When looking at history, agriculture is something not always closely studied. For the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, agricultural data reveals intricate details about the society that existed in both rural and urban areas. Through close analyses of agriculture, one can ascertain a significant part of a city’s past. The production of foodstuffs, the livelihoods of the producers, and the relationships between planters and buyers showcase the importance of the farming community on a civilization.
For a historical jewel like Istanbul, the agricultural past illustrates the production and consumption of the city. Looking at Geoponika Book 12, a tenth century Byzantine agricultural guide, one could learn much about Istanbul’s horticulture. The monthly descriptions of what would be planted are indicative of the people’s diet during those seasons. This allows modern scholars to extrapolate which plants would have thrived and consequently, how climate and crops were coupled during those times. Further, the individual sections on specific vegetation point to the careful examination of their full uses, including for medicine and healing as well as for cuisine and nutrition. This is exemplified in mint being “deemed to be of no use” while radishes “when eaten with honey [,]…cure coughs” (Owen 1805, 118, 121).
Another source that offers intriguing insights into the agricultural life of the past are surveys. Although city surveys are not intended only for agricultural history, their data depicts the complex connections between what are perceived as urban and rural life within a city. In Inalcik’s translation of Mehmed II’s 1455 survey of Istanbul, the fact that a house is located next to a church and contains a vinery suggests the possible reputation of the house as a farm on the church’s land and producing for the church (Inalcik 2012, 348).
Meanwhile, an examination of life within a church also illuminates aspects of agricultural life. In the Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents, it is stated that the monks would use “a diet of dry food and water as a punishment for repeat offenders” who did not participate in the “services of the canonical hours or vigils” (Thomas, Hero 2000, 978).
Moreover, documents that point to the uses of herbs in turn highlight how society perceived the role of medicine in society. For instance, “the early Byzantine centuries provide many examples of aristocratic women whose Christian good works, it is claimed, included caring for the sick” (Littlewood, Maguire, Wlschke-Bulmahn 2002, 212). Thus, women were seen as the caretakers who tended to the vegetation relevant for therapeutic uses.
Hence, agricultural records disclose much about a city that may be too easily overlooked. While the sources analyzed may have been written for data collecting purposes, historians can link quantitative factors to qualitative understandings about society and life in agricultural Istanbul.
Brubaker, Leslie. The Vienna Dioskorides and Anicia Juliana, in Byzantine Garden Culture ed., Anthony Littlewood, Henry Maguire and Joachim Wolschke – Bulmahn, 189-214.
Inalcık, Halil. 2012 . The Survey of Istanbul 1455: The Text, English Translation, Analysis of the Text, Documents. İstanbul, Turkey: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2012, preface, introduction and pp. 295- 368.
(Twelfth century) Typikon of Athanasios Philanthropenos for the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople (trans. Anastasius Bandy).