I found God in Turkey

Published: June 27, 2014

Istanbul is love at first sight; the moment I caught a glimpse of the Bosphorus, from the airplane window, I knew I had fallen in love. PHOTO: IANS

“Whatever is meant for you, […], is bound to come to you. It may have to come all the way from Istanbul to San Francisco, or even by a more roundabout route, but it will come to you.” – Sheikh Mozaffar Ozak

And that is how I found myself at the Dubai airport, waiting to board my next flight to Istanbul, wondering how on earth I ended up there. Wasn’t travel one of those things that other people did, but never me? Wasn’t it for carefree people? Surely not for me, for I have too many responsibilities. I am not a mom who leaves her kids to go off and have fun on her own.

Or, at least, that was what I thought.

Yet, in those surreal moments of an almost out-of-body experience, I stepped outside my life and saw myself as someone doing exactly what I thought I was not capable of. I was actually enjoying time on my own, and it did not feel like a selfish thing to do.

It all started from a random tweet that caught my eye. On an impulse, I clicked on a tiny link for this tour, tucked away in a corner of some blog, and registered for it without thinking twice about the logistics, my job or the many balls I juggle in the name of responsibilities. Driven by an unseen force, nothing stopped me, not even the long lines at the passport office or the multiple day trips to Islamabad for my visa. It was meant to be.

This unique study-travel tour was under Professor Omid Safi, who teaches Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina. Safi confesses to having a love affair with Turkey for the past 20 years. With him, I had the opportunity of seeing places that an average tourist never gets to visit: little known shrines, madrassas and mosques. Listening to him explaining the historical significance and the little secrets hidden in the architecture of these places was magical. It was something one could never find in a guidebook. Listening to him reciting the Masnavi and discussing Maulana Rumi, his life, the heart and the soul, was a rare treat.

Istanbul and colours

Istanbul is love at first sight; the moment I caught a glimpse of the Bosphorus, from the airplane window, I knew I had fallen in love. It’s a city of many picturesque oxymorons. Historic places, bohemian views, east-meets-west instances and a memoir of the grandeur of days gone by – Istanbul had it all. A city of colours: the blues of Sultanahmet, the golds of Hagia Sofya and the red sunset at the Bosphorus. And the Spice Bazaar is a different story altogether.

Spice Bazaar. Photo: Sophia Anjum

The steep cobblestone streets, old madrassas turned into teahouses, centuries old cemeteries nestled behind shops; Istanbul lived up to the hype. Despite how modern Istanbul is, the ambiance has strains of history. Roman Emperors and Ottoman Sultans once roamed these streets – and now I was walking the same paths.

An old madrassa (R) and a madrassa turned into a tea cafe (L). Photo: Sophia Anjum

While I visited famous historical landmarks like Hagia Sofya, Sultanahmet Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, it was the exploring of lesser-known neighbourhoods and small markets that brought me greater joy. In Istanbul, I got to live my fantasy of strolling alone aimlessly in a foreign city, getting lost, boarding the wrong train, getting off at some unknown station and not caring at all as to how I’d get back to my hotel. Aimless wandering is a luxury a responsible life often does not afford us. Those moments, stolen from the mundane, were therapeutic.

On the cosmopolitan side of Istanbul lies Beyoğlu, with the lively and thriving Istiklal Street lined with art galleries and cafes. An old tram taking people from Galata Tower to the famed Taksim Square added just the right touch of the quaint old world’s charm.

Istanbul is where I realised the huge difference between Turkish and Pakistani societies. What I admire most about that place is the religious and cultural pluralism… the level of tolerance that has come to be redundant in our society.

It’s true that Turkey has had its share of ethno-religious conflicts in the past. The dominance of Muslim culture, despite it being a secular state, has been a source of constant tension. But with all its political and religious complexities Turkey happens to be a very open-minded society when it comes to practicing religion. Turks, Kurds, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Alavis and atheists co-exist peacefully in one incredibly diverse mix over there, and seeing that made me wish that Pakistan was like that.

Bursa and mysticism

Bursa, also known as Yeşil Bursa (Green Bursa – for its gardens and parks), is a small laid-back town at the slopes of Mount Olympus (Uludağ). It is some four hours from Istanbul by car and famous for its Ottoman architecture, silk markets, Turkish Hammams and the scrumptious Iskendre Kebap.

Iskendre Kebap. Photo: Sophia Anjum

On our way to Bursa, we made a stop at the Sufi lodge of Rahmi Oruç Güvenç. He is a Sufi musician with a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology in the field of Music Therapy. It was a small lodge on the outskirts of a village with halls filled with dervishes from different parts of the world – singing, playing instruments, serving food, eating and whirling.

Oruc Lodge. Photo: Sophia Anjum


None of this was orchestrated unlike the many whirling dervish performances. At the time of our visit, a sama (the whirling ceremony) involving the 99 Names of Allah was in progress. This was a non-stop sama for 99 days and nights, which dervishes do in shifts. When I reached, it was Day 11.

