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Friday, 01 May 2015

Konya: Guidebooks Don’t Quite Capture This Turkish City

Written by Paul Michelson
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At first glance, Konya was a little disconcerting: mosques, lots of them, squatting among warehouses, apartments, and tidy green lawns, the harsh July sun radiating off their bright aluminum domes. With scarcely a bush in sight, the city’s industrial suburbs looked spare, almost severe, in their neatness. In the distance, against a cloudless blue sky, barren mountains formed a stark brown backdrop to this metropolis on the Turkish steppes. To me, it all looked a little alien, even intimidating.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen a mosque before. There’d been plenty in Istanbul, but there they’d been stately historical relics: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Suleiman Mosque. Here they were like living, breathing things, fresh, vibrant, somehow assertive. And they were everywhere.

I admit, of course, I’d been on edge even before we got here. The guidebooks had said Konya was one of the most conservative places in the country. Western women, they said, had been harassed here. I could just imagine my wife and me walking the streets, encountering dirty looks from sour, disapproving old curmudgeons.

An incident on our bus to Konya that morning hadn’t helped. We’d stopped at a dusty café in the middle of nowhere to pick up a guy who wanted to load a pile of boxes into the bus’s storage compartment. The driver was trying to explain that the bus couldn’t handle it all. Voices rose, and suddenly the two men were pushing each other. Six or seven people, men and women, charged out from the café, knocked the driver to the ground, and started punching and kicking him. The assistant driver finally broke things up and we continued on our way minus the guy and his boxes, but I couldn’t help wondering what we were getting ourselves into.

Then again, that was, in a sense, why we were here. We wanted to experience at least something of Turkey without its lipstick on. If we stuck to the standard tourist haunts—Istanbul, Cappadocia, the Mediterranean playgrounds—would we really be seeing anything? 

Once we got to the central bus terminal and found the tram for downtown, I settled in with my guidebook. As we bumped along toward the center of town, a slim young man in dark slacks and short-sleeved shirt walked up the aisle behind us and asked if he could help. He’d probably seen me glancing from my map to the streets outside trying to figure out where to get off. We told him we were trying to find the Hotel Rumi. He wasn’t sure, he said, but he thought it’d be a straight shot down Mevlana Caddesi from the next tram stop.

My wife and I climbed off the tram, shouldered our packs, and started down Mevlana, past block after block of nondescript hardware stores, clothing shops, and cafes. The street didn’t exactly ooze ambiance. It looked a little like a low-rent strip mall. 

After a mile or so, we finally spotted the Rumi. We checked in, dropped off our packs, and after a short rest headed back out to check on visiting hours for the nearby Mevlana Museum. As we walked around the gated park that surrounded the museum, a chunky, bestubbled old man in rumpled white gym shorts, dingy tee-shirt, and sandals walked up alongside us and in broken English told us the museum had already closed. He was pretty much a ringer for the sort of grumpy local I’d imagined we’d encounter—except, of course, that this guy was trying to help and was about as intimidating as those harmless old timers I’d see puttering around their summer gardens back home. We waved our thanks and walked over to a nearby shop to look at postcards.


Later, after retreating to our room awhile to escape the heat, we were back out on Mevlana looking for somewhere to eat. Not far from our hotel, we found a cafeteria recommended in our guidebook. While we waited for our order, I noticed a few tables away a beautiful olive-skinned Turkish woman, probably about thirty, in a dark ankle-length dress and flowing black hair talking energetically to a handsomely suited guy about the same age across the table from her. Slim, stylish, and animated, they sure didn’t look very conservative to me. They looked more like something out of Vanity Fair. 

The waiter, a chatty middle-aged man, brought our dishes, set them on the table, and asked us where we were from. California we told him. We talked awhile, and I asked him if there was a pharmacy nearby. For days I’d been harassed by an itchy rash—flea bites, I suspected, from some cats I’d buddied up to in Cappadocia. He’d be back in a few minutes with a map, he said. We finished eating and waited. Finally he came back, without the map. “My friend’s outside; he’ll take you to a pharmacy.” My heart sank a little, but I figured that was probably how things worked here. Friends helped each other out.

