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Ataturk and the City in North Macedonia that Helped Form Him

Bitola, North Macedonia, holds a special place in the history of modern Turkey as the place where Ataturk attended high school.

While in North Macedonia recently for a conference, I took a trip by car to the southwestern city of Bitola, near the border with Greece, specifically to visit a museum.

The Bitola Museum is located in an Ottoman-era building in which the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, attended military high school at the close of the 19th century.

For a few years now, I have had the opportunity to visit places and locations that were significant in Ataturk’s life. In Istanbul, it’s Dolmabahce Palace and the Ataturk Museum in the district of Sisli, where he lived for a time until he left in May 1919 for the Black Sea port of Samsun to head the resistance movement to the Allied occupation.

In Ankara, it is the building of the first parliament in which the Grand National Assembly of Turkey was founded on April 23, 1920. Today, it serves as the War of Independence Museum. A visit to Anitkabir, where the Ataturk mausoleum is located, is a must when visiting the Turkish capital.

A few years ago, I visited Samsun, a city that holds special significance in Turkish history. Not far from Samsun is the town of Amasya, where Ataturk issued the Amasya Declaration signalling the start of the Turkish War of Independence.

Photo by Hamza Karcic

From Selanik to Bitola

Besides Istanbul, Ankara and Samsun, to retrace the significant steps in Ataturk’s early life, one must visit the Balkans. In fact, two cities in this region are important.

One is Selanik, today’s Thessaloniki, where he was born in 1881 and spent his formative years. The house where Ataturk was born, now part of the compound of the Turkish Consulate, is a museum popular with Turks from Turkey and elsewhere.

The other, less well-known city, is Bitola, the importance of which is described in Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey by the late Andrew Mango. Bitola is known as Manastir in Turkish and was an important centre in the Ottoman Balkans. It also had a rail connection to Ataturk’s birthplace of Selanik.

Mango writes that after finishing preparatory school in his hometown, Ataturk enrolled in the Manastir military high school and studied there from 1896 to 1899. This school introduced future officers to the lessons of history. Ataturk was good at maths and developed an interest in French language and political thought. In the years that followed, he improved his French language skills and read French works.

According to Mango, it was at the Bitola school that Ataturk met Ali Fethi Okyar and Kazim Ozalp, who would become lifelong friends. Studying at the same school at the same time was the man who would become Enver Pasha [1881-1922], the Ottoman officer who rose through the ranks to become part of the triumvirate of pashas that led the Ottoman Empire into World War One.

Enver is considered a key actor who steered the Ottoman Empire towards Germany in the lead-up to the war. Though they went to the same school, Enver and Ataturk held differing worldviews and were rivals in the years that followed.

In The Young Ataturk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey, George W. Gawrych concurs with Mango’s assessment of the role of the Manastir years in Ataturk’s life. The renowned Turkish historian Ilber Ortayli, in the 2018 book Gazi Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, writes that the Manastir years were crucial to the development of Ataturk’s ideas.

After graduating from military high school, Ataturk enrolled in the War College in Istanbul.

In Bitola today, the museum has a memorial room dedicated to Ataturk that is a popular destination for Turks visiting North Macedonia. Strolling around Bitola, I spotted groups of Turkish tourists visiting both the city and its museum.

Indeed, for students of Balkan, Turkish and European history, visiting the cities of Istanbul, Ankara, Samsun, Thessaloniki and Bitola is highly recommended.

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Source: Balkan Insight