The ambitious idea to link Europe and Asia via a sea tunnel was first conceived in 1860 by a sultan of the Ottoman Empire, but Abdoul Medjid lacked the technology and funds to turn the idea into reality. In 2004, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was then mayor of Istanbul, revived the plan along with other excessive ideas such as a third airport, a parallel canal and a third bridge. These ambitious projects, which locals blame for the destruction of green spaces and the loss of homes, helped to fuel mass anti-government protests across the country earlier this year.
The 0.8 mile rail tunnel that runs under the Bosphorus Strait at a depth of more than 165 feet is said to be earthquake-proof, an important consideration in an area plagued by strong seismic activity. Erdoğan hopes the tunnel will ease congestion in Istanbul, where two million of the city’s 15 million residents cross the Bosphorus every day via two extremely congested bridges.
Tunnel construction was expected to take four years, but a number of major archaeological discoveries significantly slowed down progress. Around 40,000 objects were excavated from the site, which included a graveyard of 30 Byzantine ships that made up one of the largest known medieval fleets. The public has grown increasingly impatient with their premier, who said two years ago: “First (they said) there was archaeological stuff, then it was clay pots, then this, then that. Is any of this stuff more important than people?”
Even though the inter-continental rail tunnel will be opened on Tuesday, it will be far from fully operational, a fact that is likely to provoke further ire among local residents. “The part that is in service is very limited. All that has been delayed to much later,” said Tayfun Kahraman, president of the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners. “We are wondering why this inauguration is happening so soon.”