Istanbul’s Tünel, an underground funicular that connects Karaköy to İstiklal Caddesi in a 90-second ride, boasts a unique architectural history that links neighborhoods and cultures, from past to present. Today, the cars have a capacity of 170 and the system transports about 12,000 passengers per day.
The nineteenth century was a bustling time for Istanbul. Businessmen and diplomats frequented Beyoğlu, oftentimes working in the financial center of Galata and socializing in the lively areas around modern-day Taksim Square. Though the commute between these two neighborhoods was a short distance, Yüksekkaldırım Caddesi, which translates to High Sidewalk Road, and its sloped, narrow streets made it difficult for pedestrians to walk from one area to another.
In 1867, French engineer Eugène-Henri Gavand was inspired to make the area easier to access for pedestrians. He proposed the construction of Tünel funicular, a daring architectural feat for the time. His idea focused on practicality and the design would change the way locals, foreigners, and tourists visited the areas for decades to come. Sultan Abdulaziz approved Gavand’s funicular and the project that would propel the neighborhood upward began.
Tünel was modelled after the ficelle, French for funicular, of Lyon, France, a structure that overcame the same incline challenges as those of Yüksekkaldırım Caddesi. The funicular reflected the multicultural spirit of Constantinople. Karaköy and Galata, the two neighborhoods that Tünel connects, historically was home to Jews, Greeks, and Italians. The area’s multiculturalism is reflected in the names of the neighborhoods themselves—Karaköy means “Karay Village,” referring to the Karaite branch of Judaism; Galata is believed to originate from galaktos, “milk” in Greek, or calata, “stairway” in Italian.
Today, the influence of the different cultures is apparent in present-day Beyoğlu, from Taksim to Galata to the Golden Horn, where Ottoman and international styles converge. An example of this is today’s SALT Galata, which is in the former Ottoman Imperial Bank building, and the Camondo steps. The curved staircase, built around 1870-80, was built by Abraham Camondo, a Jewish man, supposedly as a shortcut to Bankalar Caddesi. Tünel’s two stations, located close to the Karaköy ferry docks on one end and the southern side of İstiklal Caddesi on the other, open up to impressive buildings reflecting architecture inspired by different countries and time periods.
Tünel, past and present
Tünel has been updated and restored multiple times over the years. When it was first constructed, Tünel was powered by steam and lit by gas; today, it is powered by electricity. The wooden carriages were replaced with steel in the 1970s, giving more functionality to the cable car system. The funicular car’s red-beige exterior, however, remains similar to the original nineteenth century wooden railway. Despite these differences, the amount of time it takes to go from one destination to the other is the same: 90 seconds.
Tünel played an important role in modernizing Constantinople and continues to influence daily life in present-day Istanbul. It is both a feat of engineering and an impressive piece of functionalist architecture whose appeal involves the constant movement of people between its cars. More than 140 years after Tünel was inaugurated, the areas around Karaköy and Galata continue to be a favorite amongst locals and foreigners alike. Just like in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when its construction served to increase interaction between individuals from many backgrounds, Tünel today serves this same purpose: to attract people from all over the world to explore the liveliest hubs of the city in a convenient manner.
Though the name itself implies a darkness, which would contradict most architectural intentions, the history of this work sparks a bright, nostalgic image of nineteenth century Istanbul and has a distinct aesthetic value. This short ride through the historical underground railway indeed reflects a functional cross between districts, people, and cultures.