Istanbul Blues

Ara Guler/Magnum Photos
Kumkapı fishermen returning to port at dawn, Istanbul, 1950

In the early morning hours of September 4, 1963, a family was asleep in a yalı, or wooden house, near the shore of the Bosphorus. Fog sometimes twists so completely around the waters of Istanbul that from the hillsides of the European quarter the Old City disappears. From a perch on the Asian side it can seem as if there is no Europe at all. That was why, on that morning, a 5,500-ton Soviet freighter hauling Nikita Khrushchev’s military supplies to Cuba rammed thirty feet inland, straight inside the yalı of the sleeping family. “We thought the yalı had been struck by lightning; the building had split in two,” a family member told the newspapers. “When we pulled ourselves together, we went into our third-floor sitting room and found ourselves nose to nose with a huge tanker.” Two yalıs were crushed, and three people died. Orhan Pamuk recounts this event in his 2003 memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City. The newspapers that reported it, he writes, featured a picture of the tanker in the sitting room: “Hanging on the wall was a photograph of their pasha grandfather; sitting on the sideboard was a bowl of grapes.”

The story is one of many tanker tragedies described in Pamuk’s chapter “On the Ships That Passed Through the Bosphorus…and Other Disasters.” There was the Yugoslavian tanker Peter Zoranich carrying heating oil that exploded when it smashed into the Greek vessel World Harmony; the Romanian tanker that split a fishing boat in two; another that collided with a Greek freighter and exploded violently enough to shatter windows many miles away; and the Lebanese shipload of Romanian sheep that tangled with a Filipino cargo vessel carrying wheat from New Orleans to Russia. Twenty thousand sheep ended up at the bottom of the Bosphorus, though a few swam to shore, surprising some men drinking coffee.

I don’t know why the Romanians and the Greeks had such bad luck on the Bosphorus in the twentieth century. But it is hard to read this chapter—the book has been reissued this year in a gorgeously illustrated special edition—and not think that these historical calamities, these drowned sheep, could easily be invoked to justify Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to build an entirely new canal parallel to that beautiful, boat-clogged strait. Erdoğan’s dream of a second Bosphorus is most commonly called, even by himself, “the Crazy Project.”

The idea, which Erdoğan’s government has been fantasizing about for over six years now, is a canal that would extend from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, much as the Bosphorus does. It would be around thirty miles long, twenty-seven yards deep, and anywhere between 120 to 160 yards wide (estimates vary), and would eliminate tanker traffic from the Bosphorus entirely. The government argues that…

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