When the Derinkuyu-born sculptor Hakkı Atamulu’s wife proved reluctant to agree to a divorce, he decided to return to his birthplace, knowing that a woman accustomed to the comforts of İstanbul would not want to relocate to deepest Anatolia.
At that time, however, the law dictated that he would have to stay in Derinkuyu for no less than 10 years to qualify for a divorce, and so it was that he came to leave quite a mark on the place where he had grown up in terrible poverty.
In 1969 Atamulu became mayor of Derinkuyu, a position he used to push through plans for a Kültür Parkı (Culture Park) full of his sculptures, including a 13.5-meter-high statue of Atatürk in a military greatcoat that still holds the record for being the tallest monument to modern Turkey’s founding father. He then built a bathhouse for the locals and a swimming pool for tourists (the locals ignored the bathhouse but happily colonized the pool, according to a relative by marriage, publisher Nancy Öztürk). Finally he designed a graceful new mosque, shaped so that in theory it could be used as a theater at a later date. Somewhere along the line he must also have found time to design the statue of Damat İbrahim Paşa that I walk past in Nevşehir on a regular basis.
Then in 1923 came the population exchange that obliged the Greeks in Turkey to relocate to Greece and the Turks in Greece to relocate to Turkey. This came as a terrible shock to Derinkuyu, which had been, in the 15th century, the Greek settlement of Malakopi. Atamulu’s own distant ancestors had been Turkmen Alevis who had moved west, pitching their tents outside the town and working in the fields alongside the Greeks. The two groups regularly drank together in the evenings, although they rarely intermarried, which meant that despite always being a minority in numerical terms the Alevis hadn’t really felt so different. Then in 1924 a new population of conservative Sunni Muslims arrived to take the place of the vanished Greeks. Suddenly their minority status was much more real.
Gradually the statues in Kültür Parkı were broken and the mosque’s unique design was altered. Atamulu built himself a stone house of rather Germanic appearance, and adopted a distant relative to look after him in his old age and to then inherit the property. If he had had his way, his sculptures would have gone on display in a museum in Derinkuyu, but, sadly, backing for this idea was not forthcoming. Most of the sculptures are now in the care of Erciyes University in Kayseri.
“What was he like as a man?” I asked Nancy.
“Oh, he was very handsome, even in old age. And he was very gallant and polite, if very pernickety.” Then she told me a story about the time he came to stay in her house in Gümüşsuyu. Knowing his ways, she had cleaned the house from top to bottom, but still he followed her into the kitchen and suggested that he might not be able to stay. The reason? Two wires with no bulb attached to them that were hanging from the living room ceiling.
Side by side we gazed at pictures of the white-haired old sculptor on the computer screen. Then Nancy sighed. “I miss Hakkı Bey,” she said sadly.
Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.