8 Fascinating Facts About Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

If you go to Turkey, there is one face and one name you will see everywhere. Statues, portraits, streets, neighborhoods, buildings, cars, and people’s bodies – Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, often simply Ataturk.

An outstanding military leader, turn political reformer, who brought Turkey in line with the liberal democracies of the West. The father of the nation and a hero. The more you read about him, the more interesting details you come across.

I say this because that’s what I did while backpacking in Turkey. And believe me – Ataturk’s biography is way more interesting than it seems at first! Check out this fine selection of the most astonishing facts about Ataturk!

A portrait of Ataturk inside a Turkish home
A portrait of Ataturk in front of a home in Turkey

1. All but one of his names were given to him.

He was born as just Mustafa back in 1881 when Turks didn’t have surnames. He was an outstanding student and then, as the story goes, his math teacher was also called Mustafa. One day he said to him:

“You are Mustafa and I am Mustafa and this is a great coincidence. To help people recognize us you will from now on be called Mustafa Kemal.”

Why Kemal? Kemal means “Perfection” and so he got his second name.

The next addition to his name was the title “Pasha“, which is a field marshall in the Ottoman army. This he got during WWI.

After the war, he had a pivotal role in Turkey’s domestically-dubbed War of Independence and defeated the Greek forces that occupied Smyrna (today Izmir). For this, unexpected by many, victory he received the title “Gazi“, meaning “The Victorious Fighter”.

So in 1922, he was Gazi Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who would soon become the new Republic’s first President. One of his many reforms to modernize Turkey was to introduce surnames for everybody.

What did they have before that, you might ask? Muslims had a first name and a title – Pasha, Bey, Khanum, Efendi, etc.

Mustafa didn’t have a surname either and was given the surname/title Atatürk– father of the Türks.

Finally, in 1934, his full name with titles was Gazi Mustafa Kemal Pasha Atatürk.

2. He was always clean-shaven.

He was a big opponent of facial hair. He always shaved in the morning and if attending a formal event, then also in the evening. In his later years as a politician, he had a personal barber, who was also his confidant and a very close friend.

Atatürk believed that being clean-shaven is a matter of respect and shows that the man is a modern gentleman.

Interestingly, the matter of facial hair is important in Turkey’s politics until today. You can often correctly ascertain a politician’s political affiliation just by looking at his mustache – clean-shaven equals liberals, whereas different degrees of facial hair correlate with traditionalism and Islamism.

Even regular people show their position on the political spectrum with their mustaches!

3. He liked hats. But not Ottoman hats.

The year is 1925 and Atatürk is visiting the Anatolian Black Sea town of Inebolu. He preaches to the crowd the importance of Western clothing:

“The Turkish nation are historically civilized people. But if we claim to be civilized, then we must prove it with our clothing and family life and lifestyle. From now on we shall wear Oxford shoes or alternately, ankle shoes; and trousers, waistcoats, shirts, ties, removable collars, jackets and most naturally, hats.”


Then he proceeds to put on a fedora in front of a crowd that has only seen the fez – a hat synonymous with Islam.

“Some people say it’s unlawful. To them I say you are absentminded and ignorant!”

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Later the same year a law was passed. A law that remains until today, albeit not enforced anymore. The law banned the fez and the turban for men and required either no hat or a Western hat.

The penalties were severe and some people were even executed for their ‘backward’ views.

Men who couldn’t afford to buy a modern hat borrowed female hats in fear of persecution by the authorities (even though they could’ve gone without one, but I guess the sun was that strong).

4. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Elefterios Venizelos.

That is surprising at first sight because they were enemies during the First World War when Venizelos was Prime Minister and Atatürk was an army leader. Let’s look a bit deeper.

Greece and Turkey had been at odds ever since the Greek Revolution of 1821.

In 1919 and 1920 Venizelos led the war against the Ottomans and Greece acquired new territory in Asia Minor, bringing the Megali Idea close to fruition.

But this is where we have to put our magnifying glass. Venizelos was not elected again in 1920, in the middle of the war.

The King was brought back by a plebiscite. Greece was then defeated in Anatolia by the army of Atatürk and a peace treaty was signed – The Treaty of Lausanne, where the negotiations were led by Venizelos and the papers – signed by him.

So yes, it is indeed surprising that Venizelos nominated Atatürk.

However, one must look even further than that. Following the war was a period of Greko-Turkish alliance and mutual understanding. The population exchange had settled a lot of demographic and social issues.

