Every morning when I get the ferry, I cross the Bosphorus. It’s one of the busiest waterways in the world. This thin strait not only connects Europe with Asia, but also the Black Sea with the Mediterranean via the Dardenelles to the southwest. You can see vessels, from the huge container ships to hotel-sized luxury liners to sleek metal-grey warships at any time, bound for ports from Russia to North Africa, and beyond.
These days, I find myself casting a pensive, or at least more watchful, eye to the north as the ferry takes us over to the European side. The grey waters of the Bosphorus pass beneath the bridges, past the hillsides of the city and on up to the Black Sea, which has kept the war in Ukraine at a relatively comfortable distance. Or more precisely: 528 miles, the distance from Sile, an Istanbul district on the Black Sea coast, to the shores of Odesa. That’s roughly the same distance from Eureka to Seattle, just for perspective.
Standing on the ferry deck and peering north, all appears normal. One sees the ferries making their routine journeys back and forth beneath overcast skies, a cargo ship faint in the distance already beyond the Martyrs’ Bridge steaming north. The waters themselves are smooth, green-grey, the current rippling south toward great mosques jutting up from the shores of the Golden Horn.
Yes, all quiet on the Turkish front, you could say. Still, you can’t help but imagine the prospect of waking up one morning to the sight of battleships on the horizon, or even worse, to the sound of their big guns booming. Fortunately, such imaginings remain remote, but when you reflect on the strategic importance of this waterway, and its proximity to the current conflict, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Could the Bosphorus have a role to play yet in this war? Yes, and no. Thanks to the 1936 Montreux Convention, an international agreement regarding usage of the Bosphorus and Dardenelles passageways. Under the agreement, ships are guaranteed free access during peacetime, but in the event of war, Turkey has the right to deny access to the Bosphorus to those deemed to be active participants. There is a caveat. Passage cannot be denied if the ship is bound for its home port. Officially, Turkey could deny Russian naval vessels access to the Bosphorus, but in the current context this old agreement could be moot, since the Russians already reportedly amassed a large fleet in the Black Sea, well before the war began in late February. However, some experts have said the Montreux agreement could come into play should the conflict drag on and on, and Russians need to deploy reinforcements or retreat. And of course, there is the concern that Russian President Putin may choose to disregard such agreements, along with everything else, as he continues to raise the stakes.
I know – I’m no diplomat or general, so all of this is general hearsay, gleamed from the news. Also, one wonders, given the importance of Russia as a trading partner, whether the Turkish government would not any case feel pressured to make exceptions to these old rules down the road. Turkey has officially denounced the war, and is playing a neutral role in trying to bring peace. Still, the country relies heavily on Russian tourism (you wonder, with all the economic sanctions, how badly this will affect Russian tourism this summer), just as Russia depends on Turkey for fruits and vegetables, and these ties would definitely factor into any decisions regarding the Bosphorus. The bigger fear is that such a scenario could very well put Turkey’s neutrality to the test.
All of this is speculation, “big picture” stuff, over which we here in Istanbul have little or no control, just as we have no idea how long the war will last, or how many refugees will continue to arrive in the country. Just as we have no control over the inflation that has spiked in recent months and seen our hard-earned liras go all to shit. Like the old song goes, We’re just a pawn in the game.
Some 60,000 Ukrainians, as well as 14,000 Russians, have already come to Turkey (as of mid-Wednesday, the time of writing this), according to local news reports. They have taken the journey by bus to the border town of Edirne before making their way to Istanbul or elsewhere. I say this only to indicate that, unlike the Syrian war, which saw untold numbers of refugees depart for Europe in boats, we have yet to see any refugees floating in boats here in the Bosphorus. That may sound trite, and highly unlikely given the heavy presence of Russian ships in the Black Sea, but these days you never know what could happen next.
Maybe that’s why I have been keeping this watchful eye on the Bosphorus each morning, an anxious eye to the north. My wife and I and our son live in a small apartment on a hill that overlooks the Bosphorus. We can walk to the end of our street and look right out at the ships passing. It is one of the reasons why we bought the place four years ago. The view is a post card, the location central, a five-minute walk from the ferry station. In those normal times of a few years ago, we figured it was a sound long-term investment. Even now, the apartment is likely worth twice what we paid.
But what would happen if one morning the relative tranquility of those waters were shattered, if we awoke one morning (or night) to the strange sounds of heavy artillery? Our post card view suddenly, nightmarishly transformed into a balcony seat of a naval battle? It would be hard to take our son to the nearby park with the prospect of nearby shelling.
Again, fortunately these imaginings remain just that, imaginings. Since the conflict began, several people have messaged from America asking if we are “OK.” I always say, yes, we are. And I remind them and myself that, between Syria, Georgia, Crimea, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Ukraine, we in Turkey have had war in one form or another at our borders for as long as I have been here, and well before. We have been surrounded by war. It’s no accident that Turkey houses more refugees than any other country, is it?
“Peace in Turkey, peace in the World,” said the great Turkish general and president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. I find myself wondering what Ataturk would have made of the present conflict. Before his untimely death at age 58 in 1938, Ataturk shored up Turkey’s borders by establishing peaceful relations with all of Turkey’s neighbors, a far-seeking course that kept his young republic out of the Second World War. It should be noted too that the aforementioned Montreux agreement was signed while Ataturk was still at the helm, a far-reaching agreement that underscored Ataturk’s determination to forge an independent course for his nation. His distant successor, current President Erdoğan, seems bent on staying this course, having played an active role as a mediator in the current war.
Looking out at the Bosphorus, on a grey overcast day, I think of these and other things – my wife and son at home – and can only hope the war to the north will end soon (wouldn’t it be great if the war were over by Sunday, the day you, reader, are reading this and hence it’s irrelevant?). If little else, one can only hope that the war stays over there, beyond the bridge, beyond the Bosphorus and horizon, and out of our lives here. That may sound selfish, but after years of war to the south and west, followed by the pandemic, two years of living in lockdown and isolation, we would very much like to get on with our own lives here. And I suspect we are not alone.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.