi (not to be confused with the mosque next to it named Sahib i-Ata Camii). 
In the olden days, if you established and funded a school/madrassa, you commanded enough clout to be buried in a special place. In other words, the rich have always been involved in education.

Rumi's teacher, Shams Al-Tabriz (aka Sems-i Tebrizi), is also buried in Konya in a much more traditional setting. (Shams was pressured to leave Konya because after he met Rumi, Rumi stopped giving sermons to his disciples. Shams reportedly once said, "In order to live happily among people, you have to be a hypocrite but if you always want to tell the truth, you have to live in a desert or on a mountain.") 
Because the city center is close to hundreds of miles of farmland, everything I had tasted wonderful. My highlight was the fresh breakfast honey in Sumac Grill (inside Hilton Garden Inn). 
Tourist guides will tell you to visit Sille, a small town nearby, and Aksehir, another town about one and a half hours away. I skipped them both. (By the way, Cappadocia is 3 hours by car, but I have no interest in hot air balloon rides, so I didn't visit. Cappadocia actually has beautiful mountains that don't get as much publicity as its balloons, which is a shame.) 

Regarding tour guides, my hotel gave me this card, but I didn't meet him, and I don't know his prices, so I can't make any recommendations. 
I've now spent about a month in Turkey, and my favorite cities are still Istanbul and Malatya. If you want a beach town, Kusadasi wins the crown

Konya's problem is its lack of a unique identity. I asked several Konya-born hotel employees to summarize their city in two sentences, and none of them had a good answer. A young chef was finally recruited to assist and typed "heart of hearts" into my Google Translate app, but scurried away after I asked follow-up questions. (Turks do not generally speak English, which adds a linguistic struggle to the cultural barrier--and I say this as someone born in a Middle Eastern Muslim country.) [Update: a hotel employee born near Konya wrote, "Although Konya is a big city, it is a modest city.") 

Other than Rumi's iridescent tomb, it's hard to see Konya's unique pull. Note that Rumi is Persian and wrote in Farsi, not Turkish. He may have lived much of his life in modern-day Turkey to avoid a Mongol invasion, but he was Persian, and so was Shams, his teacher. I didn't feel Rumi in my bones when I wandered here because the Turks have appropriated an Iranian icon without importing Iranian culture. 

Moreover, Turks seem rougher around the edges than Persians, including the women, and the ones who reminded me of more graceful Persian women looked more Persian than Turk. Perhaps the hardness I felt comes from having one of the largest and most powerful militaries in the world while being involved in active or recent conflicts with Greece, Syria, and Iraq, but other than Malatya, a small city known for its apricots, I didn't get the sense that I was living in a place Rumi would appreciate today. 
Turkish flags are everywhere in the city. In my experience, the more flags, the less openness. The more a country needs to *regularly* display its patriotism through public symbols & overt ceremonies rather than everyday actions, the more problems it usually has.
A beautiful woman doesn't need too much makeup.

After three nights of feeling as if my Turkish trip would end with a whimper, not a bang, I happened to see a photo of Salt Lake aka Tuz Golu. The lake is nearby Cihanbeyli, which feels like a traditional Turkish town. When I paid for the lunch of two elderly ladies, they thanked me, and I asked to take their photos. Two of them initially sat for me, but one moved away when her husband beckoned her from a car outside. I still managed to get a photo of one of the older ladies, who graciously posed for me. 

You'll find Tuz Golu 120 kms from Cihanbeyli. My travel woes evaporated instantly when I saw it. I've been to Chile's San Pedro de Atacama, which looks similar, but it was freezing. Tuz Golu reminded me of San Pedro de Atacama, but with a warmer climate. As you may have guessed from the name, workers mine salt from the lake. 
Salt, salt, baby.

The salt "mountains" are unique, but the view... well, see for yourself. 
I was so happy, I pranced around like a kid in Disneyland. Running to and fro, I tasted the salt on the ground, admired the mountains, and cupped the water in my hands (it left a salty residue!). 

The view back was almost as wonderful. Take a look. 
Remember I said Konya, a city of 2 million people, was half farmland? Riding back to the city center, I observed the trees, the open land, the mountains, the herders, and it was then I realized why Rumi lived here: nature. Rumi found God in nature's vastness. It's a wide open landscape, filled with possibilities in every direction. A man could wander for years and not feel lost. Far from the city center, the locals don't need flags to know their identity or to feel proud of their country. 

When returning, I saw a curious sight. The sky had opened up, and the sun was shining light from the heavens to the ground. I stared at it for a few minutes, not believing my eyes, and I finally took a photo. Due to zooming in, it doesn't truly capture what I saw. If you were there, however, you'd see a singular beam from the sky, as if to signal a holy presence.  

I don't know if Rumi believed in the Resurrection or the Reckoning, but seeing the sky that evening, I knew why Rumi was so happy he had to dance away his spiritual energy. God may be everywhere, but more in some places than others. You just have to know where to look. 

"We are neither Pharaoh nor Nimrod. What do we have to do with this terrestrial world? Can there be peace of mind, a permanent home for us in this world? I have lived in the dark prison of this world only to be of benefit to the people; otherwise, why should I have spent my lifetime in prison? Whose property have I stolen? I pray that I will soon return to [the Prophet] Muhammad, the beloved friend of God." -- Rumi 

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