Ulucanlar prison: damp dormitories and flower beds

A flower bed in the courtyard. Thickly plastered walls. A squeaky clean room for visitors. Brand new signs with street names. But also: gallows, and a very dark hallway with small cells on one side where sounds of screaming people and lashes being whipped came out. Damp dormitories, too many beds in too little space.

I visited Ankara Central Closed Prison, or in Turkish Ulucanlar Cezaevi. It was a prison for decades – even already in the early days of the republic – and now the municipality has turned it into a museum. The most famous inmate here was Deniz Gezmis, a socialist-communist student leader in the late sixties and early seventies. He was sentenced to death, brought to Ulucanlar prison and hanged, together with two others – read more about him here. Also writer and poet Nazim Hikmet was at some point imprisoned in Ulucanlar, and several religious teachers who didn’t agree with Atatürk’s reforms and were sentenced to death for it in the nineteen-twenties.

Adnan Menderes street

The museum confused me. Firstly because it all looked too neat. The building had clearly been renovated, but with not much respect for what the building was really like when it was still a prison. The walls of the courtyards were perfectly plastered – but on the pictures that were hanging on the walls, you could see how crumbled and dirty they had really looked. There were flower beds in the courtyards, and I saw a street name sign with ‘Adnan Menderes Street’ on it. Adnan Menderes Street? I’m not sure, because no information about the renovation was provided, but I’m pretty confident the sign wasn’t there when the museum was still a prison. Adnan Menderes was Turkey’s PM in the fifties and he was hanged by the military junta in 1961. Why did they put it there?

But not all was pretty, of course. The cells were still as damp as they must have been in the prison days. There were old, smelly and dirty bunk beds, dark one-person cells where people were ‘disciplined’, in the courtyard there was a gallows. Most remarkable was a hall-way inside the prison. They made it very dark, and on the left-hand side were prison cells. With sound installations they made it seem as if torture and interrogation was going on there. People talking and shouting, the sounds of whips. Pretty creepy.


I visited the prison with friend J., and we talked about this contradiction: on the one hand, they decided to try to show the torture and executions that went on in Ulucanlar for decades, on the other hand they sanitised the truth by over-renovating and with flowers and street names. Why? We couldn’t conclude anything else than that the museum has two goals: show the prison (a bit) how it was, and at the same time offer a place for remembrance. What happened in Ulucanlar is (very) recent history that still defines Turkey today; many people have personal memories or experiences. Brutal reality alone may just be too much.

The other thing that confused me was the fact that the prison had been turned into a museum in the first place. Turkey is still in the midst of major transition and has not yet fully dealt with the past. After the military coup in 1980, both leftists and rightists were arrested and brought to this prison (and others), and the constitution that was written in those days still rules over Turkey today. The museum commemorates religious teachers who were hanged in Ulucanlar courtyard because they didn’t agree with Atatürk’s reforms, but at the same time the reforms and especially the rough way they were brought about, are still not debated in Turkey. Torture is being denounced, but at the same time torture is by no means past history in Turkish prisons and especially police stations.


In short, you could say the methods of the state itself are questioned by the museum, while at the same time the power of the state has not really diminished. The state is still, to this day, there to protect itself rather than to protect the citizens. That is, you could say, the very root of many problems that Turkey has had in the republic era. How is it possible that a state shows and denounces practices and convictions that are at the same time (partly) still the very basis of that state?

There were no people working in the museum to ask questions, and no booklets with extra info about the prison, the renovation and the backgrounds of the inmates and the times they were imprisoned, were available. So friend J. and I debated together. And we concluded that the prison-turned-museum shows what Turkey is: a country of contradictions in transition. If you have any ideas on the subject or if you too have visited Ulucanlar, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below this post!

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