From the battlefield to balls

From the battlefield to balls

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was surely a great commander on the battlefield, a visionary leader to a nation, still an inspiration influencing generations of today, but one of his many assets is not stressed enough. He was truly a man of style. He was also the man who brought a new lifestyle to Ankara, the new capital of the young Republic of Turkey.

This is the week of the Republic Day celebration in Turkey that takes place on Oct. 29, so it is just the right time to revisit Ankara in its early days of becoming a new capital. During the very early days of the Republic, Ankara was far from being a place of attraction; it was a rather dull and dim small town with very limited facilities. It didn’t have the vibrant quality and cosmopolitan diversity of Istanbul or İzmir. Modernity was definitely a remote concept. There were no dining places, no hotels or clubs, especially places you would be going to with ladies, to host the new diplomatic circle, or place to socialize. Western lifestyle was non-existent, but the city was also tired and quite shaken by the years of war and had lost its buzz as a trading city. But of course, a capital needed its social places and venues where diplomats, politicians and bureaucrats could mingle, where art and literature could thrive, and where young ideas could be born.

When Atatürk arrived in Ankara, he could not find a decent place to stay. Even the railway that arrived in 1892 could not shake the city and transfer it to a place that could accommodate visitors. He had to take a room at the station directory building, transferring one of the offices to a makeshift lodging. Soon his residence became the Kasapoğlu Köşk, a vineyard mansion up in the hill of Çankaya, where he moved in 1921. On those days, Çankaya was almost an hour away from the city center, which was then around the old citadel and the Ulus district. It was insanely remote, like a distant suburb. The first mansion originally belonged to the Armenian Kasapyan family, being their vineyard summer mansion. Actually, today’s Kavaklıdere and Çankaya districts were all vineyards, one can easily recognize this by the name of the once most popular white wine of Turkey.

The Çankaya mansion was not suitable for accommodating guests either. First things first, an annex was built with a dining hall designed by architect Vedat Tek, constructed in 1923-24. The annex had an entrance hall, a reception room, and a 50-square-meter dining room, flanked by an octagonal tower with a radio and cigarette room on the ground level. This dining room soon became the most crucial spot of those early days, a place where most of the decisions of the young republic were taken and a meeting room where long discussions took place. Almost every single night, there would be several guests for dinner where chefs would prepare the finest food they could manage to put on the table. The dining hall was not only for good food but also served as a place for provoking thought. It was a working place, with notepads and pencils placed for guests along with Christofle cutlery. On the corner, there was a blackboard with chalk and a duster. In a way, the dining table was performing like a micro-parliament.

Still, the Çankaya mansion was not sufficient for bigger receptions. Meanwhile, his wartime comrade, the second man, İsmet İnönü moved to Pembe Köşk “the Pink Mansion” in 1925, another vineyard house, a bit downhill in the vicinity. İnönü’s home also became another venue for such meetings. Atatürk wanted to hold a ball to celebrate Republic Day, and they decided that the Pink Mansion would be better for such an occasion. Still, the building lacked a big enough hall. An annex was built for the purpose, but unfortunately, the construction took longer than anticipated, and the first Republic Ball could be held four months later on Feb. 22, 1927. It was a snowy cold day, making it hard for visitors to reach the building, but finally it happened. The event was hosted by Mevhibe Hanım, the wife of İnönü, dressed elegantly in a v-neck purple gown. The opening dance was performed by Atatürk and Mevhibe İnönü.

Later, the ball was moved to Ankara Palace in Ulus, just across the first parliament building, which opened its doors in 1928. It was designed as a ministry building but soon shifted to be the first official guesthouse in the capital, which was short of proper hotels. The construction of the building, ordered by Atatürk had taken years to be finished, going through a series of mishaps. It was started by architect Vedat Tek in 1924 but was continued by architect Mimar Kemalettin Bey, who had a brain stroke at the construction site and died in 1927. When the building was finally finished, it became the hotspot for all receptions and grand events, including the Republic Balls.

Atatürk also introduced a new dining scene to Ankara. He promoted some restaurants to be established by calling in renowned chefs, like Russian Armenian Karpitch, who paved the foundation to all fine restaurants that followed, like Süreyya, Washington. He was a soldier to start with, but he knew all the fine life of the Western world. He was in effect a true bon vivant. He knew how fine tables could turn out to be vehicles of gastro diplomacy. He dressed elegantly, was a charming companion to ladies, and surely, he knew how to dance — just the right gentleman to host a ball.

NB: One can visit and take a virtual tour of the first presidential residence of Atatürk in Çankaya from the official web site:

Also, the Pembe Köşk building now houses a museum of İnönü’s personal belongings and diplomatic photographs, which is occasionally opened to the public. Şehit Ersan Cad. No:14, Çankaya, Ankara.

Phone: 0 312 428 18 41