Despite the fact that my list of places to visit in Turkey is longer than I could ever hope to visit in one lifetime (only 794 left to go!), I still end up finding myself in cities and towns that I’ve already been to. With its ancient history, a generous spattering of 13th century buildings, and a fascinating classically Turkish district, and the tomb of Rumi at its heart, I can’t complain about visiting the great city of Konya again.
Somehow over three years have managed to slip by since my first visit! The best part about having so much time go by since the last time I was here is that I’ve more or less figured out how to use a camera and I can come away with some much better pictures than last time!
Despite having visited before, the mausoleum of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi was still a fascinating place to me. I’ve visited countless tombs of saints, some major some minor, some simple graves with little ribbons tied to everything, others grand with special places set up for offering animal sacrifices nearby. I’ve been to the tomb of Eyup al-Ansari, one of the most sacred sites in Turkey many times and even gotten private tours by an enthusiastic Hodja (religious teacher) through the complex, and yet, the tomb of Rumi is absolutely unique in Turkey. There’s really nowhere else that you’ll find such an intense feeling among the visitors.
Now keep in mind that, as a non-Muslim, I’m very much an outsider. While I’ve seen aspects of Turkish religious life I’m not a partaker and there’s many things that are still a mystery to me.
The difference I saw and felt at the mausoleum was the emotional fervency of the visitors. While there was the normal amount of selfie-takers and unaffected visitors there was also a surprising number of people praying with a real passion, shedding tears, or shaking with quiet sobs around the coffin of Rumi. Prayers were whispered into tiny holes in a glass case protecting a clipping of the beard of Rumi and I even caught a surprising number of Western tourists standing at a little distance from the massive coffin shedding silent tears.
I’ve been to other places where relics of Muhammed, founder and prophet of Islam, were kept and didn’t see such emotional reactions. Rumi’s place in Turkey and the world is truly a unique one. Rumi’s poetry and mysticism have even caught the imagination of people well outside the bounds of traditional Islam. Over seven hundred years after his death the movement that he founded has simultaneously become the most recognized form of mystical Islam, as well as the most beloved Islamic writer in the West. Rumi, a deeply religious Muslim, has managed to become Americas best selling poet.
Whether or not you’re a lover of Rumi yourself, the mausoleum is well worth visiting just to see this unique place that has such deep meaning for millions of people of all different backgrounds from all around the globe.
Any central Anatolian town with even an ounce of self respect will have a Turkish Bath, and a city with a pedigree as great Konya’s should have one left over from ancient times. We decided to give one such historical bath a try one night and were not disappointed. Compared to the massively grand Hamams (link to what is a) of the Ottoman Capitals of Istanbul and Edirne, Konya’s Şifa Sultan Hamamı felt rather small.
The difference is that this Turkish Bath is said to have been established in 1283, nearly three hundred years before the great baths in those other cities were built. Now, I do take that date with a grain of salt, dates like these can be greatly exaggerated (one bath house had two contradicting dates on its own signs) and this date comes from the neighboring religous complex of Sahip Ata and I couldn’t find anything proving that the Şifa Sultan Hamamı was actually built at the same time.
Şifa Sultan Bath was busy and the place was as hot as it was lively (busyness is a good sign meaning that it will be much cleaner than some other quieter places). Having not been to a Hamam in some time a thick layer of skin was peeled off us by the most energetic and deaf tellak (the guy who does the scrubbing) that I’ve met yet. He was plenty talkative but it was clear he wasn’t catching a word we said. When he asked where we were from he thought we said we were Kangalı, a town near where he was from. Then, when we clarified that we were from Canada he started talking about how nice London was.
Apart from being the deafest, he was also the most slap-happy tellak I’ve ever encountered and the sound of bare backs being slapped echoed under the ancient domes.
As the centre of one of the worlds best known and wide-spread sufi sects, you can’t help but notice a somewhat unique atmosphere to the city. Konya attracts mystically-minded people from all over the world and sufi related items are definitely easier to find here than in other places.
Along with the whirling robes, felt hats, and poetry, music also plays an important role for the Sufis, and no instrument is more ironically sufi than the ney.
The ney is a reed flute that has been used in the Middle East for thousands of years, and (if you buy a good one) it will be made from a stiff reed that has been cured for 8-10 years. The mouthpiece (which is on the end rather than on the side) is typically made from water buffalo horn, carved to match the curve of the players lips.
Wandering the back streets of central Konya I met Sedat, a local craftsman running a cramped shop filled with dried reeds where he made neys. Despite the fact that the ney, his real passion is the making of ud, or lutes, a much more laborious process. Whether due to age or waning interest he told me he was going to retire from making neys as soon as his stock of reeds ran out.
Sedat was an incredibly friendly host, answering my questions, serving tea, and telling stories. When I bought a ney for myself from him, he sized me up, picked an appropriate size and even gave me a short lesson to get me started on the road to becoming a neyzen (someone who plays the ney). I tried to play the ney around fifteen years ago and only managed some ugly wheezing sounds then, but under the expert guidance of Sedat was able to draw some flute-like sounds out of my new ney.
