Catching up with St Paul (and with Rumi)

1st December, 2012
Avanos, Nevsihir (Nyssa), Konya (Iconium)

For all photos for 1st December, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

We have just come out of a visit to an underground pottery in Avanos, and are heading through the modern town of Nevsihir – which I have just learned is the ancient Nyssa, home of St Gregory of the same place. We left the hotel in Urgup early (once again, I almost forgot a pair of shoes in my room – Fr Peter found me sitting outside smoking my pipe and uploading yesterday’s travel diary and said “Are you leaving those shoes behind on purpose?” – I think he must be getting a little tired of picking up things I’ve left behind) and Hakan took us to a local pottery of a family that has been making pottery in Avanos for 200 years/5 generations (called Firca). Here we saw a demonstration of the pot making on a modern motorised potters wheel before being shown the ancient technique on a “kick wheel” – a wooden contraption spun by the potter’s feet. The master potter showed us how he makes a decanter in the ancient Hittite ring style (so that it can be poured from the shoulder). It occurred to me what a revolution (literally!) the invention of the potters wheel must have been for civilization. The place was a little like the carpet seller yesterday, but the sell at the end was not as full on. There were two showrooms (like the workshop, both underground), one with the cheaper pieces, and the other with the studio’s special works, which were real works of art. These pieces went into the $1000’s, but I contented myself with buying a little palm held teacup (glazed on the inside but not on the outside) such as that in which we were served apple tea at the pottery. As a small note, outside the pottery was one of the oldest Seljuk Turkish mosques still in use.

Then came the long drive (about 250kms) to Konya, or Iconium as it was in St Paul’s day. On the way there, once we had passed Aksaray, we left the hills of Cappadocia and entered into the area which was known in Paul’s day as Lyconium, and onto the Konya Plateau, a flat plain that would give the Hay Plains a run for their money in terms of flatness and size. We passed some places of interest, such as the volcanoes of Mount Hassan and Milandes, the Mercedes-Benz Turk truck factory, and a large sugar beet processing plant (%90 of Turkey’s sugar comes from these beets and ends up on the baklava and in the Turkish delight we have been enjoying). Here we were travelling along the exact route of the ancient Silk Road, and this was brought home vividly to us when we stopped at about 11:30am at a 13th Century Caravanserai for morning tea (actually the tea was served in the cafe next door, not in the Caravanserai itself!). The building was cathedral like (I thought we had pulled up at an old mosque at first) in its dimensions, especially in the massive stables for the camel trains out the back, built and roofed entirely with stone arch work. We are having very fine weather for the first day of Winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun is shining, there is a light breeze and the temperature would be about 16 degrees. As we were getting ready to leave, the call to prayer went off in the local mosques, and all the men in the cafe got up and went off to prayers. We stopped off for lunch at a big roadside buffet before heading on into the city of Konya.

I have been here before, on the Catholic Muslim Pilgrimage in 2009, when we visited the town because it was the last home and resting place of the Persian Sufi poet Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad Balkhi (also known as Rumi or Mevlana), the founder of the Mevlevi order of Sufi mystics (to which the Whirling Dervishes belong) in the 13th Century. On that trip we paid especial attention to the religious significance of the place, especially the visit to Rumi’s tomb (and that of other Sufi “saints”) in the shrine next to the mosque. We were there on a Friday, and observed the afternoon prayers, at which there were more worshippers than could fit inside the mosque, so the whole park outside was filled with men on their knees praying. I was interested to see how Hakan represented the visit to the “Mevlani Museum” today.

Here is one of the strange things about Turkey: the Government is secular, and in the past has been fiercely so. Ataturk actually disbanded and outlawed the Mevlevi Order in the 1920’s, and only after some years allowed people to return to Rumi’s tomb, this time reopened as a “museum”. Today, according to Hakan, the Mevlevis have survived, but not as a public presence. He hesitated to use the term “underground”, but said that it was privately practiced. And yet the Turks love the Whirling Dervishes and will wheel them out for cultural occasions. Someone who went to the demonstration of the Dervish ritual last night asked the question “Do they belong to a Sufi community?”, to which the answer was “No, they take off their robes, put on their runners and go home to their families.” Hakan assures me that the Whirlers were initiates of the Mevlevi order, but didn’t really explain what this meant in community terms.

In any case, all this was stuff to ponder as we arrived at the Mevlevi Museum. It has changed somewhat since I was here last. The main buildings of the complex are unaltered, but the museum displays in the old community rooms have been vastly improved, and the entire surrounding area has been expanded and beautified. All this is clearly with the government’s financial support. A beautiful paved area now surrounds the whole complex, with garden beds of roses everywhere. Hakan says a large number of buildings were demolished in the surrounding area to expand this visitor centre. There is a gift shop and a new entrance area. The paving was being worked on even as we watched, and has now expanded to include the area outside the town mosque next door, obviously to accommodate the extra worshippers. The shrine to Rumi has itself been cleaned up – there were young girls repainting details inside as we visited. The crowds were as big as ever, and ranged from sight-seers to devout pilgrims in large numbers.

