Marmaray, an underwater rail tunnel connecting Istanbul’s Asian and European shores opened today on the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the secular Turkish Republic. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, representing the world’s foremost pagan civilisation, attended the religious opening ceremony.
Today is the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the secular Turkish Republic by General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who abolished the Ottoman theocracy and the Caliphate. It was also the inauguration day for one of the most ambitious projects of Turkey’s ruling Islamist government, the Bosphorus Chunnel. Called Marmaray (meaning Marmarail), the rail line that extends from one end of the city’s Asian boundaries to the European side connects the two continents through a tube buried 60 meters under the Sea of Marmara. Started in 2004, the project was fulfilled by a consortium led by the Japanese at an estimated total cost of US $2.5 billion. The Japanese have also had the honour of building the second Bosphorus Bridge named after Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Istanbul.
Since Istanbul sits on a major earthquake zone the most important component was the 1.4 kilometer tube buried under the sea. It was built by flexible components to withstand a Richter 9 earthquake. In August 1998 an earthquake in the Sea of Marmara wiped out several townships southeast of Istanbul with an estimated death toll of 17,000. It has been reported in the press that some of the engineers who worked on the project have serious safety concerns about the tunnel, like the possibility of flooding through the flexible connectors. It’s alleged that the government cut corners on safety in its haste to inaugurate the line on Republic Day, and no electronic safety warning system has been installed in the tunnel. Government rejects these claims as unfounded. Minister of Transport and Communications stated today that it’s the safest place to be in Istanbul.
Istanbul, a city of 17 million, is the powerhouse of Turkish economy with a GDP that exceeds that of the rest of the country and those of several other Balkan nations. With a rush hour that starts at 6AM and extends almost until midnight Istanbul’s notorious traffic congestion is a cause of neurosis for many of its inhabitants. Government claims that the Bosphorus Chunnel will take 12,000 vehicles off the city traffic and make a visible difference. Turkish Government has other mega projects up its sleeve, like a super highway that will reduce a road trip from Istanbul to the western port of Izmir from 10 to 3.5 hours. Plans are also underway to build a canal from the Black Sea to Marmara parallel to the Bosphorus channel. Under an international treaty signed at Montreux, Switzerland, in 1938 Turkey lacks complete control over passage of marine traffic through the channels at Istanbul and Dardanelles.
Today’s opening ceremony started with a Muslim prayer in Arabic read by the Minister of Religious Affairs. It was presided over by Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul, with Prime Ministers of Japan and Romania and President of Somalia attending as guests. In his short speech Prime Minister Erdogan paid homage to the Ottoman Sultans Mehmed the Conqueror (of Istanbul), Abdul Hamid (known as The Red Sultan, not because he was a Communist) and Abdul Mecid. He said a centuries-old dream had come true. In reply to a question of whether a Tokyo-Istanbul underwater rail line is a possibility, he said “Why not?” while the Japanese PM Abe said it was time to contemplate a bullet train line from Tokyo to London passing through Istanbul.
At about the same time anti-government protests took place at major metropolitan centres protesting the government’s recent abolition of the Ataturk-era patriotic oath from schools. A crowd estimated at 100,000 chanted the oath in Izmir. Secular Turks are increasingly uncomfortable with religion creeping into every facet of Turkish life by government edict or legislation, such as the removal of the headscarf ban in public office. Since Ataturk taught his people to rely on themselves, reason and science, the old Turkish proverb of “Our affairs have been left to Allah” does not exactly carry a positive connotation.