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Tyler Fellows in Residence

Aleksandar Sopov

Aleksandar Sopov studied history at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. His MA in History is from Sabancı University in Istanbul. Currently he is a PhD candidate at Harvard in the joint program of CMES and History Department. His dissertation is on the creation, transfer, and implementation of horticultural knowledge in the Eastern Mediterranean in the early Modern period. Over the past three years he has been conducting research in the manuscript libraries and archives in Turkey, Egypt, the Balkans, and France, where he worked on Ottoman-Turkish, Arabic, and Slavic sources. 

By analyzing Ottoman and Arabic horticultural manuals and documents, he is focusing on Ottoman scientific thinking about agriculture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He is also actively involved in the preservation of one of the oldest urban agricultural spaces in the world, the Yedikule vegetable gardens within Istanbul’s city walls, which have been tilled in continuity since antiquity.

I wrote in Express, a Turkish magazine, about the interdependence between the silhouette of Istanbul and the now-destroyed vegetable gardens (bostans) in Langa (Yenikapi).

Yedikule Gardens
Yedikule Gardens and the Land Wall of Istanbul. Guillaume Berggren, ca. 1880

I referred in the article to an Ottoman archival document, dating from 1585, which stated that eighteen bostans in the Langa district belonged to the endowment (vakıf) of Suleymaniye mosque. Famous in the memories of old Istanbuliots for its Langa cucumbers, the neighborhood, which supplied the city since the sixteenth century with fresh produce, is now the construction site for the Yenikapi metro station. The Suleymaniye mosque, whose grace and elegance can be observed from the shores of the Haliç (Golden Horn), is suffering a similar fate, soon to be hidden by the rising, massive towers of a new metro bridge. The construction of bridges and metro stations in Istanbul is occurring on sites of significant historic import, places that signify centuries-old connections between city gardens, plants, animals, and people. As the old silhouette of the city, together with the memory of the Langa cucumbers, disappears behind the newly rising construction, so too does our understanding that the people of the metropolis once depended on food produced within the city proper.

The current pollution of the Yedikule bostans, which I considered to be among the most important agricultural sites for understanding change in Byzantine and Ottoman agricultural technology, is actually the destruction of one of the world’s oldest agricultural spaces within a city, with continuous agricultural activity since antiquity. There is much that Byzantine historians can tell us about this agricultural land and as a PhD student in Ottoman agricultural history I can confirm that we possess hundreds of documents and maps from the Ottoman period that record the existence of agricultural land within Istanbul’s city walls at the exact place between Yedikule Gate (Yedikule kapı) and Belgrade Gate (Belgrad kapı) where bostans today are being filled with rubble (moloz). The oldest map from the Ottoman period confirming their existence is by J. B. Le Chevalier (1786) and records the space between Yedikule and Silivri kapı as Ismail Paşa bahçesi and Horoz bahçesi (a bahçe is an orchard).

An ottoman defter from 1733 confirms the map by noting a bostan within the city walls in the vicinity of Yedikule fortress and nearby Horos water fountain (çesme). According to the same defter, sixty-three gardens were recorded, both inside and outside the city walls near Yedikule, at the end of the winter (March 11, 1733), before the arrival of the seasonal workers.

What is at risk of being lost is not only the space—with its ancient water-wells and, in one of the bostans, a stable (ahır) and wooden (ahşap) house recorded in the Ottoman maps from the nineteenth century—but also a link to the past. The generation of gardeners that is currently being evicted from the Yedikule bostans has learned and added much to what the older generation of Istanbul gardeners taught them. Preserving this living connection with the past can guide us in our attempts to create a different kind of city.

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