Ankara is a palimpsest. Of course, that’s true of most Turkish cities, but it’s my governing metaphor for this post, so I’m going to run with it. The modern city, with its urban sprawl and ugly highrises and nearly five million inhabitants, lies over the settlements of the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines. Here, in 1402, Timur the lame, Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, captured the Ottoman sultan Beyazit and put him in a cage:
TAMBURLAINE. There, whiles he lives, shall Bajazeth be kept
And, where I go, be thus in triumph drawn;
And thou, his wife, shalt feed him with the scraps
My servitors shall bring thee from my board;
For he that gives him other food than this,
Shall sit by him, and starve to death himself:
This is my mind, and I will have it so.
Not all the kings and emperors of the earth,
If they would lay their crowne before my feet,
Shall ransom him, or take him from his cage:
The ages that shall talk of Tamburlaine,
Even from this day to Plato’s wondrous year,
Shall talk how I have handled Bajazeth.
Timur was a Mongol who controlled much of central Asia from 1370 to 1405; he certainly never spoke in blank verse, but equally certainly, I think, would have admired Marlowe’s representation of him as a terrible and magnificent man of destiny.
By the early twentieth century, however, Ankara was a bit of a backwater, a huddle of Ottoman houses on a hill. The fact that it was not a major Ottoman city, and yet perched in the middle of the Anatolian heartland is what made Ataturk choose it as the capital of the Turkish republic. He could lay claim to ancient culture here, even while distancing the new Turkey from its Ottoman capital, Istanbul. The Museum of Anatolian Culture is a monument to the desire of modern Turks to embrace the civilizations that preceded them in this landscape. Installed in a fifteenth century market building with many domes, it houses bulls heads from Çatal Hüyük (the world’s most ancient city, depending on who you talk to), monumental statues of Hittite gods or heroes, gold from King Midas’ Phrygia, and coins stamped with the likeness of Alexander the Great, who cut the Gordian knot not too far from here.
It’s a wonderful museum, but I think that where history really came alive for the students—wait, I hate that cliché, because history is never dead—the place where history woke up for the students was Ankara Castle, up above the museum. It’s not a particularly impressive castle compared to, say, Carcassone or Bodrum Castle; but as you climb up to the citadel you pass through narrow streets with overhanging Ottoman houses and then the walls of the fortress itself. Massive blocks of red stone are punctuated by white blocks of classical marble. I suspect the Roman theatre on the slope below served as quarry for this project. I can make out the base of an altar or two, a monumental Roman inscription (… XIUS.LEG.P…) built in upside-down, several slabs with Greek inscriptions. This fascinated the students; they were even perhaps a bit shocked at the idea that classical ruins might have been perceived as nothing more than useful building materials. If you’re a Byzantine commander in the seventh or ninth century, however, trying to defend your town from Arab or Persian invaders, you really don’t care what’s written on the stones you use to build your fortifications.
We climbed right to the top and looked down over a jumble of red tile roofs, merging down towards concrete and glass and fading in the distance towards the Anatolian hills under curtains of rain. Then the storm blew in and it was time for lunch.