Ankara Letter: Turkey’s capital is a city caught between the past and future

The argument that modern Turkey is rolling back its historical identity is not difficult to make

The Bayram holiday that in Turkey follows the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sees thousands descend on Ankara to pay their respects to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk's mausoleum – the Anitkabir – is a huge complex built as a monument to the founder of Turkey and under whose rule Ankara rose from sleepy backwater to capital of a booming new secular state.

For Bülbin Sucuoglu, who has lived in Ankara since 1967 when her father, an army officer, moved there, the Anitkabir “perfectly represents Ankara”.

“We were very happy to settle in this beautiful city,” she said.

On the uphill walk to the Anitkabir, the sound of soldiers doing drills in 36-degree heat carries across the air. But the young servicemen melting under their metal helmets are today under no illusion that they follow a new leader: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose massive presidential palace is a 10-minute drive away, and who has been accused of attempting to refashion Turkey in his image.


Erdogan may have his hands on the reins of power but Ankara shocked many by voting narrowly against constitutional changes to place executive power in the president’s hands during last April’s referendum. The amendments passed regardless, but some are angered by the brashness the AK Party has wielded in a city built from the ground up by Atatürk’s own force of will.

Mega projects

Among a litany of mega projects such as malls and skyscrapers characterising Turkey under the ruling AK Party is Ankara’s new €215 million train station, which opened in October. High-speed trains now link the capital with Istanbul and a host of regional cities across Anatolia. But its sheer size and cold, modern style has turned many off. Its five-star hotel is almost as soulless as is its shopping mall wing, in sharp contrast to its place in history.

"The significance of the Ankara train station ... cannot be underestimated. Firstly, the pre-Republican arrival of the railway to Ankara in 1892 set the stage for its eventual destiny as a capital city in 1923 after the Turkish War of Independence," writes Christopher Wilson, an architecture historian, in his book Beyond Anitkabir: The Funerary Architecture of Atatürk.

“Ankara’s position as a regional centre of transportation and communications, aided mostly by the railroad, was a prominent factor in Atatürk choosing Ankara as a rallying point during the war,” he says.

The decline of Atatürk’s Forest Farm, a swathe of protected recreational land used as a dairy farm, a zoo and even a brewery, is of great regret to some residents. The farm itself has fallen into decline, and amusement parks and residential buildings are encroaching on the land on which it sits. In 2014, the forest, known as the lungs of the city, found itself permanent host to a new tenant – Erdogan and his €600 million presidential palace.

The argument that modern Turkey is rolling back its historical identity is not difficult to make. The scientist Richard Dawkins recently said on Twitter that Atatürk would be appalled by Turkey's announcement on June 20th that it plans to remove Darwin's theory of evolution from school texts. The change is expected to come into effect from 2019.

Invited ridicule

And controversy is certainly no stranger to Turkey’s leaders. Ankara’s AK Party mayor invited ridicule by claiming that an earthquake that struck western Turkey on June 12th was the work of “foreign powers”.

“I want to believe that nobody cares about what he says,” said Bülbin Sucuoglu, who is a professor of education.

So is Atatürk’s vision for Ankara being erased? “I think he would be very upset to see the city full of religious buildings, mosques that are visited by a very small group of people regularly ... [but] he might have thought that malls are unavoidable to establish and they might have supported trade and commerce,” said Sucuoglu.

Turkey's biggest challenges in the coming weeks are set to transpire outside the country, not from within. Last Sunday, Erdogan said Turkey would not comply with demands by Gulf states to close a military base it operates in Qatar, which is involved in a major dispute with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE. Ankara is taking the side of Qatar.

Turkey is fearful that across its southern border in Syria, Kurdish militia control over increasing areas may see it establish what Ankara calls a "terrorist state" on its own border. With the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) closing in on control of Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital, Erdogan faces stormy days ahead.