Konya: Turkey’s ancient city of whirling dervishes

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When most people think of Turkey bucket list destinations, a few obvious ones spring to mind - Istanbul, Turquoise Coast hotspots like Bodrum or the otherworldly landscapes of Cappadocia.

Yet for some travelers, number one on the list is a place few people from many parts of the world have heard of – Konya.

This city in central Turkey draws millions of visitors every year. With good reason – it’s a charming place with a bustling bazaar, historic landmarks and a modern tram network that speeds people from suburbs to center.

But it’s also a place of Islamic pilgrimage.

Konya is probably best known as the final resting place of 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet Celaleddin Rumi (later known as Mevlâna). As well as being a renowned Islamic scholar, Rumi launched the Mevlevi Order of the Whirling Dervishes.

The dervishes, who offer worship in the form of spinning dances that kick out their elegant robes as they move gracefully across the floor, are still going strong. And while they can be seen in various locations across Turkey, Konya is the beating heart of their activities.

Their mesmerizing “Sema” ceremonies, many of which are open to the public, make a trip to Konya worthwhile, but there are plenty of other reasons to go for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

“There is an inseparable bond between Konya and His Holiness Maulana,” says Kerem Polat, 30, a whirling dervish living in Konya who learned the ceremonial dances from his grandfather and began performing when he was nine years old.

A place of pilgrimage

Whirling dervishes regularly perform "Sema" rituals in Konya. - Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
Whirling dervishes regularly perform "Sema" rituals in Konya. - Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Polat explains that Konya was already an important center before Rumi’s arrival. The city, which dates back thousands of years, passed through Hittite, Greek, Roman and Persian hands before becoming the capital, in the 11th century, of the Sultanate of Rum.

Born in Balkh, in what is now Afghanistan, Rumi is said to have made his way with his family to Konya, which, says Polat, was becoming a hub for Islamic scholars and a place of religious significance.

“This is a sign of Konya being blessed as a sanctuary … akin to the revered cities of Mecca and Medina,” he tells CNN. “We believe that the arrival of his holiness in Konya was no coincidence and he must have followed a sign calling him here.”

Polat says that after finishing his religious education in Konya, Rumi began inspiring the other scholars who flocked to the city. Soon, word of his teachings began to draw people from far and wide.

“Thousands of people journeyed in large groups from non-Muslim territories, including the land of the Romans, to meet his holiness Maulana and embrace Islam here before returning to their homeland. In fact, people have been visiting Konya for religious purposes for 700 years.”

Today, non-Muslim and Muslim visitors continue to descend on the city. Highlights for travelers include the Mevlana Museum, the Mevlana Cultural Center – where daily Sema rituals take place – and the beautiful Alâeddin Mosque.

Abdullah Çetín, a photographer based in Konya, says the city and region’s history is also what puts it on the map.

“Konya has important historical landmarks that tell the history of how humans became civilized in Anatolia,” he says.

Secret tunnel

The neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, southeast of Konya, - mycan/iStockphoto/Getty Images
The neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, southeast of Konya, - mycan/iStockphoto/Getty Images

These include Çatalhöyük, southeast of Konya, a neolithic settlement uncovered by archaeologists that offers fascinating insight into how people lived 9,000 years ago.

Another site, the village of Sille, located close to Konya’s center, dates back 5,000 years and was home to Greek speakers as recently as the last century – with Rumi’s teachings of tolerance credited for maintaining the harmony between local Greek and Turkish communities.

Gevale Castle, an ancient mountaintop structure northwest of Konya, is also believed to date back further than Roman times and is still yielding unexpected finds. A secret tunnel thought to have been constructed by Hittites some 4,000 years ago was found beneath it in 2015.

And while Konya has a reputation for being one of Turkey’s most religiously conservative cities, Çetín says it’s actually a chilled out place, partly thanks to Rumi’s influence.

“It’s a relaxed and safe city, and has warm relations among neighbors, friends and people,” he says. “People still care deeply about Mevlana’s teachings of tolerance for each other.”

Whirling dervish Polat agrees, saying thanks to connections to Rumi, Konya “has earned the title of the city of love.”

Pink lake

Flamingos are regular visitors to Lake Tuz, near Konya. - Murat Oner Tas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Flamingos are regular visitors to Lake Tuz, near Konya. - Murat Oner Tas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Konya is also a jumping off point for Lake Tuz, a large hypersaline lake that lies about two hours’ drive northeast of the city. Also known as Salt Lake, Tuz is famous for its varied wildlife and for the pinkish hues that its waters sometimes take on – making it a favorite on Instagram.

Wildlife photographer Fahri Tunç, who grew up near Tuz and has spent countless hours photographing its wildlife, has worked to raise awareness and improve environmental protection at the lake for threatened species such as flamingoes.

Tunç says the incredible scenes created at Tuz, particularly at sundown, by the birds that flock there are enough to melt the hearts of any visitors.

“When they ask me about Lake Tuz, I just ask the person a question to them: ‘Have you fallen in love with someone before?’ They said, ‘sometimes yes. I fall in love with some girl or with some man.’ And I say, ‘have you been before in Lake Tuz?’ They said, ‘no.’ I said, ‘it means that you are not falling in love because, first, you should feel these places.’”

Tunç says he’s traveled to 34 countries photographing birds or visiting places as a tourist, but is still struck by the visual appeal of his lake home.

“You should come and you should see it,” he says. “At night I come here… where you are looking at the water, you can see a mirror, like a mirror, the same sky, the same water. […] this photograph in my mind, I say: ‘Wow, how is it possible, such a thing? How is it possible?’”

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