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.
Secular critics have accused Erdogan, a practicing Muslim and former member of a banned pro-Islamic party, of plotting to move Turkey away from its official secular ideology toward a more Islamic path. He also has been accused of slowly, but surely inching toward greater absolutist rule.
Erdogan, who calls himself a conservative along the lines of European-style Christian democrats, has consistently denied any Islamic agenda and says his goal is to strengthen the country's democracy.
Under Erdogan's leadership, this overwhelmingly Muslim country of 75 million has also moved closer to its goal of membership in the European Union than under any of his more secular predecessors. Yet, by all accounts, achieving that goal remains only remotely possible or, at best, years away.
Nonetheless, the party's electoral slogan was boundlessly optimistic. "Target 2023," simultaneously looked to history—Turkey's founding as a nation-state in 1923—and its future centennial celebrations in the next decade.
Said Erdogan: "Turkey more than deserves to embark on such a great, crazy, and magnificent project for 2023!"
Istanbul and Dreams of Turkish Greatness
Erdogan laced his hour-long speech announcing the project with stories of triumph and disaster, poetry, and references to Ottoman and Turkish historical grandeur.
According to Erdogan, Turks share a dream of Turkish national success that he traced back to Osman, the eponym for the Ottoman Empire whose life and reign spanned the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
According to legend, Osman dreamt of a colossal tree sprouting from within himself and spreading across the region—a story Turks have interpreted as an allegory for the founding and growth of the Ottoman Empire.
"At the foundation of a great civilization, there is, foremost, a dream. We too have established a dream for our country," Erdogan said.
In many ways, Erdogan is but the latest ruler over the centuries to transform the city on the Bosporus.
At a time that the Roman Empire was under siege, Constantine moved his capital from Rome and transformed the town of Byzantium into Constantinople in the fourth century. The city became the largest in Christendom, boasting the sixth-century Hagia Sophia, once the largest church in the world.
By the fifteenth century, when the Byzantine Empire was just a shadow of its former self, the imperial capital—guarded by walls, a massive chain across the Bosporus, and fortuitous geography—was the last Byzantine city to succumb to Ottoman forces.
According to Erdogan's account, Fatih Sultan Mehmet II ("Mehmet the Conqueror") shared a dream similar to his own when Ottoman forces built fortifications to gain control of the Bosporus and even carried some warships overland to conquer Constantinople in 1453.
For Mehmet II and Ottoman forces, "the city"—as it was often called with affection—had stood like a dagger at the heart of the Ottoman Empire that now surrounded it on all sides, inhibiting Ottoman expansion to Europe and the Middle East.
At the apex of Ottoman rule, Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) again transformed the city on the Bosporus by ordering the construction of new mosques, schools, and other monuments—making it the worthy capital of a ruler who claimed legitimacy as both a Muslim ruler and as "Caesar of Rome."
Canals and the Transformation of Nature
The massive nature of Erdogan's project, which includes not only the Canal itself, but the launch of two new major settlements along the Canal Zone connected by a new, third bridge over the Bosporus, speaks to a longer tradition in Turkey of ambitious nation-building and infrastructure projects in the twentieth century.
Of course, Turkey is hardly alone in such promethean ventures, and Canal Istanbul will join a long list of grandiose construction projects that cram the volumes of human history.
Canals throughout history have long been connected to broader patterns of political, economic and military expansion and integration.
The peoples of ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley used canals for irrigation, encouraging the growth of life in towns and civilization more broadly.
Canals featured prominently in the development of ancient China by helping to bring unity to formerly disparate states. The Grand Canal of China, completed in the seventh century CE, remains by far the longest canal in the world at nearly 1,800 kilometers (nearly 1,120 miles)—far surpassing the canals of Suez (193 kilometers or 120 miles), Panama (77 kilometers or 48 miles) and Erdogan (45-50 kilometers or 28-31 miles).
The Greeks pioneered canal locks and probably completed the first canal to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Roman canals, moreover, not only served irrigation and transportation, but more broadly helped to integrate a far-flung empire.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, major canals in England and the United States accelerated British industrial development and American westward expansion.
The Suez Canal (opened in 1869), sometimes nicknamed the "highway to India," reduced travel to Britain's prized colony by connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. It also helped to unleash a new wave of imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century.
One of the greatest engineering feats of all time, the Panama Canal opened in 1914 only by propping up Panamanian secessionists, overcoming disease, and opting for an elevated canal with locks and dams rather than one at sea level. (Frustrated, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who led the construction of the Suez Canal, abandoned Panama in disgrace). In the end, the Panama Canal not only connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but contributed to a new American form of empire.
What is perhaps unique about Erdogan's canal—which will bypass the Bosporus and provide duplicate access from the Black Sea to the Marmara—is that it is likely among the few to replicate that which already has been given by nature.
The Eastern Question
It remains to be seen, however, if this replacement of a natural waterway with a human engineered one will bring a definitive end to one of Turkey's most difficult military and diplomatic challenges: the so-called "Eastern Question." This nineteenth-century Eurocentric "Question"—what to do with a weakening Ottoman Empire seen as past its heyday—may now be over, but the issues it raised about Turkey's place in the international community linger today.
The Straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles have long defined the geopolitical relationship of Turkey (and the Ottoman Empire before it) and the rest of the world.
But it was arguably the turn of the nineteenth century that marked the transition of the Bosporus and Straits from a blessing to a curse for the Ottoman Empire.
Although Ottoman historians now vehemently reject the term "decline," there can be little debate that the Ottoman Empire witnessed a series of struggles after the eighteenth century.
Russia's growth, its aspirations for access to the sea, and increasing assertion of imperial might often came at Ottoman expense.
Many scholars see Ottoman defeat in the Russian-Ottoman War of 1768-74 as a major turning point in Turkey's relations with European powers.
The humiliating Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca (1774) gave the Crimean Peninsula to Russia, along with passage rights through the Dardanelles, and disputed political rights over Ottoman Orthodox Christians.
Russia's new status as a Black Sea power not only raised questions about Russian access to the Mediterranean through the Straits, its challenge to the Ottoman Empire raised questions about how to maintain the balance of power in Europe—that tacit understanding among European statesmen that no state should become too strong to dominate the others.
At the heart of this "Eastern Question" was the future of the Ottoman Empire and the question of the Straits.
The Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi (Unkiar Skelessi, 1833) stipulated that the Ottoman Empire be required to close the Straits to foreign powers at Russia's request. Fears that these provisions disrupted the balance of power by giving Russia too much privilege led to the Straits Convention of 1841, which closed the Straits to all but the Ottomans in peacetime. This kept Britain and France out of the Black Sea and Russia out of the Mediterranean.
Subsequent agreements sought to maintain the balance of power by stipulating who had right to the Straits and when.
The Treaty of Paris (1856) and the Treaty of London (1871) returned to the "ancient rule" of the Ottoman Empire that warships should not use the Straits except by the special permission of the Sultan during times of peace.
Yet, maintaining balance in the international arena became increasingly challenging as indigenous nationalism and European powers continued to chip away at Ottoman territory. Amid these struggles, Europeans sometimes called the Ottoman Empire the "Sick Man of Europe"—to the consternation of Ottoman statesmen and contemporary historians.