Friday, July 13, 2012

Day Eleven: Konya. Rumi. Peace. Tourism. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day eleven of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

As we drove into Konya, the old capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, a broad avenue led us into the center of the city.  The conical top of a turquoise tower pierced the modern skyline.  This was the mausoleum of the sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, called Mevlana in Turkish, and Rumi in English—or ‘the guy from Rum.’  Because of him, for the past eight hundred years the city of Konya has been a sacred place where people have come to find the true nature of reality and the love of god.

Konya was first settled by the Hitties, and like the rest of Asia Minor it has been sacked and settled by waves of war.  The name Konya itself is a Turkification of the Greek’s Ikonion.  The Greeks thought that Perseus defeated the native population with an icon of the Gorgon’s head, making it safe for them to settle.

The main attraction of Konya is the Mausoleum of Mevlana, or Rumi.  Rumi was a thirteenth century Persian poet.  Fleeing the mongol tide that was pressing up against his home in Persia, Rumi’s family swung down to the Gulf on the pilgrimage of Haj, before going north east to settle in the safety of Rum.  Here Rumi studied, thought, prayed and wrote thousands of pages of fine poems about love and god.  His poetry touched people in a way that words rarely do.  In 2007 Rumi was declared the most popular poet in America—this Persian-speaking Muslim who lived in a Turkish-ruled city named after the Byzantine Empire which had named itself after Rome.

After Rumi’s death, his followers turned his poems and philosophy into a religious order known as Mevlana.  Mevlana’s most conspicuous right was the Sema Ceremony, where adherents would fast and then whirl themselves into a confusion, the fabric of their broad skirts fanning out, one hand held up towards god, the other held down to earth.  But the Mevlana were more than just a picturesque dance.  Neophytes would put themselves through a grueling thousand-and-one days of service at Konya before they became dervishes in their own right, cleaning, cooking, fasting, praying and studying.  The Mevlana became a force in the Ottoman Empire for seven hundred years after Rumi’s death.  Dervish societies popped up everywhere the Ottoman Empire was, and the hypnotic whir of the Sema ceremony continued.

Except when Ataturk created the Turkish Republic, he put an end to the Mevlana, closing the doors of the dervish halls, confiscating the treasuries of the ancient foundations, banning the ancient ceremonies and devotions.  Rumi’s tomb was secularized and turned into the museum it is today.

And despite the sublimity of the architecture, and the holiness of the relics held there, Mevlana’s tomb is a museum, not a place of living religion.  The line for tickets was confused—more like a child’s crayon scrawl than a line—while the single ticket seller on duty contended with a mess of tourists pressing against his window, holding out bills, shouting in Turkish.

When we finally were able to exchange our lira for tickets, we walked through the turnstiles to a garden.  There, a 14th Century tomb of one of Rumi’s followers stood with crumbling walls and the flash of striking turquoise tiles.  We followed paths cutting through gardens planted with rose bushes, and then passed into the large marble courtyard surrounding Rumi’s tomb itself.  In the center of the courtyard was a marble fountain bubbling with water, at which people bent down to wash their hands, feet and faces.  A sign hanging on it said that it was built in 1512 and then restored three times since then.

We slipped blue plastic shoe condoms over our feet and went into the tomb itself.  The first room was small, but it was decorated with framed Arabic calligraphy extolling the virtues of study and divine devotion.  Some pieces done in gold leaf on actual gilded tree-leafs, the veins and stems turned to metal.

And then the main room, a broad hallway that turned around itself like a boxy U.  It was busy.  Busy with students, pilgrims, and tourists.  Busy with prayer, and curiosity, and boredom.  Alongside the walls were stone sarcophagi of religious teachers topped with green turbans, and people clustered around these, their hands open to the sky in prayer.

At the far end of the hallway was a crowd, surprisingly quiet for so many people.  They were at the tomb of Rumi himself.

The sarcophagus was tall as a man, huge, covered in an age-darkened brocade embroidered with golden Koranic verses.  On top of the sarcophagus were two large turquoise turbans.  Behind it was an amazing tile wall, in blue, red, green and gold, whirling with calligraphic snippets of the Korea, Persian-looking fruit trees, and hypnotic shapes.  Next to this was a rank of display cases, holding Rumi’s shoulder strap, his finely pressed high-collared cloak, and three of his plain brown felt hats, all supposedly eight hundred years old.

