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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the creator of modern Turkey

The founder of the Turkish Republic and its first President stands as a towering figure of the 20th Century. Among the great leaders of history, few have achieved so much in so short a period, transformed the life of a nation as decisively, and given such profound inspiration to the world at large…

Modern Turkey is very largely the creation of one man, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, later known as Atatürk, Father of the Turks. 

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Atatürk is revered in Turkey and you will see statues in every town and a picture of him on the wall in most offices. It is unacceptable to Turks to insult him or show disrespect, even in jest.

Born plain Mustafa

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born plain Mustafa in Ottoman Salonica in 1881. How he acquired his second name has now become embedded in the Atatürk legend. Atatürk himself tells the story.

‘In preparatory school, I developed a special interest in mathematics. I soon equalled, and possibly even surpassed, our mathematics teacher in knowledge of the subject. I started working on problems well in advance of our lessons. I used to put questions in writing, to which my teacher would reply also in writing. The teacher’s name was Mustafa. One day he turned to me and said: “My boy, your name is Mustafa and so is mine. This won’t do. There must be some distinction. From now on you’ll be called Mustafa Kemal.” And that’s how I’ve been known ever since.’ 

The literal meaning of Kemal in Ottoman Turkish is ‘perfection’ and biographers have praised the mathematics teacher for his remarkable prescience.

A new era for Turkey

At the end of the First World war, the Ottoman Empire, which had entered on the side of the Germans, was effectively occupied by the Allies. The Ottoman government was defeated and the sultanate lost credibility.

Mustafa Kemal, a popular young General in the Ottoman army, who had remained undefeated throughout the war, emerged as the leader to take Turkey forward into a new era.

General Mustafa Kemal – World War I

During the war of Independence which lasted from 1919-1923, Mustafa Kemal was elected President of the Turkish Grand National Assembly which was inaugurated on April 23rd 1920 and, with his Minister of Foreign Affairs, İsmet Pasha (İnönü), in 1923 he successfully negotiated the Lausanne Peace Treaty which set Turkey’s national borders and recognised Turkey’s right of sovereignty. The Turkish Republic was proclaimed on October 29th 1923.

Becoming a modern nation

Mustafa Kemal undertook a wide range of far-reaching reforms. In order for Turkey to become a modern nation, he believed that it was imperative to separate religious and state affairs.

Secular state

Faith became a matter of personal choice, Shariah courts were replaced by secular courts and the religious school system was abolished. In 1937 the secularity of Türkiye was added to the Constitution as a clause, making Turkey the only country with a predominantly Muslim population to be a secular state.

Adopting European dress

Atatürk believed that Turkey’s future lay with the west, and embraced all aspects of modernity with enthusiasm, including adopting European dress.

Historical Turkish dress

The Hat Law of 1925 introduced the use of Western-style hats instead of the fez.

Time and date

In 1925 the International (rather than the Islamic) time and calendar systems were adopted.

A new language

“The cornerstone of education is an easy system of reading and writing. The key to this is the new Turkish alphabet based on the Latin script.”

A new Turkish alphabet was prepared by the Ministry of Education, with the aim of increasing levels of literacy, and the move was made from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet.

As the 1920s came to an end, Turkey had fully adopted the new alphabet. With its 29 letters (8 vowels and 21 consonants), it had none of the complexities of the Arabic script, which was ill-suited to the Turkish language. The language reform enabled children and adults to read and write within a few months, and to study Western languages with greater effectiveness.

Atatürk is seen here teaching the new alphabet

Women’s rights

“Everything we see in the world is the creative work of women.”

Atatürk saw the role of women as crucial to the development of the new Republic. Polygamy was prohibited and he gave women the same rights as men. By 1930 women had been granted the right to vote and in the mid-1930s, 18 women were elected to the national parliament. Later, Türkiye had the world’s first women supreme court justice.

In all walks of life, Atatürk’s Turkey has produced tens of thousands of well-educated women who participate in national life as doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, writers, administrators, executives, and creative artists.

The surname law

1n 1934, all citizens had to adopt a surname and Mustafa Kemal was given the name ‘Atatürk’, ‘Father of the Turks’.

The death of Atatürk

Atatürk died on November 10th 1938 in Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. The clocks in the palace were all stopped at 09:05, the time that he died. The clocks outside of his room now are set to the actual time in Turkey, but the clock in the room in which he died still points to 09:05.

Atatürk is buried in the capital, Ankara, in his imposing mausoleum, Anıtkabir.

Click here to read the article: In pictures: How Turkey mourned the loss of its founding father Atatürk.

His creation of modern Turkey and his contribution to the world has made Atatürk a historical figure of enduring influence.

Sources: Atatürk by Andrew Mango/Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the founding of the Turkish Republic

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