ANKARA: The vast gates swung open and the host personally welcomed his distinguished visitor with all the pride of someone who has just acquired a new home.
Pope Francis on Friday (Saturday in Manila) became the first foreign dignitary to be received at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new presidential palace, one of the most controversial building projects in modern Turkey.
While the palace, dubbed Aksaray (White Palace) by the press but known officially simply as Presidential Palace, has been used in the last weeks for the occasional meeting and reception, the pope’s visit marked its true unveiling to the world.
Smiling broadly, Erdogan strode out to the gates to greet the pope and then guided him through the honour guard lined up on the vast grounds in front the building.
The visit marked a first chance for much of the Ankara press corps to visit the much-talked-about but hard-to-access palace.
Some 250 reporters were accredited, shepherded by security personnel who seemed, at times, to still be finding their own way round.
Erdogan and the pope delivered press statements in a vast auditorium that appears capable of hosting a symphony orchestra as much as news conferences.
There had been calls on the pope not to visit the palace. But the Vatican made clear it had no intention of entering into a polemic and the pope would go where the hosting side invited him.
The complex takes up an area of 200,000 square metres (2.1 million square feet), has 1,000 rooms and draws its architectural inspiration from Turkey’s Ottoman and Seljuk heritage.
The cost amounts to a cool 1.37 billion Turkish lira ($615 million). However it is smaller than the pope’s walled Vatican City State which is 440,000 square metres.
It is marked by columns, atriums, countless meeting rooms and the vast front esplanade reminiscent of a square in front of a grand mosque.
It is decorated with the rich geometric patterns so important in Islamic art, where images of living things are generally proscribed.
However in a sign that it is still not entirely finished, an AFP reporter saw that building works were still in progress and it appeared that there had been a hurry to ensure it was ready for the papal visit.
For the opposition, the palace is more evidence of the willingness of Erdogan and the Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to ride roughshod over the legacy of modern Turkey’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Ataturk set aside the land on which the new palace was built as a farm. He himself worked — like all Turkish presidents until now — in the far more modest Cankaya presidential palace in downtown Ankara.
The opposition has compared the new palace to the notorious Palace of the People of deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and even suggested the money could have been better spent on sending a probe to Mars.
The Romanian tyrant’s gigantic Casa Poporului (Palace of the People) was still unfinished when he and his wife were shot dead by firing squad in the revolution of 1989.
In another element of controversy, the new palace was originally intended to replace the cramped offices of the prime minister in Ankara but then was transferred to the presidency when Erdogan himself switched from the post of premier in August.
Erdogan has repeatedly defended the palace, describing it as a “work of art” essential to present the face of a modern and fast-developing Turkey to the world.