memory and accomplishments

Merhaba from Istanbul,
       Like all of his compatriots of the time, Kemal Atatürk was given a single name at birth. It was Mustafa. Turks living under the Ottoman Empire had no surnames. When Mustafa was in primary school, an influential teacher noticed how quickly the boy picked up new ideas and dubbed him “Kemal”, meaning genius. The epithet “Atatürk” was added much later. It means ‘leader of the Turks’ and nobody else can bear the name.

The Atatürk Museum

Whilst we were in Istanbul, we made time to visit The Atatürk Museum in a building where Kemal Atatürk resided for a time in the 19teens. It was great to discover just a bit more about this great man. Atatürk was a very successful army general who led Turkiye to its independence after the fall of the Ottoman Empire immediately after World War 1. (I am guilty of gross oversimplification here, of course.) It was during his 15-year presidency that all Turks were encouraged to create a surname for themselves. (This explains why most Turkish family names have a meaning which is known to the bearer.)

Atatürk died prematurely of an illness (possibly cancer) in 1938, at the age of 57. He is revered as a national hero by most Turks. (Some ethnic groups like the Kurds are not so enamoured of the memory.)

“endless respect and deep gratitude”

Some of the interpretive signs in the museum help us to comprehend the depth of feeling: ‘a demonstration of traditional love deriving from the endless respect and deep gratitude of his nation’; ‘the bad news [of his death] was like a nightmare over the country’, and ‘The devotion expressed by the overwhelming majority of the Turkish people to the memory and accomplishments of Kemal Atatürk is sometimes met wıth incomprehension by foreigners.’

This poem was composed by Cahit Sitki Taranci after Atatürk ‘s death.

An unforgettable fall
Istanbul, seven hills shaking
And a terrible wind in Dolmabahçe.

Many contemporary Turkish citizens choose to hang life-size photographs of Atatürk in their homes and their shops. This is not confected offıcial propaganda. It’s genuine affection for the man who guided them to nationhood a hundred years ago. In fact, some of these citizens will hold their hands on their hearts when they tell you who it is in the picture. Some exhibit an emotional attachment.

Taksim Square

In Taksim Square – a major landmark in the European side of the city – there stands a monument to Atatürk. In fact, four statues adorn the singularly impressive structure. One of the four represents Atatürk as a soldier (pointedly not alone). Another depicts Atatürk in front of 15 life-size Turkish citizens, some of whom are women. (Women were afforded theoretical equality during Ataturk’s regime.) The statue was erected during Atatürk’s lifetime and I can’t help but think that he would have approved of the symbolism of the figures. He stands with the people, rather than alone, and women figure prominently.

It’s a bit hard to imagine a statesman commanding this kind of adulation these days? Lord Acton is quoted as saying that ‘every great man is a bad man’. Atatürk is an exception.

Gule gule from Istanbul


Leave a Reply