Istanbul (AFP): Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday inaugurates Istanbul’s third bridge to span the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia, a key project in his drive to create a lasting historical legacy.
The work — one of the longest suspensions bridges in the world — will allow Erdogan to show that his dream of creating a glitzy “new Turkey” with ultra-modern infrastructure is on track despite the July 15 failed coup and a string of militant attacks.
The bridge is named after the 16th century Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim (Yavuz Sultan Selim in Turkish) who conquered swathes of the Middle East in an extraordinary eight year rule and remains a figure of adulation for modern day Turks.
The openings of bridges across the Bosphorus — the first in 1973 and the second in 1988 — have been landmark dates in the modern history of Istanbul.
Erdogan will be hoping the opening of the newest bridge becomes another such date as he seeks to transform the city where he grew up with undersea tunnels, rail lines and a new airport.
The bridge — technically a hybrid between a suspension and cable-stayed bridge — is an architectural marvel spanning the steep banks of the Bosphorus at the entrance to the Black Sea.
It is the widest suspension bridge in the world with a width of 58.5 metres (192 feet). Its span of 1,408 metres (4,619 feet) is the longest in the world between the supporting pylons.
It will also carry railway lines as well as vehicle traffic, making it the world’s longest suspension bridge with a railway.
Its support pylons are just one metre lower than the Eiffel Tower at 323 metres (1,060 feet).
The bridge had been conceived by French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux, who achieved fame by realising bridge projects of extraordinary ambition such as the 12 kilometre (7.4 mile) Vasco da Gama Bridge in Lisbon and the Millau Viaduct in southern France.
“This bridge puts Turkey among the world leaders, it’s the most spectacular to have been built in the last years,” Virlogeux told AFP.
He said the project had been extremely challenging with the “Turkish government demanding great architectural quality” with the road on the same level as the railway, which is not usually the case.
He added that there had also been considerable time pressure and did not know of “another example of a work conceived and constructed within three and a half years.”
“There was both a political will on the part of the Turkish government and an extraordinary mobilisation of the firms.”
The bridge has been built by a South Korean joint venture of the Hyundai and SK Group companies with the total cost of the project put at $800-900 million.
It will help relieve congestion in the traffic-clogged city and also provide an essential artery to the new Istanbul airport that is being built close to the Black Sea.
“The bridge will relieve traffic in Istanbul by 30 percent and relieve pressure on the two other bridges,” Transport Minister Ahmet Arslan told AFP.
Activists have complained that the new motorways built for the trip go through precious tracts of forest leading down to the Black Sea.
“There are historic forests and that is very sad for us but there is no other choice for this construction. There really are too many cars,” said Cezahir Dogan, head of the widely listened-to Radio Trafik.
The name of the bridge has also raised eyebrows, with Sultan Selim known for his ruthless methods as he expanded the empire into today’s Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
He is still hated by Turkey’s Alevi minority for his persecution and massacres of members of the Shiite offshoot sect.
One of Selim’s most legendary victories was at the battle of Marj Dabiq in modern day Syria on August 24, 1516, where he smashed the Ottomans’ Mamluk opponents to conquer much of the Middle East.
Several bloggers have noted that Turkey launched Wednesday’s operation against jihadists in Syria — two days before the bridge opening — precisely 500 years to the day after the battle.