Ankara is a surprise, no matter from which direction you approach it. The surprise is that it is there at all. After mile upon mile of steppe, after the emptiness of isolation, you simply do not expect this city. But there it is, suddenly, under an immense crisp sky on a wide plateau, encircled by distant mountains, swept by a wind carrying the dry fragrance of the highland desert.
It is a lovely city. Its boulevards are spacious, its sidewalks broad. Shops, hotels and embassies line the sides of the streets. Splendid roads twist off to the rest of Turkey. There are trees. There are parks. There is a university. And there is the mausoleum. High on a hill where the wind is cold there is the mausoleum—Turkey's tribute to Kemal Ataturk.
In the West, Kemal Ataturk is virtually an unknown man, a man dimly recalled as having done something or other for Turkey. It is quite otherwise in Turkey. There, he is as vividly alive in the memories of the Turks as on the day he died—the 10th of November, 1938. And rightly so. Few men have crowded into one life as many achievements as this brooding man from Salonica who strode out of the fog in the Dardanelles one morning to smash one of the Britain's finest armies and to open the first phase of what was to be, thereafter, a remarkable life.
Until that morning, Mustafa Kemal, as he was then called, had known more frustation than victory. Born to poverty, he had turned to the army in the hope of finding scope for his drive and talent. But despite an obvious gift for strategy and leadership he never quite dispelled the fierce suspicion and hostility his impatient brilliance generated. Embittered, he was nearly ready to give up. Then came the Dardanelles.
In many ways Mustafa Kemal's victory at the Dardanelles is ironic. For one thing he had been sent there by the new "Young Turks'" government to prevent him from winning precisely the kind of fame he achieved. For another, it brought about the political defeat of the one man who might well have outwitted Kemal at the peace conference—Winston Churchill, who hoped to end World War I by thrusting at "the soft underbelly of Europe."
His victory was also dramatic. Personally discovering the landing of the British—the famous Anzacs—he rallied his troops, planned and executed a counterattack and deliberately exposed himself to the fire of the enemy to inspire his soldiers. Overnight he became a hero—a man so revered that, when the Great War dragged to its disastrous end, he was able to summon the ragged peasantry to his side, block the Allied dissection of Turkey, defy Britain and France, crush the Greek invaders and ordain his country's future in this classically simple way: "My people is a people of warriors which once conquered half the civilized world. The time has come for it to learn how to conquer its own land."
There was never a doubt, after Ataturk died, where he would be buried: Ankara in the high harsh hills of Central Anatolia, the forlorn community he raised to eminence as the capital of the new country and from which he ruled so long. Yes, Ankara was the only place and in 1942, as Ataturk's body still lay in state in Ankara's Ethnographical Museum, Turkey prepared to build in Ankara a monument that would not merely pay homage to a great man and his epic achievements but would become a national shrine, a symbol of modern Turkey.
It was a difficult time for such a project. Europe was rocking under World War II and Turkey was straining to maintain an uncertain neutrality. Yet when the Turks announced an international competition for the design of the monument many countries responded—among them Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland. Germany, traditionally a friend of Turkey, led the way with 11 entries.
Three projects were selected for final consideration by the government: one by Professor Johannes Kruger, who had built the Tannenberg Monument in East Prussia, one by Professor Foshini of Italy and one by Professor Emin Onat and architect Orhan Arda, both of Turkey. On April 5th, 1943, the Committee for the Construction of Ataturk's Mausoleum chose, unanimously, the Turkish project and a drive to raise funds by national subscription was begun.
The architectural problem confronting the designers was not an easy one. What is more difficult than infusing stone with spiritual meaning? But the architects were worthy of the challenge and, with sincerity of purpose and a genuine commitment, they achieved a noble solution.
The key to the solution lies in the harmonious integration of design and site with the whole area of Ankara. The simplicity of concept and forms, together with the beauty of natural materials, make it comprehensible, even to the simplest peasant who comes to stand for a moment and remember.
The location—on a landscaped hill on which no other construction is allowed—generates, almost at once, a sense of expectation. From a large open square where cars are left behind, visitors must climb 33 steps of Kayseri stone, 120 feet wide, before arriving on a wide platform at the beginning of a magnificent avenue that almost commands an immediate approach. Ahead are two low cubed towers flanking a platform where two sentries pace at attention. These towers—striking in their simplicity and symbolic meaning—suggest what is to come: that unique blend of severe line and soft texture. The towers, built of a warm, glowing stone, are repeated eight more times. Massive, yet pierced by a large central opening on every side, they direct the eye, inevitably it seems, toward the scenic splendor beyond.
Two expressive sculptural groups stand there too. Placed right and left at the beginning of the entrance concourse, and scaled to the proportions of the whole monument, they represent the grief of the Turkish people over Ataturk's death. The impeccably kept concourse at first sight appears as a continuous lawn but is in fact a flooring of heavy slabs of stone whose joints are thick with grass. Even the drains are covered with slotted stone slabs to maintain material unity and the entire 780 feet of concourse is edged with the green foliage of trees from all parts of Turkey.
At the end of the concourse, between two towers, the great Court of Honor appears and then, to the left, the mausoleum—a great temple against the sky, Grecian in simplicity, Roman in grandeur. Inevitably, as the architects intended, the eye is carried around the enormous courtyard absorbing and reacting to the experience of sheer space, pausing, as one should at a shrine, to reflect, to think, to remember.
The actual mausoleum dominates the courtyard, but it does not overwhelm it. It faces the north side of the court and looks down from a raised base. The exterior is lined with poplar trees and wide steps, flanked by two huge solemn reliefs depicting scenes of the struggle for victory, lead from the courtyard floor to the entrance. Architecturally, the mausoleum is a modern application of the Greek peristyle temple: a rectangular, closed core of masonry walls surrounded by a colonnade of plain, square stone piers with simple architraves on top. The frieze continues in the same surface, bare of decoration, but constructed as a series of very flat arches, rising a slight distance from the architraves, thereby relieving them of any load, and adding a touch of grace to the stately proportions. A restrained, gently curved cornice crowns the exterior.
Like the ancient Greeks, the builders made use of sunlight, allowing for and stressing the richly-aging yellow travertine from Eskipazar, and the sharp, rhythmic shadows on the core of the building. The vivid change of perspective, as one climbs up the steps and walks toward the entrance of the hall, is arrested by a feeling of arrival as one enters under the colonnade and stops to read the manifestoes of Ataturk incised on the walls. There is an awareness of the dim, well-proportioned space, and the subtle harmony of exquisite materials—red Hatay marble on the floor reflecting the sparkling mosaic on a ceiling whose design was inspired by old Turkish carpets. And then there is the tomb, a plain polished block of rich marble, the massive tomb of the father of Turkey. And there are the people standing in reverence.
What, one wonders, does the woman from Konya think as her steps echo through the space? Does she think of this man as a military leader? As an administrator? As a president? Or as a man who somehow has changed her life for the better? And the man from Erzerum? Does he know that he might today be subject to the rule of a foreign people, were it not for the courage of this man? And the youths, do they recognize that to this man they owe their new schools and hopes for a better life?
It is hard to tell, but somehow one knows they do. And somehow one knows too that if this monument, open to the sweeping winds of winter, to the hot breath of summer, to the blizzards from the hills of Anatolia, is the perfect monument to Ataturk, it is not the only one. There are many others in the hearts of his people.
Friedrich Ragette studied architecture in Vienna and in Chicago, under Mies van der Rohe, and is Assistant Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut.