Alcohol isn’t legally banned in Konya, but it might as well be. Only a few stores sell it, and only a handful of restaurants serve it. We found no purveyors (and you all know we tried!), but supposedly they do exist.
In spite of its proud conservatism, Konya manages to feel lighthearted and even open-minded. When we first arrived, a girl with hot pink streaks in her hair strolled down the street along with her head-scarved friends. I’ll chock it up to a vibrant student population in the city, as well as to Turkey’s overall attitude of tolerance.
Konya also happens to be a delightfully underrated Turkish city. It’s inland, and doesn’t have any particularly exciting scenery. But it has a wealth of cultural heritage that is quintessentially Turkish. Just as an Italian city will have one medieval cathedral after another, Konya is liberally dotted with 13th century mosques. The mosques are monstrous and architecturally impressive. Their calls to prayer do not compete with one another, which means no cacophony and the muezzins are among the most melodic we’ve heard in the country. There are more modern mosques than historic ones, but they look like ordinary buildings and so are non-descript. Those are on almost every corner, at about the density of churches in Lubbock, Texas.
The only tourists we noticed in Konya were pilgrims come to worship at the mausoleum/museum of Persian founder of the Sufi Whirling Dervishes: Rumi. Having studied Rumi in the context of world religions and literature, I was deeply impressed by the vibrancy of this small but dedicated community of followers. Rumi’s message is all about love and ecstasy. His legacy is wholly unlike that of other founders of religious faiths because his basic teaching was, “leave your idiotic negativity at the door. Only joy lives in my house.” Rumi also eschewed organized religions to propose universal truths such as peace, love, and understanding. His trademark spinning dance is an outward sign of ecstatic joy. I think we should all get behind such a simple, straightforward message of spiritual hedonism.
I also used to read about Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic site about 10,000 years old that makes the Sphinx seem like a baby. Most people learn about Çatalhöyük in terms of its sociological importance: the site proves that some human cultures practiced gender egalitarianism. Men and women had the same diets, there was no social stratification, and no evidence of warfare or strife. Some believe Çatalhöyük also illustrates matrilinearlity and the worship of a mother goddess. So, just as there are Sufi pilgrims in Konya proper, there are also pagan and goddess pilgrims at Çatalhöyük. The site is 45 minutes out of Konya in the middle of nowhere but it only costs 35 Euro to take a taxi both ways including having the driver wait. When we were there the site was empty except for the guard who showed us around as most folks visit in the summer when the team of archaeologists are working. The site is a work in progress (which is why it’s free to get in) but the dig is already on an impressive scale.
As a city, Konya is pleasant. In fact, it’s probably one of the nicest large Turkish towns we visited. The urban sprawl is not as ugly as most, and the pace of life is unhurried. The food in Konya also happens to be fantastic, on a league beyond what we have experienced in other Turkish towns. Chefs are cooking the kind of rich Anatolian food that represents the best of Turkish cuisine instead of dialing in the formulaic meals we see on every other standard menu.
In spite of these positive things and its rich cultural heritage, Konya seems to be off of the tourist radar. I even read some scathing reports on Trip Advisor: people calling it an “ugly” and “industrial” town, some suggesting it didn’t even warrant a visit! I can’t imagine why. It couldn’t just be the lack of alcohol. I mean, Konya isn’t as dry as Kentucky and it’s far more interesting.