Log of the Eclipse (7)
30 March, 2006
Tomb of a Poet
Tomb of a Poet
The day began at a brutal hour of the morning. Our bags had to be packed and ready outside our rooms by 6am, so that hotel minions could carry them to the buses. I would have been perfectly happy sleeping an extra half-hour and carrying my own bag, but apparently tours are used to rich people who have barely touched their own bags, let alone carried them.
We had to be on the bus by 6:30. The breakfast room had been opened half an hour early so that we could grab a meal. The day was cold, cloudy, windy, and rainy, which showed how lucky we were to have had near-perfect weather for the eclipse the previous day. I shoveled food into my mouth while watching the weather with dull, sleep-filled eyes. I would have liked a pot of tea but didn’t know when we’d get a bathroom break, so I refrained from too many liquids.
As our bus wasn’t completely full, one seat was designated the Seat o’ Crap, and the Astroscan, other telescopes, and various spare rucksacks and bags were placed thereon.
The bus roared off, through beautiful green Pamphylian countryside soured by rain and grey cloud. The Tauros mountains grew closer, and as we began our winding journey up the slopes the weather brightened. We passed the parking lot that Paul had chosen as our alternative eclipse-viewing site in the event of bad weather, and here the sun shone brightly. “If it’s raining on the coast,” he’d been told, “try the mountains,” and the advice seemed to have been right on the money.
The Tauros range can get up to about 3000 meters, and in March the topmost peaks were still snow-capped. The mountains were cut by deep green gorges and rushing water. Sign of human habitation was just about everywhere— you would see a tiny village with its domed mosque and a minaret or two on the only flat space available, with hand-cut terraces for agriculture.
There are still nomads in this part of the world. They stay in sunny Pamphylia over the winter, then move with their flocks to the high summer pastures in the spring. We saw flocks, but couldn’t tell if they were nomadic or not.
Once over the Tauros, we were in the ancient land of Cappadocia. (Cappadocia is the ancient name, which a modern Turk would probably not recognize.) Cappadocia is a high plateau smack in the middle of Turkey, and has a wildly different climate from happy, rich Pamphylia down on the coast. The winters are bitter, and the growing season short. In contrast to the three crops a coastal farmer can gather in a year, a Cappadocian can hope only for one, usually wheat or chickpeas. The area is covered with apricot trees, which were blooming quite beautifully during our visit, lovely soft white blossoms everywhere you looked. (Indeed, if you buy a package of dried apricots in the US, odds are it will say “Product of Turkey” on the package.)
When I state that Cappadocia is an ancient land, I’m not exaggerating. Hattusas, the capital of the Hittite Empire, is in Cappadocia. So is Çatalhöyük, the world’s oldest city, dating from 7500 BCE. More on Çatalhöyük in another place, but you have to wonder why people first decided to take up urban life in the relatively inhospitable uplands of Anatolia, as opposed to the Fertile Crescent just a few hundred miles away.
Our first stop in Cappadocia was in Konya, where Perseus supposedly slew the dragon. In classical times the city was known as Iconium. St. Paul preached there and was run out of town, but nevertheless converted St. Thecla among others. Later, Konya became the capital of a kind of rump empire of the Seljuk Turks, and though it was held briefly by Crusaders it was recaptured by the Seljuks in time for their whole empire to be flattened by Mongol invaders in 1243, after which the city was held by Mongke Khan. The last Seljuk sultan was so unimportant that nobody’s even certain of his name.
Konya is now known as the capital of religious orthodoxy in Turkey. It’s supposedly the one city where you might have some difficulty finding wine or beer to go with your meal. To outward appearances, though, there were no signs of greater piety here than in any other Turkish city. There seemed no larger percentages of young women in headscarves, for example.
Be that as it may, our principal reason for stopping here was a pilgrimage to a religious shrine. In Konya we find the tomb of the man the Turks call Mevlana, but who is known in Persian as Muhammad Balkhi, and in the West as Rumi. “Rumi” actually means “the Roman,” by which was meant an inhabitant of the part of the Seljuk empire that was formerly Byzantine. Actually Mevlana Celaleddin Mehmed Rumi (to use the Turkish spelling) was born in what is now Afghanistan, but as a boy was brought as a refugee to Konya by his family to escape the Mongols. His father was a Sufi religious teacher, and Mevlana inherited his father’s job.
Mevlana was not only a religious teacher, but the founder of a mystic order and a world-class poet. He wrote in Persian, but his works have been translated into dozens of languages, and his work has profoundly influenced Turkish, Persian, and Arabic poets.
Mevlana founded the order of the Whirling Dervishes, formally called the Mevlevi order after him. The Mevlevi are still run by Mevlana’s direct descendants. (More on the Whirling Dervishes later, in the proper place.)
