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Discover the true spirit of Turkey

Published Jan 31, 2014


Istanbul - For two days, on and off, I sat with Ahmet Geyikoglu, a textile and furniture dealer who kept the hours of a corporate lawyer. We downed cups of black tea and Turkish coffee in the afternoon, graduating to stronger stuff after nightfall. Twice we stepped out for a snack of sac boregi, an Anatolian spin on the quesadilla.

During our meetings, the moustached merchant would typically sit behind a paper-strewn desk while I pirouetted around his cramped shop, pulling out carpets from Pakistan and Turkey, unspooling vibrant fabrics from Uzbekistan and placing my muffet on various tuffets.

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Inevitably, though, business interrupted playtime.

“Ahmet,” I pleaded, “I want the chair, the stool and the bench.”

He ignored my consumerist appeal and, without a word, bubble-wrapped the smallest and least expensive piece in my pile of wishes. When he thought I wasn’t looking, he tucked a kilim-covered pillow into the package, a gift that joined several others accumulated over the weekend. The transaction complete, we returned to our coffee and conversation, ignoring the bundle abandoned in the corner.

Confession: I’m not familiar with shopping conventions in Istanbul, much less the rest of Turkey, but for me, Ahmet was the Ankara way.

“Ankara is like a smaller, slower Istanbul,” said Paul, an American engineer who lives in Germany and travels frequently to Turkey for work. “There aren’t as many tourists, and the vendors are less pushy.”

The capital city since 1923 – the founding year of the republic – is the home address of foreign embassies and several higher-education institutions, including Ankara University, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the papa bear of the new Turkey.

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In a gold jewellery mini-mall, a clerk asked me whether I was a student or an embassy employee; he appeared surprised when I threw out Option C – a tourist.

With 4.5 million residents, Ankara ranks as the second-largest city in Turkey after – do I really need to say it?

The city, you see, suffers from a Jan Brady complex; Istanbul is its Marcia nemesis. Most visitors pass through Ankara on their way to Konya or Cappadocia. If they linger longer than a day or two, they’re probably following company or diplomatic orders. Of course, there are exceptions. An urbane European at my hotel was rendezvousing with her Turkish paramour.

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“Ankara is for politics,” the Belgian woman told me when we bumped into each other in the hallway. “Istanbul is for fun.”

At the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, in the old section of town, a Toronto tourist shared her group tour guide’s description of the two cities: “Ankara is like Washington DC and Istanbul is New York City.”

For insights from the inside, though, I turned to a native, the man in the red fez.

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“In Ankara, work no problem, autobus no problem, taxi no problem,” said Ahmet. “In Istanbul, everything problem.”

Impressions of Ankara, as seen through a bus window: a dusty, cracked-nut landscape rising to meet the sky but falling short. Isolated islands of modern high-rises. A pretzel-twist of highways. A disorderly city – energetic, loud and alive, so very alive.

The bus stops and I exit at the terminal, the sound of bleating cars, rumbling trucks and shouting men pricking my ears. I step into a cab, and the silent picture show continues.

I was staying in Ulus, the historic area, and the taxi huffed and puffed up a steep cobblestone road to reach my hotel, in a 16th-century caravansary. Chaos must be out of shape, because the torrent of activity never reached the tranquil top.

If you look up, your eyes will inevitably bump into the citadel, a colossal structure of towers and walls shaped by the hands of many civilizations (Hittite, Byzantine, Galatian, etc). Your feet will probably want in on the action, too – say, a late-afternoon scramble around its sprawling ramparts.

I entered the grounds of the garrisoned castle through a dramatic archway across the road from my hotel. I followed a winding trail that made me dream of slip-on cloven hooves. Stores draped in evil-eye pendants and silver jewellery lined the route, calling out like sirens. (My advice: shop on the descent.) Rustic homes burrowed into the tight, narrow spaces, red mud huts camouflaged against the red stone. Women swept the front stoeps, sending puffs of dust over to the neighbour’s side. High up, tiny figures stood on a tower wall, dark streaks slashing the twilight sky.

I climbed a set of raggedy steps and grabbed a seat on a cold patch of wall. Beneath my dangling feet, a group of young boys played soccer in a natural arena. A dad appeared at one of the entryways and I braced for the scolding, imagining a reproach that would shame the boys for disrespectfully kicking a ball around a 3 000-year-old site. Instead, the father joined in.

