When It Comes to the Neighborhood, Stays with You Forever: Generous-Hearted Purslane

Common purslane, Portulaca oleracea, is a member of the Portulacaceae family with more than 120 different species found in that family.[1] It is also known as pigweed, fatweed, pusle, and little hogweed, is an annual succulent herb in the family Portulacaceae that is found in most corners of the globe.[2] Purslane was one of the most widespread plants in the world since distant times.

Purslane / Portulaca Oleracea / Semizotu.

Purslane / Portulaca Oleracea / Semizotu.

Purslane is a native of Persia where it was used over 2,000 years ago.[1] It was introduced to North America from India and Persia.[2] The Arabs in the Middle Ages called it baqla hamqa, which means “mad” or “crazy vegetable” because of the fact that its branches spread over the ground without any control. In Spanish, names such as verdilacas, yerba aurato and yerba orate are known (which again mean “crazy herb”).[3]

Nowadays it is distributed over the hot temperate zones of a great part of the world. Together with other species of the genus it occurs as a weed in the majority of tropical and subtropical countries.[4] The purslane is suitable for light (sandy) and medium (loamy) soils and prefers well-drained soil. It requires a moist light rich well-drained soil in a sunny position. Plants will not produce good quality leaves when growing in dry conditions. The soil should have soil pH of 5.5 to 7.[5]

Purslane flowers grow at the tips of the fat stems from late spring through late summer. The flowers typically open from mid-morning to early afternoon on hot, sunny days. Flowering takes place from May through September.[6] The yellow flowers give way to small, dark, pointed seed capsules that, when mature, break open and release an abundance of tiny, black seeds, each about the size of a grain of sand. [7] Seeds are tiny, less than 1/25 of an inch (1 mm) in diameter, circular to egg shaped, flattened, and brown to black with a white point of attachment. Numerous seeds are produced.[8]

Common purslane is edible, with a sweet, yet acid-like flavor. It has been cultivated in India and the Middle East and has been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages.[9]  It can grow alongside roads, in crop fields, gardens, vineyards and orchards, in construction sites and other disturbed areas.

It was categorized in the Mediterranean countries of the Near East and central Asia as a weed and vegetable. For Istanbul and Turkey, due to its suitable conditions and also its acceptance as something edible, purslane has an important place. Therefore, not surprisingly, in our field trips for this class, at every functioning garden in Yedikule and walled-city, we saw  huge amounts of purslanes.

Purslane From Sources[10]

Today, purslane is known to be antibacterial, antiscorbutic, depurative, diuretic and febrifuge. The leaves are a very rich source of omega-3 fatty acids which prevents heart attacks and strengthens the immune system.[11] How about before? Via looking at some sources the way it was used and its importance can be discussed.

It is mentioned in the “Natural History” of Pliny as one of the vegetables used by the Romans. Pliny, or Gaius Plinius Secundus, usually referred to as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman living about 23-79 A.D. [12] Also, one of the richest sources that can be used is the Geoponika since it is referencing other sources. In Geoponika, Purslane was mentioned a few times for its different usages. Taken from Varro, it is said that some vines fruit normally but not their grapes before they have swollen and ripened. These should be cured with purslane juice.[13] From there we can see that there is something called purslane juice. Cited from Demokritos, in order to make pomegranates bear plentiful fruit suggests to grind purslane and spurge together finely and smear around the base of the trunk.[14] Africanus proposes for making all trees fruit more heavily rubbing purslane and spurge, mixing and well pounding together, around the trunk is useful.[15] Paxamos claims purslane is applied as a poultice, cures erysipelas. The leaf, placed under the tongue, makes one less thirsty and for particular treatments for poultry one may treats the eyes of fowl by bathing the outer eye with human milk or with purslane juice.[16] According to Apsyrtos, in a case if a horse is feverish and thin from overwork, it is necessary to give- for three days or more, until healthy- a mixture of one kotyle goat’s milk, one metron frumenty, half a kotyle olive oil, 4 eggs, juice of pounded purslane.[17]

