Swans Commentary » swans.com March 24, 2014  



Ankara: Goats And Power


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - March 24, 2014)   Is Ankara still Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's town? Curiosity made me return to the city after a decade of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) rule. Erdogan ran into trouble at the beginning of 2014 with rumblings against corruption in his ranks and his own highhandedness. But thanks to a strong economy and large support across Turkey he will probably not be dislodged. In any case, he has not visibly changed Ankara, which is still seen and felt as one with Atatürk, "father of the Turks," just as it has been since he moved the capital there in 1923. The age-old world city of Constantinople-Istanbul could no longer serve. It was too accessible to the Western powers waging war on what was left of the Ottoman Empire and determined to divvy it up amongst themselves.

Before Atatürk the town's name was Angora and it was known only for its long-haired goats. The settlement may have dated from the Bronze Age, but the Columbia Lippincott Gazeteer called it "a small town of no importance." A year after it was created capital and the Republic of Turkey came into being, there were 35,000 residents. It now has a population of five million and is Turkey's second city. Stories are legion of the boredom and dismay of Istanbul's political and military elite coming to terms with life in Atatürk's forlorn fiefdom. Istanbul literally means "the City." On the edge of Europe with a view of Asia, it had claims to be the world's umbilicus. The move was like leaving Manhattan for some crossroads in Kansas.

No more than a Democrat in the White House changed the look of Washington, Erdogan's AKP hasn't changed what the visitor now finds in Ankara. Casual visitors are ignorant of what goes on between men of power in back rooms. The AKP came out of Islamism, which, incidentally, explains its success in a country that is ninety-eight percent Muslim. But the party is not completely driven by ideology and claims to aim at "conservative democracy." So did alternation in the Democrat-Republican mode occur? Hardly. It's best to avoid such analogies in Turkey where the ghost of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk usually undermines them. After years in Turkey I could never get any Turk to admit that Kemal Pasha was not a paragon. Even militant Muslims who strongly opposed the secular parties founded in his image still honored him. It was only in the far northeast in chats with Kurds that I found any disapproval.

Ankara then is Atatürk's city and the best way to visit it is by seeking him out in his Anitkabir or memorial tomb. You will not be alone since Turks love the place. On the single day of November 10, 2013, over a million visitors came to gawk. The ensemble was completed in 1953 after long years of fussy considerations and painstaking construction. The site chosen, Observation Hill, was a central location in Ankara that at the time could be seen from all parts of the city. The big show on the sacred hill remains convincing because no one dares to lift a doubtful eyebrow up there or sketch a carefree smile, much less laugh out loud. The long list of do-not's posted at the entry gate include the injunction not to spit or to speak loudly.

The point of it all was to meld Atatürk with the Turkish Republic and the military regime that stayed in power till 2002 and can never be counted out. As the project grows more fragile the fever of adulation seems to increase. In contrast, the great mosques of Turkey are more congenial places, free of any fixed idea and military discipline, where everyone is at home. In the long term what will visitors make of the great man's cigarette ash preserved in a glass showcase? This national myth may never collect enough moss to be timeless. It clings to something that looks less substantial by the day. That's why the solemnity up there is so tense, why the changing of the guard has to be so precise. The performance at Buckingham Palace has an echo of humor. The Bersaglieri in their funny hats rushing around official Rome to music are strictly comic opera. But in the Anitkabir a long face is obligatory.

Apart from the ludicrous personality cult of the museum exhibits, the Anitkabir is a success monumentally. They could hardly go wrong by selecting the highest point in town and floodlighting it. Had not pollution come along to dull the effect, the site would be even more dominant. The architecture is sober, the stone attractive. You couldn't expect a regime that was derivative in everything else to be innovative style-wise. It's fitting that Atatürk, the apprentice European is remembered by a warmed-over classicism. Though conceived at mid century the work smacks of Art Deco. Mussolini's urban planning comes to mind. But Roman antiquity was all around the Duce. The Turks had to go to Assyria or Egypt for their reliefs. The one where the great man sits in a full flowing cloak pointing less sumptuously clad figures toward the future is spot on. He looks like a magician, not only superhuman but with occult powers. That's the germ of the myth.

I watched fourteen visiting notables, maybe provincial officials or new parliamentarians. They were in the care of a Big Daddy who radiated power. It's as if he was a crony of Kemal Pasha himself. When the time came for the official photograph he stepped out in front of the others. In the second shot he placed himself in the center with seven on each side like tapering wings. As the group approached the catafalque -- timidly, except for him -- an attendant came out with a huge flower piece. This was obviously part of the protocol or requisite tribute, the yokels footing the bill. They paid their dues willingly to the powers-that-be.

The original Republican formula, stoic inner belief while getting on with one's public duty to serve the nation, was the attitude of a minority that saw itself as guiding and deciding for the majority. The rise of Erdogan and the AKP marked a readjusting of the balance. Atatürk's aggressive secularism had turned out to be unacceptable to a great part of the population that by and large has retained its literal faith in divine creation and intervention in all things.

