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Anitkabir (Ankara, Turkey)

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Monumental tomb for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founder and first president of the Turkish Republic.

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      06.05.2008 12:30
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      Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara

      In modern Turkey culture and pride revolve around one man: Kemal Mustafa Ataturk. He was the founder of the Turkish Republic, having proved himself during the First World War as a commander of the Turkish armies during the Gallipoli campaign. All Turkish towns and cities have a statue of Ataturk, all schools have a bust of him by the entrance, as do all army barracks, police stations and other civic buildings.

      Nowhere is Ataturk more celebrated than in Ankara, the city chosen by the great man to replace Istanbul and become the capital of the Republic of Turkey. Until then Ankara was a rather modest town with a population of around 30,000; today Ankara is home to some four million people. He chose Ankara because he wanted to leave behind the associations with the Ottomans and Istanbul just had too many reminders of the old regime.

      Just like many of us set down our preferences for our funerals long before we die, so Ataturk chose the site that would house his mausoleum after his death. "Rasattepe" means 'Observation Hill' and when the site was chosen it could be seen from all parts of the city - which was nowhere near the size it is today. Today it can only be seen from certain parts of the town - a fact reinforced by our getting lost trying to find it!

      For all Ataturk was responsible for turning Turkey into a more modern, progressive and more secular state, he was clearly able to enjoy his position to the full and lapped up the adulation that came his way; some might argue that a 'cult of personality' ideology surrounded him and the way he has been commemorates since his death. In recent years some of the changes he implemented have been the subject of heated - sometimes quite violent - debate yet he is still celebrated as the 'father of modern Turkey" and millions of people visit his mausoleum each year.

      Ataturk died in 1938 and in 1941 a competition was held in which international architects were invited to submit designs for Anitkabir (lit. memorial tomb). The winning design was submitted by Turkish entrants Professor Emin Onat and Assistant Professor Orhan Arda. The work began with the laying of the foundation stone in 1944 and the work took nine years to complete.

      Anitkabir is a very impressive and attractive building. In architecture speak it is apparently typical of the "Second National Architecture Movement". Basically it is a symmetrical and quite formal style in which buildings are typically stone-clad. Anitkabir features quite interesting and decorative Ottoman and Seljuq (11th-14th centuries) architectural and ornamental features.

      All the various stones and marbles were brought from different parts of Turkey, not only because the design features a diverse range of coloured stones but in order to be represent the devotion of the various Turkish peoples to Ataturk. The most used stone is 'travertine' and several different colours, though the bulk is a sandy colour which is used to clad the external concrete surfaces. A beautiful green marble is used to clad the surfaces inside the hall of Honour where the actual tomb is situated.

      There are four main parts to Anitkabir: the Street of Lions, the Ceremonial Plaza, the hall of Honour and the Peace Park. There is only one entrance to the complex and you must leave have your bags x-rayed at the gate when you enter. You then start the climb up the hill through the Peace Park to the beginning of the Street of Lions. If you have come by car you can go further and park nearer the entrance to the Street of Lions but you must leave your driving licence at the gate. Entrance is free.

      The Street of Lions is 262 metres long and is flanked on both sides by twelve pairs of stone lions carved in the style of archaeological finds from the Hittite period. The lions represent Anatolia and are sitting to simultaneously represent power and peace. Along the Street of Lions there is a five centimetre gap between the paving stones that is designed to ensure that visitors take there time and observe respectful behaviour on their way to Ataturk's tomb. It clearly didn't work because I was disrespectfully admiring the very handsome ceremonial guardsmen in a glass boxes at one end of the Street.

      The Street of Lions leads to the Ceremonial Plaza. It is 129 metres long and 84 metres wide and can accommodate 15,000 people. Be sure to look underfoot; it is decorated with 373 patterns like traditional kilims (Turkish rugs) made of differently coloured travertine stone and these lend a more human feel to this stately setting.

      At one end of the plaza is the colonnaded Hall of Honour. Ataturk's tomb is inside lying beneath a forty ton sarcophagus on the ground floor and his actual body is buried underneath in a tomb in the basement. The hall has a pyramided ceiling covered in ornate gold mosaics. Each morning a wreath is ceremonially marched to the Hall of Honour and school children place it at the sarcophagus. We were able to watch this when we visited. The guards stand stock still until you approach the sarcophagus then suddenly spring to attention in a quite alarming way considering that the quiet and reverential ambience almost makes you forget they are there. Unlike the mausoleums of other notables you can stay as long as you want provided you are not in the way; you do not have to file past in a line.

      In the western colonnade is the sarcophagus of Ismet Inonu who was another celebrated war hero who went on to succeed Ataturk as leader of the Republic.

      The peace park is named for Ataturk's famous pronouncement "Peace at home, peace in the world". I would have liked to have spent more time in the park but it was raining heavily and we had to take shelter in an unoccupied guardsman's kiosk. The park is home to some 50,000 trees, flowers and shrubs including some officially donated from twenty five countries around the world. If it is wet when you visit take care on the paths through the park because the paving stones are very slippy.

      As well as the main building where the tomb is to be found, there are ten additional towers around the site, placed in a symmetrical arrangement. These represent the core ideals that inspired the creation of the modern Turkish nation. Inside each are inscribed relevant quotes from Ataturk that sum up the ideals. A serious of statues also symbolise the ideals and concepts. Inside the 'Victory Tower' is the gun carriage that carried Ataturk's coffin from the Dolmabahce Palace to Saraybarnu in 1938, while his Cadillac is on display in the '23rd April Tower' (this commemorates the opening of the Turkish Grand National Assembly on 23rd April 1920).

      In one of the buildings is a small but bursting at the seams museum that contains many of Ataturk's personal items such as medals and decorations and some of the gifts presented to him by governments of other nations. Captions are in English and it's easy to follow the chronology and understand the exhibits.

      Never able to resist kitsch purchases I was delighted by the range of Ataturk goodies in the gift shop, coming away with a selection of desk top stationery items bearing the great man's image. This curious emporium seemed somewhat at odds with the sombre and reflective tone of Anitkabir generally but since the man was a renowned drinker where's the harm in taking home some Ataturk coasters?

      While there are several museums and other places of interest in Ankara, Anitkabir is the only one that really stands out. If you spend any time in Turkey away from the main beach resorts you will encounter Ataturk's image and legacy several times a day so it seems fitting to visit the Anitkabir if the opportunity arises. I found it educational without being overly didactic and while it championed the achievements of Ataturk it did not do this in an excessively effusive way. What is especially refreshing is the chance to visit the mausoleum of a notable man without feeling that you are rushed and for all it's the resting place of a long dead man it's actually a rather enjoyable way to spend half a day.

      Open 9.00 - noon, 1.30-5.00 April - September; 9.00 - noon, 1.30 - 4.00 October - March

      Nearest underground station is Tandogan approx 1.2 KM from Anitkabir. Coming out of the station turn right, almost right back on yourself and it's a fifteen minute (uphill) walk to the monument.


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      Monumental tomb for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founder and first president of the Turkish Republic.

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