Next to the old community rooms is a building that was used by the Mevlevi order for centuries. It is divided into three sections. The first section is the burial place for Rumi, his father and his son (all in the main, highly decorated corner under the turquoise conical dome), surrounded by many other leaders of the order. While actually buried more than two metres below the ground, the place of their burial is marked by caskets shrouded in silks with turban memorials on top, each resting place clearly identified by labels. Beside these were many visitors who were obviously praying devoutly. Next to this, in the same building, was the area which the Dervishes used for their ceremonies, including their whirling. The final area in this building was the order’s mosque, now used to display a wide range of manuscript codices of the Quran and Rumi’s poetry. The oldest I saw among these were some pages from a copy of the Quran from the 9th Century (barely 200 years after Muhammad) which were of the Meryam (Mary) Surah. In the centre of the room was an exhibit in a glass case: a mother of pearl inlaid box said to contain a hair from the beard of the Prophet himself. On an earlier visit to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, I was stunned to see such relics as a piece of the skull of John the Baptist and the Sword of the Prophet on display as museum exhibits. This reliquary was also obviously an exhibit, with a sign on the top telling the people with audio commentaries what number to press on their little thingies to hear about it. But few of the people around this exhibit were looking at it from an historical point of view. Most were standing around praying before it, and many were coming up to the glass case and kissing it in reverence. I saw a young imam (in the official dress of an imam with the white hat and long coat) not thirty years old, with a small wispy beard (unusual among modern Turks), with his 6 or 8 year old son, just standing reverently before the exhibit. I sat and watched these people for about 10 minutes and was struck at the similarity to the reverence I observed during the recent visit of St Francis Xavier’s forearm to Australia. Yet this was a relic of the Prophet himself! Imagine, if you can, how Christians would react if we had a hair of the beard of Jesus! And so this was a strange place: a place of obvious worship but officially a “museum”. That is modern Turkey for you.

I spent a little while in the other displays and then went out into the park, which is, as I said, a very beautiful place. When I was here last, it was April, and it was freezing cold. Today was quite mild (although we are told to expect rain in the coming days) despite it being the first day of winter. I looked over the gift shop, and would have liked to have bought a metal spinning figurine of a Whirling Dervish to use as a paper weight back in my office, but couldn’t afford the weight in my luggage. Instead I bought a couple of bookmarks with Rumi’s seven precepts on them, and a fridge magnet which contained the last of these precepts: “Either exist as you are or be as you look”. I was reminded of my daughter’s fierce adherence to the dictum that it isn’t what you look like on the outside but what you are on the inside that counts. It also struck me that Rumi is the difference between Turkish Islam and Arab Islam, and the reason why we have little fear from a revival of Islam in these lands. It is a softer and more humane kind of Islam, undergirded by a real spirituality and respect for all people. It is a kind of Islam that has love at the centre of it’s idea.

After this, Hakan took us into the centre of the city. Modern Konya is built around the “Tel of Iconium”, the mound that marks the spot of the ancient city where St Paul would have preached. This entire hill is a modern park today, with many public places built upon it, so very little in the way of excavation is either taking place or even possible. Around the Tel is a road, so that it is, in effect, a giant round about, with lots of busy traffic. The rest of the city has roads that circle the Tel concentrically. Right on the other side of the road from the Tel is the modern 20th Century French Catholic church built for immigrants, called, appropriately, St Paul’s Church. The sanctuary faces the Tel, so it can be said that there really is a living presence of Christianity still in this, the first of the big cities of Asia Minor in which St Paul preached the Gospel. There were probably only 10,000 inhabitants of the town in Paul’s day – there is almost a million today.

We were dropped off at the church, from which we walked to the Archaeological Museum, a hotchpotch collection of bits and pieces of stone outside in the garden, and inside a collection of massive Greek and Roman sarcophagi, a very few remnants from the Byzantine and Roman periods and lots of earlier stuff going back to Neolithic times, including a couple of skeletons of infants buried during this period (a bit disturbing, really). Among the stones outside are three stones with inscriptions identifying the ancient cities of Lystra, Iconium and Derbe, the cities in which St Paul preached. Looking at the stones in the garden, we were able to identify some Christian relics from the Byzantine period, including an altar with the design of Jonah on it (being swallowed by a fish – a symbol of the resurrection) and a stone with the four evangelists represented. These were unidentified, and tucked around the back among all the other pagan stuff. Hakan told us that a new museum was being built, and it is to be hoped that these artifacts are to be given a better home and identified for what they are.

From there we headed back to the Tel, passing the church. We tried to gain entrance to the church, but the one person we could rouse from inside was not keen to let us in. So we went to our hotel – a very nice new place in the Anemon chain – and (after settling into our luxurious rooms and making our acquaintance with the very good internet connection) went down to celebrate the mass for the Vigil of the First Sunday of Advent in a private room. We had dinner, and then prepared for bed, as we are leaving again in the morning. My battery on my tablet is running low now – I am outside and have just finished my pipe – so I will head in and hit the sack.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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