The bus trip to Konya was going to be my last trip across the Anatolian plains and at this time of the year the sun was lower, and that never ending sky was a lighter blue and the end of autumn stubble was a burntish looking light brown colour.
The one fact that will remain with me, more than the pretty little valleys with a few green trees that broke the monotony of this thousand mile rolling plateau was the absence of capitalism’s favourite countryside adornment, barbed wire. Up here people had to get on with each other and they did so without that evil of enclosing off bits of land, here the sheep and goatherds could wander for hundreds of miles feeding off the leftover stalks of the harvest without any encumbrance.
As with all Turkish cities the bus station was a few kilometers out of town, but here in Konya there is a tram into the city centre. Prople were very helpful on getting me on and off the tram and one young turk offered to take me to my hotel which transpired to be near the Mosque and Mevlana complex. He went shooting off ahead and expected me to follow with my book laden pack. Some thirty years before as I walked off from the graded road next to the now unfinished Jonglei canal, heading for the Nuer village of Ayot , a young Nuer equipped with only a spear , stopped to take my rucksack and pointing to the sun trotted off exalting me to hurry before it got too hot. But here in Konya I, a much older man now, had to trot along with my heavy load.
My hotel was wonderful at only 20 euro a night, and thrown in was not only a great breakfast but I had a superb view over the Semiye Mosque and Rumi Mausoleum. It was a businessman’s hotel and as for a thousand years or more the silk road passed through Konya so traders have always been looked after. The view over the complex of Mosque and the Rumi Mausoleum and Mevlani museum was complimented with the duetting muezzins. From early morning to evening each call to prayers was so much more than the often distorted tape of a muezzin, here it really was two muezzins singing off each other, something I had never heard before.
The Silk road passed through here for a thousand years but today I couldn’t find any beautiful caravansary like the one I saw in Kayseri. The Souk / bazaar area was not that impressive but just an area of town with streets of shops, some with white sheets across the alleys to warn off the sun. There were, however some impressive architecturally important mosques, with added leech salesmen outside, a pecularity to this area.
Many have heard of Konya as it is home to Sufism, and the Dervish dance. The dance called the Sema has been held for many hundreds of years.
Konya was an important Greek and Roman city, with settlements predating those civilisations by some 3,000 years, but in terms of Konya’s importance now this all changed when refugees from the Khwarezmid Empire in Persia, fleeing the Monguls, arrived in Konya in the thirteenth century. The famous sufi scholar Bahaeddin Veled and his son Rumi were among them.
The story goes that the son Rumi started preaching and attracted crowds from all over the the then Islamic world. He quickly became a legend as a poet, jurist, theologian, and a Sufi mystic and he not only taught in Konya but wrote extensively, perhaps in a more Persian mystic and ascetic style, and his books are still important today for his many followers. He has been described as America’s favourite and best selling poet with his love poems and the Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī labelled as the Persian Quran.
These many followers are not only seen in the number who worship at his shrine, but there are adherents all over the world, apparently especially in the USA. The conical hats used in the Sufi dervish dances are according to one of the last manufacturers exported regularly there. Or of course they could be bought by the CIA for some realistic anti terrorist training. Strangely the “Mawlana Rumi Review” is published annually by The Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Exeter in collaboration with The Rumi Institute.
His legacy of equality can be observed still today where outside the mosque in the main square both men and women prayed together.
My stay coincided with the annual festival of mystic music, and I did turn up for the Kora players of Botswana. My last night I went to see the graceful dervish dancers perform the Sema. It was a very peaceful and mystical dance, unlike the hectic whirling trance style of another branch of the Sufi dervishes in Khartoum I had seen some thirty tears before.
Konya has some great religious buildings but much of the rest is unexceptional, perhaps it is the people who stand out from the rest of Turkey, They are apparently the most pious of Turks, although Raki consumption per head is the highest in Turkey. Their attire is sober with men often wearing ill fitting suits and the women to a great degree are more covered here than anywhere else. There are few bright colours but many browns and greens , along with the standard black these are the colours of Konya.
The Konyans are conservative and I doubt would consider voting for anything other than Erdogans AK party. There is nothing flashy here and to the outsider
all appear honest and hardworking, with time to chat in the tea houses, well time for the men to chat in the cafes but women, in the restaurants yes, but not perched on one of those junior school chairs over a glass of sweet tea.
I have been thinking about womens place in both Turkish and Islamic society for some time, and here in Konya with more scarves and islamic dress than elsewhere one is confronted rather more by this. Up until now I have avoided the subject as it to me it is an amalgam of the difficult issues of fundamentalism, womens rights, basic human rights, of education and healthcare and feminism, and it is not only an issue across the islamic world but one that is so rigoroursly debated in Europe.
It is so easy to criticise the norm here of women wearing as a minimum the scarf and more often more, especially from a liberal western world I grew up in, but parts of Turkey are very pious places and I have to ask myself how much do, especially younger women want to wear the scarf or feel they have to and how much some broader movements typified by R4BIA have a unifying effect on young women.
In Trabzon it was the young women organising the photographs of atrocities against muslims across the Islamic world topically in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and collecting money and organising blood donations especially for Syria.
How much has this radicalisation of young women given them purpose, hope and cohesion in a very male dominated society.
To highlight a few areas of discrimination and moral crimes against women.
Officially the minimum age of marriage is 18 but in recent surveys roughly 40 % of women were married under this age. Even Erdogan, who abolished the Ministry of Women & Families on gaining power, petitioned the courts to allow his son to marry a 17 year old girl.
Resort to the courts for permission to marry under 18 is mostly ignored in rural societies. Once married these young girls are usually forced out of education by the groom”s families to be childbearers and near domestic slaves. Millions more women are illiterate in Turkey than men.The state encourages large families of 4 or 5 children , tying women to the home for most of their lives.
It is such a difficult area for me to write about given that to me Ataturk was a farsighted heroic leader who had given women the vote before even France, banned the headscarf and made education equal for all. Under the AK party these rights and freedoms are disappearing yearly.
Istanbul is so different in that many educated middle class women would never dream of covering their heads , except to enter a mosque, and now there are so many young people in Turkey and the question is which way which way will they go, will young people vote for Erdogans AK party religious party or will some more secular party appear to replace Ataturks old party.
Or is it too late for a middle way in Turkey. Erdogan’s disastrous foreign policy towards Syria and Iraq before, backing any horse that was against Iran, and with many Jihaadists now returning home, attacks on the Alevi Shia minority have risen dramatically recently with many Shia mosques being fire-bombed.
Konya is a commercial centre for large area, for both manufacturing and agriculture and apart from a large municipal market the streets are packed with peasant farmers selling delicious looking fruit and vegetables. I have always wondered why you never see many vegetables in your average restaurant.
Konya was the old Selcuk capital and today the new university takes its name from this Turcoman tribe that originated in Isfahan and conquered a most of Turkey in the 11th century. Consequently there are streets of booksellers and most of the English language classics can be found.
Konya is an unlikely destination for many, except the followers of Rumi, but it is a pleasant place to spend a week, with good food, classical buildings, the Archeology and Ethnography museums..and of course the Duetting Muezzins.