Istanbul’s unique Tünel underground railway

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | July 29, 2014 1


When Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror captured Byzantium in 1453 the Ottoman Empire and its throne, known as the Sublime Porte, became heirs not only to the Byzantine and Eastern Roman Empire, but also a rich Greco-Latin and Judeo-Christian culture in Anatolia and in the tradition of that Empire different religious communities lived side by side, granted in return for their loyalty – rights and privileges going beyond the Koranic requirements to treat the other “Peoples of the Book” (Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) with special tolerance.

Today on the European side of Istanbul across the Golden Horn lies the district traditionally the home of foreigners in Constantinople / Istanbul known to the Byzantines as Galata and today as the district of Istanbul known as Beyoğlu. Its narrow streets rising to the Galata tower at its crest have resounded to the conversation and trade of Venetians, Genoans, Jews, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and many more of the myriad peoples who have converged in this unique city which straddles the seaway between Europe and Asia which the Hittite and Greek myths named after the mythical crossing of giant bulls from one continent to another, The Bosporus.

Genoese houses from the 1300’s in Galata

This district was not subject to the Great Siege and conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet for it was at the time a separate Genoese trading colony and officially stayed neutral in the Titanic struggle of 1453 which saw the end of the Roman Empire, the ascent of Islam, the ending of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe fuelled by the Greek scholars who fled the conquered city.

Eugène-Henri Gavand’s original design

Today it is a happening, hip and edgy district with a throbbing music scene and is named after the unique transport system which climbs underground from near the water’s edge to the near the Galata Tower on the hill – it is known simply as Tünel.

Sultanahmet from the Galata Tower

The Tünel (and the nostalgic tramway) between them form both a fascinating part of transport history. The Tünel’s place in the metro transport history is secure as it is actually the third oldest underground railway in the world and the second in continental Europe. It was built by French engineers modelled on the ‘ Ficelle’ of Lyon, a similar underground funicular railway which operated from 1862 to 1967 when part of its tunnels were incorporated into the new Lyon Metro. In both cities the design challenge was the same – how do you build a funicular to ascend a hill in a densely built up area – Answer; build it underground. The ‘ Ficelle’ (literally the string, after the traction cable the carriages hooked onto) was also the first underground railway in the world opening in June 1862 thereby predating the London Underground which opened in 1863.

Lyon – La Ficelle de la Rue Terme – The first underground railway and the first of Lyon’s five funiculars.

Lyon – Ficelle de St. Jean-Fourviere – one of the funiculars still operating

So it follows the Tünel dating from 1875 is the oldest extant underground in Continental Europe and the second oldest extant underground in the world. However a funicular is not a metro and the first full subway line with multiple underground stations in continental Europe was Line 1 of the Budapest Metro (1896).

Map of Galata

The Tünel (English: Tunnel) is a short underground railway line in Istanbul, Turkey. It is an underground funicular with two stations, connecting the quarters of Karaköy and Beyoğlu. Located at the northern shore of the Golden Horn, the underground railway tunnel goes uphill from close to sea level and is about 555 meters long and was inaugurated on January 17, 1875. The Tünel was originally conceived by the French engineer Eugène-Henri Gavand in 1867. Its purpose was to provide an easy ride between the neighbourhoods of Pera (Beyoğlu) and Galata (Karaköy), both of which were in the relatively newer part of Istanbul, on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. Many people used to work in Galata close to sea level, and live uphill in Pera, about 60 metres higher. The only direct street connecting the two, Yüksek Kaldırım, is steep and narrow; at the time of the construction of the Tünel, it was crowded with 40,000 pedestrians a day. Gavand conceived of the Tünel as “a kind of elevator ascending and descending” that would greatly ease the journey.

Two years later, on November 6, 1869, Gavand received permission from the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz to start the project with a forty-two year concession to operate it. After finding foreign funding, Gavand established a company called the Metropolitan Railway of Constantinople to carry out the project. Construction began on July 30, 1871 but was delayed significantly by conflicts between landowners and the company. The tunnel was not completed until December 1874 and was finally opened for service on January 17, 1875.

The Metropolitan Railway Company gained a fresh 75-year concession in 1904 but the Tünel was nationalised in 1923 when the Turkish Republic was proclaimed. In 1939 it was absorbed into the new IETT (İstanbul Elektrik Tramvay ve Tünel) transportation organization. It was modernised and electrified in 1971. The two parallel tracks were replaced by a single track with central siding. But what characterizes more this new funicular it is that it rolls on tires! Today, the short line is no longer as vital for Istanbul’s inner city traffic as it used to be back in the 19th century, but it is still a part of the municipal transport network and integrated tickets are valid. Istanbul-Tunel-20

Istanbul Metro system incorporating the Tünel

Nostalgic Tramway

Tünel Square, at the south-western end of Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) in Beyoğlu, Istanbul, is the upper terminus of Istanbul’s little old 19th-century, two-station underground train system, the Tünel l. The “square” is really just a widening of the street. It’s a busy place because of people going to and from the Tünel, getting on and off the nostalgic tramway seeking out the many cafes, restaurants and shops that crowd the historic Tünel Pasaji (opposite the Tünel entrance) and that line the narrow side streets northwest of the square, especially Sofyali Sokak and Asmalimescit Sokak.Some traditional forms of transport are included in Istanbul’s public transport network. In 1990, a historic tram was put in service along Istiklal Avenue between Taksim and Tunel which is 1.6km long. The tram ambles along the main pedestrian street ringing its bell to disperse the crowds of people in its path. And in 2003, another nostalgic tramline was reopened on the Asian side of Istanbul between Kadikoy and Moda. It has 10 stations on a 2.6 km long route. The trip takes 21 minutes.