The Fountain inside Ulu Mosque at Bursa. Photo: Sophia Anjum

The fascinating blend of musical instruments, lovely voices praising Allah and the beautiful souls whirling in a state of trance is something that sinks in you forever.

Konya and love

When it comes to the idea of “love”, I am something of a cynic. Hence, the legends about Konya’s effect on the human heart brought out the sceptic in me. To me, it all sounded a bit cheesy. Yet, within a few hours in that city, I stood corrected.

Maulana Rumi’s Tomb. Photo: Sophia Anjum

A pilgrimage to the home of Maulana Rumi, the Sufi mystic, the original whirling dervish, changed me forever. In Konya, love is almost palpable. Here, I understood these famous words of Rumi.

“Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,

It doesn’t matter.

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times

Come, yet again, come, come.”

Here, I have a confession to make. While Maulana Rumi’s tomb of turquoise tiles and gold calligraphy is deeply impacting, what touched my heart more was Shams Tabrizi, who was nestled away in a small mosque.

Shams Tabrizi. Photo: Sophia Anjum

That was when I had my moment… when the scatter in my world just came together like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. When every wound I had in my heart just tore open to let the light in; when I turned myself upside down to empty myself of every feeling – negative or positive. In that moment I found myself and, dare I say, felt a connection with Allah.

Cheesy? Yes!

True? Absolutely.

Shrine of Shams Tabrizi. Photo: Sophia Anjum

At the entrance to Maulana Rumi’s shrine, there is a beautiful verse inscribed that aptly describes my experience in Konya.

Ka’aba al ushaaq ba-en shud muqaam ,
Har ke naaqis anja shud tamaam

(This place is the lovers’ temple of God.
Each comes broken… all leave whole)

What made this trip especially amazing were the people I shared those two weeks with. It was a very diverse group of people of all ages from different walks of life. Although most of us did not know each other before our rendezvous in Istanbul, the friendships and bonds that were formed within such a short span of time are unbelievable. I could never have had such an amazing experience had it not been for the lovely people with whom I shared those memories.

My friends back home tell me that I have changed. But all I did was to dispose off those layers of my personality that were there to please others. In Turkey, away from everyone who knew me, I tried being myself and was accepted, admired and loved; I met my inner child for the first time and she turned out to be so much fun.

Sophia Anjum

Sophia Anjum

An ardent lover of reading and medieval history, she believes in the spiritually rejuvenating role of wanderlust in life. She is currently working as a student advisor/academic planner at LUMS and aspires to travel more and share her travel tales in a way that offers inspiration to those who have yet to take that journey. She tweets as @Gulbakawli (twitter.com/GulBakawli)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Supriya Arcot

    S i g h .. Turkey has always been on my must-visit list ever since I read Mulla Naseeruddin stories set in Ankara( among other places ) way back in school . Your well written article have given me the final nudge. Also liked the couple of Pak movies set in Istanbul . Will plan a trip this holiday ASAP.Recommend

  • Ali

    Such a beautiful piece! Recommend

  • Saira

    Enjoyed it thoroughly!Recommend

  • Omar Ali Khan

    So true…..We lost our way as they found theirs. Pakistan is a tragic, fractured non state….Turkey has its issues but there doubt about who has gone totally off the rails and who has not. God only hopes that the winds of intolerance and bigotry do not blow jn this direction as well and render it a disaster zone as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan. Sad.Recommend

  • Umar Rathore

    went in 2012, amazing place. Azaan everywhere.. you didnt mentioned about the mosques visit. but nice article and a must go place seriously for everyone.Recommend

  • Sumsum

    Nicely written :)

  • shah

    Turkey is a much better place to live than Pakistan because Turkey is tolerant.Recommend

  • Rangoonwala

    Excellent article. Have never been there, but intend to go there now. Will definitely
    visit Maulana Rumi’s resting place. The great Sufi Mystic. Author has brought up places that are off the beaten track. By the way, there is a Sufi Festival in Fez,
    Morocco every year. Sufis from all over the world get together in Fez. There is no
    shrine or anything in Fez. It’s just a location. You see Sufis from England, Germany, France, Europe, Canada, US, Africa, India, Pakistan there. Truly an International
    gathering. Celebrating a peace loving and peaceful way of expressing your religion.Recommend

  • abhi

    but most of the Pakistani are looking for Allah.Recommend

  • Quratulain fatima

    Iam visiting turkey in september…Konya , shams tabraiz and Rumi…offcourse Elif Shafak effect s on my top most to do list.Recommend

  • Sarmad

    beautifully narratedRecommend

  • Parvez

    liked the way you described it………Istanbul is certainly a city with much history. I had the pleasure of spending some 12 odd days in ’73 and was intending a visit next month but that won’t happen…….but I certainly look forward to another visit.
    As you like to travel…….do write about your experiences.Recommend

  • asad

    and your article is like some mustansar husain tarar’s travel story. equally (and very well) describing and emotional.Recommend

  • Adeel Rana

    Such facsinating read…. Kudos! :)Recommend

  • Saadmalick

    Very well written dear writer. Thank you for sharing your trip and experience with us.

