Konya, City of Peace in a World on the Edge of War

I’m really not sure how this city managed to make such a deep impression on me when I first visited in 2007 for we arrived barely in time to hurry into the Mevlana as the chilly November dusk descended upon us. The tour which I took back then did not have the capacity for more than a quick glimpse at this magnificent, 13th century Sufi mausoleum, dedicated to Jalal Al-din Mohammad Rumi, otherwise known as The Master.

This time, however, I had read a little more about this centre of pilgrimage, dedicated to the life and teachings of one of Islam’s most attractive characters. The Master was a poet and scholar of Persian origin who encouraged the contemplative life and developed the school of Sufi mysticism that seeks communion with the divine through music, poetry and dance, its acolytes literally spinning into a trance-like state: known colloquially as the whirling dervishes. The Selcuk Sultans who so revered him built a splendid city around his burial place and it became as close a thing as their empire had to a capital in those days with a particular dedication to scholarship and the arts. The Sufi sect was also known for respecting other religions and for encouraging women to enter into intellectual discourse. Yes, really.

For many Moslems in today’s world this shrine is so important that visiting it counts as a “Half Pilgrimage” on the way (physically or morally) to Mecca. Last year they numbered almost 3 million and today we were encouraged to see that the few foreign tourists amongst them were behaving respectfully. The only exception being the use of mobile phones to try to overcome the ban on photography within the shrine itself but both visitors and devotees seem unable to stop themselves from doing that anywhere nowadays and the guards were polite enough in their futile attempts to stop them.

We also took in the 12th century Aleaddin mosque with its stunning combination of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Selcuk architecture and a gorgeously carved ebony Minbars (or pulpit). The nearby Madrassa has been converted into a tile museum and I must say that had our self-appointed guide not insisted, we might have given it a miss.  I am so glad that we didn’t for the building itself is magnificent and both the Selcuk and Ottoman ceramics on display were fascinating. I found the “blue and white” in particular extremely evocative: sinuous Arabic calligraphy intertwined with naturalistic animals and flowers, some even depicting human figures. Here is to be found the most delicious fusion of styles as the Silk Road effectively linked the Islamic World of the middle ages to Ming Era China and it seems to have brought with it far more than just the precious glazing techniques.

Once upon a time people from all over the known world came here to trade their finest wares peacefully and so, in such terrible times as we may be facing today, this is the spirit to which I shall cling. This is the heritage of Islam which I hope to see honoured and preserved in a world of extremism and sectarian hatred gone mad.

And in that spirit I asked around for a carpet shop where we could pass the hottest part of the afternoon in comfort. It’s lovely to see the old traditions upheld so well in this part of what can still be called the Middle East: two foreign visitors are heard asking for carpets and before long someone has spoken to someone else and they find themselves sitting on a pile of rugs in the souk somewhere, the exact location of which they would be hard pressed to describe. Discussion over endless cups of tea ranges from weaving techniques, dyestuffs and local designs to the difficulty of obtaining authentic antique pieces to the irritating tendency of politicians and military leaders to get in the way of people sharing the enjoyment of the finer things in life.

Of course I came away with a couple of pieces for my new home and of course Grahame had to buy one for himself and, yes, of course the carpet boy would carry them back to our hotel for us. We chose locally made, fine wool pieces of about 50 years age. Mine are a traditional prayer rug (in ruby and ultramarine colours) which may be put on the floor and a stylised representation of the Mevlana (amber and golden green) which absolutely may not.  Grahame’s is a – well, I’m not sure what it is but he definitely decided that he liked it. I believe that when you buy hand-made textiles like this you are bringing home a tiny piece of the soul of the country, something to distil your happy memories and hopes for the future welfare of the new friends that you have made.

Categories: Middle East

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