There are three types of tourists in Konya, Nazif explained in near perfect English. As it turned out, he used to have a Canadian girl friend.
Once again, I had fallen for one of those friendly English speaking guys who had spotted an opportunity for a sale… But Nazif was different. I could tell. For starters, he was the recruiter and the salesperson in one. And he was not even half as pushy as his Istanbuli counterparts and as all the others, he was full of good and useful information.
The first kind comes for the spirituality. The second kind comes for the history. And the third kind comes for the carpets. Well, that makes me a three in one visitor. Konya is one of the largest and most conservative cities in Turkey. Surprisingly, the size and the population density is hardly felt here, at least not in the old part of the city. And the conservative side has its positives: people here are more honest and very, very kind, But yes, it is nearly impossible to get a beer anywhere and skimpy clothes are not appreciated (but also not forbidden).
There are large parks, open plazas, and a very comprehensible tram system. Three tram lines connect in the old part of town in an ingenious roundabout, encircling a large park (Alaaddin Tepesi), mosque and tomb complex (Alaaddin Cami) where you can transit from one to the other two tram lines. Konya has dolmuses — a fleet of privately owned minivans — that you can flag down at any corner to take you anywhere for 2.5 Turkish Lire (50 cents) And despite its million or more Turkish tourists, and its size, it is spic-and-span clean.
I had arrived last night in my centrally located, brand new Bablin Boutique Hotel and was greeted by Ahmed, the owner himself, even though it was nearly midnight. In my attempts to be super thrifty, I had booked the tiniest room of the hotel, which did not even have a closet or a window. Ahmed graciously upgraded me to a first floor room that only had the disadvantage that it was right on the street level and a bit noisy; a much better choice! I was going to be here for 5 days and that little room would have made me feel claustrophobic; and I do crave fresh air. As all this was settled, I realized that I could not have made a better choice. The breakfast buffet was excellent, the staff was accommodating and friendly, and a terrace overlooked the main square with one of the most iconic buildings of all of Turkey, the Mevlana Dervish Lodge and its unmistakable green cone placed over Mevlana’s tomb. Mevlana did not mean much to me, but the name, this Sufi thinker and writer became famous the world over, is Rumi. And that meant something to me. His tomb and lodge were two of the reasons I had come to Konya and I will visit and write about it in two days.
On the first day, I followed the Lonely Planet which had listed a variety of museums and mosques worth seeing. And in search for my “Konyacart” that would entitle me to use the trams and buses, I had run into Nazif, not far from my hotel…
Konya’s museums and sites all are small, but interesting: There is the Tile Museum housed in a former Seljuk theological school and a Stone and Woodcarving Museum housed in a former Seljuk madrassa. These Seljuk era buildings were as or more interesting to me than the artifacts in the museum. At the end of a narrow alley off the beaten path, a large dusty old room in a modern concrete building that looks like nothing is the Ethnic Museum. The display room had already been halfway closed, as there was not a single visitor in sight… And finally, there is another dusty museum with large Roman sarcophagi, prehistoric objects, and a rather unique prehistoric child burial: the Archaeological Museum. In addition to that, there are a number of interesting hamams and upper class villas that have been converted into public buildings and cultural institutions that you might come across as you wander town.
The Sahib-I-Ata mosque, tiny and tucked away in a corner near the archaeology museum, was my favorite in town. Only the minaret and the entrance gate are original, dating from the 13th century. in the 19th century, after a fire, the mosque was rebuilt in the 13th century style, a very different look from the “Hagia Sophia” take-offs. These mosques are one or two story squares of rough stones accented at the floor break with wooden beams; almost like the European Tudor, or timber/beam style.
I arrived at this mosque around prayer time in the late afternoon. As I sat in the little rose garden to rest, men and women arrived, did their ablutions and entered the mosque. One of the most beautiful calls to prayers (azan) sounded over the loudspeakers and so I stayed to listen and I listened on to the whole prayer session. It only takes a few minutes until one by one, the worshipers came out again. A group of young women passed by me, smiled and left.
A minute later they were back and wanted to talk to me. Their English was very limited, but they communicated this much: They were very pleased that I had stayed for the whole prayer session. Was I a Muslima? Being a Muslima is very beautiful. I should consider it. I told them, that indeed the prayer session was very beautiful, and that they, all four of them, were also very beautiful. I would have loved to have their picture, but they refused and after some more small-talk, parted. I lingered a bit longer and almost left, when the last guy leaving the mosque approached me: He was the muezzin! I told him that he had sung the most beautiful azan I had heard in a long while. I guess, that pleased him. He gestured for me to follow him back into the mosque. He encouraged me to take pictures of the interior and then he opened a closed window in the kibla wall and pointed to a whole room full of gorgeous, blue and green tiled tombs from the Seljuk era! Wow. He was very pleased with my appreciation and I felt lucky to have experienced this wonderful rose-oasis, this azan, and this visual treat. It made up for the nearly unbearable heat of the day.
I liked it so much, that the next day, I returned to the same spot. The caretaker recognized me and even though he spoke no English, he insisted on a cup of tea with me in the courtyard. :-) Turkish hospitality!
Yeah, the good old cool days of Kars were over.
But the temperatures cooled down reasonably after sunset, and dinner at a terrace near the main plaza turned out to be lovely. I did not even mind the hours of work on my hotel terrace as the view was just wonderful.
There is indeed something very spiritual about Konya.