Venizelos realized the magnitude of Atatürk’s reforms and the massive change he had brought to Turkey. In his nomination letter to the Nobel Prize Committee, he wrote (translation in English by Stella Colson):

Athens, January 12, 1934

Mister President,

For almost seven centuries the whole of the Near East and a large part of Central Europe was a theatre for bloody wars. The main cause of this was the Ottoman Empire and the absolutist regime of the Sultans.

The subjugation of Christian peoples, the religious wars of the Cross against the Crescent which inevitably followed, and the successive resurgences of all the peoples who aspired to their liberation, created a situation which remained a permanent source of danger as long as the Ottoman Empire retained the imprint of the Sultans.

The foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1922, when the national movement of Moustafa Kemal Pasha triumphed over its adversaries, put a definitive end to that state of instability and intolerance.

Indeed, very rarely has such a radical change been achieved in so short a time in the life of a nation.

An empire in decline, living under a theocratic regime where the notions of law and religion intermingled, was turned into a modern nation-state, full of vigor and life.

Through the impetus given by the great reformer Moustafa Kemal Pasha, the absolutist regime of the Sultans was abolished, and the state became truly secular. The whole nation embraced progress, rightly ambitious to be present at the forefront of civilized peoples.

But the consolidation of peace went hand in hand with all the internal reforms which gave the new, predominantly ethnic Turkish state the image it has nowadays. Indeed, Turkey did not hesitate to accept legally the loss of provinces inhabited by other nationalities, and, satisfied with the ethnic and political borders defined by the treaties, she became a true pillar for peace in the Near East.

We, the Greeks, who had been driven for centuries of bloody battles into a continuous confrontation with Turkey, were the first to feel the effects of the deep change which occurred in that country, the successor of the old Ottoman Empire.

Having discerned, very soon after the catastrophe in Asia Minor, the opportunity of an understanding with reborn Turkey – which came out of the war as a national state-we offered her our hand which she took with sincerity.

This rapprochement, which shows that even peoples divided by the most serious differences can come closer to each other when they become filled with the sincere desire for peace, was beneficial both for the two countries involved and for keeping the peace in the Near East.

The man to whom this invaluable contribution to the cause of peace is due is, of course, the President of the Turkish Republic, Moustafa Kemal Pasha.

Thus, I have the honor, as the leader of the Hellenic Government in 1930, when the signature of the Greek-Turkishpact marked a new era in the march of the Near East towards peace, to propose Moustafa Kemal Pasha as a candidate for the distinguished honor of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yours sincerely,

E. K. Venizelos

The letter explains it all.

5. He didn’t have biological children, but he adopted many.

Atatürk loved children, but he didn’t father any. According to some, it’s because he feared a male progenitor of his would declare himself the next dictator and wipe out years of hard work to create a democratic society in Turkey.

He adopted eight girls and a boy.

Probably the most recognizable is Sabiha Gökçen, the first female fighter pilot in history. Her name lives on as the name of one of Istanbul’s airports.

Did I mention how popular he is in Turkey? He is a national hero!

So much so, that you can see Ataturk’s signature as a sticker on cars and on people’s forearms as a tattoo!

There’s a more interesting thing to note here – the number of people who get an Atatürk tattoo correlates with the popularity of traditional and Islamic politicians and the recent introduction of traditional laws – the more of the latter, the more of the former.

Some tattoo parlors would even do an Atatürk tattoo for free!

Ataturk's signature as a tattoo

7. He drank a lot.

As a modern man, Atatürk had his vices. According to some sources he drank half a bottle of raki and smoked three packs of cigarettes a day.

Unsurprisingly, the cause of his death was indeed liver cirrhosis at the age of 57.

8. Atatürk was a bookworm.

Atatürk read wherever and whenever. He always had a book in hand, be it in the parliament or on the battlefield. He slept very few hours and read all throughout the day.

He read 4289 books, as documented by his personal records. Most books were non-fiction, having to do with European, Turkish, and Arab history, religion, law, military service, Turkish language and poetry, education, traditions, geography, philosophy, and others.

Just to put the number into perspective, assuming he started reading at the age of 10, that makes over 91 books per year.

All the while fighting for the freedom of your nation, then creating a secular state despite centuries of a monarchy deeply rooted in religion AND while traveling all across the country and the world. Outstanding!

Statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Kas
A statue of Atatürk in the center of the small Aegean city of Kaş

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