I had seen the below photo a long time ago, before Turkey had transitioned to the Presidential Government System, and it had aroused strange feelings in me. Yet I was unable to fully grasp what I felt. It seems like some time had to pass, a few things had to fall into place.

It’s night-time. Anıtkabir (Atatürk’s mausoleum) stands in the front, illuminated, in all its splendor. In the background, and on higher ground, the Presidential Complex stands, also illuminated in splendor. 

It’s a shot of the new Turkey. On the one hand there is the tomb of Atatürk who brought secularism to the country, on the other hand the residency of one-man rule, an embodiment of the political greed of the Islamist and nationalist Erdoğan. The two buildings capture the struggle between secular and religious segments of Turkish society.

In fact, Anıtkabir had long ceased to fulfill its original purpose. The külliye (Islamic social complex) structural complex, built illegally on Atatürk Forest Farm grounds, and called the “illegal palace” by the opposition, its cost raising questions, have gradually turned into political symbols.

Beyond a duality or struggle that reaches into the subliminality of society, it is a struggle between a dead and a living man.

Anıtkabir and the beginning of the end of secularism

When Atatürk passed away in 1938, his body was first sent to the Ethnography Museum. After the construction of Anıtkabir was completed, he was buried at his final resting place. Atatürk himself actually had never wished for such a large mausoleum. He used to talk about a small grave on his breezy country lands, where Anatolian winds would blow over him. 

Still, an international architectural project competition was announced in 1941. Prof. Emin Onat and Asso. Prof. Orhan Arda won the competition. Following a protracted debate, the area called Rasattepe back then – renamed Anıttepe later – was selected as the construction spot. Construction started in 1944 and was only completed in 1953, 15 years after Atatürk’s passing away. 

Wars are usually followed by poverty. The cost of Anıtkabir soon became the subject of a debate. Some say it cost 50 million dollars in today’s terms, while others contend it cost 200 million.

That was only 15 years following Atatürk’s death and Turkey is not the same country as it was back in 1938. The world has gone through a devastating Second World War, international balances had been upended and Turkey had recently transitioned to a multi-party system.

As Zekeriya Temizel, an MP with the Republican People’s Party (CHP), says, at the end of the 1940s, as construction was still ongoing, the Democrat Party stated that as Anıtkabir was a shrine, it was against the Shrines Law devised by Atatürk himself in 1925. The party also said that anyone who visited Atatürk’s tomb would be committing a crime. Their strongest argument was Atatürk’s Kastamonu speech in which he said that the Republic of Turkey could not be a land of sheiks, dervishes, disciples, that the most true sect is the sect of civilization and it is a shame for any civilized society to ask the dead for help. 

Later still, the erection of Anıtkabir was subject to negotiations. As the 1950 elections were approaching, negotiations got tougher. The completion of Anıtkabir and visits to it were conditional upon the opening of Ottoman shrines. Some claimed that as the secular republic was established, the Ottoman Empire wouldn’t be revived by just opening Ottoman shrines. Under pressure, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), attempting to resolve the issue, invested in the upcoming elections and made peace with religious voters. It changed the Law on Shrines. The CHP then opened the shrine of Barbaros Hayrettin as well as that of Suleiman the Magnificent in April in 1950. Of course, many more followed, and Ataturk’s understanding of secularism was ironically loosened even before his mausoleum was completed. 

Sibel Bozdoğan, a specialist the history of architecture in Turkey, refers to Anıtkabir as the last structure of Republican-era architecture. Let us not forget that during the Justice and Development Party (AKP) reign in Ankara, the Atatürk Forest Farm Marmara Pavilion (1928), Sıhhiye Iller Bank (1937), Çubuk Dam Lake Tavern (1938), Karaköy Passenger Hall (1935) were demolished and Ankara Train Station ceased to operate.

We should also remember that the AKP, which was founded in 2001 and came to power in 2002, did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. The September 12 coup, which allegedly aimed to protect Atatürk principles and reforms, was the most important catalyst of this process.

Initially claiming it would bring freedom and democracy to the country, the AKP government soon fostered polarization within the country. Opposition or even hostility to secularism and Atatürk was one of the sharpest. Others were the Turkish-Kurdish, Sunni-Alevi and Muslim-Non-Muslim cleavages.

It can also be said that during the 17 years of AKP rule, the transitioning to presidential government in 2018, the politicization of the presidential post, the parliament becoming largely useless – in short, the regime change and building the Presidential Palace on Atatürk Forest Farm grounds – ran in parallel to this.

Remember that when courts ruled the Palace to be demolished, Erdoğan responded saying “Let them demolish it if they can”. In this way, the palace, külliye or whatever you want to call it, the complex that hints at Seljuk and Ottoman architecture, became identified with Erdoğan during its construction. Though Erdoğan also said “This structure is not mine, it’s the people’s”, in the same manner Atatürk is identified with Anıtkabir, Erdoğan is identified with the külliye

In today’s Turkey, visiting Anıtkabir for Atatürk’s memory on days like November 10, October 29 and August 30 is an ideological statement. Similarly, visiting the Presidential complex – or not – is regarding as a political stance. For instance, many bars from around Turkey boycotted the court year and the opening ceremony at the palace conference hall, citing that it would affect the independence of law. Investigations have been launched against mukhtars, neighborhood chiefs, who did not attend the the President’s mukhtar meeting. 

Istanbul Mayor Imamoğlu visited the democratically elected mayors of Mardin and Diyarbakır that were replaced with trustees. He then stood next to the trustee mayors at a mayors’ meeting held at the Presidential Complex. Some politicians and journalists were even banned from going to the palace.

Erdoğan achieved the status of the one-man ruler as the final goal of his political greed. In Turkey’s political climate, while a dead man is identified with a mausoleum, a living person has identified himself with another mausoleum. One should look at it from the perspective of governments attempting to own spaces. Doesn’t everything have to with the struggle caused by this similarity?