December 11, 2013
Turkey realises Ottoman dream with rail tunnel linking Europe to Asia
Turkey opens the world's first underwater rail link between two continents today, connecting Asia and Europe and allowing Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to realise a project dreamt up by Ottoman sultans more than a century ago.
The engineering feat spans 13 km (8 miles) to link Europe with Asia some 60 metres below the Bosphorus Strait. Called the Marmaray, it will carry subway commuters in European's biggest city and eventually serve high-speed and freight trains.
"The Marmaray project unites...the continents of the historic Silk Road," Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said ahead of the opening, which coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.
The 5.5 billion lira ($2.8 billion) tunnel is one of Erdogan's "mega projects," an unprecedented building spree designed to change the face of Turkey.
They include a 50-km 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 1 million trees, is under way.
The plans have fired up 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 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, 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.
Erdogan argues his policies meet the needs of a rapidly expanding and increasingly affluent population.
"Roads are civilisation," he said last week. "Our values recognise no obstacle for roads. If a mosque is where a road will go, we will tear down that mosque and build it elsewhere."