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Turkey’s soul lies in its capital city, Ankara

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Anitkabir is dedicated to the founder of Turkey’s republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. [Sheldon Kirshner photo]

ANKARA, Turkey — Western tourists don’t normally visit Turkey’s sleepy capital, Ankara, preferring to focus on such glitzy destinations as Istanbul, Izmir or Cappadocia.

Big mistake.

Ankara is well worth your time for at least two good reasons: the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, which speaks to Turkey’s historic origins as a nation, and Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey.

It’s true that Ankara lacks Istanbul’s sophistication, Izmir’s Mediterranean flair and Cappadocia’s exoticism.

But if you really want to plumb the depths of Turkey’s soul, you should spend a day or two in Ankara, only a 45-minute flight from Istanbul.

The museum, housed in the shell of an old Ottoman bazaar storage building, contains the most extensive collection of Anatolian archeological artifacts in the world, from the Paleolithic era onward.

The exhibits are arranged in chronological order, and as you move from one display case to the next, you will see an impressive array of artifacts from the Neolithic, Early Bronze, Assyrian, Hittite, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman periods.

There are prehistoric stone tools, wall paintings and reliefs, clay figurines, statuettes, sculptures, decorative jewelry, coins, Cuneiform tablets, pottery, furniture and weapons of war.

Apart from the museum, the citadel, the original site of Ankara, is also worth visiting. From its ramparts, panoramic vistas of Ankara and its hilly terrain come into view.

Resembling a Turkish village, the citadel is a remnant of both the Hittite empire, which encompassed Asia Minor, and the Byzantine empire, which was conquered by the Seljuks, the predecessors of the Ottomans.

Within walking distance of the citadel are arts and crafts stores, gift shops, spice and dried fruit vendors and restaurants, all bringing you back to the present.

Another must-see attraction is Anitkabir, a complex dedicated to the life and times of Ataturk (1881-1938).

Ataturk, born in Salonika, was an Ottoman and Turkish army officer who distinguished himself in battle in the Balkan wars from 1912 to 1913, in World War I and in Turkey’s War of National Independence from 1919 to 1922.

With the proclamation of the Turkish republic on Oct. 29, 1923, Ataturk assumed the presidency, transforming Turkey into a modern, westernized secular state.

Ataturk abolished the caliphate and Ottoman sartorial traditions, separated governmental and religious affairs, replaced Arabic script with a Latin alphabet, granted full civic rights to minorities and women, and reorganized universities.

In foreign policy, his guiding principle was “peace in the world,” a formula that prompted him to sign a treaty of friendship with Turkey’s nemesis, Greece, and conclude a mutual defence agreement with neighbours Romania, Greece and Yugoslavia in the Balkan Pact.

At Anitkabir, a concrete courtyard vast in scale, you wait in a long queue to enter the mausoleum.

Passing through massive brass doors, you reach a huge hall whose red marble walls are inscribed with mosaics of Hittite, Hellenic, Roman, Seljuk and Ottoman civilizations. Ataturk’s tomb lies beneath a cenotaph.

On the eastern side of the courtyard, inside a museum, some of Ataturk’s personal effects, namely his black Cadillac and Lincoln sedans and his houseboat, are displayed.

The gun carriage that carried his remains at his funeral is also exhibited.

Most Turks revere Ataturk, and the veneration that is bestowed on him harkens back to Stalin’s Russia, Abdul Gamal Nasser’s Egypt and Kim Jong-il’s North Korea.

A Canadian visitor may look askance at this cult of the personality. But the adoration in which Ataturk is held seems genuine. Ataturk was a modernizer and a democrat who reformed Turkey, and this achievement is respectfully recognized by many Turks.

 Anitkabir reflects their deep-seated feelings.

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