A visit to Atatürk’s tomb and why he would be in big trouble in today’s world. A visit at the Anatolian museum and why it was worth a look. The day after the snow storm in Ankara.

Legions of shovelers were at work in Ankara since yesterday. The brightly orange colored city workers, the tired looking shop owners, and even the army. Salt – no! Nowhere did I see a salt truck or any salt at the sidewalks. The roads were cleared by snow removing trucks and the rest was done by everyone else with garden shovels, brooms and a few actual snow shovels. This is a bit slower than the loads of salt we use in Michigan to battle the elements and it can’t be done preventively, but no doubt it is an act of kindness towards the environment. The city was almost walkable today and temperatures around 6/45 degrees helped not to make things worse. I had already imagined what would happen to all the slush from yesterday if temperatures had dropped way below 0/32. It would have been a disaster. The sun even poked through once in a while. I reconciled with Ankara in part but only because I saw the three sites I wanted to see and I am leaving tomorrow.

My first stop this morning was Atatürk’s Mausoleum. I wanted to do my duty as a visitor but I did not expect too much. Atatürk is important to every Turk and responsible for the creation of this nation. The complex built as his resting place and known as Anitkabir is huge. An L-shaped monument situated in a large park, it overlooks a whole section of Ankara. One has to go through security; my backpack did not pass muster, but I could take my camera. After a walk through a thickly forested park you climb up some steps to two pavilions that show a model of the complex in one and the history of the project and the architects in the other. Two soldiers in glass cages hold wake there. Then there is a long avenue lined with 24 huge stone lions that represent the strength of the Turkish nation, not defined any further. This was a clear reference to imperial Chinese tombs which always have animal avenues leading up to them. Who came up with that idea!? For a special ceremony today, soldiers were parked between the lions holding their rifles at attention.

At the beginning of that avenue there are two massive sculpture groups representing the women and the men of the nation to the right and left respectively. After about 300 meters you reach the main plaza with a colonnade surrounding it on three sides. The two corners formed by the colonnade to your right contain cars and a boat Atatürk used. The other two corners have only reliefs flanking the fourth side which is a humongous staircase leading up to the actual mausoleum. That is a square building completely out of proportion with the 40-ton marble sarcophagus in which the man is buried which is situated at the very end and dwarfed by the building. A burial site fit for a king, the beloved son of the Turkish nation. But he was only a general and the first prime minister… To me, it is a site which looked just a bit too Stalinistic or Hitleresque. But I guess, that was the style of the giants at the time. There were few visitors on this winter morning, but the snow removal effort was running at a frantic level. Dozens of soldiers were at work everywhere moving hundreds of tons of heavy, packed, wet snow shovel by shovel…

At first, I wanted to skip the museum attached to this complex, because I was afraid to run out of time, but then I went anyhow; I am glad I did. First of all, the building is impressive. Aside from two big halls, it is vaulted, like a traditional caravanserai, or bazaar with many “stalls” for displays. Three distinct sections were there. In the first hall, hundreds of oil paintings were interspersed with actual full-scale mannequin panoramas showing and reenacting decisive battles in the history of Turkey. A military historian’s heart would beat faster here. I ran through this one rather quickly since the panoramas were enlivened with battle sounds of firing canons, battle noise, etc. I can take only so much of that. The style of the paintings was what I would call Social Realism. No surprise there. It fit the nationalistic architecture. I don’t need to see much of that either.

The second section of the museum was partitioned into the “stalls” of the bazaar-like layout and was full of historical photographs and writings. There were quotes from Atatürk on just about every aspect of the nation-building period. If I had all day, I could have spent a lot of time there. I only picked a few choice stalls that were of interest to me for closer inspection: education, women, religion, and the arts. But there were others on the law, the military, agriculture, industry, transportation, sports, you name it! In this section of the museum the acoustic backdrop were songs in the style of the “Marseillaise”, or the “Internationale”; in other words patriotic freedom songs. One could almost get into the spirit of that! I noticed I began to walk to the rhythm of them.

As I was reading about Atatürk’s achievements I had three main thoughts running through my mind:

First – What this man single-handedly achieved is nothing short of remarkable. I wonder how much kicking and screaming there was over his earth-shattering reforms which broke so thoroughly with all the traditions that had been formed and been fostered for hundreds of years under the Ottomans. How did he get a parliament that he could trust would support him in all of this? If you had asked the farmers on the street what they wanted, none of them would have envisioned anything like this. And most remarkable of all is that after all of these years, he is still the beloved father of his nation. Even though on today’s Turkish political scene there are people who want to roll the clock back again; at least a little bit. Nobody would dare speak up against Atatürk.

