Connecting Continents: Turkey’s Marmaray Project


This past week, Turkey proudly unveiled the Marmaray Tunnel Project to the world. Marmaray is a modern engineering marvel and the world’s first underwater rail project between two continents. Istanbul, which spans Asia and Europe, is now successfully connected by a thirteen-kilometer stretch of concrete tubing 60 meters below the Bosphorus Straight. Construction took over ten years to complete and cost Turkey $2.8 billion dollars. The tunnel was completed with the help of the Japanese company Taisei, with much of the funding coming from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

Government plans for a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus date back to 1891, when Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid ordered French engineers to create the blueprint of a submerged tunnel. Obviously, these plans were never executed, but the historical significance of building a connection between Europe and Asia is deeply rooted in Turkish culture. Prime Minister Erdogan noted this historical sentiment at the unveiling ceremony and stated, “Today we are realizing the dreams of 150 years ago, uniting the two continents and the people of these two continents.” However, not everyone in Turkey shares Erdogan’s vision of an unapologetic need for Turkish modernization.

Ironically, the opening of the Marmaray tunnel coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic, the creation of a secular government. Erdogan, who is very popular domestically and has been in power since 2003, made the modernization of Turkey a main goal during his tenure in power. However, there has been much resistance from the younger generation to his increasingly authoritarian and conservative style of government. This past summer, the large protests in Taksim Square were in response to Erdogan’s planned renovations of a very popular green space near Taksim. Though the government eventually dispersed the protesters after weeks of heavy fighting, the conflict represented the great disconnect between civil modernization and modern social values.

The entire Marmaray project was delayed five years due to the discovery during excavation of Byzantine relics dating back 8,500 years. While archeologists and UNESCO voiced their concern with regards to the disruptive nature of the tunnel, Erdogan was not sympathetic and charged ahead with the project after the artifacts were removed. Erdogan has been accused of bypassing city planners to advance his modernization goals.

Istanbul is home to over 15 million people and the government hopes to reduce car traffic by 20% with the completion of the Marmaray Tunnel. Erdogan also has plans to construct a 50-km canal though Istanbul, a third airport, atomic power stations, and a third bridge over the Bosphorus.


While the intentions of Erdogan and the Turkish government make sense, should UNESCO and prominent archeologists continue to voice their concerns? Should action be taken at an international level?

Istanbul is an ancient city and was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, should accommodation for modernization be made, or should the historical significance of the metropolis be preserved?

It must be noted that Turkey is a country prone to intense earthquakes, and the Marmaray is only 20km from the active North Anatolian Fault. Do you think such quick modernization should be stifled by geological realities?




  1. This tunnel really caught my attention. I am astonished to see that to continents were able to connect through tunnels submerged under water. I sympathize with Erdogan and the Turkish government because I feel that any society should be allowed to change and adapt to modernization. There is nothing wrong with Erdogan trying to make the Turkey a better place especially among Asia and Europe, two continents with several modern countries. I believe that UNESCO should only interfere to the extent that the historical significance of cities like Istanbul remain intact. But UNESCO or the international community should not interfere with Erdogan’s future plans to modernize the country unless it will destroy the significance of historically important cities.

  2. I think this Tunnel Project is such a huge project, and the Erdogan government should have done “referendum” before it announced its ultimate decision in continuing with this project and find out about what the society really thinks about this tunnel. However, since he took over the office, his government never returned to the citizens to ask their opinion about the projects that the government is trying to implement. Gezi Park demonstrations, which took place in May 2013, is such a good example of this public ignorance. Without checking what Istanbul citizens think, he tried to demolish Taksim Gezi Park and build a shopping mall but the public showed their rejection. When he tried to suppress the demonstrators, it expanded all over the country. Therefore, I believe that no matter what one does as the President, he/she should refer back to the citizens before changing the environment that people are so used to living for years.
    I believe that this project is a big step in modernizing Istanbul but at the same time preserving history carries such an importance. Istanbul is such an old city with full of history, and I believe that these historical sites should be preserved in their original condition. As far as UNESCO is concerned, I believe it should certainly interfere because any damages to historical sites will be such a big lost. History is a world value!

  3. This is such an exceptional accomplishment for the government and people of Turkey. It seems to me that Prime Minister Erdogan is working hard to continue to prove his leadership. No wonder the guy has been elected again and again by the majority of the people of Turkey. However, one could argue that Erdogan rushed this project and wanted to complete this project as soon as possible so he can be recognized! Apparently, this project would have never been finished if it was up to archaeologists. Additionally, we must keep in mind the possibility of terrorist attacks that the tunnel may draw in. There is no doubt in my mind that I think UNESCO should voice concerns about the threat to the peninsula. This development brings about various concerns and should be looked at.

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