Located on the outskirts of the Turkish capital of Ankara, the opulent “White Palace” (Ak Saray) or Çankaya Presidential Mansion has been President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s residence, seat of power and personal paradise since winning the 2014 election.
Though the mansion originally served as the official home of the country’s prime minister, shortly after being sworn in Erdogan claimed it as his own, though he’s constantly reminding everyone that it technically belongs to all Turks, which in case you were wondering, means that it doesn’t.
Alternately described as gaudy, majestic, ostentatious, and downright ugly, the residence is a hodgepodge of motifs, materials and architectural elements that make it unique if not altogether aesthetically pleasing.
Featuring more than 1,000 rooms spread across an idyllic 2+million square foot (18,600 m/s) complex, it’s approximately 50 times larger than America’s White House, and it’s location on scenic land that was once part of the historic Atatürk Forest Farm has made it even more controversial than it would have been otherwise.
The brainchild of the brazen, patriotic, and by some accounts egomaniacal and hopelessly corrupt leader, Erdogan and his cronies see his colossal structure as a key element in what they commonly refer to as the “New Turkey.”
According to this thinking, the country and its leader have every right to take their spots on the world stage, regardless of the cost.
On the other hand, detractors see this vision as little more than a second-rate strongman’s vain attempt at inflating his growing ego and solidifying his power base, while living like a Saudi sheik at the expense of his relatively poor countrymen and women.
Purportedly costing more than 1 billion USD – approximately twice as much as original estimates – just months after construction was “complete” the country’s finance minister grudgingly admitted that an additional 100 million USD had been earmarked for general maintenance and additional refinements.
Even as early as December of 2014, amidst ever increasing cries for transparency, Turkey’s housing and development authority refused to divulge official construction cost figures on the grounds that making them public could harm the economy.
To put things into perspective, Turkey’s GDP was approximately 720 billion USD in 2020.
Perhaps Erdogan and the Turkish government worry that animosity, resentment and civil unrest would spread if the official ledgers were laid out for all to see, because after all, the country’s average annual household income hovers around 3,000 USD.
To add fuel to the already growing fire, in recent years fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a significant increase in poverty, pushed inflation to a multi-year high of nearly 18%, and resulted in a huge jump in energy costs, in some cases by nearly 15%.
All told, Erdogan’s big project is looking more and more like a political albatross.
It’s easy to blame Erdogan for excessive spending and lavishing himself and his family in unimaginable luxury, but it may not have been possible if the presidential residence and compound weren’t already there when he took office.
Though less regal and expansive than they are now, both were constructed nearly a century ago under the reign of renowned revolutionary, field marshal, statesman and founding father of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who served as the country’s first president until his death in 1938.
With the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in the summer of 1923 after a particularly heinous and atrocity-filled 3-year war with Greece, Ankara became the capital of the new Turkish state.
Also a progressive reformer and ardent nationalist, Ataturk is credited with transforming the relatively fractured Muslim kingdom into a modern, secular, industrial nation through ideals, programs and policies known collectively as Kemalism.
But ironically, though he was fiercely independent and rightfully wary of foreign meddling, he did like his creature comforts, and as such the original Çankaya Mansion incorporated both traditional Turkish art and architecture as well as western amenities that made life more comfortable.
To ensure that no detail was overlooked, Ataturk hired famous Austrian architect Dr. Clemens Holzmeister, and many of the mansion’s interior spaces were designed at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts.
The original plans were delivered to Ataturk in the summer of 1930 and construction got underway in early 1931.
Though largely overseen by foreigners, most of the work was carried out by thousands of local artisans, masons, craftsmen, carpenters and laborers, and by June of 1932 the project was complete.
The Presidential Compound
The vast presidential compound consists of multiple buildings that include ritzy hotel-style rooms, blast-proof bunkers, state-of-the-art communication centers and posh indoor swimming pools, and a private lakeside beach, all of which are recent additions authorized by Erdogan himself.
In all its splendor, the Presidential Palace is the compound’s main feature, and it’s where Erdogan spends much of his work and leisure time.
Though it’s probably just a guess, the palace’s room count may be as high as 1,150, and by some accounts at least 250 of them are reserved exclusively for Erdogan and his family.
Though some are used by high-ranking domestic and international visitors, even at its busiest there may be as many as 800 or 900 rooms that remain perpetually unoccupied, which begs the questions, why were so many built, and why are they so richly appointed?
Like pretty much everything else inside the Presidential Compound, the specifics of the C41 Bunker are hazy at best, but it’s rumored to be as secure and technologically advanced as anything in the west, and why wouldn’t it be considering the price tag?
It’s from this immense bunker that surveillance drones are controlled, news from the provinces is monitored, and the Turkish Armed Forces are commanded, all with help from at least two supercomputers that store and manage huge amounts of data around-the-clock.
But though the subterranean facility’s main goals purportedly include aiding in the country’s defense and managing disaster relief efforts, detractors claim that it’s really all about keeping a watchful eye on political opponents, stifling dissent, and protecting the paranoid leader from chemical, biological and nuclear attacks, all of which they consider unlikely.
Beştepe Millet Mosque
Another criticism commonly hurled at Erdogan is that he’s overseeing Turkey’s transition from a secular state into a Muslim one, and the Beştepe Millet Mosque is largely to blame.
At one time Erdogan even proposed calling the new presidential complex an impossible to pronounce Turkish term which loosely translated into a compound centered around a Mosque, which is exactly what it is.
This creeping re-islamification could threaten to reopen long-dorman domestic hostilities as well as increase tensions between Turkey and the west, which haven’t always been great to begin with.
Featuring stunning classic Turkish and Ottoman architectural elements, the Beştepe Millet Mosque has four crescent-topped minarets, each of which stretches nearly 200 feet (61 m) skyward.
