Konya, one of Turkey’s most significant cities from the medieval period, is still steeped in tradition. It was the capital of the Seljuk Empire’s Sultanate of Rum, and ornate buildings from this period remain standing throughout the bustling city. But most people visit Konya to pay homage to the legendary mystic and poet Rumi, who lived and wrote his major works here. In this Konya guide, we’ll be covering the top sites to see in addition to experiencing a live Whirling Dervish ceremony.
The Seljuk Empire: A Brief History
Before the emergence of the Ottomans, the first great Islamic and Turkic empire to control Anatolia was the Seljuk Empire.
The Seljuk dynasty was founded in 10th-century Central Asia by an Oghuz Turkic warlord of the same name. Early on in their history, the Seljuks started amassing territory throughout the region before spreading into northeastern Iran.
Heading further west, they conquered much of Byzantine-allied Georgia and Armenia, leaving a path of destruction in their wake.
Their next target was the Byzantine Empire itself. Their victory at the Battle of Manizkert in 1071 was a major turning point in both Seljuk and Anatolian history, as it allowed them to spread further west.
They’d eventually conquer territory all the way to the Aegean coast. And by the late 11th century, they also controlled much of the Middle East and Iran.
One of the most prominent Seljuk states was called the Sultanate of Rum, in reference to the territories taken from Eastern Rome. Founded in 1077, it was based in Konya.
Things would not bode well for the rest of the empire, however. Various invasions by Turkmen tribes and the Mongols ended Seljuk rule in Persia.
Later on, skirmishes with Crusaders ensued in the 12th century, while numerous revolts in the east kicked them out of Central Asia. And Saladin captured much of the former Seljuk territory in the Middle East.
The Sultanate of Rum, however, remained prosperous, thriving until the mid-13th century.
Eventually, though, the Mongols made their way there, too. And the former Seljuk territories would ultimately split up into smaller states called beyliks.
One of these was the Ottoman beylik, which would gradually expand and ultimately form the mighty Ottoman Empire.
Given the Seljuk history of conquest and bloodshed, their architecture reveals a much softer side. Highly influenced by the Persian style, Seljuk buildings are known for their refined carvings and ornate tile work.
Many of the main buildings still standing in Konya date back to the reign of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I (1219-1236). As we’ll go over below, this was the same sultan who invited Rumi’s father to the city.
Note that most of the museums featured in this Konya guide are closed on Mondays. Otherwise, they’re generally open until 17:00. Some are free while others cost a small fee to enter.
Ince Minare Madrasa
Built in 1264, the Ince Minare Madrasa originally functioned as a theological school, and now houses the Museum of Stone and Wood Art. Those with an interest in Seljuk or Persianate art in general shouldn’t miss it.
The exquisite stonework of the entrance portal arguably represents the apex of Seljuk masonry. Stepping inside, don’t miss the blue geometric patterns of the dome, illuminated by a series of rectangular windows.
The museum houses a large collection of wood and stone carvings, some of which come from the fortress ruins just across the street.
Interestingly, in contrast to other parts of the Islamic world, the Seljuks had no qualms about portraying living things like animals or angels in their artwork.
Situated atop Alaeddin Hill, which once functioned as the Seljuk citadel, Alaeddin Mosque is Konya’s largest mosque from that era. And like many other mosques in Anatolia, it was originally a Christian basilica.
It’s named after Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I, though it took 70 years to complete in total.
While the prayer hall was closed during my visit, it was possible to walk around the spacious courtyard. Even from the outside, the elegant blue and white masonry reveals the Seljuk sultans’ refined tastes.
The most notable structure is the türbe mausoleum, featuring an octagonal base and conical roof. Eight Seljuk sultans are buried within. The structure next to it, meanwhile, was left incomplete, and the identities of the bodies inside remain unknown.
Around the Alaeddin Hill
As Alaeddin Hill was the administrative center of the Sultanate of Rum, it should be no surprise that there are plenty of significant structures surrounding it.
One of these is the Karatay Madrasa, which, like the Ince Minare Madrasa mentioned above, is a former religious school-turned museum.
