Konya

Excerpt from Turkish Diary

Thursday August 9th

It’s ten a.m. and not hot as I’d feared it might be, though the direct sun burns my face and neck. It’s a couple of kilometres’ walk north and east along wide but busy streets, past shops and apartment blocks, to the old part of the city. I am comfortable stopping people and gesturing a request for directions. An older fellow helps me out. He worked and travelled all around Europe in a trailer, he says in German. I understand enough to respond. We wish each other a good day and to his delight I manage to say, “teşekkür ederim, hoşçakal,” many thanks, and goodbye in Turkish.

The guidebook recommends a cheap and friendly place. After a couple of inquiries, I plunge into the side streets, past an old yellow-plastered mosque and a row of public telephones, looking for Çıkrıkcılar Cadessi in the knot of streets south of the main boulevard. I’m almost there when a tubby, jolly fellow trots around a corner and hails me crying, “Yes yes yes, Hotel Ulusan, I will be back in a minute.” It’s the place I have been looking for. It’s clean and newly refurbished, with grey tiles and chrome stair rails, but retaining the creaky old nineteen forties’ rococo furniture from its previous incarnation. He shows me a single, for 25TL a night. It’s more than I had planned to pay but I am exhausted and I take the room, have a long hot shower, neaten up my stubble and rest for a while.

Konya is a mellow place, with few of the insinuating touts or imploring street salesmen of the type trawling the tourist-choked laneways of Istanbul. I seemed to be the only traveller with a pack on my back. Walking down Mevlana Cadessi, on my way to finding the hotel, a fellow approaches me and asks where I’m from, and to direct met to his carpet shop. We chat for a bit. He stayed on Enmore Road in Sydney for a while. He looks disappointed when I tell him I am travelling and studying but not purchasing stuff this time, but he asks me to come up for tea sometime, so I just might.

There are a few Seljuk monuments around town. Over the trolley tracks, I climb past several flag-festooned tea garden grottoes and enter a low, rambling mosque on the top of Alaaddin’s Hill, Alaeddin Tepesi. It is a wide grey stone prayer hall with a timber roof held aloft with Roman and Byzantine columns, not like the later basilica-like Ottoman structures. A class of boys are chanting text in a side room. I sit there for a bit letting the cool breeze and the soft chant waft the sweat away. I will go to the Mevlana mosque and museum tomorrow, and pay my respects at the tombs of both Rumi and Shems. I can’t do much this afternoon except walk around, sip a lemon drink, eat a banana, and rest.

There are few other travellers here. A group of young French friends sitting in the internet room at the hotel do not return my greeting. They are happy in their own company. Exhausted, I go to bed early after drinking a shot of raki in half a glass of water to help me sleep.

*****

Sounds curl their tendrils in through my ear, deep into the well of sleep. An arabesque of light catches flecks of consciousness caught in the curve of the wall, and makes them shine enough to wake me. The sound is a white blast, streaming through the half closed window, shivering across the sheet in which I lie tangled. It’s a rage of bright noise, until I am fully awake and hear a melody soaring high in an imploring supplication. My fingers reach for the watch on the side table. It’s nine-thirty; I must’ve been a sleep for a couple of hours.

At ten p.m. the muezzin wakes me again. It is not the call to prayer, the opening phrases of which are becoming familiar to me, but a prelude, a holy verse from the Koran. Pouring off the minaret by the plain brick mosque I’d passed on my way to the back streets of the bazaar, it echoes around the hills, and the echoes bounce back and linger as though from very far away, perhaps even as far away as the granite outcrops outside the city. His recitation is brilliant and intense, not just a rising and falling scale, but a line leaping up and down, and trembling passionately on certain tones. He pours forth a sound which flies in through the window and drapes itself around my shoulders like a banner of green lace, and then a shimmering rope snakes over the wooden window sill, a cord of silk to bind me slowly. His muscular voice is as glossy as a leather bullwhip. The muscle in his voice raises the leather whip until it arcs, suspended above the pull of gravity, before he takes another breath and swings the leather thong forward, flaying the skin off my sweating temples. The sound becomes gravelly, like oil mixed with rocks pouring into a channel. Then he whispers, steam hissing from a vent, each smoky, shivering ornament is like a splay of bullets. His voice rises and becomes a ladder of milk to climb and drink from. It is an intensely male song, as is the Koran itself. I am ravished of course.

Some time later a more familiar cry begins, “Allahu Ekber.” From another more distant minaret, perhaps the large, baroque edifice on the other side of Mevlana Cadessi, the call rings out as well. This muezzin’s voice is harsh and frail, an old man’s voice, more nasal and less in tune than the master from the minaret close by. The master takes his time, long pauses between phrases, and his call continues long after the older muezzin’s call has expired.

*****

Friday August 10th

At five o’clock the call to prayer rouses me from the warm emptiness of perfect sleep. A couple of hours later the hotel porter brings me breakfast, a pot of fruit yoghurt, a toasted sandwich and cup of strong coffee. Today I want to visit the shrines, rest a while and think about where to go tomorrow.

