Oct. 29 is Republic Day in Turkey, and what better way to celebrate than remembering the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk? In Turkey we spent our childhoods being dragged from one event to another on national holidays, and being spoon-fed republican history in our classrooms. It can sometimes suck the joy out of this day for even the most ardent follower of Kemalist values. So today, I’m going to set out on the streets of Istanbul to visit some of the most important places in the life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and see if I can’t bring back some of that revolutionary air into my own life.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, then known as just Mustafa Kemal, was just 18 years old when he first stepped foot in Istanbul, in 1899. The young cadet, fresh out of Monastir (Bitola) military high school in Macedonia, enrolled in the Ottoman War Academy (Mekteb-i Harbiye-i Şahane) to train to become a career soldier. In much the same fashion, we’re starting our Istanbul trip from the same place young Mustafa Kemal began.
The Ottoman War Academy building still stands today, but now houses the Istanbul Military Museum in Harbiye, a quarter that borrowed its name from the academy. You might have seen it before; it’s a stone’s throw away from the Osmanbey metro stop with intimidating tall fencing and a garden full of weaponry. However, it’s not a major tourist stop, perhaps due to its rather tired interior and uncanny wax figurines. It’s quite the pity, because it’s stock full of enough war memorabilia for any military history nerd to gasp and drool over. One amazing piece is the original chain the Byzantines stretched across the mouth of the Golden Horn during the siege of Constantinople.
Indeed, I’ve frequented the building often to gasp over its ancient swords, intricate armor and intimidating modern guns. But what always brings me back is imagining the young Mustafa Kemal marching along its corridors with his future brothers-in-arms, discussing politics and dreaming of a new tomorrow.
It was tough going. According to Andrew Mango’s book “Atatürk,” the young Mustafa Kemal and his fellow cadets were worked hard and treated roughly, and fed a simple diet of rice, beans and mutton. Teachers were strict on the students, but the young cadets frequently visited the districts of Beyoğlu and Galata for evening revelries after days of working hard. The young Mustafa Kemal was no exception, working hard and playing hard. Among the 700 students of his cohort, Mustafa Kemal finished eighth. But perhaps more importantly, here he met friends and rivals who would later form a budding nation alongside him: Ali Fuat Cebesoy, who would become the general commander of the National Forces, Kazım Karabekir, who would lead the 9th Army Corps, Refet Bele, one of the commanders of the nationalist forces, and even Ismet Inönü, who would ultimately succeed Atatürk in becoming the second president of Turkey.
I’m heading first to room number 12 on the ground floor, called “Atatürk’s Classroom Hall.” This, the museum explains, is one of the classrooms Mustafa Kemal studied in. The room tries to replicate what the classroom looked like in the 1910s, a classroom of wax students with period-accurate uniforms listening to a lesson on the Dardanelles. Small plaquettes are in front of the wax figures, titled “Mustafa Kemal” and “Ali Fuat” – students who studied in this classroom, and later went on to fight in the Turkish War of Independence. It’s slightly uncanny when I head upstairs to rooms 32 to 35, and find rows of weaponry and clothing that belonged to the adult versions of the very students who studied in those classrooms.
The museum is open between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Make sure to also check out room 2, containing the school’s original hammam. It’s full of amusing and kitsch wax figures wearing traditional hammam garb, and it brings a chuckle out of me every time.
As I mentioned before, school life wasn’t all hardship and dry beans for the young Mustafa Kemal. Close by was Beyoğlu, the entertainment hub of the capital. Mustafa Kemal’s school friend Ali Fuat Cebesoy explains in his book “My Schoolmate Atatürk”: “Sultan Abdülhamid II had forbidden uniformed officers from drinking in public places. This prohibition was applied strictly. Those who did not follow this rule were punished regardless of their rank. However, both Mustafa Kemal and I did not neglect to have a glass of beer, rakı or whiskey when we went on a week off.” On their downtime, the young soldiers would head out to the neighborhood to visit places such as the German Zeuve Beerhouse and an English restaurant run by an Armenian called Con (John) Paşa. They enjoyed the international and multicultural atmosphere of the city. Few of the beerhouses, taverns and restaurants these school-goers visited have lasted until today. But we can still get a glimpse of what it was like.