While searching from the Internet I found this site about the sources mentioning purslane in some detail which I found very valuable and would like to take a part of it as a long quote here: “Columela writes in his poem on the garden: “Already the juicy purslane covers the dry beds”; and in Los doce libros de agricultura: “Leafy purslane appeases the plot’s thirst” (Book X); Paladio refers to it exclusively because of its mucilaginous, medicinal and veterinary properties. Similar references are found in Kastos, taking up the Byzantine tradition. The writers of oriental and Arabic treatises concerned themselves most with this vegetable. Ibn Wahsiyya describes its cultivation in the Near East, presenting it as a summer crop. Most of the Hispano-Arab agronomists deal with this plant. Arib (tenth century) mentions it in his Calendario agricola. Al Zahrawi and Ibn Hayyay (eleventh century) also mention it. Ibn Bassal (eleventh century) deals extensively with its cultivation, already recognizing a certain intraspecific variability, setting out its temperature and water requirements (summer cultivation and irrigation or vegetable garden), drawing up a sowing calendar which extends from March to August and demonstrating the practice of two basic cultivation periods, depending on whether the aim is to produce seed or to produce for human consumption. Sowing quantities and manuring and irrigation requirements also appear and are dealt with in great detail by the author. Ibn Wafid (Hispano-Arab agronomist of the eleventh and twelfth centuries) mentions it under the names baqla hamqa’ and missita. Ibn al-Awwam, in his Kitab al-Filaha, recalls that it is mentioned by almost all the Arab authors and refers to different varieties. He uses the adjectives “mild”, “vain” and “blessed”.[18]

Purslane Trivia

Through the research I also learned that the thing I know as semizotu (purslane) has different names. For instance in Mersin it is called tömeken, in Elazığ, Urfa and most of the Aegean cities it is called pirpirim, in Adana it is soğukluk, in Malatya it is known as pırpır, in Karaman, the name is töymakan, around Tunceli it is perper and in some places around Mediterranean it is tohumeken. Some of the names are different because they are wild variations of purslane that we have in Istanbul, but it turns out the names are also used interchangeable at some point.

Especially for the Aegean region, Purslane is known to be the most important member of the dining tables. It is something cultural. As a sign, there is even a well-known folk song mentioning the purslane. It is a song attributed to Aegean cities of Balıkesir and Çanakkale: “Bahçelerde pirpirim, yandım Ayşem / Hasta oldum yatarım, yandım Ayşem / Hekim, doktor istemem, yandım Ayşem / Sevdiğimi getirin, yandım Ayşem…”[19]

My relationship with semizotu is a long and very intense one thanks to my mother’s “we should eat some healthy things” attitude. The semizotu salad made with yoghurt is a loyal member of our dinner tables. Also, semizotu is something like spinach for Turkish people. Even the recipes for the way they are cooked are very similar. One can make a salad out of it with or without yoghurt, or use it as an ingredient for börek or poğaça (roughly translated as pastry), it can be the main ingredient of soup or part of a vegetable soup. Moreover, of course, there is a vegetable dish made out of it that the ingredients can change according to cook’s wish or the equipments present at the moment of preparing it.

Purslane Recipe

“Purslane is a pleasant salad herb, and excellent for scorbutic troubles.  The succulent leaves and young shoots are cooling in spring salads, the older shoots are used as a pot-herb, and the thick stems of plants that have run to seed are pickled in salt and vinegar to form winter salads.”[20] 

At this point, I would like to add one of the delicious salad recipes that can be made with Purslane.

Purslane Salad with Strawberries and Cheese.

One bunch of Purslane (it is sold as bunches in Istanbul)

10-15 strawberries

30 gr. white cheese

2 tbsp olive-oil

3 tbsp pomegranate syrup

Half a glass of lemon squash


Clean the purslane and wash it with strawberries. Cut the non-leaved parts and separate, then chop rest of the material and put it in a bowl. Cut the strawberries in the half and dice the cheese. Then add them to the bowl along with the walnuts which should be also cut in the half or even smaller. Add the olive oil with the lemon juice. Mix all the ingredients. Put them in a salad bowl and before you serve add the pomegranate syrup. Voila!

