Powerful explosions in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake reminded me the big one that happened in Istanbul 32 years ago.
The year was 1979. I was a junior at the Bogazici University in Istanbul. An apocalyptic explosion woke me up in my dorm room. I shared the room with 3 roommates. After the explosion we were all awake but we could not move as if we were tied to our bunk beds. It was still dark. No one said a word. I don’t know what they were thinking but I was not sure that I was still alive. The sound of the explosion had a surreal intensity. In the Anatolian culture there are stories and legends saying that the end of the world will be announced with a sound. I seriously thought maybe this was the end of the world. My roommates did not get up. I guess they were afraid to look. After I came to my senses I got up and looked from the window. Our room was on the fourth floor with a single window facing the south. What I saw was even more shocking than the terrible sound I heard. It looked like the Bosphorus Bridge and the entire south Istanbul was on fire. You may think I am using a poetic license to describe these events but there is no exaggeration here. It is hard to describe the intensity of the sound and the horrific view with words. My roommates followed me to the window. We started talking. It was 5:30 in the morning.
We quickly realized it was not the end of the world. The next thing that came to mind was terrorism. In those days the Cold War was raging with great intensity in Turkey. Communist and socialist movements mostly inspired and supported by the Soviet Union were gaining power but there was also strong resistance from the anti-communist forces aided by the United States. People were killing each other every day. University campuses were controlled by radical students, some neighborhoods in the cities and many small towns were controlled by militias. Government forces were internally divided and plotting against each other. Historians never officially called it a civil war but it was a civil war. It goes without saying that we lived under the emergency law. In 1979 every one was sure that a military coup was coming. Indeed, 10 months later, on September 12, 1980, military took over the government.
This explosion sounded too intense and the fire looked too fierce for a political show of force but terrorism and politics came to mind immediately. Even this tells you how disturbed we were by the political events of those days.
In the morning (November 15, 1979) we learned that a large oil tanker exploded at the entrance of the Bosphorus very close to Kadikoy on the Anatolian side of south Istanbul. The Rumanian oil tanker Independenta collided with a Greek ship. The explosion was so intense that windows were shattered everywhere in the city in a large radius. Some windows were shattered at the Topkapi Palace as well. My dormitory was miles away to the north. The sound was terrible even so far away. I cannot imagine what people in Uskudar and Kadikoy experienced.
From our window it looked like the entire south Istanbul was on fire. It was because a 4 square-km area of oil on water was burning. That wide fire lit up the sky. Because of the smoke and the fire Istanbul skies were crimson red for many days. Oil fires burn for a long time. This was probably the biggest oil spill and fire so close to a major city.
It was not a single explosion. There were many explosions much like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The Rumanian oil tanker Independenta was carrying 95000 tonnes of crude oil from Libya to Rumania. All 95000 tones of oil were spilt to Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea, 51 people died tragically.
In other parts of the city people heard the same explosions and saw the crimson sky and did not know what it was. All they knew was that it was too intense. According to interviews published in newspapers some people thought a war started. Some thought it was an asteroid impact. There were hundreds of variations on the “end of the world” theme.
In my mind crimson dawn symbolizes the beginning of a new era for humanity. Crimson dawn comes after a dark night just before the glorious sunrise. Crimson dawn is the period before the large scale spiritual awakening of humanity. On the early morning of November 15, 1979 the crimson dawn I witnessed was of a different kind.