Few cities have changed so much, so quickly, as the Turkish capital of ANKARA. When Atatürk declared it capital of his nascent republic in 1923, it was little more than a small provincial town, known chiefly for its production of angora, soft goat’s wool. Fast-forward to the present day, and it’s a bustling, modern city of well over four million souls, its buildings spreading to the horizon in each direction across what, not too long ago, was unspoiled steppe. This was, of course, Atatürk’s vision all along – a carefully planned attempt to create a seat of government worthy of a modern, Westernized state.
Many visitors to Turkey, of course, believe İstanbul to be the nation’s capital, and comparisons between the two cities are almost inevitable. While Ankara is never going to be as attractive a destination, it certainly holds enough to keep you occupied for a few days – diverting sights, good restaurants and pumping nightlife. Most visitors’ first taste of Ankara is Ulus, an area where a couple of Roman monuments lurk beneath the prevailing modernity. Heading east you’ll pass the superb Museum of Anatolian Civilizations before heading up to Hisar, the oldest part of the city. Here, the walls of a Byzantine citadel enclose an Ottoman-era village of cobbled streets; climbing on up will buy you a jaw-dropping city view. Heading south of Ulus you’ll soon come to studenty Kızılay, filled with bars and cheap restaurants; real-estate values increase exponentially as you move south again towards Kavaklıdere and Çankaya, where the cafés and restaurants are somewhat more salubrious.
After the Hittites founded Ankara around 1200 BC, naming it Ankuwash, the town prospered due to its position on the royal road running from Sardis to their capital at Hattuşa. Their successors, the Phrygians, called the city Ankyra, and left behind a huge necropolis that was uncovered near the train station in 1925. They, in turn, were followed by the Lydians and the Persians. Alexander the Great passed through on his way east, while in the third century BC invading Galatians (Gauls) held sway for a while.
By the start of the first century BC, the Romans had made substantial inroads into Asia Minor. In 24 BC Ankara was officially absorbed into the empire under Augustus and renamed Sebaste (Greek for Augustus). The city thrived under the Romans, but the later Byzantine era ushered in a period of decline. Arabs, Persians, Crusaders and Mongols stormed the city en route to greater prizes, but only the Selçuks were to settle, taking control in 1071. By 1361 Ankara had been incorporated into the burgeoning Ottoman state and went into another decline; only its famous wool stopped it disappearing altogether.
After Atatürk’s final victory, and despite being little more than a backward provincial centre, Ankara was made the official capital of the Turkish Republic. Turkey’s vociferous pro-İstanbul lobby was dismayed by the choice of capital, and many foreign governments also baulked at the idea of establishing embassies here. People were drawn to Ankara from the Anatolian countryside in search of work and a higher standard of living, and the city’s population of 30,000 swiftly swelled.