In search of the Seljuks
I have to thank Shelly for allowing me to indulge my often obscure interests. Visiting Konya is probably right up there in obscure travel destinations, but I did want to go there for a reason. In the 12th century Konya was the capital of the Seljuk Empire, the most important of the Turkish emirates to founded on the remains of the dying Byzantine empire. The expansion of the Turkish empire had been the subject of my thesis at university and I've remained passionately interested in this period ever since., for although rivals and often at war with one another, the Byzantine Christian and Seljuk Muslim empires enjoyed unusually close and sometimes even warm relations. For me, this was almost a pilgrimage.
Still, everyone we met said the same thing, even the travel agent, "Why go to Konya?" It was a bit of trek. Konya is situated on the Anatolian plateau in central Turkey, a little south of Cappadocia, the land of the fairy castles. It is bleak and cold in winter and not really very scenic at other times of the year. It would take almost 12 hours to get there.
We left Marmaris about 11am. As we wound our way up through the mountains that run right down to the sea, it made me think how isolated the cities of Turkey's southern coast are. The highways linking them to the interior are new, some only built in the 1960s. Before that some cities could only be reached by boat. It makes you think, what sort of authority could the Ottomans, the Byzantines, and the Romans before them have ever really exercised over these places. Sure, these cities paid a bit of tribute here and there but would have been pretty much free to do whatever they liked, while someone back in Constantinople ticked a box to say 'we own this.'
It was a long bus ride but Turkish buses are comfortable and provide a drink and food service. We managed to sleep a bit and had some interesting discussions with a couple of passengers, who again always asked, "why Konya?" I think Shelly was getting nervous. Konya has a reputation for being the most religiously conservative city in Turkey; a little Iran. It didn't sound so appealing.
I was getting nervous too actually but for different reasons. The bus was running late and we'd only managed to book a hotel online about 15 minutes before we left Marmaris and we'd not received confirmation of the booking. Of course, once on the bus we were uncontactable so we were travelling blind. It was now looking like we'd arrive around midnight, so if the booking failed, we were in trouble. As the bus went along it picked up and dropped off people along the side of the road. Everyone on the bus knew we were going to Konya so there was little chance we'd be forgotten, but we had no idea where we would be dropped off. The driver wanted to drop us on the highway exit so he could continue straight through, but I asked him to drop us at the bus station. We ended up compromising at the round about near the bus station. Fortunately a taxi driver was cruising past when we got off and we hailed him down. We gave him the hotel name and he immediately offered us a cigarette, despite the "No Smoking" sign. I think he was hoping we'd accept so he could have one. Finally, a little after midnight we arrived at the hotel. The night manager was waiting and he had our booking. He ushered us straight up to the room; we'd sort out the paperwork tomorrow, and then we crashed.
The next day we headed into the city for sightseeing. Our first stop was the Mevlana shrine, dedicated to the sufi mystic and founder of the Whirling Dervishes, Celeladdin Rumi. Rumi was born in Afganistan in 1207 and became a religious teacher and poet. He was driven west by a Mongol invasion and travelled all across central asia and the middle east before settling in Turkey. His experiences in exile led to promote a particularly inclusive and tolerant mystic theology, which was particularly appealing to the the Seljuks, who governed a mixed Christian and Muslim population. The sufi order he founded used music and whirling as a form of meditation and spiritual enlightenment. After he died in 1273 his tomb became a shrine. Entry is free and it was packed with visitors, particularly women. Unfortunately you were not allowed to take photos inside the beautifully decorated shrine.
At the opposite end of the old town is Aladdin Hill, an artificial hill on which once stood the sultans' palace complex. Sadly it's almost all gone now. What wasn't burnt to the ground when the Mongols came through in 1273 was toppled by earthquakes, but the Aladdin Mosque and two tombs are still standing. From the outside, Aladdin Mosque is very plain. Inside it isn't much better. The columns in the hall,some of which are Roman and Byzantine in origin, all lean markedly - the mosque is slowly sliding down the hill. At the far end of the hall however is a magnificent, brightly decorated 13th century mirhab (altar).
Inside one of the Seljuk tombs are the gravestones of a dozen Seljuk sultans, beautifully decorated in blue tile and Islamic caligraphy. The other tomb is empty. Both tombs have been harshly restored. Just down the hill is the Tile Museum, housed within a neatly restored Seljuk seminary and tomb. The blue tiled dome is impressive. All of the tiny Seljuk era mosques have been converted into little museums.
Having done the rounds of museums and mosques we stopped at a popular local restaurant for a kebab. The specialty in Konya is firin kebab, slow baked lamb on a bed of soft bread. It was delicious. We also tried the national drink - aryan - a salty yogurt drink. It's an acquired taste obviously, but some people were drinking it by the pint. The restaurant manager came over for a chat and asked us why we'd come to Konya. He was pleased to find that we knew something of the city's Seljuk past and recommended we visit a couple of mosques and museums. When we we'd finished he had one of the staff take us over to a 'friend' who could provide us more information about Konya. Shelly was worried that it was a scam and we'd end up sitting in a carpet shop, but I didn't want to offend Turkish hospitality and so we went along. We did find ourselves in a carpet shop but the guy there only gave us a tourist map and some pointers before bidding us adieu.
That night we went along to the nightly Sema - the Whirling Dervish ceremony. The Sema had once been performed in a hall at the back of the Mevlana shrine, but Konya now has a purpose built stadium. It's gigantic and could probably seat 20,000 people. It might seem that such an investment can only be driven by tourism, but the Sema was free and looking around at the crowd we found that there were probably only 50 non-Turkish people in the audience. The majority of the audience were women, mostly young and wearing brightly coloured scarves. Perhaps the spectacle of the Sema allowed them to get out of the house unsupevised. There was lots of discrete texting going on.
The Sema was an interesting spectacle. It started with series of speeches from certain dignitories, then the band began to play. The music was hypnotic and I must admit I almost fell asleep under its spell. The dervishes progressed out slowly and formed up in a circle. After some prayers and rituals they began to whirl, slowly at first and then getting faster and faster. It was quite a spectacle. Amazingly, after whirling around for 15 or so minutes they were able to stop on a pin and showed no sign of dizziness. It was interesting to watch but it did go on and on and on... a bit. The whole thing probably lasted two hours. Even a large portion of the Turkish audience had slipped away during the performance.
We wandered home late that night through Konyas dark and yet safe streets back to our hotel. We set the alarm for 5am. We had a long bus ride the next morning to Bursa.