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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.

Excerpts from Aleksandar's article, published in the Turkish magazine Bir + Bir in July 2013 during the destruction of the Yedikule gardens. 

Last winter I wrote in Express about the interdependence between the silhouette of Istanbul and the now-destroyed vegetable gardens (bostans) in Langa (Yenikapi).

I referred in that 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, but these days is the construction site for the new Yenikapi metro station. The Suleymaniye mosque, which forms part of Istanbul's celebrates silhouette, is suffering a similar fate; soon it will 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 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 steal and concrete, it will be harder to recall that once this city depended on vegetables and fruits grown in the city proper. 

The current pollution of the Yedikule bostans (market gardens), which are 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 with continuous agricultural activity since antiquity. There is much that Byzantine historians can tell us about this agricultural land and as a 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 market gardens today are being filled with rubble (moloz). One such example is the map by J. B. Le Chevalier (1786) which recorded the space between Yedikule and Silivri gates as Ismail Paşa bahçesi (orchard) and Horoz bahçesi.

According to an ottoman defter from 1734, in the region around the Yedikule fortress and Belgrade gate 140 seasonal gardens from western Macedonia worked in 29 bustans (vegetable gardens, orchards).

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 who are able to produce hundreds of tons of vegetable and fruit in the middle of the city are currently being evicted from the Yedikule bostans have learned their gardening techniques from the older generation of Istanbul gardeners, most of them from Ottoman Macedonia and Albania. The preservation and support of this living connection to the past needs to be seen as part of the attempt to create a new kind of city.  

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