Since it is not the season for strawberry I had to add the most accurate picture I could find. Photo courtesy http://www.egedentarifler.com/2014/07/cilekli-ve-peynirli-semizotu-salatas.html

Since it is not the season for strawberries I had to add the most accurate picture I could find. Photo courtesy http://www.egedentarifler.com/2014/07/cilekli-ve-peynirli-semizotu-salatas.html

P.s: You should prepare the salad not long before you serve it since the strawberries would be ruined otherwise. And also if you plan to serve it after some time, you should not add the lemon and olive-oil until the last minute.



[1] Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7461.html

[2] “Genetic improvement of Purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.) and its future prospects.” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25085039

[3] James M. Stephens,”Purslane – Portulaca oleracea L.” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mv118

[4] Richard Hoyt, “Purslane Plant Care” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://homeguides.sfgate.com/purslane-plant-care-37723.html

[5] Kathy Griffiths, “Purslane”  Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.herballegacy.com/Griffiths_History.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Hoyt, “Purslane Plant Care” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://homeguides.sfgate.com/purslane-plant-care-37723.html

[8] Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/WEEDS/purslane.html

[9] Frances Robinson, “Power-Packed Purslane” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/power-packed-purslane-zmaz05amzsel.aspx#ixzz39T9Vg6T2

[10] Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/WEEDS/purslane.html

[11] Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7461.html

[12] For further information about Purslane’s ancient and modern sources see. http://www.herballegacy.com/Griffiths_Bibliography.html

[13] “Purslane (Portulaca)” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ediblewildfood.com/purslane.aspx

[14] Helen Roca-Garcia, “Weeds: A Link with the Past” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1970-30-3-weeds-a-link-with-the-past-purslane.pdf

[15] Bassus Cassianus. “Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook.” (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2011), 143.

[16] Ibid., 214.

[17] Ibid., 231.

[18] Ibid., 266 and 289.

[19] Ibid., 310.

[20] “Purslane: Proprieties, uses and cultivation.” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.mdidea.com/products/new/new03304.html

[21] Translation can be like: “Purslane in the gardens, oh my Ayşe / I feel sick, resting, oh my Ayşe / I don’t want a physician or doctor, oh my Ayşe / Bring me my beloved, oh my Ayşe…” http://sarkilarnotalar.blogspot.com.tr/2011/11/karyolamin-demiri-yandim-aysem.html Also, you can listen a version of it from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJm1KIgy13Q

[22] Kathy Griffiths, “Purslane”  Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.herballegacy.com/Griffiths_History.html


Purslane Over the Years: Small in Size, Big in Importance

The wonderful purslane, semizotu in Turkish, is a part of the Portulacaceae family, which contains around “15 genera and 500 species of herbs or small shrubs” found mostly on the Pacific Coast of North America and southern South America (Brittanica, “Portulacaceae”). According to one article, purslane probably originated in Western North America or South Africa (Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture). According to a Cornell University article, the origin of purslane is very unclear (Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences). I am not sure how exactly purslane came to Istanbul but it is possible it came directly from Africa or from Greece as it was popular there. (Ibid) It has been found in many archaeobotanical searches in Greece at prehistoric sites so dates way back (The Plant Encyclopedia). Purslane’s ability to produce up to 52,300 seeds in a single plant which “can survive for up to 30 years in undisturbed soil” make it quite popular and may have factored into its quick spread throughout the world (Ibid). Purslane has been found all over the world and according to the Plant Encyclopedia, it was in Crawford Lake deposits in 1430-89 AD, revealing again its spread (The Plant Encyclopedia). While only the leaves are eaten for the most part, the stem can also be eaten. The modern crop in bostans in Istanbul (portulacaceae oleracea scientifically), a potherb grown throughout Europe, contains the green stem and leafs, which are fairly low to the ground (Brittanica, “purslane”). Its wild form is considered to be a weed and contains “small yellow flowers” (Ibid).


