“You are now in the middle of the Bosphorus,” the Turkish transport minister’s spokeswoman declared with a smile, as the doors of the underground train opened and journalists and officials spilled onto a narrow strip of concrete alongside tracks that disappeared in a slow curve upward.
Some 150 years after an Ottoman sultan originally proposed it, Turkey yesterday opened the first underwater link between Europe and Asia, an eight-and-a-half mile long rail tunnel which becomes an immersed tube for one mile as it crosses the Bosphorus Strait, about 185ft below the sea. It is the world’s deepest underwater railway tunnel, and cost 5.5 billion lira (£1.72bn).
The two-mile journey between the metro station at Sirkeci, near the Topkapi Palace on the European side, and Uskudar in the heart of old Constantinople on the Asian side, will now take just four minutes. Officials estimate that about 1.5 million commuters, in a city of at least 14 million people, will eventually swap the Bosphorus ferries for the subway as the routes expand.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated the Marmaray project yesterday in a tumultuous celebration in Uskudar, a conservative municipality known for its historic Ottoman cemeteries and mosques that is a stronghold of his AK Party.
“Today we are realising the dreams of 150 years ago, uniting the two continents and the people of these two continents,” Mr Erdogan said at the opening, which coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.
In 2004, Mr Erdogan laid the foundation stone for the ambitious project, and was at the wheel for a first test drive in August.
The route is expected to draw 75,000 passengers an hour in both directions. It will be seen as a popular showcase for his government in this traffic-clogged city, ahead of critical municipal elections in Istanbul in March, and likely national elections to follow in which Mr Erdogan, in his third term as prime minister, may aim for to win the newly powerful presidency.
Mr Erdogan has called Marmaray the project of the century and says it fulfils an age-old “dream of our ancestors”.
Plans for a rail tunnel below the Bosphorus date to at least 1891, when Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid, a patron of public works whom Mr Erdogan frequently evokes, had French engineers draft a submerged tunnel on columns that was never built.
Today, the gleaming Marmaray is a tube set in the seabed built by Japan’s Taisei Corporation with Turkish partners Nurol and Gama. The bulk of the financing came from the Japan Bank for International Co-operation.
There has been concern about earthquakes, as the tunnel is only 12 miles from a major fault line. Officials said the tunnels are designed to protect passengers by flexing like a quake-proofed skyscraper.
Transport minister Binali Yıldırım said: “These measures taken against seismic events have made our system failsafe against any sort of earthquake we may feel in the near future. The tunnels are the most safe structures in Istanbul.”
The subway – dubbed the “Iron Silk Road” by the government – will link to Turkey’s new high-speed rail line into Asia. But it is also paving the way for other, more controversial construction projects, including a new canal opening a second route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, a third Bosphorus bridge, and an airport.
Mr Erdogan’s opponents dub them “pharaonic projects,” symptomatic of an increasingly authoritarian government.
They accuse Mr Erdogan – still broadly popular after ten years in power – of bypassing city planners and bulldozing history to make way for pet projects.
“System error. Please load another system. Your time’s up Tayyip,” read a banner hung by a leftist group at the Maiden’s Tower, on a Bosphorus islet.