The new look Konya
When it comes to tourism the central Anatolian city of Konya gets something of a bum rap.
Turkish tourists pour in, in their thousands, keen to pay their respects at the shrine of Celaleddin Rumi, better known as Mevlana, the founder of the whirling dervishes. Sufis aside, however, foreign visitors tend to be warier, muttering about the town’s conservatism and bemoaning the difficulty of getting a beer with which to wash down their dinner. This is a great shame because in some ways it’s only on a visit to a town like Konya that you can really understand what makes modern Turkey tick. For it’s Konya rather then İstanbul or the coastal resorts that best represents the mindset of the people who voted the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) into office throughout the 2000s, and that makes it something of a must-visit for those keen to get to grips with the real Turkey.
Let’s set aside the shortage of alcohol for a moment. This is a town that functions extremely well in the ways that more traditional Turks want it to, which certainly doesn’t mean that it’s backward. You’ll see more bicycles here than in most other towns, for example, and a sleek tram whisks passengers from the space age bus station to the town center. Out towards the airport kilometer upon kilometer of factories provide the jobs that have turned Konya into an Anatolian-tiger boomtown. Even the sculptures dotted about the center are a cut above what generally passes for art in these parts of the world.
Nor is this a place that is resting on its laurels when it comes to tourism. Of course the actual shrine of Mevlana is sacrosanct but recent years have seen great steps being made to improve the way in which it is presented to visitors with the addition of a glorious rose garden (full of tulips in spring) that encourages visitors to spread themselves out, thus reducing some of the bottlenecks. Much ink has been shed recently on the threat to İstanbul’s sublime skyline as a result of thoughtless development in Zeytinburnu, which makes it all the better to be able to report that the iconic turquoise dome of the shrine still stands proud, its only competition coming from the dome and minarets of the almost equally splendid Sultan Selim Cami just outside the gate.
Recently, a project to open up more of the surrounding courtyard has been completed and visitors can now not only admire the tableaux and artworks inside the dervish cells surrounding it but also visit the kitchens that played a central role in dervish rituals. In line with the best ideas on modern museum presentation, the grounds also have a stylish new café and gift shop which stocks — oh joy! — a guidebook written in decent English. Finally, a visit to the site is greatly enhanced by an excellent audio guide that can be picked up at the ticket desk.
For most visitors Mevlana’s shrine is by far the most important, indeed often the only reason to stop in Konya. In reality, though, the town is littered with reminders of its glory days in the 12th and 13th centuries, when it was the capital of the Selçuk Sultanate of Rum. The most important relic of those days is the Alaadin Cami on the Alaadin Tepesi (Aladdin’s Hill) at the far end of Mevlana Caddesi from the shrine. An interesting rather than especially beautiful building, this mosque was meticulously restored in the 1990s, and excavations on the hillside outside will hopefully bring to light more of the adjacent royal palace than the single wall currently lurking beneath a concrete shelter. Don’t leave the mosque without stepping into the rear courtyard where a pair of tombs contains the remains of some of the great Selçuk sultans, including Alparslan, victor at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and Aladdin Keykubad.
Other reminders of the Selçuk period include the buildings that house the İnce Minare and Karatay Museums. Both are easy to find near the hill. The new Sahib-i Ata Hanigah Museum, however, is tucked away in the back streets, round the corner from the Konya Archaeological Museum, and chances are that you’ll have it to yourself for the time being. Step inside, and you’ll find yourself in an exquisite space, tiled in glorious cobalt blue and containing a selection of carpets taken from local mosques as well as a number of gorgeous wooden preaching chairs brought here from the superb Eşrefiye Cami at Beyşehir in the Lake District.
Given the reverence in which Mevlana was held it’s hardly surprising that Konya is one of the few towns in central Anatolia to boast fine mosques built in Ottoman times. The most obvious of these is the Sultan Selim Cami right beside the shrine, an imposing structure, completed in 1574, that stands comparison with some of the finest mosques in İstanbul. Also dating from this relatively early Ottoman period is the Şerafeddin Cami, midway down Mevlana Caddesi, that was completely rebuilt in 1636. Slightly harder to locate is the Aziziye Cami in the bustling shopping area south of the shrine. This was built for Sultan Abdülaziz in 1867 and exemplifies the frilly baroque style which was then all the rage in the capital.
In 1925 Atatürk banned the dervish orders as part of his fast-track modernization of the country. That Konya remained a significant town is evidenced by the fine early republican buildings clustered around the Vilayet on Mevlana Caddesi, one of them, the post office, and a pleasing minor example of First National Architecture, one of whose great glories is the Büyük Postane (Main Post Office) in İstanbul’s Sirkeci district.
When Atatürk turned his back on the Ottomans, everything associated with the great years of their empire fell from grace, including the lovely wooden houses that once adorned most Turkish towns. Konya has been slower than some places to cotton on to their touristic potential but many of the crumbling houses around the shrine are now being given a facelift. The houses immediately beside it have already been spruced up, whitewashed and rented out as restaurants and souvenir shops. Now, the Mengüç and Sokullu Mehmet Paşa streets between the shrine and the local bus station are getting the same wash and brush-up, which means that there will soon be quite a large neo-Ottoman area for visitors to explore. What a shame, then, that the Koyunoğlu Konya Evi that used to allow visitors a glimpse inside a late Ottoman home is closed for restoration despite precious little sign of any work going on.
On the culinary front, though, not much seems to have changed. Fırın kebap (a pit-oven-baked kebab) and etli ekmek (the local take on pide) rather than fancy fusion recipes rule the roost in most of the places catering for tourists. Konya is also known for its sweets, especially pişmaniye, a candy-floss-like offering that makes a good gift for Turkish friends. This being a town with such strong religious leanings you won’t perhaps be surprised to stumble upon shops whose entire stock consists of dates, the fruit with which the Prophet Muhammad used to break his fasts. One shop near the Vilayet goes one better, offering chewy Kahramanmaraş-style ice cream studded with dates, the perfect cooler after a sticky day’s sightseeing.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Rumi. Tel.: 0 (332) 353 11 21
Hotel Balıkçılar. Tel.: 0 (332) 350 94 70
Selçuk Otel. Tel.: 0 (332) 353 25 25
Hotel Ulusan. Tel.: 0 (332) 351 50 04
Hotel Ani & Şems. Tel.: 0 (332) 353 80 80
HOW TO GET THERE
There are daily flights to Konya from İstanbul. Fairly regular bus services link the city with Antalya, Nevşehir in Cappadocia, and Isparta in the Lake District.
Resource: Today’s Zaman