Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently unveiled a plan so ambitious that even he calls it the 'Crazy Project.' The project aims to build a massive canal that will bypass the Bosporus waterway that bisects Istanbul—a rival to the Panama and Suez Canals in time for the Turkish Republic's centennial celebrations in 2023. The new canal, Erdogan hopes, will overcome centuries of international intrigue over the Bosporus, facilitate trade, and reduce the possibility of shipping accidents through the heart of Istanbul. This month Origins Managing Editor James Helicke examines the international history surrounding the strategic waterway that has confounded sultans and statesmen. He asks if the 'Crazy Project' will solve the Bosporus dilemma once and for all, or if it is just plain folly.
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.
Some Turks continue to see similarities in Turkey's limited ability to control international shipping traffic through the Bosporus and nineteenth-century European designs on Ottoman territory.
And with its bid for EU membership at a standstill, at least one component of the old Eastern Question—what should Europe do with Turkey?—remains unresolved.
The Struggle for Control of the Straits
The question of the Straits also lay at the very heart of many of the twentieth century's most difficult military and diplomatic questions.
Although the Ottoman Empire initially professed neutrality in the First World War, its decision to grant harbor to two German warships, the Goeben and Breslau, ultimately tipped the Ottomans toward an alliance with Germany.
The German vessels had avoided British naval pursuit and, in August 1914, passed into the Turkish Straits, challenging British and French domination of the Mediterranean and Russian domination of the Black Sea.
The American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, wrote: "I am convinced that, when the judicious historian reviews this war and its consequences, he will say that the passage of the Strait by these German ships made it inevitable that Turkey should join Germany … and that it likewise sealed the doom of the Turkish Empire."
Winston Churchill proclaimed that, by drawing the Ottomans into the fighting and extending the war, the passage of the two vessels brought "more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship."
Gaining control of the Straits was the goal of the Gallipoli Campaign, which from April 1915 to January 1916 unsuccessfully sought to take the waterways and Ottoman capital.
With involvement by such colorful figures as Churchill, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the Anzacs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), Gallipoli helped to forge a sense of nationhood not only for the besieged Turks, but also New Zealanders and Australians. Turks won the battle, but lost the war.
The Treaty of Sèvres (1920)—one of six treaties prepared at the Paris Peace Conference that brought an end to World War I—established an occupation over much of today's Turkey. It established a Zone of the Straits, comprised of Istanbul and other territory along the Straits, and placed it under the control of an international commission.
It also declared that the Straits "shall in future be open, both in peace and war, to every vessel of commerce or of war and to military and commercial aircraft, without distinction of flag."
For the Turks, the foreign occupation in the heart of their territory—with division of much of the Anatolian heartland among neighbors, European powers, and minority groups—became a symbol for Turkey's national resistance. Even today, Turks associate the term "Sèvres" with betrayal and selling out to foreign powers.
From 1919 to 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rallied Turkish nationalists to gain sovereignty over Turkish territory and the Straits.
Although the new Treaty of Lausanne (1923) gave Turkish nationalists most of the territory they sought, the treaty retained an international commission for the Straits, which remained demilitarized.
Over the next decade and a half, Ataturk—the name that he adopted in 1934—introduced sweeping reforms aimed at strengthening the new nation-state and consolidating his control.
Westernization reforms limited Islam's influence over politics, switched from the Arabic to Latin script for the Turkish language, and even mandated that men must no longer wear the fez, but European-style hats.
Ataturk moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara, transforming the latter from a sleepy, provincial town to the capital of the new nation-state—with broad boulevards, government buildings, schools, and his own pet project: an experimental farm.
As Turkey grew in strength and turmoil grew in Europe, Turkey pulled off one of its greatest foreign policy triumphs: revision to the regime governing the Straits.
The Montreux Convention, which remains in effect today, abolished the Straits Commission and once again returned authority over the Straits to Turkey. In addition to allowing remilitarization, Turkey could restrict the passage of ships during wartime. It was obligated, however, to allow the passage of merchant vessels during times of peace.
Ataturk's legacy of ambitious state planning has not only left a profound mark on the seven decades of Turkish politics since his death, but Turkey's approach to foreign policy and the Straits have been profoundly shaped by the treaties—Lausanne and Montreaux—that he helped broker.
