Introducing the Yedikule Marul

The Yedikule marul is a type of romaine lettuce famously grown in the Yedikule bostans of Istanbul. Being a lettuce, its wild progenitor likely stemmed from the Lactuca species from southwest Asia and the L. serriola, an a type of weed located in temperate and subtropical zones (Zohary 2012). Ancient Egyptians first cultivated lettuce as early as 2680 BC from a weed for oil use. Later, the Greeks and Romans farmed lettuce seeds and leaves that led to documented cultivation of the plant by the medieval age. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European understandings of lettuce had resulted in medicinal discoveries as well as classifications of different species (Weaver 1997, 170-172). It is then safe to assume then during this transition, the Byzantines had adopted lettuce cultivation from the Romans, which consequently resulted in the Ottomans continuing the trend through the fertile soils of Istanbul.

In terms of consumption, lettuce has changed since antiquity. Around 50 AD, the Romans cooked the leaves with oil and vinegar while smaller leaves were occasionally eaten raw. After the Romans, medieval Europe popularized poaching lettuce alongside mixing the leaves with hot oil and vinegar (Weaver 1997, 170-172). Lettuce is still mainly consumed for its leaves today while some stems and seeds are used for oil. The Yedikule marul, being a romaine species, is thus most seen in salads with a Mediterranean seasoning of olive oil, vinegar, and spices rather than a Western European style of salad dressing. Differing from its earlier wild weed form, modern lettuce is much less prickly, and it is known that wild lettuce leaves resemble closely to tobacco leaves with a more bitter taste (Katz and Weaver 2003, 377).

When one grows the Yedikule lettuce, full sun is a best option. On the technical side, nitrogen-rich soils with a pH from 6.0 to 6.8 and a temperature between 16 and 18 °C is preferred. Temperatures above 27 °C will likely destroy the germination of lettuce seeds while some can survive as low as 7 °C or as high as 24 °C if shade is provided or else the plant will bolt. Having a high water content of around 94.9%, lettuce cannot be frozen, canned, or dried and hence, must be eaten when fresh (Bradley 2009, 129). When planting, lettuces are placed in thick, straight rows. After developing several leaves, they may be transplanted to individual spots 20 to 36 cm apart. With more space, they are able to receive more sunlight and develop greater nutrients (Weaver 1977, 175-176).

Regarding pests, lettuce is targeted by cutworms, wireworms, nematodes, tarnished plant bugs and aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, leafminers, flea beetles, caterpillars, slugs and snails, as well as mammals like rabbits and groundhogs (Bradley 2009, 129-132). The plants itself contains compounds like sesquiterpene lactones, flavonol, and glycosides which protect it against pests (United States Department of Agricultures). For domesticated lettuce, herbicides are used to control weeds and viral diseases such as the mosaic virus spread by aphids that stunt plant growth and fungal diseases that rot leaves (Davey et al. 2007, 222-225). In the Geoponika, caterpillars were averted by throwing ashes of the vine into water or applying asphaltus and sulpur to the plants. Mixing and boiling urine and amurca will also destroy caterpillars (Cassianus 2011, 250-251). It is also advised to smear fresh cow dung on the lettuce to obtain saucer-shaped leaves with no stalk. Dividing each plant with a knife and placing them in an “unpitched potsherd” will allow the plant to grow upwards in a healthy manner as well (Cassianus 2011, 252). Here we see the similarities of killing off insects so that the vegetable can grow, even though classical methods involved organic methods while modern techniques employ chemical pesticides.

The Yedikule marul appears a lush bright green. The stem is white and blends into the light green of the leaves. The tips of the leaves appear wrinkled and soft while the stem is firm. After a few days in the refrigerator however, the whole plant seems to have softened. Thick veins running from the stem thin and branch out at the leaves. Further, a few black spots litter the stem pointing to the plant’s organic nature. The plant smells fresh, blending in a sense of the earth with its leafy aroma. When eaten, the stem is surprisingly moist. Even after a few days of fridge storage, one can noticeably taste the juices of the lettuce along with its audible crunch. As for the leaves, they have a mild yet refreshing taste. Due to the freshness of the vegetable, the leaves seem to almost dissolve in one’s mouth without much effort needed to chew. Taken together, the stem and leaf compliment each other in texture and taste. While the stem is crisp and juicy, the leaf is tender and less damp, thus offering a great spectrum of flavors within one bite.

Personally, I am familiar with lettuce due to my liking for Caesar salads. However, the Yedikule marul is definitely a new taste and texture for me. On the whole, it feels fresher due to its water content as well as the crispness of its stems. The color also appears fuller with a stronger green at the leaves and a brighter white at the stems.

One notable recipe utilizing the Yedikule marul is the Yedikule lettuce mixed salad. The recipe is as follows (Yemek Tarifleri):

12 red chicory leaves

12 leaves of Yedikule lettuce

Half a bunch of endivy

Half a bunch of herb cress

8 Priceworthy leaves

4 hard-boiled eggs

Freshly ground black pepper

Wash and mix the chicory, Yedikule lettuce, watercress herb, and endivy with filtered water. Divide the leaves into chunks into a serving dish.

Cut the hard-boiled eggs in half, and place salad on top. Sprinkle on freshly ground black pepper. Pour on mustard sauce.

The mustard sauce is comprised of 5 tablespoons mustard, 2 tablespoons mayonnaise in a bowl. Stir in 1 clove garlic peel, 2 tablespoons yogurt, and half-a-tea-cup of extra virgin olive oil. Mix well.

