Ankara’s Museums

Our first Turkish museum visit was to the Musezi Gordion, 75km southwest of Ankara, the country’s capital. Gordion was the capital of the Phrygian Kingdom that flourished until about 700 BC. The area has several large funeral mounds or ‘tumuli,’ the most famous of which housed the remains of King Midas, he of the golden touch and ass’s ears. He was real! Who knew? It’s also where Alexander the Great cut the Gordion Knot in 300 BC. Also real, at least partly. We walked deep under the tumulus to Midas’s tomb and later saw many of its treasures, including furniture and Midas’s skull, on a visit to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. Turkey has history by the bucket load.

We spent one of our first days in Turkey at the Ankara Citadel, effectively an unofficial open-air museum — the best kind — and it dominates the city. The Citadel (aka ‘Castle’) has been added to and rebuilt by many empires over thousands of years and its exact origins are a matter of debate. It’s free to enter, great to wander about and a place where your imagination can take over. People live there so it’s a very genuine place. Be warned, there are narrow paths along the ramparts with long steep drop-offs and no handrails so pay attention! I’m not a lover of heights and my knees got a bit rubbery. We went back again this summer and it was much more crowded. Off-season travel has its rewards.

Just a short walk down from the Citadel you’ll come across the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. It has English signage and was built under the domes of an old Ottoman market. The museum starts off with an incredible collection of 12,000-year-old Paleolithic stone tools and rock paintings and moves on through the Hittite, Phrygian (including artifacts from King Midas’s tomb) and Lydian civilizations. The lower level (closed for renovation during our second visit in the summer of 2019) features Greek and Roman items from more recent times. My favourite set of artifacts is their collection of clay documents with translations from the cuneiform text. Divorce decrees, business contracts, treaties and personal letters; all aspects of life are represented and I felt connected to these ancient people.

Our last museum visit in Ankara was to the Ataturk Mausoleum, a memorial to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It’s impossible to overestimate the admiration Turks hold for “the father of the Turks,” who declared the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Ataturk’s likeness is everywhere and his name carries political weight. I was told that displaying his picture is an implicit criticism of the current president who seeks to roll back secularism and move Turkey away from the West. Roosevelt called Ataturk “the most valuable and interesting statesman in all of Europe” and the Ataturk Mausoleum is magnificent and a fitting memorial to this great man.

The mausoleum’s associated museum gives a good introduction to Ataturk’s many accomplishments which Gen. Wesley Clark summed up when he said, “Probably no other 20th century leader did more for his country than Ataturk. He brought Turkey independence, changed its alphabet and culture, and created a secular democracy.” Museum curators unfortunately chose to include one large and extremely provocative painting that shows Greek soldiers massacring Turkish villagers under the direction of an Orthodox priest. Perhaps such a thing occurred, I don’t know, but it’s disingenuous to focus on this without at least mentioning the Ottomans’ Armenian and Greek Genocides of 1913-1923, historical events ludicrously denied by Turkey and not even known of by Turks. Wikipedia is banned in Turkey because, along with many countries, it acknowledges the truth of these genocides. In fact, Turks can be prosecuted for “insulting Turkey” if they even speak of it. The painting is particularly unfortunate in a museum devoted to the great work of Ataturk who Churchill praised for his “policy of admirable restraint and goodwill (that) created, for the first time in history, most friendly relations with Greece.”

That was then…

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