The Bosporus in the Vice of the Cold War
After the Second World War, the Straits, especially the Bosporus, remained an issue of contention and a symbol of Turkey's place in the world. Turkey resisted any revision to the Straits regime that might limit its control over the waterways.
Eager to avoid the disastrous consequences of picking the wrong side like they did in the First World War, Turkish leaders pursued a precarious policy of neutrality aimed at averting direct involvement in World War II.
Turkey's wavering policy instead drew the ire of an increasingly powerful Soviet Union and the Straits became integral to Cold War strategic equations.
In 1945-1946, the Soviet Union insisted on a revision to the Straits regime that would allow it to maintain forces there and also pressed for claims to other Turkish territory. An eminent Turkish journalist proclaimed that "the old Eastern Question has risen from its grave."
In 1946, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey observed that "control of the Straits … obviously is of much more importance" than any other Soviet demands.
The defense of Turkey and Greece from communism provided the public justification for the 1947 Truman Doctrine. The speech by U.S. President Harry S. Truman was then the clearest public enunciation of the U.S. policy of the containment of communism, which dominated U.S. strategy throughout the Cold War.
By the 1950s, the United States considered the use of mines on the Straits to deter Soviet submarines from entering the Mediterranean. Turkey's alliance with the West solidified with its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952.
As Turkey has deepened its alliance with the West, the Straits—and the Bosporus in particular—have become associated with new symbolism of Turkey as a bridge between cultures, civilizations, and continents.
Yet, the idea of a bridge over the Bosporus also has a literal meaning that reflected a long legacy of large-scale state planning in Turkey.
In 1957, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes announced plans to build the longest suspension bridge outside the United States—over the Bosporus.
The bridge was part of an ambitious urban revitalization project to raze "slums" (including historic structures) and build "modern" new housing, parks, roads, and highways in Istanbul. The government claimed it was "carrying out the dream of Kemal (Ataturk) to make Istanbul … 'most beautiful and modern,'" according to a 1960 New York Times article.
The bridge project was interrupted by a 1960 military coup—the first of several military interventions.
In 1963, Turkey became an associate member of the European Common Market. In 1967, the bridge project was finally revived.
Chancellor Willy Brandt—the architect of West Germany's own outreach to the Soviet Union, Ostpolitik—declared: "This bridge signifies Turkey's wish to join Europe."
In October 1973, two years after Turkey's second coup d'état, the Bosporus Bridge—with a total span of around 5,000 feet (1,500 meters)—was finally complete. Its status as the first bridge across two continents filled world newspapers along with clichés of Turkey as a bridge between civilizations.
The Bosporus Bridge did not solve Turkey's Bosporus dilemma, nor did improved relations with its eastern neighbors.
As thousands and thousands of migrants from across Turkey continued to flock to Istanbul each year, it was clear that a single bridge would not adequately address Istanbul's growing population and deadlocked traffic.
In 1987, Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, who led Turkey after a nasty 1980 military coup and promoted political and economic liberalization, opened a second bridge over the Bosporus: the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, named after the Ottoman sultan who conquered Istanbul.
Since the 1990s, governments from across the political divide have been pushing for a third one, which has been held up by legal challenges from property owners.
Erdogan has also backed a $2.5-$3.0 billion rail tunnel project under the Bosporus, known as Marmaray, which has been under construction since 2004. He has sometimes chided archaeological excavations along the route for holding the project up.
Yet, solutions from beneath and above will not solve Turkey's biggest Bosporus problem.
The waterway is harrowing, with sharp curves, blind spots, and shifting currents. Ferryboats and private boats zigzag across the strait, which they share with giant oil tankers and the occasional cruise ship.
Traffic within the treacherous waterway has steadily increased over the years. Turkish authorities say that in 1936 around 4,400 vessels passed through the waterway. Today, that number is around 50,000 annually—a more than ten-fold increase.
Unsurprisingly, around 460 accidents occurred between 1953 and 2002, most collisions. These have included multiple spills.
In 1960, Yugoslav and Greek tankers collided, killing 20 and leaving a fire that burned for weeks. In 1966, two Soviet tankers collided.
Ferryboats have struck other vessels. Significant spills of crude, gasoline, and other chemicals occurred in 1964, 1966, 1979, 1990, 1994, 1999, 2002 and 2003.
