Istanbul: Turkey on Tuesday formally opened the world`s first sea tunnel connecting two continents, fulfilling a sultan`s dream 150 years ago in a three-billion-euro mega project driven by the Islamic-rooted government.
The 13.6-kilometre long tunnel linking Istanbul`s European and Asian sides includes an immersed tube tunnel which officials say is the world`s deepest at 60 metres below the seabed.
The inauguration of the ambitious scheme -- dubbed "the project of the century" by the government -- coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of modern Turkey.
"Turkey will celebrate two feasts together," Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said earlier this month.
"We will mark the 90th anniversary of the republic on October 29 and also realise a one-and-a-half century dream of a major rail tunnel project in Istanbul."
The tunnel in the country`s main gateway city is part of a larger "Marmaray" project that also includes an upgrade of existing suburban train lines to create a 76-kilometre line that links the two continents.
The idea was first floated by Ottoman sultan Abdoul Medjid in 1860 but technical equipment at the time was not good enough to take the project further.
However the desire to build an undersea tunnel grew stronger in the 1980s and studies also showed that such a tunnel would be feasible and cost-effective.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, revived the plan in 2004 as one of his mega projects for the bustling city of 16 million people -- which also include a third airport, a third bridge across the Bosphorus and a canal parallel to the international waterway to ease traffic.
His ambitions were one cause for the massive anti-government protests that swept the country in June, with local residents complaining the premier`s urban development plans were forcing people from their homes and destroying green space.
Erdogan`s critics accuse him of bringing forward the inauguration of the Bosphorus tunnel in time for municipal elections in March 2014.
The project will not be fully operational immediately and construction is expected to continue for several more years.
Japan`s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also present at the official opening ceremony as the Japan Bank for International Cooperation was the main financer contributing USD 1 billion to the project.
Construction of the tunnel started in 2004 and had been scheduled to take four years but was delayed after a series of major archaeological discoveries. Some 40,000 objects were excavated from the site, notably a cemetery of some 30 Byzantine ships, which is the largest known medieval fleet.