Istanbul’s Agricultural Past: An Ekphrasis Revealed Across The Centuries

This week’s readings, particularly the primary source texts, provide a window into Istanbul’s agricultural past. Through the Typikons of the monastery of St. Mamas and the convents of Lips, Kosmas, and Damien, and in the surveys of both 1455 and 1735 – along with the highly detailed advice of the Geoponika farming handbook – we glean valuable data and context regarding the agricultural production of the day and the farming practices as well as the diet of Istanbul’s citizens.

In the survey of Istanbul of 1455 (Inalcik), we are provided an evaluation of the city, broken down quarter-by-quarter. We learn the number and size of its houses and the identity, professions, and religious profiles of the inhabitants. Interspersed with this detail are references to other structures from which we can glean information about the city’s agricultural production. For example, the survey contains references to the city’s gardens, vineries, stables, storehouses, mills, and wells, including their placement within certain quarters or neighborhoods. Some quarters or districts had little or no agricultural activity to speak of. Others, particularly those housing the city’s many monasteries, were clearly successful centers of food production. For instance, we learn that Quarter Balat II housed two gardens along with a citizen named “Ripotos,” identified as a gardener (Inalcik, 306-98); that Quarter Bab-i-I Edirne housed the evidently productive Monastery of Prohermez, which counted among its holdings three storehouses, and a vinery  (313); that Quarter Top-Yikigi was home to two mills and a garden (327-335), and that Quarter Alti-Mermer had a garden, a mill, and a well (347-350).  Quarter Kastel Hirige featured a monastery with four storehouses, stables, and two vineries (352); the Ayos Athanos monastery held a vinery and a storehouse (357), and Quarter Isa-Kermesi housed a factory for making linseed oil (358).       

The 1735 survey of the bostans of Istanbul, covering the neighborhoods of “Great Langa,” Kucuk, Yedikule, Ynibahce, and Cukurbostans, documents the continuing, indeed growing, prevalence of agricultural production in Istanbul. For example, we learn that there were 1,381 gardeners resident in the city, the vast majority of them Christians, tending over 344 individual bostans (1735 Survey of the Bustans) – not insignificant figures, particularly when compared to the greatly diminished numbers of the present day.

In the Typicons documenting life in the city’s monasteries and convents, we can glean further information about the food production and consumption of Istanbul’s population. First, we learn that the Convent of Lips employed a steward to oversee its various land holdings; the steward’s salary consisted of gold and “100 annonikoi modioi” each of wheat and barley, and “100 measures of wine” (Thomas & Hero, 1272). The Convent’s “Inventory of Property” provides an accounting of its vast agricultural holdings including many thousands of modioi of “arable land,” vineyards, gardens, and mills (1279-1281). The document goes on to provide a detailed recitation of the diet allowed the nuns, specifying “fish, cheese and legumes” on non-fast days; legumes, vegetables and “seasonal shellfish” on Mondays; and other days on which only “vegetables and legumes” were permitted (1258; 1275). The Typicon for the Monastery of St. Mamas provides an even more detailed prescribed diet of the monks, even specifying the manner in which such food should be prepared, to wit: “…two of three cooked dishes containing olive oil” or a meal “… composed of “legumes soaked in water and perhaps some raw vegetables and fruits” (Thomas & Hero, 1006). Clearly, the inhabitants enjoyed a varied if highly regulated diet.

Perhaps the most illuminating document to provide insights into the nature of farming in 10th century Istanbul is the Byzantine Greek farming manual Geoponika. From Book 12 we learn exactly what crops Istanbul’s residents were growing and consuming: beets, lettuce, cabbage, melons, turnips, mint, celery, leeks and onions, garlic, artichokes, mushrooms, and asparagus. We also learn the best soil for cultivation – non-clayey and “not too rough” – as well as how manure (the best being ash and pigeon dung) can be used to work Istanbul’s “clayey” soil and how the region’s sandy soil should be used to grow asparagus (Dalby, 248). Among the manual’s encyclopedic recommendations for addressing seemingly every conceivable cultivation, pest, and medicinal issue are a number of hygienic properties ascribed to certain plants – an emphasis on personal hygiene being central to the lives of city dwellers living in close proximity to one another. For example, rocket is described as being useful in cleaning up facial blemishes; it also “helps with smelly armpits” (261).

Book 12 also highlights the importance of gardens in proximity to the house, noting the gardens provide pleasure to the senses of sight and smell. The existence of texts like Geoponika and The Vienna Dioskorides highlights the important role of agriculture: “the extent to which people believed in the power of plants, and in the ability of men and women to harness that power” (Brubaker, 213).  

Finally, the examples of Ottoman historical literature included in the readings – for example, Hyrtakenos’ description of the garden of St. Anna, capturing the “science and art” of Byzantine gardening (Dolezal and Mavroudi, 115-118; 140-148) – provide further evidence of the importance of land cultivation in Istanbul history and culture. In addition, literature like Hyrtakenos’ Description of the Garden of St. Anna highlights another aspect about gardens that is frequently neglected: the spiritual feeling a garden can induce. While many sources on bostans focus on the production aspects of urban farming, Hyrtakenos’ detailed prose reminds us that gardens also possess authentic aesthetic qualities, and that the emotions evoked from merely being in the presence of nature’s beauty can be just as valuable as a garden’s tangibles products.    

These texts, while not necessarily set down for the purpose of telling the story of agriculture, nonetheless provide myriad clues to the agricultural heritage of Istanbul. They serve as an ekphrasis – a graphic, dramatic description of the city’s powerful agricultural past. 

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