Eventually, the boys packed up their gear, and yellow specks of light started to flicker below, throwing a large illuminated net over the city. I stood on the edge of a jutting wall, a precarious position any time but especially at 5.57pm, when the muezzin’s booming voice calls Muslims to prayer. For the ill-prepared, it’s a broadcast that could knock you off the ledge.

The voice emanated from the sacred mosque, Haci Bayram. The holy institution shares a courtyard with stores stocked with religious items, a dancing fountain set to music and the Roman ruins of the Temple of Augustus and Rome.

A sign near the ancient crumbles explains their importance: the circa-25 BC site glorifies the emperor who stuck a thumbtack in Ankara on his map of conquests. After his death, carvers engraved the text of his achievements into the stone walls in Latin and Greek. The workmen needed a lot of white space: the braggartly Augustus listed all his accomplishments, including his mastery over the Alps, pirates and Egypt and his skilled driving of “triumphal chariots”.

The mosque could also crow about its accomplishments, but it takes a more modest approach. Given the opportunity, though, it would tell you it was built in 1427 in honour of Haci Bayram-i Veli, the Bayrami sect founder whose remains rest in the adjoining mausoleum. The brick edifice exemplifies mosque design of the late17th to the early 18th century, with a brick minaret on a stone base, Arabic calligraphy on the south wall, and rosette and floral patterns on the windows and ceilings.

Five times a day, the sleeping giant inside the loudspeaker wakes up and roars to life. Unsure of protocol, I approached a guard one afternoon and asked whether I could enter the mosque for a service. He aimed a finger at the women’s entrance and nodded.

After descending a set of stairs, I joined a crush of Muslim women in a mud room with cubbyholes. Like an amateur dance troupe, we clumsily hopped on one foot and then the other as we attempted to remove our shoes without falling into muddy puddles. I followed the women into the cavernous prayer space, pulling on the hood of my winter jacket to hide my hair.

Out of respect, I sat in the back, a hinterland populated by restless and rambunctious kids. The children skated on the carpeting in their socks and swung prayer beads like lassos. A little boy discovered a secret compartment beneath a bench and stowed his mother’s handbag inside it.

Despite the distractions, the mothers, sisters and daughters remained deep in prayer, their covered heads bowed towards Mecca.

Would Istanbul welcome me with open arms and make me feel at home? Ankara showed up with a tray of sweets and an invitation to drop by any time.

In a short time, I forged a domesticated existence within an exotic framework. In the morning, I’d walk to the rambling food market to collect my daily provisions: dried figs and sultanas, simit (rings of bread bejewelled with sesame seeds) and pickled vegetables fished from a big barrel. I’d pass the fruit vendor, who would shout out, “Madam, good, good”, and fill my cupped hands with oranges, refusing payment. I’d visit the grocer, who’d weigh and ticket my produce and throw in a handful of greens with a quick grin. I’d meet strangers who, through hot-beverage-bonding, became friends.

Staying within the borders of Ulus, I rounded up the main attractions: the citadel; the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, a repository of Hittite stone carvings and Roman artefacts; the street of kitchen utensils; and the 14th-century Ahi Elvan Mosque, which, with its wooden pillars and ceilings, resembles an off-piste ski lodge.

Eventually, though, guilt began to cloud the familiar scenery. I needed to get off my kilim cushion and explore unknown parts.

For my first boundary-busting outing, the cabdriver dropped me off at the feet of modern Turkey. Anitkabir honours Ataturk with an imposing memorial built six years after the 1938 death of the republic’s founder and first president. Uniformed soldiers guard the entrance to the hilltop site, their Madame Tussauds expressions never cracking amid the onslaught of photobombs.

Each of the 10 towers and the artworks advance Ataturk’s personal and professional narrative as well as the progressive principles that informed the new republic. For example, the audio guide explained that the sculptures of three men and three women represent equal rights, one of Ataturk’s reforms. The women’s grave expressions, the voice continued, demonstrate their grief over their leader’s death but also project dignity and pride – the Turkish way of handling loss and hardship.

