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Looking West: Ataturk and the Creation of Modern Turkey

Evening Seminar

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1C0043

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In the first half of his lecture, Bulent Atalay describes the conditions prevailing in Europe 500 years ago that led to the extraordinary ascent of the West over the great empires of the East—specifically the Ottoman and Chinese. In the second half, he discusses the revolution that Kemal Ataturk launched in Turkey following World War I that changed the face of the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike the ruling sultans, who had used state funds to build mosques, fountains, and, in the mid-19th century, a Versailles style palace, Ataturk left his mark on his nation by infusing the best of Western values into its government and culture. In creating the modern Republic of Turkey, he compressed into 15 years a process that had taken two centuries of socioeconomic evolution in the West.

The secular nation Ataturk founded, although an imperfect democracy, was the result of a dizzying array of new ideas in jurisprudence, banking, farming, and education. As Turkey’s first president, he pushed through laws establishing the equality of genders. He banned the wearing of the traditional fez and turban and promoted the adoption of Western-style clothing. He replaced the traditional Arabic characters of written Turkish with the Latin alphabet, and hired Western linguists to formulate a new system of grammar.

His reforms represented social engineering at its best. In doing so, he dragged a predominately illiterate and lethargic society into the 20th century. Fueling it all had been Ataturk’s theme of governance by science and reason rather than by dogma and religion.

Atalay is a Turkish American scientist, artist, and author of numerous papers in theoretical physics and two best-selling books about Leonardo da Vinci, Math and the Mona Lisa and Leonardo’s Universe.


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S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)