The shrine to Mevlana is in the old convent, or lodge of the original Sufi order here. It is a small stone complex of rooms, with a mosque and a beautiful tower, a fluted cone gilded and veneered with turquoise tiles. There are very few western visitors among the large crush of pilgrims at nine a.m. when the shrine opens. A couple of older women, teachers, organize several groups of small school children into rows. They are mostly little girls of about seven, simmering with pious, barely suppressed excitement, each with a pink or orange flowery headscarf. As well as headscarves, many of the older women wear long tailored coats, like fully buttoned-up pinstriped suit jackets that reach the ground. There is a kiosk with a scalloped marble fountain, and around it, spigots for washing face, hands and feet. There is another small fountain, at which people line up fill cups and plastic bottles with holy water. I step up as well, wash my hands and take a drink from the spigot.

The lodge exhibit consists of mannequins in dervish dress: black-robed dervishes sitting at a low dining table, the cook in the kitchen, the novice in his corner, the master at his book, a diorama of monastery life. Then the river of people prepares to enter the tomb complex. No one takes their shoes off — there are so many people it would be impossible to organise retrieval of your shoes — but instead everyone pulls flimsy plastic sanitary slippers over their footwear and we all shuffle in through the modest little door.

Stone caskets of generations of Mevlevi leaders, each labelled, line the raised enclosure along which we all pass. Many pilgrims raise their hands to them in prayer. The high point, the main shrine, lies under a dome in the corner, the dome and walls and pillars covered in brown and black designs, with arabesques and calligraphy laid over the colours in gold. It looks like a room lined with embossed leather. The two largest tombs, that of Rumi and his son Sultan Veled, sit side by side under huge canopies of filigreed silver brocade, each with a tall felt cone wrapped in a green silk turban. Penitents approach and crowd around, hands raised to faces in prayer and supplication. A big middle-aged man turns, wiping tears from his eyes. It is hushed and moving, and exactly like being in a Roman Catholic shrine in a Latin country. Over all of us floats the haunting wail of the ney flute.

With the many hanging lamps of bronze and coloured glass, the gilded and shaded arches, the soft wail of the ney, the river of people moving slowly forward and praying softly, there is nothing but language and doctrine to separate this piety, this devotion, from any other.

To the left of the tombs is a room full of objects connected with the lodge. Copper utensils, several fine glass hanging lamps from Egypt, rosaries containing 900 walnut sized beads, Koran stands of carved wood, even one carved from a single block of jade. There are glass cases containing stiff, courtly robes of blue and green taffeta silk reputed to have been worn by Mevlana. They seem too grand, too priestly to have been worn by Rumi, especially after he had encountered Shems of Tabriz, renounced his official duties and gone quite mad with divine love. In another case lie robes associated with his son Sultan Veled, a red damask coat and a shirt covered in diamond patterns of calligraphy in red and black ink. There is also a thirteenth-century Seljuk silk prayer rug connected with Rumi, and a couple of blue and white, finely striped cotton quilted coats. They are in excellent shape for being 750 years old. There are incense cups, a braid of pearls, and several small clocks. I do not understand the significance of the clocks.

I see a couple of young men in wheel chairs, an elderly man in a fine black suit bent double with age being led by the hand by a museum guard. There are some old ladies in black with swollen bandaged legs walking slowly through the shrine on crutches. Most people are young though, families with children.

The old mosque room holds a collection of several hundred years of illuminated books, carpets and carved wooden doors. One of the carpets is ancient and fine, with a panel depicting the Ka’aba. The leaves of the books are dense with patterns and calligraphy, ink and gold. There are Korans, Divans, or discourses of Rumi, and copies of the Mathnavi, from the thirteenth century to the nineteenth. In most of the books the colour blue dominates, along with red and gold. There is very little green. Some of the later, Ottoman books have imagery, depictions of Mecca and the Ka’aba. The work approaches perfection in line and proportion. Tall, clean shaven young men in pastel-coloured shirts lean over the glass cases and lift their hands to their faces, praying silently over the holy books.

*****

On my way back from the shrine, I pass a man sitting on a straw mat by a shoe shop on the shady side of Mevlana Cadessi, with his bald head down and his hand held out. He is stocky and hairy, about fifty, sitting cross-legged on a mat with his wide and dirty trouser cuffs rolled up to his thighs. His thick, legs are burnt red and shiny with dirt. In both calves run winding canyons as big as a hand, gouged deep into his flesh. The jagged rims of these canyons are crumbly with dried skin, the upper layers fatty and yellow, and the lower depths courses of mottled red meat. I haven’t seen a leper in twenty-eight years, not since my encounter with the leper in Northern India. In a moment of shock I reach down and press some coins into his cupped hand. As I walk away I become fearful of the hand-to-hand contact. I wish I’d had a bottle of holy water from the shrine to give him. Maybe I ought to have gone the whole way and pressed my fists into his wounds.

Back at the hotel, I scrub my hands with soap and scalding water, and then head back out into the hot sun to find some lunch.