In the next room was a collection of objects meant to inspire the veneration of the pilgrim.  There was an illuminated genealogy of Ali, gilded Korans with footnotes and glosses snaking in the margins at angles to the text.  A series of silk rugs hung along the far wall.  One was from the 16th Century, and the calligraphy on it bragged that it was made near the tomb of Ali, whose power was so great that 100 Alexanders should bow to him.  There were reliquaries containing beard hairs of the prophet, and grains of rice on which the name of god had been written.  A compass pointed to the direction of the Kaaba.  A Koran the size of my thumb nail was displayed next to a Koran the size of a child’s bike.

Some of the people crowding the hall were in the throes of religion.  They swayed back and forth on the balls of their feet.  Their cheeks were wet with weeping.  They pressed their hands to their faces, stunned at the intensity of their own feeling, and then lifted their hands again to heaven, to pray once more.

But other people were just there, passing through the rooms because they were tourists and that’s what they did.  A blonde in heels with a headscarf just thrown over her head laughed on her cel phone, half-heartedly glancing at the illuminated manuscripts.

Outside the Mausoleum, the cels where dervishes once accomplished their devotions have been filled with representative objects and informational plaques.  A pair of tongs hung on the wall.  These were carried in the dervish’s belt, used to let shopkeepers know the dervish deserved a fair price without bargaining.  There were ornately decorated horns, which the traveling dervish would blow to announce his arrival in a new city.  There were hats and robes, axes and books and musical instruments.  In the rooms closer to the kitchen, mannequins had been positioned to stand in for the dervishes who had once lived there.  Here was an old bearded man studying.  Here a young man cooked.  Here another man prayed.

Everywhere we went we had to fight against the crowds.  People gibbered, they yelled, joked, took pictures posing in front of the holy books, the tour guides held up flags and waved them to get people’s attention.  It was strange to think that Rumi’s contemplative poetic philosophy, which hoped to peel back the illusions of the bustling world, should fall like this to the beautiful venalities of tourism.


When Rumi was alive he wrote poems.  He wrote about his worries and his joys, his friends and his thoughts.  But there was something special in the way that Rumi saw the world and in the felicity with which he expressed himself.  All he did was scribe words on paper.  But these words have lived on far longer than his body, being translated and retranslated and published and read and studied.  They have survived not only because they are beautiful, but because they have something true in them.  And this truth has helped people see through the fog of their petty daily worries, to the broader beauties of god and love.

But so why is it here at Rumi’s tomb where generations of pilgrims have bent their heads in supplications, all I can see are the tired herds of tourism?  Why is it that there are no quiet places to sit and wonder?  Why is it that there is no truth, no matter how many informational plaques are posted next to the priceless relics?

But it is a museum only.  It celebrates things that once were.  It can no longer be new.

And truth must always be new.  Only something new can us out of our daily blindness to appreciate the unusual reality of the world around us.  Only something new can stir beauty in our eyes.  And to be new, it must be different, striking, dangerous, and a little sick.  Rumi’s tomb is old.  The relics are covered in dust.  The books are hidden under glass.


On the way back to our car we passed by a craft shop.  In the window felt dervishes hung from agate wind chimes, turning in the breeze, ringing softly.  The walls were busy with necklaces, scarves and painted glass.  My girlfriend insisted on stopping.  The owner was devotedly sewing a small patch of fabric, and gently looked up from his work to offer us tea.  I said we had to get going.  He insisted, and we sat, appreciating the colorful rush of his shop.  “When I was a boy,” he explained, “I always loved colors.  And my mother would complain.  What are you doing always looking at colors?  Why are you obsessed with colors?  But now, you see, I have filled my shop with colors.” On the walls were depictions of dervishes spinning, the Kaaba black and imposing, a peacock, and they were beautiful.  We drank our tea, talked, and were happy.

Again we drove.  We drove to Pammukale where we stayed at a thermal spa and rested in the warm limestone waters, trying to forget everything, surrounded by Russian, Asian and Turkish tourists, who also settled themselves into the pools, wincing at first at the heat, and then closing their eyes.  The fountains spilled warm water over us, the sides dripping with stone.

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.

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