Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had a secret.
Months into his governing party's third successful election campaign in 2011, the populist premier gave the Turkish public a few hints about a major project that his government had imagined for Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey—and Europe.
It would be ambitious. Massive. It would be a "crazy project," as Erdogan and the public coined it.
Turks imagined: Could it be a cultural center and mosque replicating the Selimiye, the sixteenth-century masterpiece of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan?
Maybe a mammoth "park of civilizations" suspended high over the Bosporus, the rough waterway that bisects the city and marks the geographic boundary between Europe and Asia?
Perhaps, in a nod to crowding in this city of 15 million people, Dubai-like man-made islands shaped like the star and crescent on the Turkish flag?
Or, a solution once and for all to Istanbul's troubles on the Bosporus—a strait crowded not only with urban commuters and pleasure craft, but Russian oil tankers protected by international agreements as they carry crude on the only sea route from the Black Sea to world markets?
Erdogan did not disappoint.
In an April 27, 2011 multimedia blitz, he unveiled the eagerly-awaited project to a conference hall crowded with journalists, mustached businessmen, and pious housewives with colorful, silk headscarves.
"We give to Istanbul, Canal Istanbul!" Erdogan told the jubilant crowd. "Today we roll up our sleeves on one of the biggest projects of the century, with which the Panama Canal, the Suez and the Corinth Canal in Greece cannot even compete!"
The project outlined by Erdogan calls for a 45-50 kilometer (28-31 mile) canal, some 25 meters (27 yards) in depth and up to 150 meters (164 yards) in width, to be dug west of Istanbul.
The canal would bypass the Bosporus, the site of multiple shipping accidents, and link the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. The canal would be a "second Bosporus" as many news outlets called it.
After passing through the canal from the Black Sea, ships would then continue on their normal route through the Marmara Sea and Turkey's less treacherous Dardanelles on their way to the Aegean, the Mediterranean and ultimately to world markets.
"With Canal Istanbul, we will bring an end to freight traffic on the Bosporus. And we will give back the Bosporus to Istanbul and Turkey," Erdogan said.
Erdogan's Bosporus dream is the culmination of centuries of imagination and intrigues over Istanbul and the Straits.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European powers vied over who should—and should not—be given access to the waterways as statesmen sought to maintain the balance of power in Europe and the region.
Although sovereignty now belongs to Turkey, international conventions have long restricted Turkey's ability to limit steadily increasing ship traffic. Much of the Bosporus traffic now includes hazardous materials and oil, leaving thousands—or even millions—vulnerable.
But there is more to Erdogan's plans for the straits than environmental woes or Bismarckian realpolitik.
The project speaks to a long tradition of political imagination, ambitious state-planning and—perhaps most of all—Erdogan's own political designs for the country.
The canal and related "crazy projects" for other cities in Turkey—major transportation and housing projects—were the centerpiece of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party's third straight electoral victory since 2002.
In elections on June 12, 2011, Erdogan's party won nearly 50 percent of the vote, picking up 325 of 550 seats in parliament.