Ottoman Dream Come True: Train Links East And West In Istanbul

Ottoman Dream Come True: Train Links East And West In Istanbul

9:04pm Oct 30, 2013
A Marmaray Project train awaits its inauguration ceremony in Istanbul on Tuesday.
A Marmaray Project train awaits its inauguration ceremony in Istanbul on Tuesday.
Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images
  • A Marmaray Project train awaits its inauguration ceremony in Istanbul on Tuesday.

    A Marmaray Project train awaits its inauguration ceremony in Istanbul on Tuesday.

    Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images

  • Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid dreamed of linking the Asian and European sides of Istanbul, separated by the Bosporus. The newly inaugurated Marmaray Project does just that.

    Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid dreamed of linking the Asian and European sides of Istanbul, separated by the Bosporus. The newly inaugurated Marmaray Project does just that.

    Michael Goodine / Flickr

  • Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe (right), Somalian President Hasan Sheikh Mahmud, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan listen to an announcement in a train car at the Uskudar Marmaray station ahead of its inaugur

    Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe (right), Somalian President Hasan Sheikh Mahmud, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan listen to an announcement in a train car at the Uskudar Marmaray station ahead of its inaugur

    Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images

The Marmaray Project, Turkey's new underwater rail link between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, is open for business. It's the first of its kind, a modern feat of engineering that realizes the 150-year-old dream of an Ottoman sultan.

Before we get to the politics behind it, though, a bit of practical information. Abandon any romantic notions about well-appointed coaches and china clinking in the dining car. This is a subway: plastic seats, fluorescent lighting, incomprehensible announcements. It will never be mistaken for the Orient Express.

It is, however, an undeniably impressive route, nearly 200 feet beneath the dangerous currents of the Bosporus. Riding the first train open to the public Tuesday evening, I met Turgut, a professor of mechanical engineering. He interrupted an underwater cellphone call to say he wouldn't have missed this for anything.

A Marmaray Project train awaits its inauguration ceremony in Istanbul on Tuesday.

A Marmaray Project train awaits its inauguration ceremony in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

"And using the technology, I'm speaking to England now from the underground — under the sea, actually," he said. "I am here just to make history."

Speaking of history, why did Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan open the tunnel on Republic Day, the 90th anniversary of Kemal Ataturk's secular, pro-Western Turkish Republic?

In past years, Erdogan and other top officials of the ruling party, with its roots in political Islam, found excuses to be traveling on Republic Day, thus avoiding ceremonies honoring Ataturk. This year, however, Erdogan had the perfect counternarrative, thanks to an Ottoman sultan who dreamed of a tunnel connecting Asia and Europe long before Ataturk was born.

Sultan Abdulmecid ruled the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century. In an interesting parallel with Erdogan's early years, the sultan was known for his reforms and friendly approach to Europe. The tunnel, however, proved too great an engineering problem. It took Erdogan, modern technology and a big assist from Japan to make the tunnel a reality.

Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe (right), Somalian President Hasan Sheikh Mahmud, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan listen to an announcement in a train car at the Uskudar Marmaray station ahead of its inauguration ceremony in Istanbul, on Tuesday.

Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe (right), Somalian President Hasan Sheikh Mahmud, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan listen to an announcement in a train car at the Uskudar Marmaray station ahead of its inauguration ceremony in Istanbul, on Tuesday.

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

In his speech at the tunnel's opening ceremony, Erdogan did mention Ataturk, but he mainly focused on the fulfilling of an Ottoman dream, saying this project not only connects continents but "reunites history with today."

To secular Turks already anxious about Erdogan's virtually unchecked power and soaring ambition, reuniting with history is a less than inviting prospect.

Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was on hand to mark the opening of the tunnel, in which Japanese engineering and financing played a major role. Abe was modest and gracious, but somehow his praise for Erdogan kept coming back to the same theme: What a good sport Istanbul had been in losing the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo last month.

It remains to be seen whether this historic tunnel does transform itself from a small commuter subway line into the linchpin of a vast rail network linking London and Beijing. It also remains to be seen whether Erdogan and his colleagues can tear down the authoritarian instruments of Ataturk's republic without destroying the human and civil rights that came with it.

So far neither project is off to a perfect start: The first morning commuter trains beneath the Bosporus suffered delays due to electrical problems. That had some Turks joking darkly about bad omens for the next big Turkish-Japanese partnership: building a nuclear power plant on the Black Sea.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Turkey is celebrating the opening of a new underwater rail link between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. It's a modern feat of engineering that realizes the 150-year-old dream of an Ottoman sultan. The project is also a symbol of the determination of Turkey's new rulers, with their roots in political Islam, to overshadow the pro-Western vision of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon with a letter from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Before we get to the symbolism and the politics behind this continent-linking tunnel, a little practical information. Abandon any romantic notions of well-appointed coaches and silver and china clinking in the dining car. Can I be frank? It's a subway.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: Plastic seats, fluorescent lighting, incomprehensible announcements, the Orient Express this is not. It is, however, an undeniably impressive route, nearly 200 feet beneath the dangerous currents of the Bosphorus. Riding the first train open to the public Tuesday evening, I met Turgut, a professor of mechanical engineering. He interrupted an underwater cellphone call to say he wouldn't have missed this for anything.

TURGUT: And using the technology, I'm speaking to England now from the underground - under the sea, actually. I am here just to make history.

KENYON: Speaking of history, why did Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan open the tunnel on Republic Day, the 90th anniversary of Ataturk's secular, pro-Western Turkish republic? In past years, Erdogan and other top-ruling party officials found excuses to be traveling on Republic Day, thus avoiding ceremonies honoring Ataturk. But this year, Erdogan had the perfect counter-narrative, thanks to an Ottoman sultan who dreamed of a tunnel connecting Asia and Europe long before Ataturk was born.

Sultan Abdulmecid ruled the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century. In an interesting parallel with Erdogan's early years, the sultan was known for his reforms and friendly approach to Europe.

The tunnel, however, proved too great an engineering problem. It took Erdogan, modern technology and a big assist from Japan to make the tunnel a reality.

PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: At the opening ceremony, Erdogan mentioned Ataturk, but focused on the Ottoman dream being fulfilled, saying this project not only connects continents but reunites history with today.

To secular Turks already anxious about Erdogan's virtually unchecked power and soaring ambition, reuniting with history is a less than inviting prospect.

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Speaking of former empires, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on hand to mark the opening of the tunnel, in which Japanese engineering and financing played a major role. Abe was modest and gracious but somehow his praise for Erdogan kept coming back to the same theme: What a good sport Istanbul had been in losing the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo last month.

It remains to be seen if this historic tunnel does transform itself from a small commuter subway line into the linchpin of a vast rail network linking London and Beijing. It also remains to be seen if Erdogan and his colleagues can dismantle the authoritarian instruments of Ataturk's republic without destroying the human and civil rights that came with it.

So far, neither project is off to a perfect start. The first morning commuter trains beneath the Bosphorus suffered delays due to electrical problems. That had some Turks joking darkly about bad omens for the next big Turkish-Japanese partnership, building a nuclear power plant on the Black Sea.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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