37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Tuesday 13 October 2020
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in Turkey, is treated today with an almost saintly reverence. Following on the heels of the last Ottoman Sultan, Atatürk was a leader during the Turkish War of Independence (1917–1923) and subsequently became the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. Out of the ruins of the old Caliphate he sculpted a new, modernised Turkey – which under him switched from Arabic to Latin script, as well as making various other concessions towards becoming a secularised, Western-style democracy. When the country had been facing its greatest defeat, Atatürk essentially reimagined it for success in a new world.
Nowadays you’ll see paintings of Atatürk hanging in shops, train stations and restaurants, and decorating the walls in people’s homes. Today, with the conversation around Turkish democracy causing more division than at perhaps any other time in the republic’s history, Atatürk remains a rare point of agreement – quite possibly the only Turkish politician of the last century to remain (almost) universally loved and admired.
Atatürk served as president until his death in 1938… after which, plans were made for the creation of a suitably grand resting place for the ‘Father of Modern Turkey.’ The government held a competition in 1941, with almost 50 design concepts judged before the winner was selected: a classical-styled mausoleum, designed by Professor Emin Halid Onat and Assistant Professor Ahmet Orhan Arda. It would be built on Rasattepe (‘Observation Hill’) in Ankara, the city which, under Atatürk, had replaced Constantinople (now Istanbul) as the nation’s capital. This concrete, travertine and marble structure was named ‘Anıtkabir’: simply meaning, ‘Memorial Tomb.’
Work began on the mausoleum in October 1944, and wouldn’t finish until September 1953. The main building was a rectangular, pillared structure with a footprint measuring roughly 60 by 40 metres, and rising to a height of 27 metres. As per the design though, Atatürk’s resting place would be part of a much larger memorial complex, covering most of the hilltop. Pilgrims arrive at the site via the Road of Lions, a monumental avenue flanked by 12 pairs of carved lions representing the 24 Oghuz Turkic Tribes; its paving stones separated by 5 cm gaps, encouraging visitors to make a slow and careful approach. The Hall of Honour – the mausoleum itself – looks out over the Ceremonial Plaza, a space able to accommodate as many as 15,000 people, and patterned to resemble the designs of traditional Turkish carpets. Then around the hilltop, the Peace Park provides a place for reflection, in the shade of some 50,000 decorative trees.
Anıtkabir is a busy place. Turks travel in large numbers from across the country, to pay their respects at Atatürk’s tomb. The current record is more than a million visitors in a single day – recorded on 10 November 2013, the 75th anniversary of Atatürk’s death.
When I visited Anıtkabir, on a scorching July day in 2017, a near-constant stream of people were making their way up and down the ceremonial path on the hillside. In the city, citizens were celebrating the annual Democracy and National Unity Day, with parades, banners, and marching bands. Meanwhile on Rasattepe, the ceremonial guard marched drills with rifles to their shoulders, and school teachers corralled noisy hordes of chattering children, shooting yearbook photos on the steps of Atatürk’s Mausoleum. In the same way that Turkey remembers Atatürk himself as more than just a man, Anıtkabir feels more than just a tomb – it isn’t a resting place at all, but rather a living one, a physical focal point for Turkish identity in the post-Ottoman era.
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