Atatürk

After the Turkish flag, the most common icon of Turkishness is the image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, victor of the Battle of Gallipoli, hero of the Turkish War of Independence, and founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. You would expect, perhaps, to see his portrait in certain government buildings or on the currency, but like the flag, he’s everywhere. Every town, it seems, has a statue or a bust of him on display. I was not invited into any private homes, but I was astounded to discover his portrait up in at least half of the businesses I went into. This must have been something like the place Lenin enjoyed in the old Soviet Union. However, there seems to be a greater variety of Atatürk portraits than there were portraits for Lenin, and many of them humanize their subject to a greater degree.

At Atatürk Airport, Istanbul.

In the Istanbul Postal Museum.

Overlooking a square in Ilhara, Aksaray Province.

In a square near the Yeni Mosque, Istanbul.

On the road between Konya and Selçuk.

At a gas station between Troy and Çannakale.

In a restaurant in Marmara Ereğlisi, Tekirdağ Province.

In the main Istanbul post office.

A triple portrait in a hotel in Marmara Ereğlisi.

In Selçuk, Izmir Province.

In a village near Marmara Ereğlisi.

The banner of Hürriyet (“Liberty”), a major Turkish daily newspaper.

One might think that such a personality cult is unworthy of a modern state but at least Turkey does not demand that portraits of the current leader appear everywhere. And it’s true that Atatürk had some genuinely impressive achievements, and that he really does enjoy the admiration of a broad swath of the Turkish populace.

His mausoleum in Ankara, designated Anıtkabir (“memorial tomb”), is a marvel to behold. Here is a view of a model of the whole complex (which itself occupies just one part of a large park).

You enter from the right, between the gate houses, and walk down a 262m-pathway designed the Road of Lions. It is lined with recumbent lion statues, meant to evoke Hittite sculptures. I wondered why the road seemed to be paved so oddly; according to Wikipedia: “A five centimeter gap separates the paving stones on the Road of Lions to ensure that visitors take their time and observe respectful behavior on their way to Atatürk’s tomb.”

At the end of the Road of Lions you come to the Ceremonial Plaza, meant to accommodate up to 15,000 people.

Surrounding the plaza is a colonnade, punctuated by short towers containing things like Atatürk’s car and the gun carriage that carried his coffin, but the main attraction is the large building to the northeast, the Hall of Honor.

If you ascend the steps you enter a hall containing Ataturk’s symbolic sarcophagus, a large granite block on a dais. This is where ceremonial wreath-laying occurs – I was pleased to witness an instance of this, although it was too dark to take good photographs. A soldier marched in, followed by two more carrying a wreath, followed by the group sponsoring this particular wreath-laying. The soldiers passed the wreath to the group’s leader, who placed it in a circular depression on the dais.

Atatürk’s actual tomb is in a room directly beneath the sarcophagus, and you can’t go into it. They do, however, show a large photo of it – the grave is surrounded by urns containing earth from various places in Turkey. But far more interesting on this level is the museum detailing Atatürk’s life and times. I liked his clothing and accessories in particular – he prescribed western dress for the Turks, and he seems to have had pretty good taste in this department himself. There were dioramas portraying the Battle of Gallipoli, and the Turkish War of Independence was given much attention. You are probably aware that the British and French helped themselves to the Arab Ottoman provinces (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq) – what I did not know is that the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) divided Turkey itself among several occupying powers. The Armenians and Kurds were to get a great swaths of eastern Turkey, and Greece the area around Smyrna and most of European Turkey. The rest of the country was to be divided into British, French and even Italian zones of influence. Only about a third of what is now Turkey, centered around Ankara, was to be directly controlled by the Ottoman Empire. This was a more punitive settlement than even the Treaty of Versailles, and nationalists, led by Atatürk, set up a provisional government in Ankara and recruited an army to fight against it. They had home-field advantage, and a great deal of motivation; the Powers did not really put many resources into defending their zones, and the Greeks and Armenians proved to be hapless fighters. The nationalist assembly, now called the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, was recognized by the UK, France, and Italy as the legitimate government of Turkey at the Lausanne Conference, called in order to renegotiate the Treaty of Sèvres (this effectively abolished the Ottoman Sultanate). The resulting Treaty of Lausanne (1923) recognized complete Turkish independence under the rule of the GNAT, at the small price of guaranteeing international freedom of navigation through the Bosphorus and Hellespont. (It also set the stage, unfortunately, for population exchanges between Turkey and Greece, with all the misery that those entail.)

But you can’t help but admire Atatürk’s role in defending his homeland and securing Turkish independence. As if that weren’t enough, as first president of the Republic of Turkey he proceeded to reform it, sometimes quite forcefully. He prescribed western dress, going so far as to ban the Ottoman fez. He substituted the Roman alphabet for the Arabic one (something which I certainly appreciate). He required Turks to adopt a surname (the Assembly granted him the name Atatürk – “father of the Turks” – and technically it’s anachronistic to refer to him by this name for any period prior to 1934). He established state-run primary schools throughout the land. And most famously he imposed the principle of laïcité – that is, the state was to be secular, even forbidden to express any religious sentiments at all. Again, impressive achievements, although when you’re visiting his museum you’re left wondering if he had any flaws or made any mistakes. Certainly the photos of the “Turkish peasants killed cruelly by Greek soldiers” or “Women and children killed by the Armenians in the Subatan village on April 25, 1918” don’t really tell the whole story there! Of course, like your average Presidential Library and Museum in the United States, it’s really not going to present a “balanced” view of its subject, although the Turkish law against “insulting the legacy of Atatürk” does seem just a trifle bit oversensitive.

One more photo from Anıtkabir, of a sign on the way in. Atatürk died in 1938, but if you tip the 8 over onto its side, it becomes an infinity sign, as though to suggest that Atatürk lives forever!

But what if you are happy to be Turkish, but don’t agree entirely with Atatürk’s program (usually designated “Kemalism”) – particularly the “compulsory secularism” aspect of it? No one was willing to defame Atatürk to me, and thereby break the law and a powerful social taboo. Instead, I heard things like “Ataturk never said anything against Islam; it was the people who came after him who really ran it down” (and indeed, I was surprised to discover that Atatürk’s body was “shrouded according to Islamic traditions” and that he was buried “with his face towards Kiblah [Mecca]”). Or: “Atatürk was great, but so were some of the modernizing sultans in the nineteenth century, why can’t we honor them as well?” So far no one has readopted the fez (although plenty of women now wear the Islamic headscarf, even in Istanbul), and no one has started rendering Turkish in Arabic script, as a way of disavowing Kemalism. No one has put up portraits of Ottoman sultans – or of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for that matter. Instead, it seems that we have the phenomenon of “dueling signatures.” As you can see in a couple of the photos above, it’s not only Atatürk’s face that people love to see, but his signature as well. You can get a decal of it for your car.

But if you admire the Ottomans, if you think that Turkish history did not begin in the 1920s, if you see no reason why Islam cannot play a greater role in Turkish national life, perhaps you can get a decal of a tughra.

A tughra is the stylized Arabic-script signature of an Ottoman sultan that appeared on the state seal during his reign. Unfortunately, they all look more or less the same and I could not discern exactly which sultans were being referenced. The bottom one, I believe, is that of Mahmud II (1808-39); I do not know who the top one belongs to.

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