Saturday, April 14, 2012

Rihla (Journey 27): Konya, Turkey: Sufi Spiders, Sawdust and the disappearing Shams.

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This Rihla is about Konya, Turkey.

The Mevlana Museum, Konya from East Courtyard

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.


On the evening of the 5th December 1248, as a cold-bitter wind swept down on Konya from the north west funnelled by the crescent corridor created by the Sultan and Kiziloren range of mountains, Shams-e Tabrizi was called to the backdoor of the house he shared with Jalal ad-Din Muhammed Balkhi better known as Rumi (after the Seljuk Empire of Rum of which Konya was the capital) or Mevlana. A wandering sufi deverish Shams had been Rumi’s spiritual master for just four years but in that time had transformed his 34 year-old pupil from being an accomplished jurist and teacher of the Hanafi tradition into a profound ascetic philosopher whose tomb in Konya is a major Islamic pilgrimage destination. Shams never returned that night and is rumoured to have been murdered by being throw down a well by members of Rumi’s family, jealous of Shams emotional influence (and perhaps even physical although this is not proven) over the famous teacher. Others said Shams, as was his way, simply disappeared only to turn up and subsequently die in Khoy in north-western Iran or in Mutlan in Pakistan where there are tombs attesting to (in addition to the one in Konya) his final resting place, a wanderer to the end!

On the 7th April of this year I visited Konya to see Mevlana’s tomb. The mountain ranges to the north-west and west were still covered in late-season snow yet the temperature on arrival on the early-morning flight from Istanbul was a pleasant 140C.

Village of Gökyurt (ancient Kilistra) near Konya

I had planned a two-day visit to Konya and spent the morning of the first day at the Neolithic site of Çatal Höyük (Fork Mound) to the south-east of the city and the afternoon at the village of Gökyurt (ancient Kilistra and nearby Lystra where St. Paul is rumoured to have fled from persecution in Konya and according to the apocryphal Coptic Acts of Paul ‘Thecla’ narrative the stalking attentions of a Konya native called Thecla who attached herself to him after hearing his preaching on ‘virginity’.)

Mother Goddess from Çatal Höyük, Konya c.8500BCE

Late in the evening I reached my hotel, the Hotel Rumi (of course!) close to the turquoise-tiled Mevlana Museum.

View of Mevlana Museum from Hotel Rumi bedroom

The second day of my trip I spent entirely in the city. Beginning with the Mevlana I loved the structure and design of the building. You enter through a small antechamber where devotees used read the Koran and through burnished silver doors into the mausoleum. There are the tombs of 6 Khorsan bodyguards on the left and Mevlana is buried in a large stone sarcophagus to the south east of the room. Beside him are the tombs of his son and his father. All of the tombs have distinctive headgear headstones indicating the status of the occupant and there is wonderful calligraphy on the walls. The second space of the main complex is entered at the northern end of the mausoleum. This is the semahane where the whirling devotional dances of the Mevlevi sufi lodge were held. There is a balcony for observers, a stage for the musicians and a small niche where the pir or sufi master would greet the entering dancers coming through a doorway from the small mosque to the west where there is now a wonderful collection of the earliest editions of Mevlana’s works and some unique Korans on display.

There were three decorative aspects to my visit that really caught my eye. Throughout the mausoleum hanging on chains were what appeared to be ostrich egg-sized ovoids. Some were decorated others not. I asked a local guide what the significance of these were and he said that they were to prevent spiders from nesting and forming webs as they could not attach their webs to the highly polished and convex surface of the eggs. A larger one present in the fountain to the left of the entrance porch is pictured below.

'Spiders Egg' in Fountain of west courtyard, Mevlana Museum, Konya

The second decoration he pointed out was a unique 14th Century kaleidoscope from the archway that linked the mausoleum to the semahane. If a dancer ever arrived in the semahane and he was alone all he had to do was stand under the kaleidoscope and look up. The multiple polished reflecting mirrors would then give the impression that he was surrounded by other dancers as in the normal ceremony, in other words he need never be alone in his devotion.

Finally in the small mosque section on the northern wall there is a large but simple sample of calligraphy denoting the Al-Afuw attripution to Allah in the Koran. Al Afuw is known as the Pardoner or Forgiver from the root ‘a-f-a, to obliterate or erase all trace of. What is most interesting is that the calligraphic interpretation is almost an exact representation of the way that the sema dancers would hold their arms in a cross-chest position while they are being greeted by the pir on entry to the semahane.

Composite picture of the cross-chest supplicant embrace of the sema dancer
and the pir with the calligraphy of the Al-Afuw (Pardoner) name of Allah depicted
on the north wall of the Mevlana Museum mosque section.

Later in the morning I went to the Alaaddin Mosque at the centre of Konya on a hill where the mausoleum containing eight Seljuk Sultan’s is in a front courtyard. Within the mosque is a minibar or pulpit of ebony which is thought to be the finest example of Seljuk wood-craft.

Detail of Ebony carving on minibar of Alaaddin Mosque, Konya

Speaking of wood-craft while waiting on arrival at the airport for the carousel to spew out my bag I got talking to a captain from Turkish Airlines. He was from a small village outside of Konya but said that in addition to the Mevlana and the Alaaddin there was one thing I must do in Konya before leaving and that was to have a meal in Sofu’s Restaurant, in the Carpenters Souk. The duty manager in the hotel had never heard of this restaurant and thought I was crazy to be asking directions to a souk that was some way out of town. I managed to convince a taxi driver to bring me there and after a serpentine journey through a large industrial souk dedicated to the manufacture of windows and doors the haze of sawdust suddenly evaporated to reveal Sofu’s restaurant, full of diners from near and afar. In this unlikely place I had the best meal (as did my taxi driver who would not leave me stuck out in the ‘sticks’) of my stay in Turkey. The owner, a 75 year-old man with an adolescent glint in his eye and looking exactly like a former Kerry footballer called Paidi O’Shea, treated me royally.

As I left the restaurant and the smell of sawdust in the carpenter’s souk assailed yet again I remembered a quote of Rumi that referred to his own family travels to escape the wrath of the Mongols. He wrote,

If the tree was able to move from place to place;
It would not suffer from the saw and the harshly inflicted wounds.

The same could be said for the missing Shams and I decided that my final trip of the day would be to see the small mosque where Shams final resting place is. It is said of the mosque that it is built on the site of the well where Shams was thrown in and drowned. In contrast to the thousands visiting his famous pupil’s tomb there was a single devotee praying at Shams tomb when I visited.

Description Plaque Outside Shams-e Tabrizi's Tomb in Konya

Shams-e Tabrizi's Tomb in Konya

It was a long afternoon but one well spent. I have only touched on some of the sights and sounds of Konya but the city was a surprise and the kindness and politeness of everyone I encountered will long be remembered.

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