Second – Egypt needs an Atatürk! It all of a sudden seemed clear to me that if Egypt wants to go a democratic way it first needs a strongman like Atatürk to turn it around bottom up and against all the forces of religion and conservatism that are currently out there. Democracy can only grow where there is fertile soil. Egypt has no such fertile soil. It needs a system, if necessary forced upon it like Atatürk forced his reforms – that is able to produce that soil. But then, I am just talking through my head. And more importantly, where is that Egyptian Atatürk? I don’t see anyone on the horizon.

Third – If Atatürk would live today, he would likely be called a few nasty names; among others most probably Islamophobe, racist, and certainly he would have been labeled politically incorrect.  He saw the root problem with education, women and the arts – the three sections I looked at, in the religious orientation of the Ottomans, in Islam. He blamed the adaptation of Arabic that came with the adaptation of Islam for the nearly 100% illiteracy that plagued Turkey before his reforms. He eliminated Arabic and adopted the western alphabet. In a few years, he turned his country into a literate nation. He even went on tour himself to sample-teach adults and children!

He saw the loss of women’s rights caused by the application of religious law (Sharia). His goal under the republic was to make women not only equal before the law, but to turn them into “a force more educated, and more productive than men”. I am not quite sure why he wanted to go beyond equality, but he must have had his ideas. There certainly is a lot of wisdom in educating women who in turn will watch over the education of their children. Religion, he declared, was no longer adequate as an educational factor. His education of men and women was based on “reason, science, and technology”.

And he vitalized the arts. A lively art scene, as one of his quotes read “will prove that all other reforms have worked”. Contrary to the Islamic preference for two dimensional, non-figurative art and architecture, he supported figurative art and focused in particular on the “plastic”, or three dimensional medium. And ultimately, there was clothing. He supported Western clothes over traditional dresses.

He was swift in outlawing sheikhs, dervishes, clerics, and sects as the primary source of reactionary influences on the population. He did not outlaw religion, but he insisted on a unified religion (in contrast to flourishing sectarianism), and on strict separation between state and mosque. One was public, the other private. From what I read between the lines a week ago in Istanbul, he went a bit overboard on this front. For example, all the whirling dervishes one can see today in Istanbul are tourist performances. There is only one “real” dervish left who only rarely performs publicly. But who knows? Perhaps these radical changes were necessary in order to insure his other reforms? The fruits of what he started are clearly visible in a thriving, modern, democratic, and open Turkey. But most likely this is also, where he made his enemies; and enemies don’t forget easily and some of them are poking their heads out today.

I don’t know if this surprises you. It surprised me more than I thought it would, especially when I put it against recent social and political developments in Europe and the US. What do you think?

There is so much more to learn; there is so little I know. I admit that when I went through the “War of Independence” section at the museum I had no idea who was fighting whom! Unfortunately, the display information assumed that I knew – this basic bit of information was missing. Were the Turkish fighting the English and the French? And what was the role of the Russians? And who were the “Turks” at the time? Not the Turkey we know today; not the Ottomans either. I am so clueless. I am dismayed!

The final hall at the museum was filled with personal items by Atatürk. There is no question; he has been put on a pedestal in many ways: on display were his shining gold-crystal shaving kit, his clothes, his canes, his medals, and even his stuffed dog!  And it all culminated in him sitting in life-like wax behind his desk as if he had never left. What a figure!

I felt in slightly more familiar territory at the Archaeological Museum of Anatolia, the main museum of Ankara that goes back to the initiative of, guess who? Atatürk, of course. He noticed that under the Ottomans, pre-Islamic history had been neglected, to say the least. He revived ancient history as one of the pillars of society and demanded honest reporting of current history. Knowing one’s past became a matter of Turkish pride. Under his leadership this and other museums were formed. The Ankara museum is housed in a restored ancient building and is showcasing the best of the best from various archaeological digs around the country covering prehistoric through Roman times.

My favorite piece was a prehistoric female figurine from Çatalhöyük, which still puzzles the experts: Is she holding a skull between her legs or has she just given birth? Is she sitting as a queen on a throne or is she honored as a mere mother figure. How small she is! Only about 12 cm.

The excitement of the day was to watch three leaks of water at various places in the museum. Plastic buckets had been placed to catch the drips… One of the leaks started to gush and it was a circus to see five guards, some bigwigs, and who knows who else staring at the ceiling. How many men does it take to fix a leak? It seemed like a joke. Once they put a ladder to the ceiling and started to fiddle with the pipes, a piece came crashing down, inches away from a glass display case. That could have crushed a priceless piece of pottery! Geez!

The museum was great, but the highlight of the day for me was Atatürk. My hat is off to him. I wish I would not have had to rush so much through his museum. But I could not stand another day in Ankara. I need to move on.

Good night.