The friend, a shaggy-haired guy in his early thirties in a faded blue tee-shirt, jeans, and sandals, looked like an over-age student who’d settled into the relaxed lifestyle of his college town and never left. We talked as we walked. “You like my city?” he said? Yes, we said, although in truth, my only sense of the place so far was that Mevlana street could do with a good facelift. We mentioned we were from California. “I have a friend who teaches math at UC Irvine,” he said. 

The pharmacy wasn’t far. Our guide led us inside and said something to the pharmacist, who reached behind him and took a tube down from a shelf. Our guide handed it to us. “Everyone here uses that,” he said. For a second, I wondered if everyone around here had flea bites.  

We paid and left. As we started back down the block, our guide mentioned he owned a rug shop around the corner. Were we in the market for a Turkish rug, he wondered? We weren’t, but we really couldn’t say no, now. He led us to a small shop in an alley, offered us tea, and showed us his rugs. After looking through a couple of stacks, we finally settled on a colorful cloth handbag, a bargain, I figured, if the flea salve actually worked. 

The next morning we were off to the Mevlana Museum, a far more interesting place, as it turned out, than I’d imagined. It was filled that morning with high school girls in Islamic dress circulating counterclockwise around the room, peering at handwritten religious texts, artifacts associated with Mohammed, and tombs of important clerics including Rumi, the iconic Sufi poet who’d founded the whirling dervishes. The tombs were especially fascinating. On top of each was a white, turban-like cloth piece, the height of each piece signifying the status of the person entombed. Next to us, the devout recited prayers as they gazed at the tombs.

Turkey 2012 067


Turkey 2012 068

By the time we were back outside, the heat was kicking in. We stopped briefly at a street café for something to drink—in my case, a small bottle of carbonated olive juice that even I, who’ll happily eat anything, could barely choke down—then headed downtown, skirting the central bazaar, passing windows full of manikins attired in the full-length raincoats that observant women here wore even in the stifling heat of summer. As we entered downtown we kept our eyes open for a bus company office, hoping to buy tickets to the coast for the following morning. The day before, we’d seen bus offices all over the place. Now we couldn’t find any. Finally, we gave up and went into a travel agency. 

The middle-aged manager walked over and greeted us with a smile: “Bonjour, monsieur,” he said. I scrambled to dredge up some of my dormant high school French to communicate what we wanted: “Uh … autobus billets pour... uh, uh … hier!” He chuckled, amused, probably, at this silly American who, it dawned on me later, had announced he was looking for bus tickets for ‘yesterday.’ The manager summoned his young assistant, who took us to a Ulusoy bus office down the street, explained our needs to the clerk, and got us our tickets. We thanked him profusely. He beamed, clearly pleased to have helped.

The next morning, while we waited for the minibus that would drop us near the central bus terminal, I noticed across the street a middle-aged man herding his family along toward the Mevlana Museum. He was wearing the calf-length pants popular with men from northern Europe. They were the only people I’d seen in Konya who looked like Westerners.

The bus came, and my wife and I climbed on. I gave the driver the standard four Turkish-lira fare, and we maneuvered our packs along the cramped aisle. Near the back, a stout young man in blue jeans jumped up and moved to the seat in front of him so my wife and I could sit together.

As we bounced along, we passed warehouses, mosques, and workingmen’s cafes like the ones I’d seen on our way into town. No doubt about it: except for some impressive mosques and the Mevlana Museum, the Konya I’d seen hadn’t been much to look at. But, of course, what made the place special wasn’t the architecture, anyway.

A few minutes later, as I sat there chatting with my wife, I saw the bus driver’s assistant making his way down the aisle toward us. He stopped and handed me some coins. I was surprised for a moment—I didn’t know I had change coming—but I probably shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t like it was the first time someone had gone out of his way for us in Konya.


(c)Paul Michelson


Last modified on Thursday, 02 July 2015