Turkey realizes 'Ottoman dream' with rail tunnel linking Europe to Asia

The world's first sea tunnel connecting two continents opens as part of construction spree that sparked protests in May

Employees work in the Marmaray tunnel under the Bosphorus Strait on April 18, 2013, in Istanbul.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey opened the world's first underwater rail link between two continents Tuesday, realizing a project dreamed up by Ottoman sultans more than a century ago. The project is part of a construction boom across Turkey that sparked widespread protests in May.

The engineering feat spans 8 miles to link Europe with Asia some 66 yards below the Bosphorus Strait. Called the Marmaray, it will carry around 1.5 million subway commuters daily throughout Istanbul, Europe's biggest city, and serve high-speed and freight trains. 

"The Marmaray project unites... the continents of the historic Silk Road," Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said ahead of the opening, which coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.

The $2.8 billion tunnel is one of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's "mega projects," an unprecedented building spree devised to change the face of Turkey.

The plans have fired up Erdogan's opponents who dub them "pharaonic projects," symptoms of an increasingly authoritarian style of government, and warn of environmental catastrophes in one of world's most earthquake-prone nations.

The prime minister, still broadly popular after 10 years in power, stands accused of bypassing city planners and bulldozing history to make way for pet projects in an ancient city that was once the capital of the Byzantine Empire before becoming the center of Ottoman power.

On May 31, police violently cracked down on activists who had occupied Istanbul’s Gezi Park to halt a development plan that would raze its 600 trees. The incident snowballed into nationwide protests against Erdogan’s administration.

Besides engineering projects, Erdogan has wrought radical social change, breaking the traditional power of the secularist army and drawing accusations from some that he pursues an Islamist agenda, something he denies.

Instead, Erdogan argues that his policies meet the needs of a rapidly expanding and increasingly affluent population.

"Roads are civilization," he said last week. "Our values recognize no obstacle for roads. If a mosque is where a road will go, we will tear down that mosque and build it elsewhere."

Sultan's project

Erdogan, who has cast the Marmaray as the project of the century, says it fulfills an age-old "dream of our ancestors." Plans for a rail tunnel below the Bosphorus date back to at least 1891, when Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid, a patron of public works whom Erdogan frequently evokes, had French engineers draft a submerged tunnel on columns that was never built.

Today, the gleaming Marmaray is an immersed tube set in the seabed built by Japan's Taisei Corp with Turkish partners Nurol and Gama. The bulk of financing came from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

The mega project would add at least $180 billion to Turkey's foreign debt stock, Erdogan has said, further swelling the country’s massive account deficit, which the International Monetary Fund says may reach 7 percent of economic output this year.

"Rather than having a social utility, some of these seem to be legacy projects: Erdogan trying to leave his mark on the Turkish landscape and history," said Atilla Yesilada, an analyst with GlobalSource Partners, a macroeconomic and political analysis firm. "It is like pharaohs building more pyramids to their names."

But Yildirim, the transportation minister, dismissed concerns about financing as mere envy. "Half of the world is at war, the other half is in an economic slowdown, while Turkey is carrying out its big projects," he said. "There's no need for this jealousy."

Earthquake risk

The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects warned the Marmaray, set on a seabed 12 miles from the active North Anatolian Fault, is at risk in case of a large earthquake, which geologists predict may strike within a generation. Some 17,000 people were killed in 1999 when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck the western city of Izmit.

The Marmaray, which Yildirim has described as the "safest structure in Istanbul," is a free-floating structure designed to withstand a 9 magnitude earthquake. In the event of one, interlocking floodgates have been engineered to seal off each section.

Murat Guvenc, director of the Urban Studies Research Center at Istanbul Sehir University, said the tunnel will essentially shrink Istanbul, a sprawling metropolis of 15 million people.

"The historical peninsula has remained intact for 25 centuries, like the eye of the storm, because of the natural barriers of the Golden Horn and Bosphorus waterways," Guvenc said. "The Marmaray removes those boundaries."

Excavation for the project on the European side yielded a Byzantine port with more than 13 shipwrecks and thousands of other relics that date as far back as 8,500 years.

The finds nearly doubled the project's duration and prompted UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural arm, to voice concern about threats to the peninsula, a “world heritage” site.

To honor the finds, the government will open an "archaeological park" at the Yenikapi subway station to showcase relics.

"Had it been up to the archaeologists, this project would have never finished," Yildirim said.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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