On the morning of Jan. 27, Ayse Muzdan Kunttay, 55, an inhabitant of Istanbul's sedate Kanlica District, woke to a big bang -- and found a ship in her living room.
The 3,000-ton Greek vessel Pinelopia, bearing a cargo of Bulgarian aluminum nitrate from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, had crossed the garden and rammed into her 250-year-old seaside villa.
No one was injured, but some antique furniture was damaged. More important, however, was the danger that once the freighter was towed out it might carry the villa with it into the fast-flowing waters of the Bosporus. iKunttay was lucky to have escaped with her life.
In the past 20 years, 30 serious accidents occurred in the Bosporus, the 19-mile-long narrow strait that splits the ancient city of Istanbul into two and connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. A total of 150 people died. Six of these were killed in their beds, when a Soviet vessel rammed into their home.
The Bosporus is more like a river than a strait. At its narrowest point it is 750 yards wide while its average width varies between one and 4 1/2 miles. It has sharp bends and erratic currents flowing from the Black Sea that may attain a rate of seven knots an hour. Five million people live in Istanbul, which stretches west into Europe and east into Asia from Bosporus shores.
In recent years accidents have become increasingly frequent and serious, alarming local authorities, seamen and insurance companies.
In November, the Romanian supertanker Independenta collided with a Greek cargo vessel off the city's main Asian train terminal at Haydarpasa.The tanker exploded, killing 42 members of its crew, shattering windows for miles and hurling balls of burning oil onto rooftops. It burned for 29 days.
Independenta's black hulk still lies off Haydarpasa. At night it is visited by illicit salvage operators who scavenge the hulk for steel, which is a valuable commodity on the Istanbul black market.
A Turkish court has found the Greek vessel, Evriali, guilty. The treasury has sued the two vessel owners for more than $400 million in damages. In 1979, 16,400 commercial vessels totaling about 100,000 tons traversed the Bosporus, compared with 19,400 vessels and 108,000 tons the previous year.
The number of warships that crossed the straits in 1979 was 263, almost the same as the previous two years. In 1979 nearly half of the commercial vessels and all but 36 of the 363 warships traversing the Bosporus were Soviet.
"I am willing to abandon mastery over half the world rather than yield Russia those narrow straits," Napoleon once said of the strategic value of the Bosporus.
The Bosporus has played an important role throughout history. Originally an artery of trade, the city on its banks known under the name of Constantinople served as a capital to the Byzantine Empire until it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and renamed Istanbul. But the waterway only gained in strategic value as an access route.
For centuries, Russian czars tried to establish domination of this route. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the new rulers in the Kremlin pursued the czarist policies and attempted twice to obtain control of the straits.
The waterway continues to be of great importance to Moscow, which has built up a considerable naval presence in the Mediterranean and is competing with the West for influence in the Middle East. Since 1936, navigaton through the Turkish Straits has been regulated by the Montreux Convention. In peacetime, freedom of transit and navigation is granted to vessels of war according to a set of guidelines that includes notifying Turkey.
Merchant ships of any nation enjoy complete freedom of transit and navigation in the straits by day and night, whatever cargo they may transport. Pilotage and towage are optional.
The building of tankers, which started after Montreux, and advancement in shipbuilding have shown that not enough attention was paid by the contracting parties to safety.
There have been suggestions in the local press that the convention be amended to increase safety. However, the Foreign Ministry has resolutely opposed such moves. It fears that other contracting parties may use the opportunity to challenge Turkey's control over the waterway.
After he seized power last fall, Gen. Kenan Evren formed an interministerial committee to make safety recommendations. The committee is scheduled to present its reports in a few months.
Turkish captains say that there are a number of measures that can be adopted without violating the Montreux Convention. They say that pilotage and towage services could be improved. Tankers could be required to cross during daylight.
Whether any measures will be taken remains to be seen. Often in the past, serious accidents were followed by a flurry of activity, but no concrete measures were adopted.