Interestingly, the ney is a unique instrument in the Turkish language because you do not “play” it, rather you “blow” the ney, which is tied to the idea that, in the Qur’an, Allah “blew” life into mud and it became alive and was Adam the first man. In a similar way the reed is blown upon and it becomes alive. The ney is also special because the ney is not “made”, rather a ney is opened. There is a whole world of music and mysticism here in Konya that I hope to explore someday.
While Konya’s best-known dish is Etli Ekmek, Fırın Kebabı comes in a close second. I was pretty excited to find out that Fırın Kebabı was a big a piece of mutton slow roasted for hours in a brick oven, so you could say my expectations were a little high. The problem with fırın kebabı is that one of it’s selling points is that its not flavored; “Cooked in nothing but its own fat”. However, it turns out that salt is a good thing and spices are even better. Considering fırın kebabı costs about four to five times as much as a normal kebab, it was a pretty steep fee for an, albiet tender, piece of bland fatty meat.
Less than an hour away from the city of Konya itself is the town of Beyşehir. The towns of Konya province aren’t exactly known for being particularly attractive. They are dusty farm towns in a wide prairie, where tractors outnumber cars and they don’t often have much to attract visitors. Beyşehir, is an exception though. As is the norm in Turkey the town dates back to the bronze and stone ages, though it was the Eshrefid Turks who established a beautiful medieval city here on the shores of a massive lake.
Between Konya and home I stopped in Beyşehir to explore the sights, the most iconic of which is the town’s unusual looking bridge that spans the mouth of a channel flowing out of the lake. While the bridge may look like something leftover from Roman times, it was actually only built in 1907 as a dam to control irrigation of the plains downstream.
Walking along a lake shore that felt more like Istanbul’s sea wall, I followed the pointed domes and minarets to the heart of medieval Beyşehir. Here I found all the hallmarks of Seljuk civilization; magnificent grand doorways, soaring octagonal tombs, and a layout that made no sense whatsover. For example, the crown portal doorway of the Ismail Ağa Madrasah is stunning and massive. To properly appreciate its intricate beauty, you need to stand back a ways. Unfortunately, that is not possible because it was built only a couple yards away from the side wall of the Eşrefoğlu Mosque. The Eşrefoğlu Mosque itself has a front wall that sits at a bizarre angle to the rest of the building, an unusual trait in a mosque where prayers must be performed in straight orderly rows.
Beyond these minor oddities the place was stunning. Great care had clearly gone into maintaining these heritage buildings with their sensitive woodwork, fine turquoise tiles, and ancient masonry. Eşrefoğlu Mosque in particular was spectacular.
Eşrefoğlu Mosque is the largest remaining wood-built mosque of its era. Cedar pillars rise into geometric crowns holding up a sea of beams and planks. Throughout the history of this region mason and bricklayer have dominated the world grand architecture, so to see so much woodwork in a place like this is quite rare.
The crowning jewel of Eşrefoğlu Mosque, like most mosques, is its beautiful mihrab. The mihrab is a tall panel at the front of the mosque with a niche at its base designed to show the direction to Mecca and to reflect back to the congregants the voice of the one leading prayers. Because of its special and holy purpose these mihrabs are often the centerpiece of the mosque, and Eşrefoğlu is no exception. Intricate geometrical patterns and flowing calligraphy are all made out of thousands of tiny painted tiles.
A short distance beyond the Town of Beyşehir are a handful of monuments that date back thousands of years before the Seljuk Turks came and built their great mosques and tombs. Tucked into a shallow valley in the wide rolling prairies of Konya is the Hittite spring shrine known as Eflatun Pınar. Here a spring was tapped to flow through Hittite god statues into a man-made pool walled in with stone and carved god figures that appear to be rising out of the water. The name Eflatun comes from an ancient misconception that ties the shrine to the Greek philosopher Plato, who lived nearly one thousand years after Hittites built this shrine.
In the hills east of the shrine is another Hittite monument: a massive eight metre-long, seventy-ton slab of stone carved with the figure of the Hittite Storm god standing atop a mountain god and a pair of lions. What makes the massive stone so unusual is that it seems to have been abandoned on the hillside before it was ever put up or even finished. While experts have had different theories about the colossal statue, no one can really say for sure how or why it ended up sitting abandoned. Only fifty yards away a Hellenistic era monument can be seen carved into the low cliff face along with the scant remains of lesser tombs, otherwise the place feels quiet and remote, and without the ruins of a city nearby its hard to imagine what attracted people to it thousands of years ago.
While I’ve been to Konya a few times now, there is still so much to see in the scattered villages of Turkey’s largest province. Byzantine churches, Hittite monuments, Seljuk Castles, and fairy chimney covered hillsides will probably have been back here again.