Photography,  Places

In the belly of a beautiful beast: the Marmaray Project.

Cities are incredible things to me, like monstrous organisms. They are composed of living and non-living materials. They have a vast network of interconnected internal organs hidden beneath layers of external tissues. They expand and contract, inhale and exhale, live and die … I could go on with the metaphors, but I won’t.

Yesterday, I had a magnificent opportunity, one of the most awe-inspiring of my life, to enter the belly of the beast of Istanbul and explore the tunnels which will conduct the Marmaray rail system, a system which will plunge below the Marmara Sea and once completed, will connect Halkali on the European side to Gebze on the Asian side of the supercity of Istanbul.

Like many people who live in metropolises, I take trains and the underground on an almost daily basis. Aside from some crowding, the occasional waft of bad breath or B.O., rail is a highly civilized way of conducting people quickly from one end of a city to another.  Down inside the tunnels we distract ourselves with music, magazines or iPads, thoughts of where we were or are about to be, mostly failing to appreciate the massive undertaking required to build these corridors beneath our cities.

After yesterday I don’t think I’ll ever fail to appreciate the incredible feat of civil engineering, the manpower or will it takes to accomplish such work. It is no less than awe-inspiring.


I meet with my guide (and a true gentleman) Ugur Galatali at Sirkeci train station at 2:00 pm and take the old rail system to Yenikapi where the Gama Nurol portion of the Marmaray Project is underway. In addition to the tunneling work they are constructing an all new Yenikapi Station. The site manager looks at our footwear and shakes his head with a laugh. He gets on the phone. After being given some industrial strength wellington boots and an orta-sweet Turkish Coffee we don our hard hats and reflective safety vests and descended by stair to the mouths of three tunnels at various stages of completion. 


The first tunnel we enter is the shortest, and hence not dug using a TBM (Tunnel Boring Machine). These 5 Million Euro wonders are not cost-effective for shorter tunnels. Dank is an understatement and I’m  thankful for my new boots as I sank almost knee-deep in muck. Here the drilling is underway manually. Different points of the shored-up tunnel are being drilled to release water and alleviate the pressure to prevent a cave-in. Dinosaur-like digging machines and men all splattered in a thick layer of silt, work eight-hour shifts moving through porridge-like earth, breathing in the thick particle-infused air.


The next tunnel is something else. This one has been created using one of the TBMs and seems more like something out of a sci-fi movie directed by James Cameron or Ridley Scott. Dank like the first one we entered, there are vast pools of water which must be constantly drained as it has yet to be fully sealed. Again there are points where you think you might be swallowed by opaque water. The tunnel walls are incredibly smooth, constructed of huge numbered, pre-fab panels which were machine-fitted to the tunnel walls as the TBM worked ahead.


A few hundred meters down, the tunnel curves and we lose sight of its mouth, having forgot to kiss daylight goodbye. Tunneling work is done 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so some people enter in daylight only to emerge after a grueling shift in the cavernous dark.

Now the experience gets truly surreal. We no longer lose our feet in pools of water, and reach one of the cross hatches being created as an emergency exit should the tunnel become impassable. Through sections where no one is working there’s a constant hum, the source of which I ask about but never discover. It’s only at intervals that you hear the recognizable chatter of drilling or squeal of a machine.


About a kilometer in we reach a sump off to one side of the tunnel. Over a dozen grim-faced men work in a tight lattice of steel supports which stops everything from collapsing and gushing down upon all of us. Fortunately the only spray is a shower of sparks from welding. A half dozen men stand on a platform fixing thick sheeting to the ceiling. None smile, whistle or look remotely jocular. And who can blame them? This is intensely demanding work, both physically and mentally. You are in a tight spot, literally, all day or night long. A week or so earlier, we’re informed, this spot was a mini lake.

We’ve been in the tunnel almost an hour before we turn back towards Yenikapi. Halfway down, as the first fingers of natural light return, there’s a roar. A loader is barreling toward us, its shovel lowered like the trunk of an angry elephant. We move to the walls but, even so, there’s no room. He stops just short of us, the lamps beaming down in our faces and obscuring the driver’s. We squeeze on by, and I’m relieved to see it disappear behind us.


There’s only a few hundred meters to go and again we see the light, natural light, golden and life-giving before us. Stepping out of the tunnel there’s a euphoric rush of air, relief and sense of rightness about having a naked sky up above. Then you remember there are cranes hauling steel beams, and mixer-trucks ready to pour shotcrete down a chute directly overhead and you realize it’s no time to celebrate but instead a moment in which you need to shift your behind into gear. It’s a construction site, and there are definite limits to the protection a hard hat affords.


Once we move out of harm’s way, there’s one last marvel to appreciate. A strange shaft of refracted light creates a perfect x to mark the end of the journey. It was only an hour or two of my life, but every second was epic. Thank you, Gama Nurol, and especially, thank you Eda Çarmikli, for allowing me to see a side of Istanbul, I’d otherwise be ignorant of.

It was an adventure I won’t forget.