The other day international newspapers ran articles on NATO ships on the Bosporus, and almost every article said that this presence was "reassuring" for Turkish citizens.
Hmmm, they must have been talking to Turkish citizens I don't know. I don't doubt that this is the case, as there are many Turkish citizens with a great variety of views.
But the overwhelming reaction I got was more "What the ... ?" The Turks with whom I talked were surprised that NATO nations saw the fallout with Russia to be serious enough to warrant this presence.
"We aren't at war, yet the presence of the ships on our Bosporus makes it seem like we are in the middle of a war. This makes Turkey look like it is in need of help. We are not in a situation that requires this presence."
There are many sentiments in the above quote that are significant. First of all, Turkey is not at war with Russia, and has no intention of being at war with Russia. Secondly, this is "our" Bosporus. Turks just do not feel that the Bosporus is intrinsically Turkish; it is part and parcel of their favorite city, Istanbul. It is deeply intertwined with their culture and history.
And thirdly, there is a belief that for some reason a perception of a weak Turkey is being created, on purpose, accidentally, with good intentions or otherwise.
But the presence of these ships on "our" Bosporus raises some questions as well. Is the Bosporus as much "ours" as is generally believed? What is the story with the Bosporus? Why is it so often in the news?
Straits, canals and other passageways; there always seems to be a lot of fuss around when these geographical water ways come into question. The Bosporus, Panama Canal, Suez Canal, Northwest Passage - what's the big deal?
The big deal is that these passageways serve as a means to circumvent continents or make shortcuts e.g., the canals and Northwest Passage. This means that states can save time and money for military and commercial shipping. Even though we use airplanes and trains today to transfer goods, shipping remains the easiest and cheapest method of sending goods from one country to another distant country.
The Panama Canal served American interests while the Suez Canal was something the British were keen on, although it ended in what many call a diplomatic disaster for them in their Middle East adventures at the beginning of the century. The Northwest Passage was the result of centuries of the derring-do of explorers trying to find a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The Bosporus is different. It is not man-made like the canals. It is a natural strait like the Strait of Gibraltar, which is the route between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. The Bosporus allows access from the Black Sea to the Aegean, onward to the Mediterranean, and through the Strait of Gibraltar, finally to the Atlantic.
The Bosporus runs straight down the middle of Istanbul, separating the European from the Asian side. That is, the Bosporus also marks the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia.
As such, as a waterway that runs through the heart of the city, the Bosporus is a part of the daily life of any Istanbul resident. A friend once said: "You can't say you live in Istanbul if you don't see the Bosporus every day." If this is our criteria, not all of us are fortunate enough to be able to say that we truly live in Istanbul. In fact, there are many people who never see the Bosporus, although they officially live in Istanbul. They live in places that are far removed from the strait, and their daily lives do not bring them into contact with this magnificent stretch of water, spanned by two bridges.
But the view from Salacak in Üsküdar, or from Sarayburnu - my favorite spot is the little masjid in the gardens of Topkapi Palace - or even as you drive/crawl across one of the two bridges during rush hour traffic the view is inspiring. Watching the Bosporus from Dolmabahçe, or viewing it from a restaurant perched above it, the Bosporus is definitely part of daily life.
The Bosporus is more than a tourist sight. It has great historic importance. But why is it so important?
The etymology of the name Bosporus - Boğaz in Turkish - comes from Greek and means a place where an ox can cross, or "ox ford." That is interesting. Not because it summons up images of professors dressed in medieval garb discussing deep and intellectual matters, but because considering the dangerous currents and the depth of the Bosporus, it must have been a very different body of water when and if oxen crossed it.
In ancient Greek legend, the Symplegades were said to be located here. The Symplegades were floating rocks that crushed any ship that attempted to pass down the Bosporus, that is until Jason heroically passed through. After this the rocks became stabilized and the Greeks could access the Black Sea.
The strategic importance of the Bosporus was one reason that Constantine decided to found the New Rome he wanted to build here. New Rome was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and this magnificent city, built at a strategically important position, soon became known as Constantinople.
Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in the middle of the 15th century, but the Islamic empires had had their eye on Constantinople since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who foretold that it would be conquered by a Muslim army.
This strategic aspect of the Bosporus is still valid today. The greatest reason for this is the fact that not only is it the exit from the Black Sea that leads to the Mediterranean, it is the only warm water exit for Russia. From between six to nine months a year Russia's northern water ways are frozen over and the Bosporus offers it a year-round exit to warmer waters, important not only for commercial interests, but also for military concerns. If you stretch your mind back three years, and the referendum in the Crimea in which 105 percent of people participated, the significance of the Crimea "deciding" to be Russian will be clearer, as Sevastopol is still home to the Russian navy, and is still an important port for them.
As such, control of the Bosporus has always been a bone of contention. The Russo-Turkish war of 1877 to 1878 was fought over this, and the ultimate aim of the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I was to move up to the Bosporus to establish control over the shipping lane.
In 1920 the Treaty of Sevres demilitarized the straits. The Bosporus became international water, controlled by the League of Nations. The Treaty of Lausanne reintegrated the Bosporus as Turkish territory, but allowed foreign warships and commercial shipping to use it. Finally, the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits of July 1936 established the Bosporus as an international shipping lane, but gave Turkey the right to restrict ships from non-Black Sea nations.
During World War II, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, requested that military bases be placed on the strait. This demand was one of the reasons that Turkey stopped being neutral in foreign affairs, eventually joining NATO in 1952.
With the growth of the oil industry, in particular Russian oil from Siberia, the Bosporus took on new importance. Oil from Novorossiysk is sent by tanker to Western Europe and the United States, and the most important parts of the trip is getting down the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean.
Russian oil exports as well as the export and import of goods by other Black Sea states means that the Bosporus has become the second-busiest straits in the world after the Strait of Dover. Every year approximately 50,000 vessels travel up and down this waterway. The Bosporus measures only 30 kilometers long and is no wider than 3,700 meters, narrowing to 700 meters at some points.
Sending oil tankers down straits that cut through one of the most populated cities in the world is a feat that is fraught with danger. Any accident could have serious environmental consequences, endangering not only sea life and birds, but also the residents of this metropolitan city.
In 1994 a Greek Cypriot oil tanker, Nassia, collided with another ship and 30 men died and 20,000 tons of oil polluted the Bosporus. The oil caught fire and the resulting inferno could not be put out for five days. Fortunately, the accident was north of the city, otherwise the results could have been much more serious.
The Montreux Convention prevents Turkey from being able to regulate commercial shipping. In 1999, a Russian tanker, 25 years in service, ran aground, and split in two and 800 tons or more of the fuel-oil on board spilled into the Marmara Sea, covering the coast and killing fish and plants.
The ships that travel down the strait in the past have caused serious levels of pollution in the water of the Bosporus and Golden Horn, with almost all living creatures being killed off. Today the water is cleaner and there are many more fish, but it is still water that belongs to a busy strait.
The Montreux Convention, originally drawn up in 1936, is reviewed every 20 years. The next review is approaching fast in 2016. However, there will not be any earth-shattering changes made to the treaty, and it will probably be extended for another 20 years.
The real question is not one of making changes to the treaty, but rather of creating an alternative to the Bosporus. It is time that Turkey had the ability to control who or what comes down this shipping lane. The proposed Kanal Istanbul, which will bypass the city, taking dangerous cargo away from human habitation, is another possible solution to this potential threat to the city.
The Bosporus is a beautiful stretch of water. However, it is a strategic stretch and an important commercial avenue. Seeing NATO ships anchored here reminds us what is at stake. As a resident of this beautiful humming city, I for one would like to sit on the terrace under Topkapı Palace, look on the beautiful Bosporus unmarred by decrepit Russian tankers that list as they sail by. The best solution surely is to create another commercial canal that keeps these ships, commercial or otherwise, at a safe distance.