The controversial White Palace is a lavish Ottoman-themed compound that many view as a symbol of President Recep Erdogan’s polarizing and authoritarian leadership style — and his efforts to appropriate and reshape Ataturk’s far-reaching legacy.

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ANKARA, Turkey — From the hilltop mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, a panoramic sweep of this modern capital shows skyscrapers, five-star hotels, bustling residential districts and, to the west, an extravagant new official residence for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The controversial White Palace is a lavish Ottoman-themed compound that many view as a symbol of Erdogan’s polarizing and authoritarian leadership style — and his efforts to appropriate and reshape Ataturk’s far-reaching legacy.

Gouged into about 50 acres of former public parkland and constructed in defiance of court orders, the 1,000-room palace, replete with marble floors and soaring atriums, has already cost $615 million, double its initial price tag. An additional $135 million in outlays is scheduled for next year. Yet to come are a conference center and public mosque.

On Friday, Pope Francis became the first foreign head of state to be hosted at the grand edifice, meeting with Erdogan at the start of a three-day visit widely seen as an effort to build interfaith dialogue with Muslims and focus attention on the plight of Christians and other minorities in the war-ravaged Middle East.

Though the Argentine “people’s pope” is known for eschewing the trappings of office, the Vatican rejected pleas from opposition activists and others that he decline to set foot in the White Palace.

The presidential palace has sparked outrage in this deeply divided nation, rocked in the last 18 months by a series of protests assailing various Erdogan-backed initiatives. Critics see a profligate vanity project, the latest manifestation of the pugnacious leader’s grandiose ambitions.

“It is better to spend this money on schools and hospitals,” said Rafet Gorgulu, 64, a discouraged taxi driver in the capital. “What can we do? Erdogan has all the power.”

Others defend the White Palace as a focus of pride for a dynamic nation of 80 million that has seen robust economic growth and bolstered regional clout during Erdogan’s 12-year tenure, first as prime minister and then as president.

“It shows Turkey’s power to people who visit us,” said a recent visitor to Ataturk’s tomb who declined to give his name for privacy reasons, referring to the new palace rising in the distance. “It is a symbol of our modernity and greatness.”

The raging dispute is emblematic of a more profound battle for national identity in Turkey, which has largely shed its longtime image as a stultified but strategic NATO backwater subject to periodic military coups.

The secular vision of Turkey pioneered by Ataturk is yielding to what Erdogan labels the “New Turkey,” an increasingly Islamist nation in which behemoth building projects signify prosperity and exalt the president’s standing.

“Erdogan realizes he cannot attack Turkey’s nationalist symbology, like this mausoleum,” said Buse Ceren, a postgraduate architecture and semiotics student, speaking on the grounds housing Ataturk’s tomb. “So Erdogan is creating these new symbols.”

Across the country, environmentalists express outrage as trees and open space vanish, replaced with highways and shopping malls, towering skyscrapers wrapped in glistening glass and about 20,000 Ottoman-themed, government-subsidized mosques.

Last year, protests roiled the country as bulldozers threatened Istanbul’s Gezi Park, a vestigial patch of stately sycamores in the megacity on the Bosporus of which Erdogan was once mayor.

Authorities planned to replace the park with a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks, a manifestation of what critics deride as Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” delusions. His sweeping blueprint, expressed in bricks and mortar, politics and international relations, recalls an epoch much admired in the inner circles of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which has its roots in political Islam.

The Gezi Park demonstrations abruptly morphed into a broad outpouring of discontent with Erdogan’s take-no-prisoners style, Islamist tendencies and outsized ambitions.

Erdogan has aggressively backed government spending on religious schools, curbed alcohol sales and lifted restrictions on the wearing of Muslim headscarves, while also throwing journalists into jail and periodically restricting Internet access, a reflection of his oft-stated disdain for social media and the free press.

Erdogan personally greeted Pope Francis on Friday at the imposing metal gates leading to the residence, and the two talked publicly about interfaith issues.

With his triumph in August as the nation’s first popularly elected president, Erdogan is poised to expand the power of what had previously been a largely ceremonial post and assume near complete control of Turkish institutions. He has already tamed the military, long the guardian of Ataturk’s secular Turkey, and extended his influence on the judiciary and security services.

Erdogan has beaten back sensational corruption allegations, fueled by eavesdropping tapes in which he appeared to be ordering his son, Bilal, to “make vanish” tens of millions of dollars in incriminating cash stashed at a family residence.

Among the White Palace’s many reported amenities are state-of-the-art anti-bugging “deaf rooms” and assorted high-tech security measures.

Pontiff prays in key mosque

Pope Francis stood Saturday for two minutes of silent prayer facing east in one of Turkey’s most important mosques, a powerful vision of Christian-Muslim understanding at a time when neighboring countries are experiencing violent Islamic assault on Christians and religious minorities.

Francis prayed alongside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran, in the 17th-century Sultan Ahmet mosque, shifting gears to religious concerns on the second day of his three-day visit to Turkey.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi called it a moment of “silent adoration.” Lombardi said Francis told the mufti twice that Christians and Muslims must “adore” God and not just praise and glorify him.