In his speech, Erdogan referred to the 1979 collision of the Romanian-flagged Independenta with a Greek ship that killed more than 40 people and left a pile of wreckage that burned for weeks.
While Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul, a 1994 collision killed 29 and brought passage in the Straits to a halt.
As oil from countries of the former Soviet Union has increasingly made its way to world markets since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., pressure on the Bosporus has only increased.
In response, Turkish governments have encouraged pipeline projects, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan to a Mediterranean port in southern Turkey. Another oil pipeline, scheduled for operation in 2012, will bring crude from the Black Sea to the same port.
According to Erdogan, more than 358 million tons of freight is carried on the Bosporus every year, including 4 million tons of liquefied petroleum gas, 3 million tons of chemicals, and 139 million tons of petrol.
These "dangerous materials threaten our Istanbul, the beauty of our Istanbul, and the people of our Istanbul every day and every hour," Erdogan proclaimed as he announced Canal Istanbul.
"From now on, the Istanbul Bosporus will return to its former days—a wonder of the world where the past and future live side by side …"
Ataturk's Dream, Erdogan's Dream
There are many reasons to doubt that Canal Istanbul will solve all of Turkey's Bosporus problems.
For one, Turkey has limited say over the passage of merchant ships as guaranteed by the Montreaux Convention, which on other occasions Turkey has so vigorously upheld.
"If passage is free through the Bosporus, then why would anyone use this canal?" Russia's ambassador to Turkey asked frankly in an interview with the Hurriyet newspaper.
Moreover, critics complain that the canal—which Erdogan says will accommodate 130-160 ships daily compared to around 150 on the Bosporus—could simply double the number of ships that can pass through the Bosporus chokepoint by offering an additional route.
Yet for all these obstacles, Erdogan—like Turkish politicians across the political divide—continues to press for ambitious, large-scale projects.
At a time that many Europeans are faced with stark austerity measures and American political rhetoric stresses spending cuts and limited government, Canal Istanbul is but one such project funded by state coffers.
Erdogan paid customary political lip service to Ataturk in announcing the project. But Erdogan's Bosporus project is deeply personal—and political.
The former mayor of Istanbul was once banned from politics even as his Justice and Development Party swept into single party rule in 2002.
Only through legal changes approved by a parliament dominated by his party and a special backwater election could Erdogan finally secure a seat in parliament and become premier.
Tactics such as those, his promulgation of conspiracy theories involving Turkey's military and political rivals, and heightened crackdowns on journalists—perhaps making Turkey the lead jailer of journalists in the world—have raised concerns about Erdogan's intent as a political leader.
Many critics have also expressed alarm at some of Erdogan's reforms, including proposals to replace Turkey's constitution, drafted under military direction following a 1980 coup, with a new constitution giving greater authority to the president—a position in which Erdogan has expressed interest.
Although critics and supporters differ on the nature of Erdogan's vision, it is clear that he envisions Turkey as a major world political and economic power.
Under Erdogan, Turkey enacted ambitious reforms and opened formal membership negotiations with the European Union in 2005, although those talks have since stalled.
Yet, there is little question that the country has prospered economically under Erdogan. With 6.8 percent growth in 2010, Turkey boasts the fastest growing major economy after China and India.
In his speech, Erdogan rattled off figure after figure aimed at impressing the Turkish electorate: Per capita income had nearly quadrupled over the past decade—from $2,300 to over $10,000—and Turkey strives to become one of the world's ten largest economies by 2023.
Canal Istanbul is but one part of that broader economic agenda.
Erdogan emphasized that the project for Istanbul—the economic heart of Turkey that holds 40 percent of the country's wealth—would benefit all of Turkey.
"Canal Istanbul will also provide for a new place to live with centers for conferences, festivals and fairs, hotels, and sports facilities. Istanbul's urban transformation will continue along with the projects we will carry out around the Canal. We will build Istanbul's biggest airport here," he said. "The Third (Bosporus) Bridge will also go over this canal."
Ironically, the construction of the Canal will transform the European section of Istanbul into an island surrounded by the Bosporus on one side and the canal on the other—perhaps further isolating it from the rest of Turkey.
Erdogan, meanwhile, has been hush about where exactly the Canal will be, its cost, and construction, saying such disclosure might lead to unjustified criticism.
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