Konya: Like Tarsus, the southern Turkish town that will forever be associated with St. Paul, Konya in Central Anatolia will forever be associated with one man, Mevlana Muhammed Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), better known to the world as Mevlana.
A Sufi, or an Islamic mystic, Rumi was the author of a number of influential religious works, including the Mesnevi, which sets out the beliefs he developed over his lifetime. But Rumi is better known as the father of the whirling dervishes, a Sufi order that uses music and dance as a way to bring its devotees closer to Allah. Every year Konya remembers the death of Mevlana on Dec. 17 (Şeb-i Arus) with a week of celebrations in which displays of dervish dancing form the centerpiece.
Because Konya has a reputation as a conservative town stranded in the middle of the Anatolian plateau, many visitors to the country opt to give it a miss, especially in winter, when the weather can be unrelentingly cold. This is a great shame because the city has also been described as “Turkey's best outdoor museum of Seljuk architecture,” which should surely guarantee it a place on the itinerary of anyone interested in the country's past.
Today Konya is a sprawling modern town dubbed an Anatolian Tiger for its success in attracting business. This is the aspect of town that is most immediately apparent as you arrive at its colorful Space Age bus station ready to be whisked into the center in the sleek modern tram, and it takes some considerable mental effort to strip away the accumulated development of the centuries and imagine yourself back in the Konya of Rumi's days. There are, however, several buildings in the town center that would already have been in existence then, and happily they are within easy walking distance of each other.
The son of an Islamic scholar, Rumi was apparently born in a village called Wakhsh in what is now Tajikistan but was at that time a part of Persia. Probably fearing the approach of the Mongols, Rumi's father relocated the family westwards into the part of Anatolia that was then the heart of the Selçuk Sultanate of Rum with its capital in Konya. They are believed to have arrived there in 1228, by which time the unremarkable İplikçi Cami on Alaettin Caddesi, built during the reign of Şemseddin Altun-Aba, would already have been in existence for a quarter of a century.
More recently completed was the Alaeddin Cami, the superb mosque that bestrides the slopes of Alaeddin Tepesi (Alaeddin's Hill) in the town center and where, in 1231, Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I was laid to rest. Unlike the Ottoman mosques with domes which draw the eye irresistibly to the center of the building, this was a typically Selçuk long, hall-like mosque where men met to pray amid a sea of columns. Today it's still possible to admire the pieces of ancient masonry that were incorporated into these columns. Sadly, the magnificent carpets that once covered the floors have been removed; some of them can be seen on display in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in İstanbul.
In the years when the young Rumi was developing the ideas that would eventually result in the rituals of the whirling dervishes, Konya must have been as bustling a city as it is today, with almost as much building work going on then as now. The scant remains of a Selçuk palace on the hillside may be of limited interest, but beside the road ringing the hill you will be able to visit two magnificent buildings whose creation Rumi would have been able to watch as he strolled about town.
The first is the Büyük Karatay Medresesi (Great Karatay Seminary), completed in 1252, which now houses a museum of tiles and ceramics. Built for a diplomat named Celaleddin Karatay, the building is a masterpiece of Selçuk style with a spectacularly decorative entrance opening onto a courtyard with a huge eyvan (arched recess) opening off it and with some original turquoise tiles as well as a fine inscription in Arabic running around the base of the dome.
A decade later and Rumi would have been able to gaze in admiration on the İnce Minare Medresesi (Slender Minaret Seminary), work on which was completed for the vizier Sahip Ata in 1264. Like the Büyük Karatay Medresesi, the İnce Minare Medresesi has an imposing gateway, although it's somewhat overshadowed by the minaret, which was truncated by a lightning strike in 1901. Internally, the building is similar to its neighbor, although its collection of stone and woodwork is of somewhat minor interest.
These two medreses are obvious and easy to find, which cannot really be said of the third seminary that went up in Rumi's lifetime, namely the Sırçalı Medresesi (Glass Seminary). Boasting by far the prettiest tile decoration of the three, this was built in 1242 for a vizier whose name has not come down to us. It can be found on Ressam Sami Sokak, not far from the Konya Archaeology Museum.
But of course the building for which Konya is best known is the one that eventually became Rumi's last resting place and whose fluted, turquoise-tiled dome is one of the iconic sights of central Turkey. Here, in a complex that evolved over time to include a semahane (a room in which the whirling dervishes could perform), a museum and cells for disciples, Rumi was buried in an exquisite tomb which remains the focus of intense devotion today.
Those familiar with the story of Rumi may also want to pay a visit to the Şems-i Tebrizi Cami, the mosque in which his friend and mentor Şems of Tabriz was buried after his murder in 1247 and which can be found not far away from the İplikçi Cami. (Those less familiar with the story may want to read Elif Şafak's wonderful “The Forty Rules of Love” for a lyrical account of their friendship.)
Of course historic Konya is much more than the reminders of Rumi and the great days of the Selçuk supremacy. The archaeological museum, lurking in the grounds of a mosque dating back to 1283, houses a particularly magnificent Pamphylian sarcophagus decorated with scenes of the Labors of Hercules, while an annex to the Koyunoğlu Museum is housed inside an old Konyan mansion still furnished as it would have been when its owners lived in it in the 19th century.
There's also a fine early Ottoman mosque, the Selimiye Cami, right beside the complex containing Mevlana's tomb.
Konya is a great place to get to grips with the real, untouristy Turkey. While touts working for carpet shops on Alaeddin Caddesi can sometimes make a nuisance of themselves, it doesn't usually take long to shake them off. Then you can take your time to explore a bazaar full of very Turkish delicacies before stopping off for a dinner of fırın kebabı, chunks of succulent, oven-baked mutton served on flaps of freshly baked bread and best washed down with ayran, the popular yoghurt drink.
No trip to the city would be complete without seeing the dervishes going through their paces. White skirts swirling, tall felt hats bending with every gesture, the soft swish of slippered feet pirouetting across the floor -- it's a mesmerizing, unforgettable sight that will linger in your memory long after you've forgotten the name of your hotel.
WHERE TO STAY
Dedeman Konya. Tel.: 0332-221 6600
Hotel Balıkçılar. Tel.: 0332-350 9470
Hotel Rumi. Tel.: 0332-353 1121
Hotel Selçuk. Tel.: 0332-353 2525
Rixos Konya. Tel.: 0332-221 5000
HOW TO GET THERE
There are frequent buses to Konya from Ankara and Cappadocia. There are also train services from İstanbul, but it would be much quicker and more comfortable to fly with Turkish Airlines (THY).
Picture: Konya Archaeology Museum. Photo: SZ.