For generations, Turks have revered their nation's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who carved out modern Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, and his mausoleum in Ankara is a place of pilgrimage for many.

The reverence the military hero commanded has been unparalleled in this nation of nearly 80 million people, with his portrait adorning government offices, streets, banknotes and coins, and insulting his name officially deemed a crime. Every year on Nov. 10, the anniversary of his 1938 death, sirens sound across the country, and people stand to attention for a minute.

The legacy of the man whose surname means "father of Turks" was one of a modern, secular, western-leaning Turkey. But the personality cult that grew around him has very gradually been fading as current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2003 as alternately prime minister and president, has harked back to the glory days of the height of the Ottoman Empire to whip up patriotic sentiment.

But adoration for Ataturk is still far from dead. At his mausoleum, a sprawling complex built in the early 1950s in the Turkish capital, families, schoolchildren, elderly people and veiled Muslim women all come to pay homage to his memory.

A military honor guard stands watch at the complex, and the hourly changing of the guard is one of visitors' favorite sights. The complex includes a museum with two life-sized wax figures, an extensive collection of his personal effects, portraits, medals and artifacts from his numerous military campaigns.

As Turks head to the polls on April 16 for a referendum on whether to grant Erdogan greater powers, many worry Ataturk's legacy is being eroded. They fear their country is reverting to a more conservative nation with little tolerance for dissent, and accuse Erdogan of heading toward autocratic one-man rule. But Erdogan himself says Sunday's vote will instead ensure Turkey no longer has to face weak governments and a "yes" victory would ensure stable governments that would herald prosperity.


Elena Becatoros and Ayse Wieting contributed from Istanbul.