In terms of requirements for growth, purslane is special in that its known for its longevity as it can grow in “dry waste soil and can retain enough moisture to bloom and ripen seeds long after they have been uprooted” (Brittanica, “purslane). Thus, purslane thrives in many different environments and conditions. However, the best conditions for growth according to the Plant Encyclopedia, are in “rich, mid-fertility” soil, “medium, well-drained moisture” and a water pH of 7 (The Plant Encyclopedia). It serves culinary purposes today but has also functioned medicinally throughout time in many societies. In the Geoponika, the Byzantine farming manual, purslane is mentioned throughout as helping in the growth and preservation of fruits such as grapes (IV.15) and pomegranates (X.35) (Geoponika 122, 214). Interestingly today, it still functions to support the growth of other vegetables. It states in the Plant Encyclopedia, “Purslane provides ground cover to create a humid microclimate for nearby plants, stabilizing ground moisture. Its deep roots bring up moisture and nutrients that those plants can use” (The Plant Encyclopedia).


My first interaction with purslane was at the bostan in Yedikule right next to the church. While taking a number of measurements at different corners throughout the bostan with the hot sun beating down on me, I saw some people I was with reach down to taste a little green leaf. I did the same and once I started, I could not stop. I later learned that little, soft green leaf was purslane (semizotu) and it had the biggest presence in this particular bostan compared to everything else growing in the bostan, presumably revealing its popularity in the area. As I tore off a piece and tasted it, it was if I suddenly became a little kid in a candy store tasting the most delicious piece of candy. It was both refreshing and salty and a bit crunchy. It wasn’t too flavorful but enough so that I could not resist grabbing more (and then buying some right before departing). I loved it for its simple, easy to miss flavor yet its freshness at the same time. In the Geoponika, the refreshing, hydrating quality of purslane is revealed when it says, “The leaf, placed under the tongue, makes one less thirsty” (Geoponika XII.40, 266). This was my first time tasting purslane but since trying it, I have seen it everywhere, often accompanied by a yogurt sauce, which is a very typical Turkish dish called Yoğurtlu Semizotu (below is a recipe for this dish from About.com). I am not a fan of this dish as I think the yogurt drowns the purslane and the person consuming the dish cannot truly taste the green. This could be more a personal preference as I like very simple dishes with minimal sauce. In class a couple weeks ago, we ate purslane with a bit of olive oil and some spices and I thought that was absolutely delicious. I found a “green lentil and purslane salad” in “Time Out Istanbul” which sounds appealing since it is quite simple (Time Out Istanbul). Purslane is a delicious green whose small size contradicts its great presence and functions throughout time.

Following recipe from About.com:


  • 2 to 3 large bunches of purslane (enough to yield 4 cups of leaves)
  • 3 cups plain Turkishstrained yogurt or Greek yogurt
  • 2 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste


First cut off any roots from the purslane. I always wash and drain it twice to make sure there is no soil or grit left on the leaves.

Separate the leaves from the stems. You can save the stems for use in other recipes if you wish. Spin the leaves in a salad spinner to remove any extra moisture.

In a separate bowl, whip together the other ingredients using a wire wisk until smooth and creamy. Adjust the amount of salt and pepper to your taste.

Add the purslane leaves and mix together well. Make sure all the leaves are covered with the yogurt mixture.

You can serve it immediately, or cover and chill it for several hours or overnight. The flavor actually gets better if the salad rests for a while. Gently stir it again before serving.

2014-07-22 17.00.18

Purslane. Photograph Taken by Rosenthal. August 2014.

Purslane. Photographs taken by Rosenthal. July 2014.

Bundle of Purslane. Photograph taken by Rosenthal. July 2014.


Works Cited

About.com. “Purslane With Strained Yogurt And Garlic Is Called ‘Yoğurtlu Semizotu.’” Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://turkishfood.about.com/od/MezeStarters/r/Purslane-With-Strained-Yogurt-And-Garlic.htm>.

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.

Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Portulaca oleracea.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/medicinal/portula.html>.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Academic Edition. “Portulacaceae.” Web. 3 August 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/471686/Portulacaceae>.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Academic Edition. “purslane.” Web. 3 August 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/484198/purslane>.

Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture. “Produce Recipes: Purslane.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.prairielandcsa.org/recipes/purslane.html>.

