ABDUL MEJID I, the Ottoman’s 31st sultan, had a dream. Reigning between 1839 and 1861, the determinedly Western-leaning sultan envisaged the construction of a submerged tunnel under the Bosphorus Straits connecting Asia to Europe. A French architect duly came up with a blueprint. But a dearth of technology and cash stood in the way.
The sultan’s dream is now coming true, 150 years later. The world’s first sea tunnel linking two continents will be inaugurated on October 29th, marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of Ataturk’s Republic. Stretching over 76km (47 miles), and with 1.4km of it laid at the bottom of the sea, the $3 billion “Marmaray” rail system will “eventually link London to Beijing, creating unimagined global connections” boasts Mustafa Kara, mayor of Istanbul’s Uskudar district, where the tunnel comes out.
Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, initiated the scheme in 2004 in his Justice and Development (AK) party’s first term in power. By 2025 over a million commuters are expected to use what even AK’s critics concede is an engineering marvel, thinning the nightmarish traffic that plagues this city of 14m people.
AK’s projects, which have included hundreds of hospitals and roads, have earned it the unwavering support of millions of rural Anatolians, long ignored by the country’s secular elites. But Mr Erdogan’s grandiose projects, being pushed through with little if any public debate, including building Turkey’s biggest-ever mosque, on Istanbul’s Asian side, are increasingly seen as a sign of hubris.
Mr Erdogan, who was once mayor of Istanbul, has been governing Turkey in an ever more imperious style. Concern about this lay at the heart of the Gezi Park protests in June, which were prompted by his plan to chop down hundreds of trees to build a shopping complex in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Fresh protests erupted this week when more trees were uprooted in Ankara to make way for a road.
Unfazed by green howls, the government is erecting a third Bosphorus bridge close to the Black Sea, felling thousands more trees and disrupting a critical migration route for birds, including storks and eagles. Umit Yardim, an ornithologist, warns that, drawn by the headlights of cars on the bridge, the birds could trigger chain accidents. Turkey’s Alevi minority is infuriated that the bridge will be named after Selim “the Grim”, a sultan who slaughtered thousands of their forebears. The government is also going ahead with a new six-runway airport north-west of Istanbul that will be among the world’s biggest.
Most controversially, Mr Erdogan still plans to dig what he himself once called the “crazy canal”. This 50km long canal, linking the sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, is meant to divert tanker traffic away from the Bosphorus and thereby diminish pollution and the risk of collisions in the sinuous waterway. But greens say it could destroy entire ecosystems in the Black and Marmara Seas.
AK officials privately concede that the country’s strained finances make it unlikely that the canal will be built. Yet they dismiss reports that the government is having trouble financing the new airport as black propaganda by the same “global forces” that are bent on unseating Mr Erdogan.
The AK often resorts to such tactics itself. At the height of the Gezi Park unrest, Mr Erdogan suggested that inebriated demonstrators had urinated and copulated in an Ottoman mosque. When theÂ muezzinÂ refused to corroborate this, he was exiled to another mosque, prompting an outcry among anti-capitalist Muslims who decry what they see as AK’s lurch towards luxury and greed. In an ironic twist, the mosque where the alleged sinful acts occurred was built by Abdul Mejid’s mother Bezmialem, a former Christian slave girl, whose real name was “Suzi”.