The Inner Citadel

Behind the great walls of the Ankara citadel another Ankara lies concealed, of stately mansions, ancient inns and baths, fascinating museums, basketweavers and coppersmiths.

There are cities that automatically cast a spell over you, like Istanbul, and Venice. It’s almost unthinkable that anybody would dispute the beauty of such a city. And then there are other cities that only rise in your estimation upon closer inspection, cities whose beauty is not readily apparent. Ankara is one of them. There are even anecdotes about how Ankara does not recommend itself to the casual glance. Reflecting this dismissive attitude, the early 20th century poet Yahya Kemal Beyatlı put it like this, “What I like most about Ankara is returning to Istanbul!” Students who have come from Istanbul to study in Ankara refer to it as ‘an arid wasteland’ or ‘the steppe’, disparaging terms that betray their failure as yet to discover the city.

What I mean by ‘discovering’ Ankara is of course not finding its well-known museums and tea gardens, its once celebrated streets like Tunalı Hilmi, or getting to know its immediately accessible aspects.

Everybody knows about Ankara’s Inner Citadel; indeed this spot is a favorite with tourists. Situated  directly above the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations,    which was converted from the former Mahmut Paşa Bedesten and Kurşunlu Khan, it stands on a hill that dominates the city in the area known as At Pazarı, or the Horse Market. Medieval inns such as the Davulcular Khan, Çengelhan and Pirinçhan, other khans and bedestens (markets), religious buildings such as the Arslanhane Mosque, Celali Kaddani Mosque, Hacıbayram Mosque and the Ahi Şerafettin Türbe, and several stately old mansions make up its touristic infrastructure. But the Inner Citadel is too vibrant to be entrusted to touristic brochures and too polyphonic to be done justice in the memorized spiel of a tourist guide. Instead it is like a closed box, full of mysteries waiting to be plumbed.

Historian İlber Ortaylı briefly sums up the history of this old and small town in an article titled, ‘The Ankara Citadel’: “Galatian capital, Roman garrison, and strategic point from which the Byzantines marched eastward and the Ottomans to Baghdad and Syria.” In the same article Ortaylı says that the city was restored in the Byzantine period, adding, “With a population of only 25-30 thousand, the capital of the great province of Ankara spread to the lower slopes of Hacettepe from mansions inside the fortress. It was a humble provincial capital. Humble yet vibrant… And very enamored of their spacious mansions and pleasantly courtyarded houses. Longstanding residents in the 1970’s did not take willingly to apartment living.” And as they made the transition, this now-abandoned sector of the city would find new residents.

Today’s Inner Citadel is of course the outcome of the historical background outlined above. Coppersmiths, basketweavers, tourist guide kids, women who display their embroidery on their doorsteps, the looks of interested intellectuals, and the Romans and Malatyans staring back at them… The fabric of the Inner Citadel actually depends on more than one fascinating detail. Ever since the old-time residents abandoned their awesome brick-and-mortar mansions and left the opulent old days behind, this place has been a virtual refuge for rural migrants to the big city. The new residents of the quarter, whose once magnificent mansions have now been converted into museums and fashionable restaurants, settled into the old Ankara houses huddled around the mansions merely because it was much less expensive than a place in the city center. It is interesting that Özer Erginç, a well-known researcher on the city, suggests in his book, ‘Ankara and Konya in the 16th Century’, that the houses in the ‘upper city’, in other words, in the Inner Citadel, were far more popular than those in the ‘lower city’ at that time. Prominent residents in those periods, a worthy personage like the mufti of Ankara for example, preferred to live in the Inner Citadel. Now the area harbors two disparate sectors as home on the one hand to those who can’t afford a place in the city, and on the other a museum district that caters to an elite intellectual class.

The Inner Citadel and its environs today are a place of museums and upscale restaurants; a focal point for the romantic views of historians and literati; the  Citadel of tourists and old houses that charm eyes inured to concrete. But the quarter’s socio-economic reality awaits you wherever you turn. How? The minute you begin your stroll through the Inner Citadel you’ll find a 10-12-year-old child sidling up to you from round a corner or behind a narrow wooden door. If you’re a tourist he’ll address you in rote-learned English, or Japanese, if not, then in Turkish but always politely; and you won’t be able to say ‘no’. You’ll make that child’s day with the couple of coins you thrust into his hand, impressed by the information he imparts that you won’t find in any guidebook. And if you ask the right questions, there isn’t anything you can’t learn about the residents of this quarter. Who is on the outs with whom? Who is the best child guide? How much does he make? This is a neighborhood where everything is understood by seeing, feeling, sensing; a strange neighborhood that, rather than a mere interested expression or a curious glance, invites the novice visitor to take in a virtual spectacle, all the while lost in contemplation. 

The citadel is cultural venue.

A mix of restaurants, cafes, museums and antique shops that goes beyond the conventional museum concept. Delving deeper than the casual touristic glance, the Kınacızade Konağı, for example, is currently hosting a series of interviews with Halil İnalcık, one of Turkey’s most respected Ottoman historians, as well as a collection of Ottoman costumes from the wardrobe of a prominent lady like Yurdusev Arığ. And one of the period’s busiest inns, the Çengelhan, whose inscription tells us it was built in 1522-23, has managed to remain standing by assuming a brand new identity. If we skip over the intervening years, an intriguing transformation is evident here, from the Rüstem Paşa foundation to today’s Rahmi Koç foundation. Rüstem Paşa was Suleiman the Magnificent’s grand vizier, Rahmi Koç is one of Turkey’s leading industrialists. The Çengelhan today houses a technology museum, founded by Koç, with scale models of everything from locomotives and steam engines to weapons and ammunition, hand-crafted caiques, Russian submarine parts, and speedboats.

It’s high time we pointed out that in the Inner Citadel we experience many layers of time one on top of the other. With roots going back to the Galatians, followed by the Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman periods, the Inner Citadel boasts displays of items ranging from a World War II shell and Henry Ford’s famous ‘Model T, manufactured in 1908 with sales of close to 15 million, to the once state-of-the-art Commodore 64 gameboy, all in a building in front of which school kids in smocks with schoolbags in hand are clamoring to be your guide. Halil İnalcık, who shaped the study of Ottoman history, descends the steps front of the fortress’s thick stone walls, jotting down notes in a small notebook he carries in his hand. Perhaps to record a few words about the citadel from the mouth of an elderly coppersmith, perhaps so that this article can be written… In a place where all time and all things can be as one, in this strange hidden country, that is in the Inner Citadel…