Turkey opened the world’s first underwater rail link between two continents on Oct. 29, connecting Asia and Europe and allowing Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to realize a project dreamt up by Ottoman sultans more than a century ago.
The engineering feat spans 13 kilometres to link Europe with Asia some 60 metres below the Bosphorus Strait. Called the Marmaray, it will carry subway commuters in Europe’s biggest city and eventually serve high-speed and freight trains.
“Today we are realizing the dreams of 150 years ago, uniting the two continents and the people of these two continents,” Mr. Erdogan said at the opening, which coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.
The tunnel, whose estimated costs range from $2.8-billion to more than $4-billion, is one of Mr. Erdogan’s “megaprojects,” an unprecedented building spree designed to change the face of Turkey.
They include a 50-kilometre canal to rival the Suez that would render half of Istanbul an island, an airport that will be the world’s busiest and a giant mosque atop an Istanbul hill.
Atomic power stations are on the drawing table. A third bridge over the Bosphorus, whose construction has already felled one million trees, is under way.
The plans have fired up Mr. Erdogan’s opponents who dub them “pharaonic projects,” symptom of an increasingly authoritarian style of government, and warn of environmental catastrophes in one of world’s most earthquake-prone nations.
They accuse Mr. Erdogan, still broadly popular after 10 years in power, of bypassing city planners and bulldozing history to make way for pet projects in an ancient city that was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, then after the 1453 Islamic conquest became the centre of Ottoman power.
A small environmental effort to save an Istanbul park in late May grew into the biggest anti-government protests in decades. Besides engineering projects, Mr. 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.
Mr. Erdogan argues 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.”
Mr. Erdogan has called the Marmaray the project of the century and says it fulfils an age-old “dream of our ancestors.”
Plans for a rail tunnel below the Bosphorus date to at least 1891, when Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid, a patron of public works whom Mr. 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. The bulk of financing came from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.
“Japan and Turkey are the two wings of Asia. Let us dream together of a high-speed train departing from Tokyo, passing through Istanbul and arriving in London,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who attended the opening.
Money for the other infrastructure schemes may prove more difficult to come by as global liquidity tightens, and that may force Mr. Erdogan to scale back plans or scrap some altogether, said Atilla Yesilada, an analyst with GlobalSource Partners.
The mega projects would add at least $190-billion to Turkey’s foreign-debt stock, he said, further swelling an already massive current 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,” Mr. Yesilada said. “It is like pharaohs building more pyramids to their names.”
The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects warned the Marmaray set on a silty seabed 20 kilometres from the active North Anatolian Fault is at risk in case of a large earthquake, which geologists predict may strike within a generation.
But Transport Minister Binali Yildirim described the Marmaray as the “safest structure in Istanbul,” its free-floating structure designed to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of 9. Interlocking floodgates would seal off each section.
The Marmaray will reduce car traffic by 20 per cent in Istanbul, among the world’s most congested cities, when it eventually carries 1.5 million people a day.
Construction of the tunnel on the European side yielded a Byzantine port with more than 13 shipwrecks and thousands of other relics that date back as far as 8,500 years.
The government will open an “archaeological park” at the Yenikapi subway station to showcase relics. Station walls are decorated in a Hellenic theme with amphoras and galleons.
“Had it been up to the archaeologists, this project would have never finished,” Mr. Yildirim said.