The mosque was opened in early July of 2015, but though it’s spread over nearly 56,000 square feet ( 5,180 m/s) and is capable of accommodating between 3,000 and 4,000 worshippers, it’s essential off-limits to everyone but Erdogan, his family, and his most ardent supporters.
With more than 4 million historic and contemporary books written in over 130 languages, the Presidential Library is the country’s largest book repository, and it’s still growing, because in collaboration with the Foreign Ministry it regularly receives new material from each country in which Turkey has an embassy or consulate.
One of the library’s centerpieces is the Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk, the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages which was compiled in the 11th century AD.
Officially opened by Erdogan in late February of 2020, such a library might seem like a wise use of resources in a country of 84 million, where according to multiple sources the literacy rate is over 90%.
By comparison, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, America’s literacy rate was less than 80% in 2019.
That said, other than a few awkwardly staged events featuring wide-eyed local school children, chances are that few if any average Turks will ever have the opportunity to read a single sentence from a book in the Presidential library.
Though plagued by both domestic and international controversy, a number of notable leaders and heads of state have made appearances at the Palace over the years, the first of which was Pope Francis who visited in late November of 2014.
The powerful and vocal Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (UCTEA) officially urged the Pope to cancel his visit on the grounds that the construction was “unlicensed” and therefore illegal.
Apparently unconcerned over the palace’s legality the head of the Catholic Church stopped by anyway, and just a month later Russian President Vladimir Putin was the second foreign dignitary welcomed with a lavish ceremony staged in front of the new palace.
Though chock-full of firm handshakes, broad grins, and promises of increased economic and cultural collaboration, the two leaders may have called the whole thing off had they known that a year later tensions between the two countries would reach epic proportions when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 on the Syrian border.
Nonetheless, the guests continued to roll in, and in mid-January of the following year Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited.
It was during this photo-op that Erdoğan was lambasted for being flanked by members of the Presidential Guard who were clad in gaudy and historically inaccurate military garb, that to some looked a lot like pajamas.
The most vocal and outspoken critic of this embarrassing blunder was a dean of a local medical school who just wouldn’t let the issue die.
After a bevy of pointed and insulting tweets he was forced to resign his position after receiving numerous death threats and being hounded by youth protestors from the local Justice and Development, or AK Party, which is a conservative political organization founded by Erdoğan years before he was elected president.
Controversy and Criticism
The aforementioned Atatürk Forest Farm was established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1925 on land that was later officially declared “protected,” which meant that construction and development were strictly forbidden.
Fast forward 90 years however, and, well, you know what happened.
Even before construction began, when the details of Erdogan’s project came to light they caused furors in political, social and professional circles, and among the loudest opponents was the UCTEA.
At their prompting, in late 2014 an Ankaran court ordered a halt to construction, and their ruling was supported by the Council of State which found that the development clearly violated the law.
Not one to take criticism lying down, Erdoğan apparently quipped, “Let them tear it down if they can.”
He went on to say that nobody had the power to stop him, that construction would continue at a breakneck pace, and that he’d be moving in as planned.
Meanwhile, those who opposed the idea scratched their heads wondering what could be done, which turned out to be very little, because construction continued unabated.
Corruption and Fraud
It goes without saying that being compared to former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu is bad for one’s public image, especially when the similarities are glaringly obvious and worse yet, accurate.
In fact, Erdogan’s Presidential Palace is often likened to Ceaușescu’s “People’s Palace” because of its aloof opulence and staggering cost, and as you probably guessed, the construction process was rife with waste, fraud and abuse, to use a popular American term.
Shockingly, or perhaps unshockingly, it has been alleged that many of the construction companies and contractors were owned by Erdogan’s family, high-ranking military officials, business associates and close political allies, many of which may have banked profits exceeding 1,000% while breaking tons of laws along the way.
Consider the following Presidential Palace fun facts –
- There are more than 60 elevators on the grounds
- At nearly a quarter of a million US dollars, the monthly energy bill is roughly equivalent to the salaries of 1,000 Turkish workers
- The UCTEA claims that window glass alone cost nearly 80 million USD
- Bedrooms, bathrooms pools, saunas, spas and formal living rooms are appointed with European marble, much of which cost nearly 350 USD per square foot (3,500 per m/s)
- Everyday drinking glasses cost nearly 100 USD each, thanks to pure gold trim and inlays
We could go on, but why bother?
Despite increasing criticism, at least publicly President Erdogan seems unmoved by the controversies that perpetually shroud the Presidential Palace.
He remains steadfast in his belief that it bolsters Turkey’s reputation and helps put the emerging regional powerhouse on equal footing with similarly powerful nations.
However it’s particularly telling that a law was recently introduced which threatens to bring the UCTEA and other activist groups under the thumb of a newly established government cabinet that will almost certainly be staffed by Erdogan supporters.
Turkey’s next presidential election is scheduled for mid-June 2023, and on the same day voters from nearly 90 electoral districts will head to the polls to determine the 600 parliament and national Assembly members who will “represent” them for the following five years.
Opponents and supporters seem to agree that there’s little doubt who will “win” the election, but according to a recent Metropoll survey, Erdogan’s domestic approval rating has recently plummeted to just slightly more than 40% from a high of nearly 60% in the months following his election.
There’s little doubt that the President’s otherworldly 1+ billion USD palace has contributed to this huge slip, and the decaying 600 million USD theme park known unaffectionately as “Wonderland Eurasia” didn’t help either.
Hey, maybe we’ll do a video on that too.
Whatever the case, many are convinced that Erdogan won’t go anywhere even if he does legitimately lose the next election, but at least until then, he’ll go on living like the king – or president – that he is.