It now functions as a tile museum showcasing tile artwork from the Seljuk period. (Though I admired the building from the outside, there was no signage indicating it was a museum, and I didn’t realize it until after my trip!)
Also nearby is one of the surviving bastions of the original Seljuk fortress. It’s badly damaged and, at the time of my visit, was being completely remade.
Sahip Ata Museum
This well-preserved 13th-century mosque is worth a stop on your way to the Konya Archaeology Museum. It too is now a museum, housing various artifacts from the Seljuk period.
But most impressive is the surviving blue tile work on some of its walls.
Yet another madrasa converted into a museum, the Sirçali Madrasa now functions as a tombstone museum. It’s said to showcase remarkable tombstones from both the Seljuk and Ottoman periods.
It was under restoration at the time of my visit, however.
Shams of Tabriz Shrine
Shams of Tabriz was Rumi’s close friend and mentor. Shams introduced Rumi to a mystical path that would change his life forever.
Their relationship, however, was rather brief, as Sham would suddenly disappear. It was his death that caused Rumi to give up preaching and start writing the poetry for which he’s known.
Unfortunately, due to restoration work, I could only view the tomb from outside.
Who Was Rumi?
In the 13th century, as the Mongols wreaked havoc upon Central Asia and Iran, the Sultanate of Rum was considered a safe haven. Prominent scholars and artists from throughout the Muslim world fled there, among whom was a man named Baha al-Din Walad.
A renowned Sufi mystic and theologian, Baha al-Din was originally from Balkh – then in Khorasan, Greater Iran, and now in present-day Afghanistan. Arriving in Anatolia, Walad and his family first settled in the city of Karaman.
But Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I urged him to move to Konya to teach at the royal court. After all, Persian, the administrative language of the Seljuks, was Baha al-Din’s native tongue.
Upon Baha al-Din’s death, he was succeeded by his son, then aged 25. This legendary mystic and poet would become widely known as Jalal ad-Din (‘Glory of the Faith’) Rumi (‘of Rum,’ i.e. Konya). But most people in Turkey call him Mevlana, or ‘Our Master.’
According to legend, Rumi’s wisdom and spiritual vitality were apparent from the time he was a boy. And in the early days of his career in Konya, he worked as an Islamic jurist and preacher.
In 1244, Rumi’s life changed when he met a Sufi mystic named Shams of Tabriz. Their relationship only lasted for four years until Sham’s mysterious disappearance. But Rumi’s exchanges with Shams would greatly affect his outlook on life and religion.
Rumi was bereft upon Shams’ sudden death. But he managed to redirect his grief to a longing for the divine. This longing, often likened to a lover’s longing, is what inspired the poetry for which he’s now known.
Rumi taught of an Ultimate Reality – a formless void where the supreme manifestation of the divine resides. And while our world of form and matter is largely illusory, humans contain an element of the divine within. As such, according to Rumi’s teachings, it’s everyone’s mission in life to reunite with this original source.
This philosophy is nothing new, and seems more in line with Vedantic, Buddhist or Neoplatonic thought than with standard Islam. But while Rumi did preach that all religions share the same goal, he remained a strong adherent of Islam, encouraging his followers to study the Quran and live according to Sharia law.
Rumi’s most famous work is a massive collection of poems called the Masnavi. In his poetry, he used symbolism like the reed flute to represent man’s separation from his divine source.
Interestingly, wine and drunkenness are also commonly mentioned in his poetry, despite being strictly forbidden in Islam. But in this case, they represent the ‘drunkenness’ of divine love.
Following his death in 1273, Rumi and his teachings would continue to be held in great esteem in both Anatolia and Iran. In fact, it’s said that in Ottoman times, Rumi’s Masnavi was regarded almost as highly as the Quran itself.
Paying homage to Rumi is the main reason most travelers – foreign and Turkish alike – visit Konya.
What we now call the Mevlana Museum is home to Rumi’s tomb, while the complex long served as the main lodge of the Whirling Dervish order.
