ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s government marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of the modern, secular republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire on Sunday with a firework and drone show in Istanbul as well as a procession of 100 hundred navy ships but little else in the way of pageantry.
The rather muted celebration of the centennial, which included no gala reception, came months after a devastating earthquake that killed 50,000 people and coincided with the Israeli-Hamas war that has roiled the Middle East.
The low-key celebrations caused dismay among many in Turkey who believe Erdogan’s government, which finds its roots in Turkey’s Islamic movement, is trying to undermine the legacy of the secular republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Erdogan on Sunday observed the traditional protocol of laying a wreath at Ataturk’s mausoleum in the capital and shook hands with a procession of ambassadors and high-level officials offering their congratulations before traveling to Istanbul to watch the navy ships’ procession.
The Turkish leader later delivered a speech at 19:23 p.m. in honor of the year the republic was proclaimed. He expressed his gratitude to Ataturk and others who helped create the republic but also highlighted his own achievements during his 20-year rule.
Late in the evening, he posted a statement on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, declaring Monday a school holiday in honor of the centennial.
Earlier this year, Erdogan invited a slew of foreign leaders to celebrate his reelection for a third term as president but has been criticized for not hosting a reception to mark the republic’s major milestone. State broadcaster TRT announced it was canceling special centennial programs due to the war in Gaza.
Many in Turkey held their own private celebrations, joined processions holding torchlights and waving Turkish flags, or took part in events organized by opposition-run municipalities.
In Istanbul, tens of thousands celebrated the anniversary at a concert organized by the city’s popular mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu. In the capital, Ankara, tens of thousands of others flocked to Ataturk’s mausoleum, many dressed in the flag’s red and white colors.
Many said the official lineup of events did not do the centennial justice.
’’The government did its best to make these celebrations forgotten and to trivialize them,” said Gul Erbil, a 66-year-old retired film director who said she would toast the centennial at a restaurant with friends. “The sad thing is … it’s (their) republic too. It’s something that gave (them) freedom, too.”
Meral Aksener, the leader of the center-right opposition IYI Party, accused the government of not missing the opportunity to ensure the “100th year (celebration) falls flat.”
“There are those who still have a problem with our republic 100 years later,” Aksener said. She and others believe a mass pro-Palestinian rally on Saturday during which Erdogan escalated his criticism of Israel’s military actions in Gaza was specially organized to overshadow the centennial celebration.
But Ahmet Hakan, columnist for the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper, says the scaled-back celebration became “inevitable” due to Israel’s actions in Gaza, which have triggered a wave of protests particularly in Muslim-majority countries, in response to Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7.
A World War I hero who went on to lead a war of independence against occupying forces, Ataturk proclaimed the Turkish Republic on Oct. 29, 1923. He embarked on a series of radical reforms aimed at turning the majority Muslim nation into a secular, Western-style democracy. He abolished the caliphate, replaced the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet and gave women the right to vote.
Ataturk is still held in high regard in the country where his portraits hang on walls of schools, offices and homes. Traffic comes to a standstill as thousands observe a minute of silence on the anniversary of his death. His signature is tattooed on arms.
But not all sections of society were on board with Ataturk’s reforms. Erdogan and his religious support base take pride in Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic past. Erdogan pays homage to Ataturk’s military achievements as an officer of the Ottoman Empire, but rarely praises his republican era.
The Turkish leader speaks of ushering in a new era he has dubbed “The Century of Turkey,” with a new constitution that would uphold conservative family values and would have no room for what he has called “deviant” LGBTQ+ rights.
“Today, our Republic completes its first century and sails into its second century, which we call ‘the Century of Turkey,'” Erdogan said in his speech, adding that his government’s aim for the upcoming period was to introduce a “constitution that befits the centenary of our republic.”
“Erdogan wants to see Turkey become (a country) that embraces Erdogan’s values, that is socially conservative, not necessarily part of the West and also, I would say, has a significant role for Islam from education to public policy,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute and author of books on Erdogan.
Critics say the Turkish leader has already moved Turkey further away from Ataturk’s vision.
Official functions today often begin with prayers. The Directorate of Religious Affairs has been given a large budget that dwarfs most other ministries. The number of religious schools has increased in line with Erdogan’s stated goal of creating a “pious generation.”
In 2020, Erdogan converted the former Byzantine-era church Hagia Sophia — which was turned into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul — back into a functioning mosque. Ataturk had transformed the structure into a museum in a nod to its Christian and Muslim legacy.
Robert Badendieck contributed from Istanbul.