Rejans was a Russian restaurant that opened in 1931, which Atatürk visited during his time as a president. According to the Istanbul Encyclopedia (published by the History Foundation), the restaurants were run primarily by White Russian émigrés, people who fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. The restaurant has changed hands various times, going from the name “Rejans” to “1924 Istanbul” to now “1924 Rejans.” But the menu still remains loyal to its Russian roots, featuring modern twists on old Russian classics like borsch soup, stroganoff or piroshki. Not to mention the building has been restored beautifully, and the restaurant interior is a replica of the original.
One table sits in the corner with a small sign declaring “Reserved Forever.” This, the restaurant claims, was the very table that Atatürk once sat at. Reserved for him forever, the table stands waiting with a bottle of “Kulüp” brand rakı and a bowl of white chickpeas. It’s been long reported by many of Mustafa Kemal’s friends and associates that he loved nothing more than to eat chickpeas alongside this brand of rakı.
After the young Mustafa Kemal finished his education in 1905, he began a promising career in politics and the military. But tragedy struck the Ottoman Empire in 1913 when it lost a huge swath of land in the Balkan War. It was also a moment of personal tragedy for the young Mustafa Kemal and his family. All Ottoman land outside of Istanbul and eastern Thrace was now lost, including Mustafa Kemal’s homeland of Macedonia. His mother and sister fled to Istanbul, alongside thousands of others who left much of their land and belongings behind. Mustafa Kemal had no idea that when he left his hometown of Salonica (modern day Thessaloniki) it would be the last time he ever saw it. They made the best of it. He greeted his mother and sister in Istanbul and found them a new home in Beşiktaş. The home he chose was one of the Akaretler, a series of terraced houses that were built as government-owned rental properties for the upper-middle class.
After sitting in disrepair for many years, the buildings were restored in 2008 to become one of Istanbul’s most “in” locations. Art galleries, hotels, pubs, restaurants ... Among all the chaos, one can easily miss the Akaretler Mustafa Kemal Museum, in the very building Mustafa Kemal rented out for his mother and sister. It’s a nice little museum worth a quick visit when you’re in the area. Entrance is free, and the museum is open between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., and closed on weekends.
The museum has no English signs, but I found a quick workaround. If you have Google Translate downloaded on your phone, you can open up your camera from within the app to translate the text around you. It worked particularly well in this museum and I read everything flawlessly, though forget trying to decipher the cursive titles.
Around November 1918, a weary Mustafa Kemal returned to Istanbul. He had been on the front of various wars almost non-stop since 1911, fighting first in the Italo-Turkish War, then the Balkan Wars, then in WWI on the Gallipoli, Caucasus and finally the Palestinian fronts. Despite this, he was eager for another posting. The Istanbul he found was much changed, now under occupation from Allied forces, and he was eager to assist in its liberation. But it became clear quick that no such post was incoming, and he was stuck in the city for a while yet.
He rented a quaint three-storied house in Şişli, Istanbul, from a woman called Madam Kasapyan. He moved his mother Zübeyde and his sister Makbule from their Akaretler residence, and put them up on the top floor of the apartment. He took the middle floor, and gave a room to his aide on the ground floor. Here he secretly met up with old school friends and brothers in arms, making and discarding plans to save the country from the mess it had fallen into. The house has become a legend in the Turkish consciousness ever since, and above the door in proud letters the museum declares “Atatürk prepared the liberation of the motherland in this house in 1919.”
Admission to the museum is free, and it is open between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and closed on Mondays. This one is quite worth the detour, filled with many of Atatürk’s iconic personal belongings. But make sure you have your Google Translate app with you, all the labels here are Turkish too.
Mustafa Kemal left the house for good on May 16, 1919, and after saying a farewell to his mother and sister, got on a small ship called the “Bandırma” to sail to the province of Samsun. It was from here he would start his quest to free Anatolia and start the War of Independence.
The next time he returned to Istanbul, he would be the president of a budding nation. Happy Republic Day, everyone! See you again on Nov. 10, when I'll be heading out to see the other must-see spots in Istanbul, this time from the later years of Atatürk's legendary life.