Arriving a little before opening time at 10:00, I was surprised to see a line of people already waiting outside – presumably all locals. To this day, the Mevlana Museum attracts a plethora of devotees who come to show their respects and pray to the saints.
From the outside, the structure’s most recognizable feature is its beautiful green-blue dome, though it was sadly covered by scaffolding during my visit.
Passing the tranquil garden, you’ll encounter the main courtyard. It contains an elegant fountain in its center, while surrounding it are various rooms used by the former lodge. But more on that shortly.
Entering the main mausoleum, visitors pass under a sign which reads ‘Those who enter incomplete will come out perfect.’
The resting place of Rumi, with its elaborate golden ornamentation and calligraphic verses, is befitting of such a saintly figure.
Nearby lie the bodies of Rumi’s immediate family members, while the smaller sarcophagi belong to other dervishes of the Mevlevi Order.
Elsewhere around the mausoleum, important artifacts, such as cloaks and hats which belonged to Rumi himself, are displayed within glass cases.
You’ll also find original copies of the Masnavi and Divan-I Kebir, two of Rumi’s most important volumes of poetry. As you can see, the books weren’t just filled with writing, but with beautiful calligraphy and colorful illustrations.
Additionally, there are also old copies of the Quran.
While now officially a secular museum, many of the 1.5 million visitors who come to the Mevlana Museum each year do so in a religious capacity. This fact seemed to frustrate the guards, as they were constantly barking orders at people to move on.
The Mevlevi Order
Aside from his poetry, Rumi is also synonymous with the order of Whirling Dervishes which persisted for centuries after his death.
Rumi was the first in Konya to spontaneously whirl in a trance-like state. And during his lifetime, he regularly met with his followers for song and dance sessions. However, both the Whirling Dervish order and the Sama ceremony weren’t formalized until after his death.
Also known as the Mevlevi Order, it was established by Rumi’s son Sultan Walad. Descendants of Rumi then headed the order in Konya for centuries.
As mentioned, the current Mevlana Museum long functioned as the order’s main lodge. And detailed English signage lets visitors know what each room was used for.
You’ll also learn about common items used by the Dervishes, such as rosaries, special rugs and symbolic emblems. Additionally, you’ll learn of the strict procedures set in place for guarding and protecting Rumi’s tomb.
The signage also explains the austere initiation rites and hierarchical structure of the order.
Throughout Ottoman times, this lodge and the Mevlevi Order as a whole received strong state support. Members of the order were highly respected, often serving prestigious administrative positions. Accordingly, the Ottomans built the impressive Selimiye Mosque just nearby the lodge in the 16th century.
It’s especially impressive when lit up at night, which you can witness on your walk back from the Whirling Dervish performance. But before that (or perhaps the next day), it’s worth taking a brief side trip to the peaceful town of Sille.
Just 7 km northwest of Konya, Sille feels like a different world. Sille was one of many Greek-majority towns spread throughout Anatolia. And it prospered up until the ‘population exchange‘ of the 1920s.
Until then, the local Greeks peacefully coexisted with their Muslim Turk neighbors. Rumi himself emphasized the importance of peace between the two communities. In fact, he even occasionally wrote Greek poetry.
You can get to Sille from Konya on a #64 bus that departs from near the post office on Mevlana Cd. There are various bus stands, but look out for an electronic sign mentioning Sille. The ride only takes about 20 minutes.
Not far from the bus stop in the eastern part of town is the Sille Museum. Even if you’re not a museum person, exploring it won’t take much time, and it provides a nice overview of the town’s history.
One interesting bit of information is that Sille had a population of 20,000 by the 19th century. While not all of them were Greek, a majority likely were.
But in the 20th-century population exchange between Turkey and Greece, all the Greeks had to leave. And in their place, Sille only received 528 Muslim Turk inhabitants.
But the town still managed to prosper and was especially known for its pottery. Sille had as many as 150 pottery masters, and some beautiful examples of their work are currently on display.
Sille is home to a large number of quaint patio and terrace cafes, many of which serve traditional Turkish breakfast. I sat down for a meal after visiting the museum, and the waiter gave me some good tips on landmarks to check out around town.
