What is the significance of the Marmaray Project?
The first phase of the Marmaray Project was officially opened on Oct. 29. That is an important date – the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey. But the event once again has shown how polarized Turkish society is at the moment. Just follow the Twitter activity around it and you’ll see the division between those who consider it a centennial event and the ones who are trying to diminish its significance.
But that is not what struck me the most. After all, I am now used to it in Turkey. What struck me is the empty rhetoric of the official explanations. There is a kind of “It’s a bird, it’s a plane” mood in the air, but nobody concludes the trio of my childhood days with “It’s Superman.” People aren’t sure of what to make of the Marmaray. I see a problem in naming the celebration of this historic urban development project in Istanbul. Because that is what it is; the Marmaray is first and foremost about Istanbul and bears huge significance. Let me explain.
I think it was first the prime minister himself who noted that this is a major project bringing two continents together. Correct. It is the world’s first intercontinental tunnel. It is not, however, the first time that the two continents were brought together by a solid link. That first happened with the first Bosphorus Bridge in 1973, on the 50th anniversary of the Republic. Where else can one connect continents this easily? We now have two such bridges, plus the tunnel as a third connector.
Is it the reinvigoration of the Silk Road, as the minister of transportation stated? Let me differ here, too. The most analogous things we have to the Silk Road today is container traffic. It was about goods in the past, not people. As far as I know, no container traffic is planned for the Marmaray Project. It is for passenger transportation only. So it is not a bird, and definitely not a plane. What is it then? What is the significance of the Marmaray Project?
“Marmaray” in Turkish is “Marmarail” to you. It is a railway tunnel project under the Marmara Sea, just by the Bosphorus. It is not about bringing continents together or rebuilding the Silk Road. It is about Istanbul and its people. The Marmaray is the first major rail project to unite the magnificent city. It is about Istanbul’s internal connectivity. The city has up until now been a collection of many small, diverse districts, or “cities.” The Marmaray is meant to connect Istanbul within itself. What was now laid before our eyes is the backbone of the long-forgotten Istanbul metro, if you ask me. That is what we all need to celebrate. Good for all Istanbulites. We have waited long for this day. But nobody is celebrating this major urban achievement. Why the shyness? Could it be guilt, out of doing so much in one city of Turkey while ignoring the remaining 80 provinces? The project does not mean much to the rest of the country, if you ask me. So the empty rhetoric might have political meaning.
Consider this. Construction on Seoul’s metro started in 1973. That was also the year we completed the first bridge over the Bosphorus, connecting Asia and Europe. Today, the Seoul metro is about 500 kilometers long. The Shanghai metro is just as long and was started in 1993, the year we started the Ankara metro. We built around 11.7 kilometers in 20 years. It sounds like a joke. Istanbul’s metro? Just around 19.9 kilometers. That is why the Marmaray Project is significant. After years of stagnation, we came up with a significant urban development project. I hope people can celebrate that.