Konya is reputedly the most devout city in Turkey and when we arrived in the hot late afternoon it certainly had a different feel to the other towns along the way. We were directed towards the exquisitely tiled tomb of the Sufi mystic Mevlana, also known as Rumi.
The mausoleum holds a collection of ancient Korans, some very tiny, some gilded, and a carpet that is supposed to be the world’s most valuable. We were the only westerners and attracted a lot of warm, curious stares especially from a group of teenage girls. They giggled at us behind their hands and never one to miss an opportunity I said hello in my best Turkish, merhaba. They blushed and giggled even more. I tried ‘Where are you from? What is your name?’ and a slightly older girl was pulled to the centre of the group. ‘Do you speak English?’ I said ‘Yes I am English.’ There followed a sweet conversation where through her they asked questions and looked at me strangely. I knew they didn’t get me – I was wearing a scarf around my head and shoulders, so because of my skin they thought I must be Muslim. I explained that I’m from England but am half Nigerian and watched the quizzical frowns smooth to happy smiles. I could have stayed all day but eased myself away to look around and every so often I’d turn a corner and catch one of them smiling.
I was drawn to a crowd gathering around a glass case and edged closer to investigate. There was an ornate casket inside and people seemed to be taking turns to press their nose to the corner of the case. I tried to keep a respectful distance, but again the friendly glances and they started to talk to me. I understood nothing but a woman took my hand and led me closer. I was instructed to follow them in the nose pressing activity, and saw a tiny hole that they were inhaling through. A sniff revealed a jasmine frankincense aroma, and a sign in English, that the casket contained the beard of Mohammed. Later there was a debate among friends as to whether it was supposed to be a hair from the Prophets beard or that of Rumi, this remains cloudy, maybe someone knows the definitive answer?
Through abundant rose gardens stands the Selimiye Camii mosque, 450 years old with sumptuous decorations in the Ottoman style. Friday prayers had ended and I approached the door. In contrast to the bustle of Rumi Mevlana’s tomb hardly a soul was around and my friend sat in the sun while I tried to find out if I could go inside. I was nervous, in one of India’s most important mosques, the Ajmer Dargah, non Muslim women were not allowed to enter and I had felt uncomfortable even in the courtyard. Here though a gesture from me and a nod from a local gave me permission to enter. I tidied my scarf, slipped my shoes off and crept inside.
The silence was the sort that makes you hold your breath. The domed ceiling was as high as heaven and the carpet was the richest red, velvet to my feet. I sensed, rather than saw, a woman glide beside me to the door and taking stock I realised there were just three men and a small boy there now. My first instinct was to go right back outside but I stood like a statue (that would NOT be allowed in the building) and made sure that no-one was going to shoo me away. It was amazingly peaceful; I wandered around and found the niche which shows the direction of Mecca for prayer. I felt quite overwhelmed with emotion, nothing that I could name, but very spiritual, as if I was being safely held.
Konya may be a lovely city, I don’t know, we only had an overnight stop in an okay hotel. I enjoyed the encounters both earthly and ethereal. For my friend the town itself had a heavier, darker atmosphere. I wonder, if she had gone into the mosque, would she have seen another side to Rumi’s ancient resting place?