The Plant Encyclopedia. “Portulaca oleracea.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.theplantencyclopedia.org/wiki/Purslane>.

Time Out Istanbul in English. “Istanbul’s top 20 salads.” Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.timeoutistanbul.com/en/fooddrink/article/2423/Istanbuls-top-20-salads>.

Surviving the Surviving Sources.

One of the biggest challenges of a historian is to construct the past as reliable as possible with the help of available sources of every kind; written, visual etc. It is not an easy thing simply because the sources you have in hand, if you lucky enough to have them; could not be necessarily written on the matter you are searching for, but still, there can be things derived from the content. Thus, even the research for the sources should be very broad in order not to miss out anything.

For instance, to create a historical narrative describing the agricultural past of the walled city, Constantinople, there are important sources which were not actually prepared for depicting the agricultural past of the city specifically but still can be examined having that thought in mind. Due to city’s past, we have the Byzantine and the Ottoman sources. The sources that will be considered here are Byzantine Typica and Geoponica along with the Ottoman Surveys of Istanbul in 1455 and in 1734/35.

Typica is a source that gives information on the regulations of life in monasteries. There are some surviving typica from Constantinople’s institutions. For this study, we have the typicon of the Convent of Sts. Kosmas and Damian, Monastery of St. Mamas and the Convent of Lips. They were all prepared to give an insight about the ancient Byzantine monastic life and habits. However, as part of the topic, looking at diets of the monks, the agricultural land owned by the monastery or the topography of both that agricultural land and the region where the monastery is located some information can be derived about the agricultural features.

Then, there is the Geoponica, which is a Byzantine Greek farming manual of the 10th century AD. It is dedicated to the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus.[1] It is a collection of twenty-books, each one of them gives different information on different issues and techniques such as stars, agriculture, vine cultivation and making, Olives, animals and insects that are harmful for plants, birds, horses, donkeys, breeding, fish etc. Thus, the Geoponica includes all parts and issues of “agricultural” information.

The Ottoman sources that can be used for the purposes of creating the agricultural life are the surveys. There are two examples, from 1455 and 1734/35. Their purpose is obvious from their titles, yet, those surveys shows the dwellings of bostancis (gardeners), locations of vineyards and gardens, churches or endowments which would lead one to valuable information about the agricultural life of the city. Also, having same kind of source from different centuries would help to see the change and continuity through time about the agriculture due to the option of making a comparison about the same matters.

1. Typikon of Athanasios Philanthropenos for the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople

There is a part mentioning the people responsible of the kitchen.  Another part talks about the diet of the monks. Then in the section where financial administration where we can learn there is a treasurer. The author mentions one of the most important income sources are the donations of landed property. I think, this source is also important for the researcher to learn about the possibility of other sources, like for instance when the author talks about the duties of the treasurer of nomismata he says the treasurer needs to keep the record and listing of monetary income and expenditure, thus, if the treasurer acted accordingly, there is a possibility of finding such a source which also can give very valuable information on the subject of our research.

Especially the detailed menu of the Lent, for the each day of the week, is very important in order to see the existing food of the time.  Giving the rule for every man to eat the same amount and same things also gives a clue about the expenditures and the amount of the food provided for the monastery.

2. Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Lips in Constantinople

Similarly, the diet of the nuns is described in this Typica, especially it is recommended that fresh legumes should be eaten and they should be in season. The information on the endowed land around Constantinople by the empress for the foundation gives some clues since it includes vineyards, olive groves, mills etc. The salary of the priests which was paid in gold coins and grain, wheat, barley and wine is significant about the value of those.

Also, the author mentions the inventory of the property and the harvests along with possible foreign attacks to the property. And then he talks about his estates in a rather detailed way which is very valuable information for determining the amount and what kind of produce is possible. He talks about the revenues from those lands and their distribution. Especially, towards the end of the manual, he mentions the entire property owned by the convent inside Constantinople.

3. Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Sts. Kosmas and Damian in Constantinople

In this very short Typikon, which is connected to the Lips’ typikon there is again list of the things convent owned. Among them, there are the arable lands inside and outside of the city; vineyards, gardens with peasants and also the payments are again with gold pieces, barley, wheat and wine.

