The ingenuous first-time visitor to Ankara, capital of Turkey, nearly 500km east of Istanbul, now a sprawling city of some three million, might be tempted to think that it is a kind of Brasília. This was me in 2000. Open up the hinterland; move away from the coast to the interior; develop unused resources.

But the truth is hardly this. Ankara was Atatürk’s chosen base and capital, from which he could direct resistance operations in the 1919-22 War of Independence. Istanbul was in the hands of the puppet government, run by the last Sultan, Mehmet VI, Vahideddin, and which had agreed to the Allies’ demands for the dismemberment of Turkey after the First World War, with only a rump remaining. Slowly Atatürk mustered forces. The Armenians and the Kurdish resistance were defeated in the East. Agreements were made with the French on the Syrian border and the Italians in the South. The war was fought against the Greeks who had been awarded the area around Izmir, Smyrna, on the Aegean. The Greeks nearly took Ankara, but the Turks held out and booted them out of Izmir in September 1922.

And Ankara became the capital of the Republic. It was safer, less open to attacks from mercenaries, had a railway to Istanbul, contacts with the East, and now all the Balkans had been lost, it was much more central. In central Ulus you see the first National Assembly Room, a large school classroom, where the delegates sat at undersized desks. And the assembly that was later built down the road was not much bigger.

One hears little negative about Atatürk here in Turkey, particularly in educated, university circles. Yes, he was a womanizer, an alcoholic. His economic policy was highly centralized and statist, but that was a sign of the times. He was pretty tough on the Armenians and Greeks, but it was war after all. There is a strong sense that Turkey would not exist in its present form if it had not been for Atatürk. In one word, he gave Turks pride. Indeed, as mentioned in a previous blog, to most educated Turks, especially women, he is a symbol of enlightenment and freedom.

I have not yet been to North Korea but do know that the few tourists allowed in have to make an obligatory visit to the mausoleum of Kim II Sung. The highlight of any trip to Ankara is the visit to Anit Kabir, the mausoleum of Atatürk, the shining Parthenon. Firstly walk along the 262 metre long approach, guarded by stone lions, symbol of the ancient Hittite people who lived in Anatolia. Then enter the museum to see Atatürk’s clothes and accessories lovingly preserved: his seal, letter cutter, glasses, washing set, jumpers, caps and goggles, swimming trunks. Then see panoramas of Atatürk’s finest moments: Gallipoli, the defence of Sakarya and the Great Attack on the Greeks at Izmir. See the equestrian portrait of Atatürk, paintings of women behind the scenes providing clothes and making weapons. Contrast the painting of Greek soldiers massacring civilians with the holiday camp atmosphere of Anzac POWs at Gallipoli cutting each other’s hair and playing football with their Turkish captors.

Learn all about the beginnings of the Turkish Republic. See pictures of 1920s uncovered emancipated women: the first Turkish female surgeon; the first woman university professor; the first beauty contest; the first Ladies’ Teacher Training College; see some of the first female students with their jaunty peaked caps. And dancing, mixed ballroom dancing. It had always been confined to Pera, the European area of Istanbul. Now government employees in distant Ankara were required to waltz and foxtrot, dance with their wives, betrothed, unheard of! You can catch a little of the sense of entering a much freer world. A few women also fought at the front. See a bust of Kara Fatma, who fought on the Armenian front together with some ten other women after her family had been killed by Armenians.

And then climb up to the Mausoleum and pay your respects.

Anatolia had been a part of the Ottoman Empire which had been looked down upon, the land of hicks and peasants, whose Turkish was rough and uncultivated, while elegant Ottoman drew on Persian and Arabic. But now Anatolia comprised 97% of the Turkish Republic as nearly all the Balkans had been lost. The Turkish language was purged of its foreign elements, the Roman alphabet was introduced. In 1925 Atatürk set up the Turkish Historical Society to discover a suitable past for the Turkish nation. That they did: the forerunners of the Anatolians had not been a mish mash of primitive barbarians and Neanderthals but rather a highly sophisticated and literate people, the Hittites, who flourished from 1600 to 1200 BC. They had a sophisticated legal system, preserved in a cuneiform script on stone tablets, made gorgeous pottery and jewellry, and women played a central role in the state.

They were followed by the Phrygians, who arrived in Anatolia in 1200 BC from the Aegean. One form of the legend says that the Oracle at Telmissus, the ancient capital of Phrygia, decreed to the Phrygians, who found themselves temporarily without a legitimate king, that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. Midas, not he of the gold, a poor peasant, happened to drive into town with his father Gordias and his mother, riding on his father’s ox-cart. Before Midas’ birth, an eagle had once landed on that ox-cart, and this was explained as a sign from the gods. Midas was declared a king by the priests. In gratitude, he dedicated his father’s ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus and either tied it to a post or tied its shaft with an intricate knot of tree bark. It was further prophesied by an oracle that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia. Thus the Gordian Knot, broken only by Alexander the Great.


3 Responses to “Ankara”

  1. Irina Says:

    Dear John, thank you again for providing us with such a vivid picture of Turkey history, unveiling never imagined aspects of the culture there. How did it come all about – your interest in that land, your trip, I mean, did you travel with the Orient Express? Are you writing a book?
    For me to know you in Turkey came as a surprise. I had already seen your pictures of India at an exhibition at USP, an example of your special understanding and way of looking at a different culture, although it is diffcult for me not to imagine you there without a certain collection of Love Sonnets, reading peacefully in the shade cast by those exquisite monuments. Abração, Irina.

  2. Izabella Says:

    John, I’ve been reading your blog for almost two months and I should say it is quite interesting. I’ve been in Turkey myself a couple of years ago and I was stunned by the mixture of east and west in a sole culture.
    Regards, Izabella
    (I put a link to your blog on my blogroll)

  3. My Kids Website Says:

    Thanks for sharing this information. Really is pack with new knowledge. Keep them coming.

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