ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Turkey is celebrating the opening of a new underwater rail link between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. It's a modern feat of engineering that realizes the 150-year-old dream of an Ottoman sultan. The project is also a symbol of the determination of Turkey's new rulers, with their roots in political Islam, to overshadow the pro-Western vision of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon with a letter from Istanbul.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Before we get to the symbolism and the politics behind this continent-linking tunnel, a little practical information. Abandon any romantic notions of well-appointed coaches and silver and china clinking in the dining car. Can I be frank? It's a subway.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
KENYON: Plastic seats, fluorescent lighting, incomprehensible announcements, the Orient Express this is not. It is, however, an undeniably impressive route, nearly 200 feet beneath the dangerous currents of the Bosphorus. Riding the first train open to the public Tuesday evening, I met Turgut, a professor of mechanical engineering. He interrupted an underwater cellphone call to say he wouldn't have missed this for anything.
TURGUT: And using the technology, I'm speaking to England now from the underground - under the sea, actually. I am here just to make history.
KENYON: Speaking of history, why did Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan open the tunnel on Republic Day, the 90th anniversary of Ataturk's secular, pro-Western Turkish republic? In past years, Erdogan and other top-ruling party officials found excuses to be traveling on Republic Day, thus avoiding ceremonies honoring Ataturk. But this year, Erdogan had the perfect counter-narrative, thanks to an Ottoman sultan who dreamed of a tunnel connecting Asia and Europe long before Ataturk was born.
Sultan Abdulmecid ruled the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century. In an interesting parallel with Erdogan's early years, the sultan was known for his reforms and friendly approach to Europe.
The tunnel, however, proved too great an engineering problem. It took Erdogan, modern technology and a big assist from Japan to make the tunnel a reality.
PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: At the opening ceremony, Erdogan mentioned Ataturk, but focused on the Ottoman dream being fulfilled, saying this project not only connects continents but reunites history with today.
To secular Turks already anxious about Erdogan's virtually unchecked power and soaring ambition, reuniting with history is a less than inviting prospect.
PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: Speaking of former empires, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on hand to mark the opening of the tunnel, in which Japanese engineering and financing played a major role. Abe was modest and gracious but somehow his praise for Erdogan kept coming back to the same theme: What a good sport Istanbul had been in losing the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo last month.
It remains to be seen if this historic tunnel does transform itself from a small commuter subway line into the linchpin of a vast rail network linking London and Beijing. It also remains to be seen if Erdogan and his colleagues can dismantle the authoritarian instruments of Ataturk's republic without destroying the human and civil rights that came with it.
So far, neither project is off to a perfect start. The first morning commuter trains beneath the Bosphorus suffered delays due to electrical problems. That had some Turks joking darkly about bad omens for the next big Turkish-Japanese partnership, building a nuclear power plant on the Black Sea.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.