As I do so, the lunchtime call to prayer erupts from the loudspeakers above, and half the shops shut. Shutters are rolled down noisily. Windows are latched. Canvas sheets and cotton cloths are flung over stands of oranges, shelves of bread, racks of shoes, piles of children’s clothes. I will have to wait for an hour to get my chicken pide and cold drink.

In the afternoon I visit the archaeological museum, with finds from nearby Catal Huyuk, the first Neolithic urban settlement, and then from the Assyrian, Phrygian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. In the front garden lie several enormous Roman marble sarcophagi, of warriors, naked wrestlers, angels, foliage, which look as though they were carved yesterday. It’s getting very hot and I have to buy another one-and-a-half litre bottle of water to get me through the afternoon.

To the north of Mevlana Cadessi is the tomb of Shems of Tabriz, Rumi’s guide and passionate companion. It sits in a small old stone mosque. Inside is a simple and beautifully proportioned arch separating the prayer space and the mihrab from the raised platform containing the casket. The ceiling is of glossy wood, carved in checkers and squares. The casket is covered in green cloth, crowned with a felt cone and turban denoting his spiritual rank. I stand silently, not thinking anything, just to pay my respects. All the devotees and suppliants around the tomb are women, both old and young. A couple of men entered later. They halt at the main prayer hall, turn left and begin their prostration toward Mecca. Near the tomb, a couple of young girls, twelve and fourteen, perhaps sisters, squat on the carpet and gaze up at me with unflinching curiosity. They’re not veiled, though their mother, kneeling beside them praying, is. After a minute or so, an ancient custodian appears from a small side room. He clicks and clucks, approaches the girls with words, and hands them each a veil with which they unhurriedly cover their heads.

A young and very pious looking man, dressed in flowing tan cotton and wearing a skullcap, finishes his prayers towards Mecca, and approaches the tomb. He kneels there immobile, his hands raised, silent. The old custodian appears again with a plate of large white sweets, and offers them around. He offers me one, too. It is very sweet and a bit fizzy as I crack it with my teeth; powdered sugar and baking soda sherbet, a hint or rose, a hint of mint, crumbling in my mouth and melting over my tongue.

The pious young man rises from his prayer to Shems, turns to leave and hurries out of the shrine. His shoulders are hunched, aching in humility, perhaps aching with the burden of the gift he is carrying with him. His face is scrunched up and cast down, as though he had been standing too close to a fiercely burning fire. It is the way some people look when they leave the communion rail in church after having received the bread and the wine.

*****

Friday evening in Konya

Feeling a bit lonely after the intensity of the day. But kept the thought in my head, to feel the company of everyone around me. I wandered up to one of the pleasure gardens which flank Allaeddin’s Hill, found a small table under a tree decked with coloured bulbs, ordered a glass of tea and a pile of sugar lumps and sat, absorbed in Yashar Kemal’s novel. Half a chapter later, a small boy trotted up and hovered beside me hoping to get my attention. He held a piece of paper and as I looked up, began reciting questions from it, pausing for my answers.

“Hello, what is your name, where are you from, how do you like Konya, have you been to the shrine?”

I could sense his mother and several other women sitting with her at a table in the grotto behind me all beaming at him as he spoke. As our brief formal conversation ended I turned to them, smiling as well. “Ah, he speaks such good English.”

“Yes, yes he speaks a little English,” replied his mother, decorously shading her smile. But of course he spoke no English; the ladies were curious to know something about me and had devised a little scheme to find out.

Earlier, while I was eating lunch in the shady part of the main square, another little lad of about eight, who was selling bottles of water kept cool in a metal pan full of water, ran over to me. He had two small bottles left and really needed to offload them. But I already had a coke and a big bottle of water, which I showed him. He was very persistent sitting by me on the bench arguing his case in Turkish. I wondered if this was a school holiday job, or if he would ever go to school. I gave him a piece of cherry cake instead, and he trotted away contentedly.

I wanted a beer to drink with my evening kebab, but none was available. The day before, I had asked in a mini market for Efes beer, and the shop owner had directed me around the corner to another place, which was hidden in a small arcade off the street. The man there had beers stacked out of sight in a large fridge covered in a big cloth. He wrapped the can in newspaper and put it in a plastic bag for me. Konya is more of a religious town than Istanbul.

So I had a tasty meal and a cola and went for a walk up to the main Ottoman mosque, next to the Mevlana shrine. The place crowded with Friday night relaxation. Families sitting in the square and on the terrace of the mosque drinking tea, eating nuts, cotton candy, ice cream.

Later I spoke to a couple of Mexican students at the hotel. They have been studying film. Very nice and informative guys, and had just come from Cappadocia. Göreme was not as full of touts and tourists as I had read, and there were some great day hikes around the area. Most people only went on the first bit of a hike, to see a church or a monument, but if you pressed on, you could enjoy serenity. We spoke about Mexico (they are from Mexico City and miss home cooking), and Norway (one of them had had a girlfriend from Bergen). They were such nice intelligent dudes. Went to bed and had a shot of the raki in a glass of water to help me sleep. Awoke at four a.m., the monk’s hour, and did not sleep until the call to prayer rang out around the town at five.

This excerpt first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

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