On another one of the little hills that give some character to the city, you can see this faith simmering. Ankara was a Roman town and the Emperor Augustus built a temple there. Only bits of wall remain, one having been incorporated in an adjoining mosque. This too is an ancient building, but looks new since it has been refurbished and kept up. A crowd has come to worship. The Roman ruin, long pillaged and neglected, has passed, thanks to the tourist board, into the hands of the restorers. But they seem to be in no hurry. The temple was a Christian Church for some centuries.

A middle-class Turk and his son approached me. Papa wanted to demonstrate his English. These two buildings side-by-side, he said, showed that Christian and Muslim can live together. Then he and his son each sat down at a water spout and washed in preparation for worship. A spoilsport might have asked him where the Christians and their roof had gone. The mosque is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. Women queued to pass through what is some pious notable's tomb. It has something to do with fertility or getting a husband. The atmosphere roundabout is typical of similar places. Peddlers offer everything from pullovers to sesame pretzels. Women in colorful clothes, who may be of some ethnic minority, try to sell cheap lace. Men stand around smoking in no hurry to move on. Families walk up the slope like cocks and hens with a brood. It's Friday, their Sabbath. The surroundings of this zestful religious exercise with its hint of a picnic would surprise no traveler in Turkey. A full parking lot cuts a metallic swath down a neighboring hillside. To one side a shopping mall, modern and Lego-like, smacks of the 1960s but is already shabby. Rubbish lies about. Joie de vivre, homely doings, and religion mix here. There is none of the gawking solemnity and dead marble of the theme park mausoleum.

More of unofficial Ankara can be seen on the Citadel Hill. The fortress walls up there are being carefully restored. But the old town below hasn't been touched and the poor fill its dilapidated houses. If you walk over the hill and look down the other side you have an unforgettable view common to third-world cities, an endless shanty town. The hillside is solid with flimsy dwellings and a just as complete absence of greenery. The blue paint seen on houses in Greece dominates. Perhaps the hope is that by applying a house color you could make a house. The scene takes your breath away as any overwhelming human thrust always does. It also scares you. Nothing can stop this hive-making but an earthquake, which is more likely than urban renewal in these parts.

Further along stands, low and serious, Aslanhane Camii or the Lion House mosque. This pure example of Seljuk architecture is a domeless forest mosque. There are twenty-four wooden columns like tree trunks holding up the flat roof and an intricately carved ceiling. It's splendid rough simplicity from the beginning of the thirteenth century when the Ottomans had not yet succeeded the Seljuk Empire.

The real Turkey that cavorts below the official lid on Ankara doesn't manage to make it a pleasant place. Automobile traffic, the bane of all cities, has the upper hand. The boulevard system, meant as a bow to modernism, has managed to do people down. The same Turks you see elsewhere effervescent with life have been pushed on to crowded sidewalks with their heads in pollution, so many subdued helots of people in cars. The abundance of government functionaries in their dark suits and neckties suggests an undertakers' convention. Attempts to prettify the center of the city have gone wrong. There are miserable dirty ponds, half-hearted parks hedged with cement, and decorations hung on the elevated highways that gloat above you, showing who is really on top.

We walked much of Atatürk Boulevard at night. It's badly lit; the air poisonous. In the embassy quarter we found expensive shops and no dilapidation but mediocre architecture and no more public amenities than elsewhere. For all the sympathy you might feel for Atatürk and his 1920s' predicament, you had to curse him for moving the embassies out here in the sticks of Anatolia. Their venerable structures in Istanbul, now left widow-like as consulates, stand as reminders of times when cities could still exalt the poor as well as the rich. We watched a twelve-year-old with a beatific smile clutching a clear plastic bag of paint thinner he had been sniffing. He held the bag tight, as if it were his charm against death, and danced out into a maze of rushing cars. He was as absent as a dervish and somehow escaped being run down. In Ankara you make poetry of such sights that would only frighten you in a landscape better suited to humanity.

The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations is situated in two ancient structures, a han or inn and a bedesten or covered bazaar. But like everything else in Ankara, it belongs to Atatürk. The Western powers had based their claim to the remnants of the Ottoman Empire on the assumption that there was no Turkish nation or people. Atatürk countered their leaky generality with a myth of his own. Through archaeological and linguistic research he wanted to establish that a clear-cut Turkish ethnic identity had always existed. To find ancestors for the Turks he went back four thousand years and fixed on the Hittites. He claimed their civilization was equal to and independent of the Hellenic, Persian, and other great currents of history. The Museum illustrates Atatürk's Rube Goldberg scientific endeavor, but is thankfully redeemed by the display of exquisite objects uncovered in various excavations. You might say in the same way that Atatürk's Ankara is redeemed by the real Turkey around it, long haired goats and all.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 24, 2014