Continuing west from the center, you’ll encounter a 19th-century mosque known locally as the ‘Cay Mosque.’ Though quiet now, it’s located in the area of the former busy bazaar.
Nearby, overlooking the town from above, are a series of Byzantine-era hermit caves. They’ve sadly been damaged by graffiti, but they still offer a nice view of the town center below. Be careful, as it’s rather slippery.
When finished with the church and astronomical museum (more below), you may want to take a short detour to see the ‘Devil’s Bridge’ in the northwest part of town.
While you’ll have to take some local backroads to get there, it’s surprisingly easy to find, as everything is clearly marked on Google Maps.
There’s not much information about the bridge, but it was supposedly built during Byzantine times. And it wasn’t actually a bridge, but part of an aqueduct.
There’s also an interesting manmade cave over to the side.
St. Helen's Church
The highlight of Sille is St. Helen’s Church (Aya Elena Kilise) which now functions as a museum. Originally dating back to the Byzantine era, the church was named after Empress Helena, Constantine the Great’s mother, who funded its construction.
Supposedly, she passed through Sille while on her way to visit Jerusalem in the 4th century.
Much of the current structure, however, was rebuilt in the 1830s. The extant frescoes, meanwhile, were painted in 1880 and more recently restored.
The dome features geometric patterns and an image of Christ. And the icons near the altar depict Mary with baby Jesus, Jesus’s baptism, various saints and the Archangel Michael.
Thanks to the recent restorations, the color and level of detail are striking.
Sille Zaman Museum
From the area around St. Helen’s church, you’ll notice a smaller structure atop a nearby hill. Originally a small Christian chapel, the structure is now being used as the Sille Zaman Museum which houses numerous astronomical artifacts.
The walk there is also quite interesting, as you’ll pass by a centuries-old graveyard filled with tall and narrow tombstones.
Both astronomy and astrology have long played an important role in traditional Islamic culture. And inside the museum, you’ll find things like sundials, celestial globes and calendars – mostly dating to the Ottoman period.
And from atop the hill, you’ll also get a great view of the town below.
Getting back to central Konya is pretty straightforward. Simply head to Baraj Cd. and wait at a bus stop (there will be many more further west than the one at which you got off).
You can either take a #64 public city bus or a dolmuş (minivan). Note that the dolmuş will not accept the electronic transportation cards, so you must pay in cash. The ride will take a bit longer and you’ll likely be dropped off at the Eski Garaj in central Konya.
Whirling Dervish Ceremony
In addition to a visiting Rumi’s tomb, the highlight of a visit to Konya is to witness a Whirling Dervish ceremony. True, these ceremonies can be enjoyed all over the country, including Istanbul. But what better place to witness a Sama ceremony than in the city where it all began?
The ceremonies take place each week on Saturday evenings at 19:00. They don’t happen at the Mevlana Museum mentioned above, but in a separate location called the Mevlana Cultural Center, about 1.3 km east.
While tickets were free for many years, they now cost 20TL, which is still very reasonable. Though I was told to come an hour early, tickets didn’t even go on sale until 18:30.
The large outdoor amphitheater used in summertime didn’t even get 10% full. But surely numbers were higher before the pandemic.
But what exactly is the Whirling Dervish ceremony, or Sama, all about? In contrast to Rumi’s spontaneous whirling, the ceremony we see today is highly ritualized and deeply symbolic. Nevertheless, its purpose is to increase the participant’s feeling of union with the divine – essentially what Rumi’s teachings were all about.
The participants enter wearing black robes, ritually bowing to one another and walking three times in a clockwise direction. One half of the circle represents man’s descent from heaven, while the other half represents his journey back to the source.
Eventually, they take off their robes, an act which symbolizes the shedding of the ego. The hats, meanwhile, represent a tombstone, or the spiritual death required before resurrection.
As the whirlers spin like planets in orbit, the master of ceremonies, or sheikh, walks through the circle to ensure participants don’t bump into one another.