4. The Geoponica

Especially in the “Book 12” which is concerned with many important issues as what is planted out month by month in the latitude of Constantinople is a gem for our intentions to learn and create a historical narrative about the agricultural past of the walled city. That information would compose an idea about the seasonal, even monthly activities of agricultural production.

There is the part where the ways of vegetable growing is discussed to achieve fertile plants which gives clues about the knowledge those people had on the issue. Another thing is solving problems like the caterpillar issue. There are some tactics in order to deal with the issues that can be harmful for vegetables and trees.

Also, the herbs and their medical uses are mentioned in the texts. We can learn about the importance of a certain type of vegetable through the text which also can give some explanations on the need or the demand of that vegetable like the lettuce. The recipes can help us to have some indications on the diet of the people, especially realizing the way they consume things. Also, especially via seeing the beliefs of the people on the effect of something whether it known to be true or false today, I think this source would help to read the reasons behind products that were planted to the gardens of the people, or to see the trends of those products like garlic and onion. It also gives information about months which certain flowers can grow etc which is again valuable to make suggestions on the seasonal effects.

5. The Survey of Istanbul 1455

This survey is very interesting due to its timing -right after the capture of Constantinople from Byzantines by the Ottomans- and also when it is compared to the later examples of the kind. The information in the survey helps us to see the transformation of the city under the Ottoman rule. On the other hand, it is unlikely to see many gardens registered. Maybe this is related to the fact that the city was ruined in a serious amount, as it can be seen from many entries like the ruined houses or churches due to a hit by cannon etc.

From the registers we can learn detailed information about a garden. Like in a register of Quarter of Balat, there is an entry as, “The House of Hacı from Edremid; in the upper storey two rooms; in the lower storey one room; with a garden of one and a half dönüm; now Yahya from Çorlu lives in the house.”[2]  Thus, we can learn the owner, his origin, the design of the room along with the garden and the size of the garden from the register. Also, there are examples of people recorded as gardeners without being an owner of a garden. Examples of churches in gardens can be seen.

6. The Survey of Istanbul 1734/35 – Kefil Defteri

Again, prepared for totally different reasons, to control the newly arriving work force to the city via registering them with a guarantor, this source is valuable for its help of understanding the land that was dedicated to agriculture and its distribution within the walled city. There are the names of the Bostans along with the names of the people they belonged and their location aside from the district there are the neighborhood names.  Some suggestions can be made in relation to the titles the owners had like, Sultan, Ağa, Efendi, Elçipaşazade, Çelebi or the endowed bostans which can be understood via registering them with the name of the mosque. There is also the total number of gardens and gardeners in the end.



[1] Bassus Cassianus, “Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook.” (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2011), 9.

[2] Halil Inalcık, “The Survey of Istanbul 1455: The Text, English Translation, Analysis of the Text, Documents.” (İstanbul, Turkey: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2012), 306.

Private to Public: City Gardens of Constantinople and the Continuity of their Role in Socialization

It is impossible to know the entire history of a place because all we know is what has stood the test of time. More frustrating than that is what has stood the test of time has been wrapped, warped, and twisted by the perceptions, opinions and sometimes manipulation of history by its story tellers. This idea was eloquently shared in Raymond Williams’ book, The Country and the City, when he said, “a memory of a childhood can be said, persuasively, to have some permanent significance,” (Williams, 12). There exists a constant challenge for historians to see passed this “problem of perspective,” to render the truest core of the past.

But that isn’t exactly what I am doing here.

Constructing a historical narrative about the gardens of Constantinople is in many ways an open-ended question because even the sources from which we have chosen to examine admit there is far more to decrypt.  That being said, however, the primary sources, if they are an accurate and unbiased collection, show snapshots of city agriculture throughout the past millenium and a half. They have revealed to me an important pattern of city gardens that has been shared over time. The city gardens of Constantinople have migrated from a private to public institution, opening in inclusivity over time, while perpetually meeting socialization needs of  the city dwellers.