Karaköy Station

The cars are used today are old cars of MP 55 trains of the subway on tires of the RATP in Paris equipped with tires but also with traditional wheels which can roll on the rails. The wooden carriages were replaced in 1971 with two electrified steel cars running on pneumatic tires. Their cruising speed is roughly 25 km/h. A trip between the two stations takes about 1.5 minutes, with an extra two minutes of waiting between operations to allow passengers to board the train.

The Engine Room

Tünel has always been special for Istanbul and Beyoğlu lovers. It’s difficult to say if this popularity comes from being the world’s second oldest metro or from being the heritage from the 19 century’s Pera era. No matter today Tünel is one of the symbols of Istanbul and this 571 meter long railway station has been tying up Karaköy to Pera since 1875. When it opened Pera was one of most prestigious residential areas and Galata was the popular trade centre of Istanbul. Businessmen living in Pera had to walk everyday to Galata Karaköy. The distance from Karaköy to Pera is not much, but the road is a tough hill. Tünel l is also used by tourists who would like walk to the Sultanahmet area. Then the station on Istiklal Street is also the starting point of the street tram for Istiklal heading to Taxim Square.

Beyoğlu (Pera) Station

Tünel has given its name to the neighbourhood as well. This area is still one of the most Bohemian quarters in Istanbul. It has its own character with a mix of everything. Maybe that’s why this little quarter is loved by locals and tourists. It offers all kind of shops: bookshops next to a doner kebab kiosk or elegantly decorated restaurants next to the cheapest passages, Terkos Passage and Beyoğlu.

Tünel Quarter is also visited frequently by those interested in music. The street, Galip Dede, going down to Galata Tower from Tünel is filled with shops selling musical instruments and other stuff.

The “Nostalgic Tramway” outside Beyoğlu (Pera) Station

It would be unfair not to mention Galata Tower, while talking about Tünel. This 12th Century 77 m high Genoese watch tower is one of Istanbul’s key landmarks. From the top you can see the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia for a thousand years the greatest church in Christendom, Leander’s Tower and the Bosporus connecting Europe and Asia and the Golden Horn at the same time. Galat Mevlevihanesi, located just at the Tünel Square in Divan Edebiyati Museum, is considered as one of the most interesting attractions. The Mehlevi are the Sufi sect commonly known as The Whirling Dervishes. Sufi literally means “wool” from the coarse cloth worn by the followers of this Sunni Muslim tradition who seek to be at one with the divine by abandoning worldly distraction and entering into a trance like ecstasy. The Ceremony can be visited on every Sunday starting at 17:00 by paying about 25 YTL fee.

Nightclub in Tünel district

Another charming area of Tünel district is the Asmalimescit. In the streets of Asmali you may find plenty of alternatives for dining. Even in winter people do not mind sitting in the narrow streets and having their lunches in those cosy streets. To mention a few of the good cafes around; The House Café and Peradox serve fine international cuisine. The House Cafe’s freshly made lemonades and ice teas are worth a try. Just opposite of the House Café there is the Helvetia cafe, serving delicious examples of home plates of Turkish cuisine. Asmalimescits’ oldest and best known restaurant and pub (meyhane) is Refik.

Galata Tower

The French street in Galatasaray is an adorable place with charming cafés where you can take pictures with colourful backgrounds. The Tünel, with its grey dirty buildings, has more character. It is just like Istanbul; you have to get in if you really want to taste it. It is somewhat amazing that this interesting bohemian area which celebrates the best of Ottoman cafe society and its music should still be held together by this absolutely unique underground railway which is in fine order and will this year be celebrating its 136th birthday. Istanbul today has an official population of 11 million but the real figure is probably considerably higher. Its transport infrastructure is creaking at the seams and one of the reasons for this is best described as “The Revenge of the Byzantines!” Both the metro extensions and the Bosporus Tunnel have been greatly delayed as every time you dig down in this city you find an archaeological site. Because of the huge pressure of immigration from the Anatolian Plateau into Istanbul the city today is mainly Turkic and not as diverse as it was in the past. However in Tünel you can find both a sense of old Istanbul and a unique working piece of transport history.

Station tiles

For more on the Fall of Byzantium see;

The Rise and Fall of Byzantium

For more on the World’s second oldest Underground see;

The Great Circle Line Journey



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