On October 29th, the Republic of Turkey celebrated their independence. I thought it appropriate, since living in the capital city, to visit the mausoleum of the man who made that possible: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. When I arrived, I was blown away by what I saw: thousands of Turks dressed in red and waving Turkiye’s flag (sometimes doing both together).

Anitkabir on Republic Day
Anitkabir on Republic Day

Most days of the year, Anitkabir, is solemn and peaceful… not on national holidays. The crowd cheered and cried as they threw flowers on the grave of their founding father. They chanted: Mustafa Kemal in asker leriyiz, Mustafa Kemal in asker leriyiz, Mustafa Kemal in asker leriyiz… Which roughly translates to: We are the soldiers of Kemal. As I joined in their celebration (and chant), I found myself asking, “Who was Ataturk (the father of Turks)?”

After all, his name appears everywhere I go… bumper stickers, road signs, airports, bus stations, stadiums, buildings, and parks. His image can be seen on the sides of buildings, statues on just about every corner, and on all paper money (Turkish Lira) in circulation (I’m not joking – his face is on every single bill). How could an entire nation observe so much reverence for one man? What did he do that was so important to their culture, lifestyle, and legacy? So, I did some research.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (b. 1881 - d. 1938)
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (b. 1881 – d. 1938)

Mustafa Kemal was born in 1881 in Thessaloniki Greece, believe it or not. He joined a private, military high school without telling his parents; a move that propelled him into greatness and eventually legend. He’s not only credited with being the founder of the Republic of Turkey, but also given credit for leading the GNA Army (Grand National Assembly – Turkey’s Parliament) to victory in the Turkish War of Independence, almost single-handed.

His principles transformed Turkiye from a Muslim controlled monarchy (previously ruled by a Sultan) into a secular nation (though this change remains difficult to see at times and there are now those rising to power who wish to revert many of the changes he spearheaded almost 100 years ago). He built schools, alleviated the tax burden on peasants, and embarked upon the massive undertaking to bring his country’s politics, culture, and economy into the modern world. Personally, the way people here worship the man’s memory, I’d have thought he was the first man to walk on the moon. Alas, he’s simply their version of George Washington.

The information is sketchy as best (no 100% credible sources could be found), but essentially following the end of World War I – in which he fought and commanded his own units – the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, under the rule of the last sultan, wished to become a modern nation. The sultan ordered Mustafa Kemal to head to Ankara, a small village at that time, and gather support to reunify the nation. He rallied the people when he called for a national election to establish a new parliament and in August 1921, the new governing body appointed him Commander in Chief. Two years later, the fledgling (and not-so fledgling) country declared its independence. The sultan was officially removed from office.

Largest Statue of Ataturk in Ankara
Largest Statue of Ataturk in Ankara

During his presidency, he championed a great many issues both domestically and abroad. Education was his silver bullet and the literacy rates skyrocketed from 10% to 70% in two years after he traveled the countryside to teach peasants the newly adopted alphabet (difficult to read Arabic script was used prior to 1928). Additionally, he abolished the Islam state (Caliphate), made wearing a fez illegal, standardized the currency and national symbols (like the flag), created women’s rights (eighteen women were elected into the GNA in the 1935 election – more than any other European country at that time), established a workweek and weekend, modernized the dress-code, and created Turkish surnames (again, believe it or not, before his presidency Turks had no second names).

The Surname Law was adopted in 1934 and required all citizens to begin using surnames of Turkish origin – all non-Turkish names were outlawed so ethnic Kurds, Greeks, and Armenians living in the nation were forced to change or adapt their names. Muslims, as a rule, didn’t use name in the same way the Western civilization did. Typically, they carried profession titles such as “Efendi”, “Pasha”, or “Bey”.  Ataturk, until the GNA gifted him the moniker ‘Father of Turks‘, didn’t have a surname either. He was simply Mustafa Kemal. Interestingly enough, it is currently illegal for anyone else to choose the surname Ataturk – it’s been retired like #42 in baseball stadiums across America.

The crowd of loyal Ataturk fans at Anitkabir on Republic Day
The crowd of loyal Ataturk fans at Anitkabir on Republic Day

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk passed away at 9:05 am on November 10th, 1938 from cirrhosis of the liver at Dolmabahçe Palace, in Istanbul. The clock on the wall still reads his time of death. The last sultan, Mehmet VI was born in the same room in which Ataturk passed away. He was only 57 years old, but his legacy lives on in the cities of Turkiye, the lives of its citizens, and the culture of the Ottomans.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

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