    I can say i can relate to the writer… I had the same feelings when i went their last year in August and back in 2010.. You can be yourself..i used to wander in the streets of Istanbul without knowing where ill end up, but i enjoyed that experience..Istanbul just fascinates you..theres history and theres modern day Istanbul you can be a part of each of those worlds..

    I have been lucky enough to visit Konya twice and the feelings you have when you visit Maulana Raum is not the one you can describe in words.. And the verse inscribed at the entrance give you this hope that yes there can be a new start in this life forgetting whatever thats been done.. You feel blessed in short and everyone will have their own feeling i guess..

    in many ways we have made this life very difficult for ourselves, not forgiving ourselves sometimes and holding on to the negativity, well if you’re there in Konya and you are about to enter Maulana’s Shrine and you read those words inscribed at the enterance, it gives you hope.. It gave hope to me

    i believe theres always hope around us we can still change ourselves ( not like a strict practicing muslim) but a human, a muslim who is much more simpler, in his/her ideas about our relegion, a relegion which you feel when in Turkey is not about sharia law this sharia law that…but a relegion with 5 prayer times, your love for our Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H) which turkish people have immensely in their hearts and even in practice, tolerance, respecting the Great Muslim Darwaish and scholars and being grateful for whatever one has..not looking above them but the ones who are less fortunate than you are..

    Lets not try to complicate things..we can be both relegious and modern. This ide can co-exist Turkey is an example of that. You cant feel guilty about being modern and not being relegious enough..just rememer the basic pillars of Islam.. Turks do that..and they dont seem to be confuse about it like people in Pakistan..which is unfortunate, but we can learn from them and progress with the modern world and not lose our values and relegion at the same time.Recommend

  • SI

    If it was for Taliban they would have surely first destroyed the shrines of Rumi and Tabrezi and all other historical monument. ISIS just destroyed the tome of prophet Younus (PBUH) in Damascus, Syria.Recommend

  • Ullo Bata

    Found God in Turkey…..vacationing with strangers in sheer dis obedience of the Almighty forbidding women to mingle with strangers…and yet You found God…keep the tourism tales as tourism tales why the heck we habitually do icing of religion on every thing we do.

    (An Professor of Islamic Studies inviting women to go on tourism with him…which version of Islam this guy teaches?)


  • http://www.zr-films.com @sif [email protected]

    Turkey ancient land is also home to many sites sacred to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.Recommend

  • Ed

    Spent about a week there last month. It was probably one of the best travel experience I’ve had, seeing the fascinating juxtaposition of east meets west and old blending in with the new. One of the best parts of the trip was when we decided to join the riots happening there and got tear gassed by riot police. All in all, it was the perfect holiday.Recommend

  • Fareed Khan Afridi

    You can always count on a Hindu troll to make an appearance in every blog.Recommend

  • Shezad Abdullah

    A country which worships it’s founder like a God. A country that bans Arabic script. A country whose army is atheistic. A country with nude beaches. A country with Alavis. This is a godless country which is against Islam.Recommend

  • Anique

    I dream of a Pakistani Ataturk.Recommend

  • karinelem

    Sophia, this captured perfectly and exactly my experience. The world rotated and clicked into place the day I first set foot in Sham’s tomb. Longing for Turkey–thank you for taking me there.Recommend

  • Sane

    Indians to keep away. Get away with your dirty habit of getting involved in everything.Recommend

  • Sane

    All Indians must keep away.Recommend

  • stevenson

    Istanbul is a beautiful city but it is hardly representative of ther rest of Turkey, especially Anatolia which is as conservative as Pakistan in terms of mindset. It’s funny you would find God in a country where religion was actively suppressedand replaced by worship of secularism and founder Atatturk! Women couldn’t go to university or be in parliament with head scarves until recently. People still won’t go against official secularism.I note you haven’t mentioned the recent unrest and political instability.Recommend

  • Prashant

    Sane, I thought of thanking you for your advise by marking my presence on this blog. Cheers.Recommend

  • Prashant

    So, if an Hindu from Pakistan writes something critical about your country, would you also describe him as a “Hindu Troll”Recommend

  • Prashant

    You dream will remain a dream.Recommend

  • Sammy

    Good….then you won’t be visiting it. Problem solved.Recommend

  • Omaim Irfan

    Reading this article , feels like i am in turkey !

    AMAZING! :)Recommend

  • Arsalaan

    A beautiful story, well written. I will share it with my friends. Please note that the “Come, come…” poem is not by Mevlana see: http://www.semazen.net/eng/roportaj_detay.php?id=46 – search for “come”Recommend