Freewheeling reports: Ankara

Ever since arriving in-country nine days ago, we have been held captive in a sunless subterranean conference room and subjected to powerpoint-enhanced lectures on Turkish society and communicative language teaching strategies, with a few field-trip reprieves. One of the lecturers, a political science professor from Middle East Technical University, was particularly unsparing in his opinions about everything. “It took years of communism to make Sophia so ugly, but we did it ourselves to Ankara!,” he said while relating a story about a Bulgarian colleague. The point being–it is pretty well accepted that Ankara is not a particularly aesthetically pleasing city, and indeed many would call it ugly. However, it is not without appeal. Here are five things to do in Turkey’s capital.

1. Anıtkabir


As the previously mentioned lecturer said to us on the day of our field trip, “If you like the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., you will like Anıtkabir.” I’m not so sure they are comparable, since the Lincoln is not a mausoleum housing the remains of the United States’ revolutionary founder and eternally revered symbolic figurehead. Anıtkabir (“memorial+tomb”) is that for Turkey–it is the resting place of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of Turkey who died in 1938, as well as İsmet İnönü, his successor. Thus, the memorial has extreme importance for Turkish people, and both times I’ve visited there always seem to have been as many Turks as there are foreign tour groups.

I find Anıtkabir more austere than the Lincoln or any other typical American-style monument. The architecture is (to me) minimalistic, with small details such as tiles and molding commemorating different types of art endemic to Anatolia. Despite the presence of over 1,000 Atatürk statues throughout Turkey, there is not a single such statue here. Instead, there is a stone-lion-flanked processional walkway, a pair of statues depicting Anatolian women and soldiers, a set of reliefs mimicking the old Anatolian style, some of his Ataturk’s sayings carved gold into stone, an enormous flag and flagpole topped with a star of pure gold, and the Gazi’s personal cars and boats. As for Mustafa himself, do not expect anything like a mummified Lenin–inside the multi-pillared mausoleum a massive sarcophagus is on display, and Atatürk is buried, Islamic-style, underneath the sarcophagus with his body facing toward Mecca.

The chambers below the memorial house an extensive museum displaying bombastic portrayals and infographics of the Turkish War of Independence. I find this museum tedious and somewhat offensive (in its triumphal approach to war and biased historiography of the post-WWI period in Turkey). Instead, get outside and try to see the changing of the guard ceremony–it’s rather impressive.

Click through for more.

2. Anadolu Medeniyetleri Müzesi (Museum of Anatolian Civilizations)


Some historical context: When Mustafa Kemal and his co-revolutionaries founded the secular Republic of Turkey, they sought historical legitimacy and destiny not from the Ottoman Empire, which had its seat in modern-day Turkey, but to the multitude of pre-Islamic civilizations endemic to Anatolia: Sumerian, Assyrian, Hittite, etc. For reasons that take a lot of explanation, Hittite civilization just seemed like an appropriate historical muse for a 20th-century democratic nation-state. To substantiate the claim that Turkey had legitimate connections to pre-Islamic societies, Ataturk wanted to build a Hittite museum.

Thus the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations was born, and it is worthwhile to visit once. My favorite thing to geek out over see at this museum are cuneiform tablets from Assyrian times (some of the first writing ever!). Unfortunately, much of the museum is currently under renovation, so some of the best areas and pieces were not viewable, such as the Greek statues and pottery previously displayed in the basement; a vast collection of cool mother-goddess and shamanistic animal figurines, pottery, and other crafts; and a life-sized reconstruction of a traditional Anatolian dwelling. Hopefully these will all be put back on display when the renovations are complete.

A fellow Fulbrighter was shocked to discover that you could get away with touching any of the ancient statues, reliefs, and pictographic tablets that were not behind glass. Of course you can–this is Turkey.

3. Ankara Kalesi (Ankara Castle)

It’s a well-established tenet of this blog that I love climbing around in and on ruins, especially old castle fortresses, and this citadel in Ulus near the Anatolian Civilizations Museum was no exception. I do not remember why this castle is here, or what its history is, but nowadays there is no entrance fee and it offers a magnificent panoramic view of the city served along with a heaping helping of vertigo: as usual, there are no fences or protective barriers to keep milling visitors and tourists from pushing each off the edge to their deaths, but that makes it all the more fun.

4. Gençlik Parkı (Youth Park)

I most likely have unnaturally positive feelings toward this park because I skipped out of training for an entire morning and wandered around here for a few hours. During the day it has the appeal of Gülhane in Istanbul–a relatively wide-open and quiet greenspace in the big city, although with more cafes. The design and landscaping is appealing and makes for a pleasant stroll. According to our hotel concierge, Gençlik Park’s lunapark (amusement park) is the best one in the city, although I have not yet visited it.

I got delicious lahmacun at one of the shops, and a waiter sang “Jingle Bells” to me, which made my day.

5. Kızılay


The main downtown drag and shopping district, where you find Ankara’s famous statue of Hittite wildlife. Kızılay’s streets are stuffed bumper-to-bumper most days, but the pedestrian roads and back alleys are even more wildly crowded with shoppers during the day and bar-goers at night. I don’t have any photos of the main streets of  Kızılay, but above is a marketplace that sprung up under a highway overpass, which I thought was rather ingenious.

I could elaborate much more on each topic, but I think that’s enough for tonight. Tomorrow, we ride… to Eskişehir. By high-speed train.


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