Ataturk resides eternally in the Hall of Honour, set on the Ceremonial Ground, a multicoloured travertine plaza decorated with kilim and carpet patterns. Delaying gratification, I took the long route around the square, taking in exhibits that draw a fuller picture of the legendary man. His official car: a 1934 Lincoln. His style: sometimes dapper (dressing gown, top hat, white gloves), sometimes casual (blue polo shirt). His way with words: breathless (he gave a36-hour speech in 1927). His taste in best friends: heart-warming (Fox, a rescued street dog, whose taxidermied remains inhabit a glass case).

When I was finally ready to view the mausoleum, a stern guard barred me from entering. I heard the approaching footfalls of heavy boots and stepped aside, clearing a path for two soldiers cradling a wreath of red and white flowers.

The men deposited the floral arrangement on the pulpit, near a symbolic sarcophagus. Ataturk rests below.

The Father of Turks cannot be seen, but his words can still be heard. For many, “peace at home, peace in the world” will go down in modern Turkey’s history.

“I really must go to Kugulu Park now,” I told Ahmet.

But I didn’t move. Ahmet, sensing my lack of resolve, ordered us another coffee from the German woman across the street. Later, he suggested, we could run over to her café and she would read my future in the coffee grinds.

On the first night I met Ahmet, I was the lone shopper on spidery lanes dark under a moonless sky. The diminutive retailer with the bright smile invited me into his shop, offering to make us apple tea. Disappearing into a back room, he rummaged around for tea fixings but returned empty-handed. He was out. He called a friend and asked him to fetch two coffees.

Sitting at his desk, he handed me a crinkled photo album of his carpet-exporting trips to the Middle East. In nearly every picture, he was eating or drinking with a group of jubilant men. Traditional shopping forms friendships, and fattens you up.

Ahmet didn’t make a sale that night. Before I could make a bid for a chair, he locked up the shop and led me to Hamamonu, a restored neighbourhood of traditional Anatolian houses. Students from the nearby university packed the cafés and restaurants, chattering loudly. We chose an open-air establishment with benches warmed by heat lamps.

After three glasses of tea, Ahmet drove me to the bus stop and gave me the fare.

“The bus takes you to your hotel,” he said, pointing in the opposite direction of my accommodation, mistaking their location for another part of the city.

I was charmed by his generosity but alarmed by what could have been: riding around in a bus at night, set on an urban Heart of Darkness course.

The next day, I’d planned to visit Kugulu Park, where protesters had massed last spring after the government threatened to close down Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park for commercial development. Swans are a symbol of Ankara, and a flocks’ death by tear gas added a dark blot to a bright spot in the city.

Before setting off, however, I checked in with Ahmet, sharing my plans with him and a new member of the expanding social circle.

“Why do you want to go there?” asked Paul, who was sipping anise-flavoured raki and viewing floor coverings for his home.

Once, I’d had a good answer, but no longer. I had discovered Ankara’s true spirit in a rug seller’s cramped shop. Now I just needed to persuade Ahmet to sell me something. – The Washington Post


If You Go...


Divan Cukurhan

3 Tarihi Ankara Kalesi Necatibey Mahallesi Depo Sokak

Luxury boutique hotel in a 16th-century caravansary. Near main historic sites and crafts shops. Also on site: restaurants, fitness centre and attached museum. Rooms from about $150 (R1 626) a night.



Meshur Oltu Kebapcisi

8 Atpazari Meydani

The small family-run restaurant blankets the table with grilled lamb, bowls of pickled and raw veggies, lavas bread and other sides, and dessert. About $10 for the entire meal.


Cengelhan Museum Brasserie

1 Tarihi Ankara Kalesi Necatibey Mahallesi Depo Sokak

Set in the courtyard of the Rahmi M Koc Museum, surrounded by artefacts and exhibits. Serves traditional Ottoman dishes, with entrées from $20.



Anitkabir/Ataturk Mausoleum

Anit Caddesi Tandogan,31452/anitkabir.html

Daily 9am to 5pm, but closes an hour early in winter. Free; $5 for audio guide.


Museum of Anatolian Civilisations

2 Gozcu Sokak

Limited exhibits because of renovations. Daily 8.30am to 7pm. April-October; 8.30am to 5.30pm. November-March. About $7.



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