Istanbul’s infamous mega canal threatens cultural and natural heritage

The Bosporus might receive competition from the planned Istanbul Canal. Image: tilialucida (Canva) CC0

The metropolitan municipality of Istanbul is concerned about 25 cultural and natural heritage places on the canal route. The construction of the Istanbul Canal, one of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s megaprojects, threatens these places. Many scientific experts have argued against the canal.

These scientists fear that the natural and archaeological sites will face extinction if the project is carried out, reported the Turkish gazette Duvar already in 2019. Apart from endangering these heritage areas, the canal will also have far-reaching environmental, social and economic consequences for Turkey and neighbouring countries.

Expensive sailing

European Heritage Youth Ambassador Levent Tökün

The Istanbul Canal will serve as a connection between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. “Right now, the only way between these waters is the Bosporus, which is free of charge for non-military ships at all times. These ships only have to pay some fees agreed during an international convention in 1936”, says Levent Tökün. 

The archaeologist, art historian, and European Heritage Youth Ambassador mentions that ships sailing the canal have to pay a high fee. “I can’t imagine why ships would use the expensive and longer canal instead of sailing in the Bosporus. It is a lot cheaper, shorter, and safe passage is guaranteed by an international treaty.”

The Istanbul Canal’s first and currently projeted route. Image: Giorgi Balakhadze (Wikimedia) CC BY-SA 4.0

Relocating heritage sites

Alongside the Istanbul Canal’s projected route lie 25 protected cultural and natural heritage sites. These include a Palaeolithic-era Yarımburgaz Cave and several bridges, for example, Odabaşı Bridge designed by the famous Ottoman architect Koca Mimar Sinan Ağa. Other important sites are the ruins of the ancient settlements such as Rhegion near the Küçükçekmece lagoon and Spradon in Avcılar county. The government wants to relocate some of these sites, just as they did with the Zeynel Bey Mausoleum in Hasankeyf in 2017.

However, Tökün is sceptical about this idea. He thinks the proposed relocation of historical bridges, roads, blockhouses, and bastions is a clear and significant threat on heritage. “Relocating heritage destroys its authenticity. It is heritage because it is located in that exact spot. It has meaning within the context of the site’s location.” 

Apart from the questionable relocation, the plan, in general, is dubious. “Only one archaeologist conducted the Environmental Impact Assessment report”, Tökün points out. “This person wrote every section on cultural heritage in the report. However, since most of these sites are from different eras, ranging from the Palaeolithic era to the Ottoman times, this archaeologist cannot be an expert on each site.”

Political pawn

Why does the government still want to build the waterway when there are so many downsides to it? “One of the most probable reasons is because a megaproject in Istanbul might be a rich source of income for certain people”, Tökün says. He believes the canal is more of a political project than an improvement of Turkey’s infrastructure.

Multiple investors from Qatar bought the lands alongside the canal’s projected route. “Qatar, and probably other Arab states too, wants to build gated communities with luxurious villas and shopping malls there”, Tökün explains. “In short, that’s where the government gets the money from to build the canal. They don’t have these kinds of funds themselves.” 

Perhaps the government is not allowed to use the land, for now. But they might do it anyway since they have the power to change laws and regulations

An important detail is the fact that the canal will be built on protected lands. “The government decreased the protected status of these lands over the years. Now they can build on it”, Tökün mentions. “Perhaps they are not allowed to use the land, for now. But the government might do it anyway since they have the power to change laws and regulations”, he sighs.

Elections on the horizon

The future looks bleak, but Tökün and many other Turkish heritage professionals have not lost hope yet. In a report of a public workshop on the Istanbul Canal from last year, several prominent Istanbul Metropolitan municipality members spoke out against the construction. Over 80% of Istanbul residents were against the canal project, Internet Haber reported in August 2020.

“And over 100.000 Istanbul residents have signed a petition against the project as well”, Tökün adds. “The government refuses to acknowledge these signals. But they will have a lot of trouble building the canal without Istanbul’s support.”

Until the digging starts, we can stop this project

On the canal’s website, a timeline shows that the construction should be finished in five years. In this period Turkey will organise general elections. These could play an important role. ”Erdoğan lost Istanbul during the last election. He is determined to win it back in 2023. Turning the public opinion could also influence this project”, Tökün explains.

The significant heritage sites that are threatened are not lost yet. ”Until the digging starts, we can stop this project”, says Tökün resolute. Time will tell if the canal will be realised, or turn into a footnote of Turkey’s history.

Sources: Levent Tökün, Canal Istanbul Workshop, Duvar (Turkish), Internet Haber (Turkish), Kanal Istanbul (Turkish), National Geographic and Wikipedia

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