While the goal of the Sama is a feeling of ecstatic union, it’s also important for the Dervishes to maintain harmony and leave enough space for others.
Even the hand position of the whirlers carries a symbolic meaning. The right hand is held upward so as to receive divine grace, while the lefthand redirects it to the mundane world below.
Throughout the performance, there were a couple different breaks in which the participants stopped spinning. A poem, or perhaps a Quranic verse, would be read. The music would then change and the spinning would start once again.
The soothing traditional music, combined with the mesmerizing spectacle of the twirling Dervish robes, made for quite an enjoyable experience. All in all, the performance lasted for about an hour.
But it feels strange to refer to the Sama in such a manner. After all, the ritual was devised for the benefit of the participant, not the viewer.
In 1925, Republic of Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk formally banned the Dervish Order, ordering the closure of all lodges. He also prohibited the Sama.
The order and the Sama tradition persisted in secret, though they lost their place in Anatolian society. It was only in the 1950s that the Sama was legalized – but only for one time a year.
Now, of course, Samas are regular occurrences in Turkey. But they’re generally considered little more than tourist attractions.
Atatürk reasoning for banning the Sufi orders was to prohibit ‘superstitious’ practices from keeping Turkey in the past. But fast forward to today, and Turkish society could hardly be called secular.
All the while, Turkish citizens were denied this important part of their cultural heritage. It would be hard to argue, then, that banning the Sama had any long-term benefit.
Presently, in a world where divisive Islamism is on the rise, Mevlana and his teachings are as important as ever. And here in Konya, institutions like the Mevlana Cultural Center are trying their best to keep his legacy alive, even organizing the annual Mevlana Festival each December.
Aside from learning about Rumi and Seljuk history, one of the main things to do in Konya is visiting the nearby Neolithic settlement of Çatal Höyük (learn more here).
And if you’re visiting Çatal Höyük, be sure to make a quick stop at the Konya Archaeology Museum, which features numerous artifacts from there (most, however, are kept in Ankara).
The museum is small but also free. It also contains an impressive collection of sarcophagi from the Greco-Roman era.
Fans of monumental Ottoman architecture may want to make a visit to the Hacıveyiszade Mosque. It’s located near a large park which offers a great view of it from a distance.
And speaking of Ottoman mosques, one of the city’s most interesting structures is the Aziziye Mosque.
Originally built in the 17th century, it was later restored in the 19th century, utilizing the Baroque style that was popular at the time (as can also be witnessed at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul).
Konya is also known for its bustling markets and shopping arcades.
Konya can be reached by plane from many other Turkish cities, and the airport is just about 13 km from the center. It’s even directly connected with several cities in Europe.
To buy an onward bus ticket, you don’t need to go all the way to the otogar (bus terminal). Most of the major bus companies have ticket offices around Alaeddin Hill.
Konya is also accessible by rail, with the train from Ankara only taking around 75 minutes.
I stayed at the Aziziye Hotel. As the name suggests, it’s just in front of the Aziziye Mosque.
While it’s about a 10-15 minute walk from Alaeddin Hill, it was quite close to the Mevlana Museum and other attractions. Furthermore, it’s within walking distance of the Mevlana Cultural Center.
Additionally, for those visiting Çatal Höyük, Aziziye Hotel is within walking distance of the local bus terminal needed to get there.
The staff hardly spoke English, but they were friendly and helpful nonetheless. Breakfast was not included, but they charged a reasonable 10 TL for it. Anyway, you’ll have access to tons of restaurants and eateries as soon as you step outside.
Much like Antalya, Konya has a convenient tramway system. You can use it to get to the city center from the otogar (bus terminal).
The main line goes to Alaeddin Hill, which it will loop around before heading back north. (Confusingly, during my visit, I saw that the tram tracks extended far east beyond what was on the official map.)
Most of the attractions mentioned in the Konya guide above can be accessed on foot. But if you’re staying near Alaeddin Hill, you may want to catch a taxi to take you to the Mevlana Cultural Center.
See above for details on how to reach Sille from Konya’s city center.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.