Yedikule Marul

Yedikule Marul

Works Cited:

Bradley, Fern M., Barbara W. Ellis, and Deborah L. Martin, eds. 2009. The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control. Pennsylvania: Rodale.

Cassianus, Bassus. Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. 2011. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 9-55 and 246-267.

Davey, M. R., and Anthony, P., P. Van Hooff, J. B. Power, and K. C. Lowe. 2007. “Lettuce”. Transgenic Crops. Biotechnology in Agriculture and Forestry. Volume 59. Springer.

Katz, Solomon H. and Williams Woys Weaver. 2003. Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Volume 2. New York: Scribner.

United States Department of Agriculture. “Developing Multi-Species Insect Resistance in Romaine Lettuce.” Retrieved 5 April 2012.

Weaver, Williams Woys. 1997. Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving and Cultural History. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Yemek Tarifleri. “Yedikule marullu karışık salata.” Accessed August 2, 2014. .

Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf, and Ehud Weiss. 2012. Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in Southwest Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Agricultural Pasts

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).


Gardens between Worlds

At first glance, the Yedikule Gardens appear to be a sparse collection of private farms trapped amid the dawn of the days of Constantinople and the booming gentrification of modern Istanbul. These bostans, or vegetable-producing gardens made for the markets, are situated along the edges of encroaching apartment complexes and mall plazas while aligning the sides of historic Byzantine walls and Ottoman water wells. As generational families of farmers work to maintain these endangered spaces of vegetation, one would be keen to notice the symbolism in Istanbul’s ongoing struggle between tradition and progress.

The Yedikule gardens exist as more than a valuable source of local food production. To some, “The work of the gardeners is holy work” (Kaldjian 2004, 287). Just as industrial terrain is a part of city expansion, agricultural land should also play such a role. These are the lands that allow humanity “to fully comprehend [a] city’s economy and urban change” (Shopov and Han 2013, 35). Though seemingly out of place with their ancient water wells and hanging laundry drying in the Mediterranean wind, the atmosphere of Yedikule preserve a period of Istanbul too precious to be left only to esoteric textbooks on gardening and agriculture.

In the 1890s, the photographer Sebah took a photograph of the Yedikule gardens showing the precursor to what would today be the invasion of modernization.

Sebah, 1890s

Sebah, 1890s

In his piece, the Byzantine walls run through bostans on both sides, accompanied by mosques in the distance. To the right most edge, the first living lodges are seen. Meanwhile, the main body of the photograph illustrates the abundance of flora still thriving near and far. As of the late nineteenth century, Yedikule appeared lush and lively, with trees in the distance aligning the horizon while plots of land show signs of being tended and cared.

Onto a photograph of the same region in February 1937 from the Artamonoff Collection, one immediately notices the drastic replacement of vegetation with houses.

Artamonoff, February 1937

Artamonoff, February 1937

Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection, RV53, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.


Much of the gardens within the walls have been replaced with the construction of concrete homes on gravel and cement. The same trees that once stretched across perpendicularly to the walls are now scant compared to the planted trees of residential homes. For the wall itself, there are now breaks and eroded segments, but its presence persists even against encroaching housing complexes. The changes in the vegetation are thus contrasted by the striking continuity of the Byzantine-Ottoman ramparts. While once farmed-on land is now lived-on land, the same wall still sweeps over the area of Yedikule.

A year later in the summer of 1938, another photograph from the same collection illustrates the contrast between the still standing Byzantine walls and the vast neighborhood of two-storied houses with deciduous trees.

Artamonoff, Summer 1938

Artamonoff, Summer 1938

Robert L. Van Nice Collection, 2012.0013.0031, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.


The housing districts have now crept so close to the walls that they are almost touching the very bricks that once guarded the ancient city. The whole area resembles a scene out of an anachronistic film, pairing thousand-year-old walls with a neighborhood of the twenty-first century. Notably, a paved road in the foreground can be distinguished that is not prevalent in the earlier photographs. This remarkable difference depicts just how fast urbanization occurred within a little over a year compared to the second image.

Fast forward to today, and one could perceive a certain sense of sadness coupled with urgency in the region.

Michael Luo, July 2014

Michael Luo, July 2014

Tanker trucks encircle the few remaining wells in order to supply water for the pubic including hamams. One side of the walls could be mistaken for a developing American suburb while the other side displays the surviving fresh tava of spinach, mint, and even corn. If one were daring enough to climb and observe atop the walls, a turn of the head reveals almost two worlds converging against each other. To the left is a hopeful sign of growth, both literal in agriculture and symbolic in livelihood, and to the right is an uncertain desolation. No bostans remain on the right, and it seems all land has been reserved for more urban construction. Will apartments and malls be born out of this destruction? Will they also take over what greenery remains on the other side of the walls? These are the questions left to be answered but ironically, it is the fortifications that have endured, albeit with some damage and need of repair, while the once-protected interior gardens have given way to rising urban sprawl.

The truth of the matter is that people need places to live, and a city needs space to grow. However, a greater truth is that historic cultures and traditions should never be neglected for the sake of potential profit and growth. Istanbul is a thriving example of bridging the past with the present, and Yedikule is a prime model for that challenge. Perhaps one day, humanity could find a way to resolve this conflict of culture versus expansion in which social traditions may carry on peacefully alongside progress.

Kaldjian, P. Istanbul’s Bostans: a Millennium of Market Gardens. Geographical Review      94(3), 2004, 284-304.

Shopov, Aleksandar and Ayhan Han. Osmanlı Istanbul’unda Kent Içi  Tarımsal Toprak      Kullanımı ve Dönüsümleri: Yedikule Bostanları, Toplumsal  Tarih, 236, August 2013,      34– 38. (English translation)