Pope’s visit a yawn for Turks

“Who’s here? The pope? Was that supposed to be today? Oh,” one indifferent resident said to a bank guard as he made a withdrawal from an automatic teller machine.

He seemed intrigued by the Vatican flag fluttering next to Turkey’s up and down Ankara’s main arteries, confessing with a smile: “I thought it was Mongolian.”

There were no banners, no decorations, no adoring — or protesting — crowds lining the streets on what was an exceptionally warm and sunny November day.

For the people of Ankara, jaded over the years by a succession of visits of heads of state and government, their speeding official convoys further jamming already lava-like traffic, the pope’s visit went almost unnoticed.

The rows of yellow and white Vatican flags and the red Turkish flags with white star and crescent were the only sign that someone was visiting.

Traffic, as usual, was the biggest gripe.

Driving through the capital has already been a nightmare over the past few weeks thanks to an ambitious construction project that has all but closed down the city’s main drag, Ataturk Boulevard.

On Tuesday, traffic was completely paralysed for hours on the side roads cars were shunted to because of the extraordinary security, which officials said surpassed that laid out for US President George W Bush when he visited during a NATO summit in Istanbul in 2004.

Officials said at least 3,000 policemen were deployed in and around the capital in addition to sharpshooters positioned on rooftops and police helicopters crisscrossing the air as the papal convoy sped through empty boulevards from one official venue to another.

The pope’s itinerary took him from one end of town to the other and back again twice, leading to major arteries being closed to circulation for hours on end at the busiest times of day.

“Unbelievable,” fumed one enraged woman motorist, leaning on her horn. “Is this how you greet the pope? By keeping people from their homes?”

In a minivan behind her carrying household appliances, three young men were taking things more coolly, singing along with a Turkish folk song wailing on their car radio, cigarettes dangling from their lips.

Other than the commuters’ occasional eruptions of anger, the pope’s first day in Turkey was incident-free.