As a religious teacher, Mevlana was nothing if not ecumenical. Consider these Whitman-like lines:
What is to be done, O Muslims? for I do not recognize myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Magian, nor Muslim.
I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature's mint, nor of the circling heaven.
I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire;
I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.
I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, nor of Saqsin
I am not of the kingdom of 'Iraqian, nor of the country of Khorasan
I am not of the this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell
I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwan.
My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless.
Technically you don’t even have to be a Muslim to be a Whirling Dervish, though you do have to listen to a lot of readings from the Koran, and also from the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana, called “the Persian Koran” by his followers.
It is this general Sufi atmosphere of tolerance that infuses the Turkish brand of Islam, and which causes more strict sects (Wahhabis, say) to view the Sufis as heretics, and want to, well, wipe them from the face of the Earth.
Mevlana has also become a sort of gay icon in the West because of his relationship with the hard-partying Dervish wild man Shams Tabrizi, though I believe we sex-mad literalist Westerners are supposed to understand their relationship as a spiritual one between master and student.
Mevlana’s tomb, called the Green Dome, is part of a large complex that once made up an entire spiritual community (but is now a museum). There was a room with a (rather small) stage where students would practice the whirling dance. There is a small, quiet cemetery where Dervishes were laid to rest under apricot trees. Some of their grave markers were topped by a carved tall fez, part of the Dervish uniform. Around a large courtyard are the modest apartments of student Dervishes and their teachers, much like the cells of monks. Like Western monks, the Dervishes lived in poverty and spent their days in spiritual exercise. (They were allowed to marry, however, so they weren’t expected to be chaste in addition to everything else.) The curriculum was very challenging and many students left before graduation.
The tomb proper follows the rules of the mosque, so we wore plastic-and-elastic pampooties over our shoes, and women had to cover their hair. (The women seemed not to resent this, as it gave them a reason to display the gorgeous allegedly-Pashmina shawls they’d been purchasing from vendors.)
The tomb is spacious and brilliantly ornamented with tiles, engravings, calligraphy, and gold. Mevlana’s coffin is has the peaked Turkish lid, and on a post at one end is his green turban (indicating his descent from the Prophet, if memory serves). Most of the space is given over to a museum, with displays of carpets, musical instruments, and gorgeous illuminated Korans, some written and illustrated in a microscopic hand, others huge and beautiful as the Book of Kells. The Arabic writing in some of the Korans swept in waves like the ocean, and was sometimes illuminated with tiny flowers, so that the Prophet’s words seemed to be sprouting flower gardens. The tourists, in their plastic booties, crackled as they walked in the tomb’s respectful silence.
Our next stop was the Tile Museum, housed in the former Karatay Madrasa, or religious school, dating from the 13th century. The original tilework has been severely damaged, presumably in earthquakes, though it’s still very impressive. Most of the tiles on exhibit come from a sort of country hunting lodge owned by the Seljuk sultans. They feature scenes from nature, with birds, animals, and fantastic creatures.
Our lunch was in a former Seljuk caravanserai, places the Seljuks built every ten miles or so along major trade routes, so that traders would have a save place to rest every night. Food, fodder, lodging, and sometimes entertainment were provided free for up to three nights, as part of the Muslim obligation to care for travelers. The caravanserais are big, plain, square buildings that look like forts, with an elaborate arched entrance full of carvings and inscriptions. Ruined buildings of this sort are visible all over the former Seljuk empire.
The food was tasty, though not free, beginning with the ubiquitous lentil soup, the equally ubiquitous lamb stew, and followed by pastry or fruit. I had not yet grown tired of this meal, which we got pretty much everywhere. After was a long coach ride through bare, rolling Cappadocian hills. On our right we saw the perfect cone shape of a snow-covered volcano, one of those that shaped the unique topography of the region (of which, more later).
Eventually we arrived at our destination, the five-star Dedeman Hotel near Nevsehir. It was another huge hotel off by itself in the countryside, with all the amenities, and with a shopping center in the basement that was only open at night, when the tourists were actually in the building. We were again treated to a huge buffet meal of perfectly adequate food. I would have preferred to step outside the hotel and find a cheap and fresher meal elsewhere, but since we were out in the countryside there was nowhere to go.
Except to bed.
O you who've gone on pilgrimage _
where are you, where, oh where?
Here, here is the Beloved!
Oh come now, come, oh come!
Your friend, he is your neighbor,
he is next to your wall _
You, erring in the desert _
what air of love is this?
If you'd see the Beloved's
form without any form _
You are the house, the master,
You are the Kaaba, you! . . .
Where is a bunch of roses,
if you would be this garden?
Where, one soul's pearly essence
when you're the Sea of God?
That's true _ and yet your troubles
may turn to treasures rich _
How sad that you yourself veil
the treasure that is yours!
Rumi: 'I Am Wind, You are Fire'
Translation by Annemarie Schimmel
Next: The Fairies Have Chimneys!