I passed through the life of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in reverse. The first time I stood in his footsteps was at Dolmabache Palace in Istanbul. This was in the bedroom where he passed his final breath. On the battlefield of Gallipoli I stood close to where he was struck by shrapnel. In Thessaloniki, I visited the same room where he was born. Death, near death and birth, that was my experience with Ataturk. I missed those in between places that were also integral to the making of his monumental life. These spatial gaps mirrored my lack of knowledge about Ataturk’s life. This was directly attributable to my failure to do much homework on the man despite my best intentions. Years ago, I bought Andrew Mango’s magisterial biography, Ataturk, a door stop tome that looks like it weighs a ton, because it does.
I tried to start off by reading a few pages at a time. This did not work very well. I put it down one day and never picked it back up except for use as a reference. In Mango’s defense there is no way one could tell the story of such an eventful life in a short, pithy work. Ataturk was a serious man whose legacy includes the creation of modern Turkey. That makes him a larger than life figure, one who is worthy of the 600 plus pages Mango devotes to him. This was a bit too much for me. I preferred my consumption of Ataturk in bite size portions. Perhaps that was why I found the places associated with the beginning, end and near end of his life so fascinating.
A City Called Selanik – A Multi-Faceted World
My tour of the places important to the life of Ataturk was never planned. The visits just happened to coincide with two trips to Turkey and a very recent one to Greece. It was the last journey, specifically to Ataturk’s birthplace in Thessaloniki, which left the greatest impression upon me. While it lacked the drama of Gallipoli and the sober reverence of Dolmabahce, the house in which Ataturk was born had its own unique charm, much like the city he was born into during the winter of 1881 (the exact date of his birth is not known). It always fascinated me that the founder of modern Turkey spent his youth in what is now the second largest city in Greece. Of course, at that time Thessaloniki was known by the name of Selanik as part of the Ottoman Empire.
The Turks were the administrative class ruling over the city. They were not in the majority though. Neither were Greeks. The largest group were Jews, who made up 47% of the population. It was one of the largest Jewish communities in the world at that time. Thessaloniki in the late 19th century was a multi-cultural city where disparate ethnic groups lived in segregated communities. At the same time, they interacted daily and lived in relative harmony together. This was the exact opposite of the ethnically homogenous state that Ataturk would eventually create. Of course, the Ottoman Empire of Ataturk’s youth was part of a world that had not yet suffered through the cataclysm of World War One.
Opposites Attract – The Will To Change
My first impression of the young Mustafa’s (Ataturk’s given name at birth) home from the street was that it looked more bourgeois than I would have imagined. The three story, cantilevered house, painted in the same pink shade as when he lived there, included a lovely courtyard sporting a pomegranate tree. The tree had originally been planted by Ataturk’s father, Ali Reza Efendi. I wondered how Ali Reza was able to afford such a nice home while working as a customs clerk in the civil service. It turns out that he was also a profitable timber merchant, almost certainly taking a cut of proceeds from illicit timber harvested on the slopes of Mt. Olympus and surreptitiously shipped to Thessaloniki rather than further eastward.
Ataturk’s mother, Zubeyde Hanim, was a devout Muslim who believed her son should be educated in a religious school. Ali Reza believed otherwise and according to a story Mustafa told later in life, his father’s argument won out. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his son’s many accomplishments. Ali Reza died when Mustafa was just seven years old. The family moved to the countryside for a while before Mustafa went back to live with his uncle in Thessaloniki while attending a preparatory school. Later on his volition, he took and passed the exam to enter military school in the city. Soldiering would end up carrying him away from Thessaloniki forever.
Compound Fracture – Deep Rooted Insecurities
The oddest thing about visiting the Ataturk birthplace in Thessaloniki was how guarded it looked from the outside, but once inside it was the total opposite. Part of the security features around the exterior perimeter had to do with the fact that the Turkish consulate is also housed in the same area. There was good reason for security precautions due to the ebb and flow of tensions. The compound has suffered occasional attacks through the years. The most notorious of these was a bombing in 1955 that was eventually linked back to the Turkish Prime Minister at the time who was trying to stir up unrest. A couple of weeks after leaving Thessaloniki I noticed a news item where twelve anti-Turkish protestors were arrested for breaking security measures around the house.
That would not have been very difficult from what I witnessed on my visit. The police standing on the street close to the house were more interested in chatting and smoking than protective measures, it was not hard to imagine how something might have happened. Entering the grounds of Ataturk’s home was a unique, if not to say strange experience. The entryway was the kind of door one might find at a highly secure compound. I expected that once I opened it, there would be armed guards and scanners to check bags. There was nothing of the sort. Instead a man behind a glass window signaled for me to sign a guest book. That was the extent of security protocols for entering. Once past the entrance, visitors were free to roam around the courtyard and house as they pleased. The lack of restrictions was a pleasant surprise, a harbinger of things to come.