On the brisk morning of November 10, as dictated by a decades-old tradition, Istanbul was the scene of a rather astonishing ceremony. When the clocks struck 9.05 a.m., the noise of the urban bustle was split by a piercing siren that echoed across all the city’s neighborhoods.
At once, every pedestrian stood still and all moving vehicles halted – a rare suspension of Istanbul’s infamous traffic. For two minutes, silence, awe and a chilling, liturgical atmosphere prevailed.
This collective, choreographed rite may seem bizarre to first-time observers, but it should come as no surprise if one considers the date’s historical significance. Precisely 80 years ago, on the morning of November 10, 1938, the beloved founding father of modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, passed away in Istanbul, sending a wave of mourning across the country.
Every year since then, millions of Turks from multiple cities have participated in the eerie ceremony to honor the memory of their iconic leader and the first president of the modern Turkish republic.
Ataturk was born in Thessaloniki in May 1881 – however, when asked, he would reply that he was born on May 19, 1919, the day he decided to become an insurgent and defy the sultan’s rule.
Driven by his frustration at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk took control of an anachronistic, bureaucratic and partitioned country through a coup d’etat and political maneuvering. In just a few years, he managed to transform it into a modern state which embraced modernity, secularism and Western principles.
Though Armenians and Greeks may sometimes remember him with disdain, Ataturk is classified by contemporary historians as one of the most charismatic leaders in modern history, and he undoubtedly deserves a place among the most influential personalities of the 20th century.
His impressive life came to an unfortunate end on the banks of the Bosporus, in the breathtaking Dolmabahce, the marble palace where he died from liver cirrhosis – a consequence of his insatiable love for alcohol.
To this day, Mustafa Kemal is worshipped by Turkish citizens with an almost religious reverence, in ways that go far beyond the ceremony of November 10. Along Istanbul’s coastal avenue Ciragan Caddesi, one can find a succession of giant images that extends for 1.5 kilometers, all depicting various moments from the leader’s life.
Almost every classroom in the country is adorned with a portrait of Ataturk, and even politically moderate Turks proudly select profile pictures for their social media accounts that feature the face of their country’s founding father.
It may all sound like nationalism, but it is something different: It is Kemalism, a set of Westernized principles for Turkey’s past, present and future, coupled with a culture of excessive idolization centered around one single person.
It is no secret that Ataturk’s vision of a secular, cosmopolitan Turkey is in many ways diametrically opposed to the Islamic nationalism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule.
However, in a paradoxical way, the culture of worshipping the former contributed to the megalomania and authoritarianism of the latter. In 2015, Erdogan began the practice of placing his own portraits in school classrooms, right next to Ataturk’s.
The modern-day Turkish president practically inserted himself into Ataturk’s legacy when he chose to erect his colossal presidential palace on top of the forest farm built in the heart of Ankara by Turkey’s founding father.
Two years ago, an additional ceremony was added to the list of the country’s national holidays: the anniversary of the failed coup of July 15. It is gradually becoming a tradition for hundreds of supporters to gather midsummer and listen to Erdogan’s passionate speeches.
For the duration of his discourse, silence, awe and a chilling, liturgical atmosphere prevail – a combination remarkably reminiscent of the morning of November 10.