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So why is the Bosporus so important?

February 13, 2011

If you have a spare moment (or 30), absolutely head over to the BBC, where they have a really well-done podcast up about the Bosporus. Its timing is fortuitous, as I was just thinking about how I should write about why the Bosporus is so important, historically, culturally, and today, and it does a great job of covering much of that.
It’s easy to think that in today’s world of globalized trade, the Bosporus isn’t as critical as perhaps it once was, but it would be a mistake to discount the Bosporus’ continued strategic shipping importance. Today the strait is a major transitway for crude oil and other petroleum products – the US Department of Energy classifies the Bosporus as one of its “World Oil Transit Chokepoints” and noted that in 2009, 2.5 million barrels a day of crude oil passed through the strait. That might sound like a lot for a country with no significant oil reserves, but as the DOE points out, “The ports of the Black Sea are one of the primary oil export routes for Russia and other former Soviet Union republics.”
Each year, 50,000 vessels transit the straits, not including local traffic like the city ferries. Of those 50,000, about 5,500 are tankers. On a per-day average, this works out to about 140 through-traffic vessels, including 15 tankers.* According to Bosphorus Strait News, the strait is second in vessel density only to the Strait of Malacca. So many tankers and other vessels transit via the Bosporus, in fact, that there are often weekslong delays – you can see an entire city on the water out on the Marmara if you take the shore road to the Ataturk Airport. It’s beautiful at night. These ships wait as long as 20 days before being able to get through to the Black Sea, and I imagine there’s likely a similar waiting area on the north side, waiting for permission to go through to the Marmara.
Unfortunately for Turkey, under the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention it can’t charge transit fees for commercial vessels. The convention also grants passage to all commercial vessels from all nations. This is a big reason why Turkey is so gung-ho about its pipeline projects – if an energy pipeline is built through Turkey, it will relieve some of the burden of the Bosporus for energy transport and on top of that, Turkey will be able to make a very tidy sum in transit fees. A pipeline would also mitigate some of the environmental damage being done to the Bosporus by the tankers – there’s a lot of oil that leaks into the water, and the Bosporus today is shockingly polluted.
There’s also a not-insignificant risk of an accident or collision. The Bosporus is S-shaped, and at one point (just south of Kandilli) ships must make a 45-degree turn – not easy with a giant ship at full speed. Between 1953 and 2002, there were 461 “maritime incidents” in the Bosporus or in the Marmara right at the end of the strait. In 2009 a tanker lost control and collided with a waterfront mansion – luckily it slowed enough that it didn’t crash straight on through the house. There’s a listing of some of the more notable incidents here – among them a 1991 collision between two ships, one of which was carrying livestock. As the site notes, 21,000 sheep drowned at Anadoluhisari, causing major pollution as the bodies decomposed.** With the oil and LPG being carried through the strait these days though, there’s a risk of a much greater disaster than 21,000 dead sheep. As the BBC podcast points out, estimates of death tolls if a tanker exploded while in the Bosporus start at 10,000.

For a waterway that serves as the heart of the city, the Bosporus is so much more. And the ancient waterway retains its commercial importance today, serving as a major transit point for oil, other petroleum products, and many other commercial interests traveling between the Black Sea (and thus Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia) and the rest of the world.

*You can follow vessel traffic in and around the Bosporus live at It’s amazing — as I write this, there are 193 cargo vessels and tankers in the Bosporus vicinity.

**This led me on a wonderful tangent as I googled around trying to find out if sheep can swim. The answer? They can, although it’s “not their preferred recreation activity.” Sheepnet goes on to say: “Their swimming style can best be described as a doggy-paddle.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2011 12:04 am

    Loving the Bosporus traffic link… Also: Ayşe Kulin: “I we should have five more [bridges]”. Surely only a matter of time before Turkish press grabs this quote!

    • Rebecca permalink*
      February 15, 2011 2:31 am

      Can you imagine? Istanbul: The city of 7 hills and 7 intercontinental bridges…
      And, Bosporus Strait News also does a daily list of the tankers passing through, which is pretty interesting as well. I can’t tell if it’s comprehensive though, the most I counted on a cursory check was seven a day.


  1. Istanbul: Urban Political Ecological Perspectives on the Bosphorus – UPE

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