Every April 23, Turkey’s children take control of their nation.
Turkey’s Children’s Day (April 23) is a national holiday where children attend festivals across the country, and some students are even selected to serve as the honorary President, Prime Minister, and as members of Parliament for the day.
Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish state, declared the holiday while in the middle of the country’s war for independence. On the 23 of April, the Turkish Republic’s first Parliament convened. Ataturk entrusted the day to children to emphasize their importance in contributing to the growth and protection of the fledgling republic.
The thousands of parents and families in attendance today agreed about the day’s importance.
“Our motto is peace at home, peace in the world,” said parent Murat Dogan, “Children are like young trees. This celebration gives us the chance to inject peace into their minds. We need to bring our children up with peace. If we do this, the future will be bright.”
Fatma Akkas, a grandmother added, “This is a holy day for us because Atatuk gave our children this gift. I always take my children.”
“When I was bringing my children this morning,” said Ebru Turksanli, a mother of two, “I thought about how hard our ancestors fought for this holiday. It wasn’t easy for them to give it to us.”
Parades, dedications, and festivals fully run by children marked the event. Government officials and Turkey’s omnipresent military took in the show from the sidelines. One student was eager to share in the national themes.
“We are very thankful for Ataturk! On this day, the Turkish Parliament was formed and Ataturk declared this day, Children’s Day. This was the first and only children’s day in the world. Thank you Ataturk!”
Children’s Day celebrations are not new. They are found in at least 50 countries, although Turkey is among the few who make it a national holiday. For the participants, the day represented the culmination of months of hard work.
“I thought it was very good,” said one young performer, “We worked very hard. We practiced for nearly four months. Last month, we were dancing more than we were going to school.”
As the final flags and images were unfurled, the crowd erupted to thunderous applause. For a few hours at least, the issues of Turkey were put on hold as the eyes of a nation turned to their children.
Special thanks to Abdulfettah Açikel and Hüseyin Yılmaz for translations.
Giant Turkish flags and images of Ataturk again adorn the sides of the university hospital, classroom, and administrative buildings. Today, the Turks remember the beginning of one of their earliest and greatest military victories, Gallipoli. In a 10-month campaign, thousands of Turks lost their lives to protect the valuable Dardanelles (Gallipoli) Strait that leads directly to Istanbul. It would be this victory that would help preserve Istanbul and much of what is now modern Turkey.
The Turks mark the anniversary on the 18th of March, one month before the Allies landed and began their ground assault. They do it at that time because it’s when they defeated the Allied Navy who tried to enter the strait, but suffered heavy losses from mines and other complications. The French and English lost six ships in the attack. They turned around after that day, and gave up the Naval battle.
Every story seems to have its heroes, and in Gallipoli, there were many. For the Turks, one of its legendary soldiers was Corporal Seyid. According to lore, during the March 18 naval invasion, a crane that lifted 125lb shells into guns stopped working. Individual accounts tell of Corporal Seyid carrying one of the remaining shells on his back and lifting it onto one of the heavy caliber guns. A statue of him holding the shell now overlooks the strait he defended. Today, many Turks across the country remember the sacrifices of soldier like Corporal Seyid.
“We celebrate today,” said Fatma Bozdag, a student in one of my classes, “Because it is the day our grandfathers went to die.”
Bozdag refers to the now legendary order in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to his 57th regiment during the ground campaign, “I do not order you to attack, I order you to die.” And nearly all of them did, along with thousands of others according to battlefield accounts.
The Gallipoli campaign lasted from April 25, 1915 to January 9, 1916, it was a costly assault for both the Allies and Ottomans. Exact numbers have never been determined because of the chaotic nature of the trench battle, but estimates for Turkish casualties hover around 250,000 with at least 60,000 dead due to injuries, disease, or complications of both. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces also suffered heavy casualties at Gallipoli. They honor their soldiers on April 25, the anniversary of the ANZAC landing and assault.
It would be Ataturk who would win the greatest fame for leading the Ottoman army through the horrific ground campaign. According to Andrew Mango’s biography on Ataturk, the victory in Gallipoli would set the foundation for Ataturk’s career. The fame and respect he earned from this victory would spread through the military ranks, and help Ataturk greatly when he would ultimately organize his own nationalist movement for the formation of the Turkish Republic.
NOTE: This article was first published for “Today’s Zaman,” an English daily newspaper in Turkey. View the article as it originally appeared here.
While jostling in the back seat of a dolmus barreling down the streets of Denizli, the minibus halted suddenly as three tanks paraded by. It was Cumhuriyet Bayram (Republic Day), the holiday commemorating the official start of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Turkey is a country of many symbols, but no others are more dominant than the Turkish flag and image of Ataturk. On the highway between Ankara and Istanbul, you will find statues of a Turkish soldier raising the flag on many hilltops. In shops, schools, and houses you’ll find the flag or image of Ataturk, many times both, displayed predominantly.
As an American, I’ve found Turkish national pride familiar and something I can immediately identify with. Nearly two hundred and forty years ago, my country also found itself on a quest for independence. Living in Boston, I was brought up on the stories of how American colonists stood up and took up arms against the British Empire. Because of this, I wanted to know more about how Turks celebrate their country and independence.
“It is something so special. The feeling can’t be compared with any other,” said Mehmet Güleç, a Denizli businessman, when asked to describe Turkish pride.
Turkey’s pride may not be able to be described in words, but I’ve certainly felt it. During last month’s Victory Day celebrations, I was in Istanbul where buildings everywhere along the Bosphorus donned Turkish flags. Even thirty-story skyscrapers draped themselves with colossal flags the size of city blocks. Some of my friends are uncomfortable with such grand displays, but I found the unity displayed on these two days profoundly hopeful.
Part of that hope came in Denizli where I was invited to a Republic Day reception at Pamukkale University. Live music with a dazzling female singer filled the hall. Mammoth Turkish flags hung almost everywhere: from the second floor balconies, windows, and even the bottom of glass elevators that proudly displayed the banner. Along the walls were posters displaying the reforms made in 1922, and the subsequent successes of the Turkish republic including the advancements it made for women and in education.
The faculty and other guests danced through the night from the Tango to the hypnotic and more cultural Mevlana step. Together, people shared food, drink, and conversation. During the middle of the night, student performers dressed in oriental garb and put on an interpretive dance illustrating Turkey’s rich five-thousand-year history that culminated with the arrival of a dancer representing Ataturk in his military garb and Ottoman fez.
For me, Pamukkale’s reception was a sign of not only Turkish pride, but also the progress Turkey has made in its short eighty-six year history. In 1900, the aging Ottoman Empire was a collection of loosely connected tribes, and today the Turkish Republic represents a unified country that also stands as one of the world’s twenty largest economies.
“We have crazy blood,” said Güleç as we talked over a cup of Turkish tea, “It doesn’t matter how powerful our enemy or dire the situation. Even if we knew in one second we would die, we would do it for Turkey.”
Certainly, ideological differences divide Turkey’s political landscape just as it does in the United States, and every other democracy. But both Turks and Americans find themselves able to unite behind their nation. This does not necessarily mean blind obedience, but rather a desire to serve and contribute to the success of our home countries.
“The mind will change, but our power is in our blood. When the time comes, it will rise,” said Güleç about Turkish spirit.
It’s that strong sentiment I’ve come to admire from Turks as they proceed to tell me the “great accomplishments of Turkey.” Turkey has much to be proud of, and I’m happy to be its guest during such an exciting period.
Two months ago I clipped a keychain of the Turkish flag on my photographer’s vest to show my appreciation of Turkey. People stop me many times, often giving me a quick nod in appreciation of the flag.
Others ask, “Why are you wearing this?” some even add with a perplexing look, “Are you Turkish?”
I say no, adding that I’m an American and understand that freedom comes with a price.
As Guleç noted during our conversation, the red color in Turkey’s flag “symbolizes the blood lost in the fight for independence.
I say I wear the flag because I share the feelings of what it means. My country also understands the price of independence. I want to show my support of Turkish independence as I travel.
It’s a matter of pride.
During my visit to Istanbul last weekend, I came across more Turkish flags than I had before. Seeing the Turkish flag proudly displayed everywhere is not necessarily something unusual, particularly in the major cities where nationalist support is usually greater. However, this weekend prompted many businesses to drape GIANT Turkish flags, along with images of Ataturk, over their buildings. Shimmering modern office towers or malls were coveredby the Turk Bayrak (Bi-rahk), the Turkish flag, this weekend.
Turks, an already super patriotic culture, ramped it up this weekend to celebrate Zafer Bayram (Victory Day), one of Turkey’s national holidays. Turkey’s Victory Day celebrates their successful war for independence. Victory Day (August 30) marks the day the Turks beat the Greeks and took back the rest of Western Anatolia (the Asian side) in the Battle of Dumlupinar. Although the Turks were out manned, they had much better heavy artillery and leadership, including Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who became the first President of Turkey.
During World War I, leaders in Britain, Russia, Germany, Greece, France, and Italy all made plans and signed secret agreements about how they would divide up the Ottoman Empire when it would inevitably fall. The Ottoman Empire stretched from modern day Turkey to as far south as Palestine, as far east as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and also north into what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. (See a complete map of the Ottoman Empire .) Although the Sultan in Istanbul supposedly ran this large empire from Constantinople, his rule was actually quite limited by the early 20th century and tribal leaders in each of the particular areas ruled instead.
In this setting, the Allies, particularly Britain, thought sabotaging the Ottoman Empire and setting up puppet governments in its place would be an excellent prize to the massive war they were engaged in. There were numerous secret agreements being made by Britain to France and Russia for places like Constantinople, Syria, and Palestine (we all know how this one has turned out). However, due in part to a series of military blunders and miscalculations, along with superb leadership from Mustafa Kemal, Turkey was able to ultimately keep the foreign powers at bay and eventually push them out of what is now modern Turkey.
I’m happy to say that during this period of secret agreements in WWI, US President Woodrow Wilson did not engage in any of this. In fact, Wilson’s actions, particularly his 14 points, are part of the reason why America had been, and to some extent still is, well liked by Middle Eastern countries. Wilson made it clear in his 14 points that if the Ottoman Empire were to fall, sovereign governments should be created in the interest and by local residents, not governments in the interest of Britain, France, or Russia.
Having been able to understand this history, I was really happy to celebrate Victory Day with the Turks (I even bought a Turkish flag for the occasion.) As an American, I can identify with the need to celebrate independence from the control of a colonial empire. In fact, I was actually excited about this day more than some of my Turkish friends.
“It’s not a big, big, deal like the fourth of July,” said a friend who is studying in the US, “Turkey has always been independent.”
Of course, many, many Turks did celebrate yesterday, and the love for their country was apparent as you could walk down any street and see the Turkish flag proudly displayed in storefronts, from balconies, and even at bus stops. When I showed the flag I bought to my host, Bilal, and asked if I got a good deal, he said, “This is a beautiful thing. It is priceless.” He kissed it three times mentioning that this was the proper way to show your respect to the flag.
So, if you think you have absolutely nothing in common with Turks, think again. If you are proud to be an American, proud that the US stood on its own two feet against King George, proud that your vote matters, and that your life isn’t dictated by bureaucrats an ocean away (rather by bureaucrats on the same continent instead). Take solace that you and Turks are proud of the same thing, proud to be free, proud to run your own country, and proud that your flag continues to fly high.