The gardens of constantinople began as private places owned by private entities in the Byzantine era. In Henry McGuire’s “Gardens and Parks in Constantinople,” the gardens that were kept in memory best by historians and artists were the grand gardens administered by the Church and Emperor. Gardens were also privately run by individuals and households. This is clear from the Geoponika, which states in its 12th chapter that gardens are essential for life and health, and should therefore be located close to the home (tl. Dalby, 247).  Despite the usage of “others” and “they” as sources for explanation of the different garden capabilities, the colloquial nature of the text is misleading. Meant for “the improvement of mankind,” the Geoponika was an elite text, further showing that the conversation of gardens and gardeners themselves was a private institution kept to the usage of the home. The Dioskorides show again this confusing mix of private and public, as there existed an alphabet key and several drawings to make the text seemingly accessible to the masses. But this gardening guidebook was intended for an aristocratic crowd and the finer Viennese copy was not a commonplace copy (ed. Littlewood, 204). In “Theodore Hyrtakenos’ Description of the Garden of St. Anna and the Byzantine Descriptions of Gardens,” the idea of a private, fortified garden was the subject of his writing (Mavrudi and Dolezal). St. Anna, locked in the rings of trees and vegetation, is the subject of a major Eden-like garden. This representation shows that contemporary usage and perception of gardens in 10th century Byzantium were for private usage, ushering intimate relations between individuals and nature.

Through the Typika of three centuries, the transition from private to public usage of the gardens is more pronounced. The Typika, charters from the monasteries and convents of Byzantium, serve as historical sources reporting on the day to day and seasonal life. From their descriptions we can draw deeper conclusions in regard to the private and public relations to gardens. The Monastery at St. Mamas, in the 12th century, completely banned women (unless they had specially privilege or standing) and guests of any sort. Even the gatekeeper was to be selective in giving to the poor, further making the monastery and its private garden a separate entity from the public sphere (tl. Bandy, ch. 13, 26, and 27).  In the 13th century Typika of the Convent at St. Lips, access to the grounds, and more specifically to the women in the convent, was limited to outside visitors (tl. Talbot, ch. 17). In this Typika there exists a detailed description of the lands that provide the self-sustaining ability of the convent. This characteristic shows again the exclusivity and privacy of the major city gardens at the time. By the 14th century, however, in the Typika of the convent at St. Kosmas, we see an important bridge between private and public gardens. The inner-workings of the convent were dependent on food no longer produced within church property, but instead from gardens outside the church. People providing the food from these gardens were a separate yet connected entity from the church, as they constitute a lower social class and symbol of poor public beings (tl. Talbot, ch. 4). Towards the end of Byzantium, the gardens written about started to become less confined as private institutions.

In the Typika of St. Mamas, however, there exists one quote that speaks to the private nature of the gardens yet also highlights the spirit of what gardening meant for the people of Constantinople. Those who worked on the gardens for the purpose of producing food were given the title “gardener” and their work was done separate and isolated from the monastery. The meaning of gardens being a tool for personal and household health is shown again. The gardeners were to produce food for the meals that the other monks ate, but they would invite the monks in for meal time in “the name of brotherhood,” so to show that food and agriculture served a social function (tl. Bandy, ch. 19). This concept is shown in different forms throughout the sources presented here.

The Ottoman Era saw a complete change in city gardens as they became far more public entities. This is clear by the involvement of the state and the making of official records, begun by Mehmet II and his official survey of the city’s subjects in 1455. The role of the state in categorizing and organizing these gardens shows that the authority of the land was no longer monitored by private institutions or households, but instead by the Sultanate itself. In her article about the public spaces of Istanbul, Shirine Hamadeh concludes that the gardens of the city became centers for vibrant public life in an era known by historians as the Tulip Period (Hamadeh, 300).

Throughout the change over time from private to public nature of the city gardens, there lies continuity in the gardens’ role in socialization of the city people. From the early guidebooks on agriculture and the various medicinal uses of the garden’s products, there exists a notion that the men and women who counted on the gardens for health also counted on them for social needs. In the Geoponika, it is outlined that the plant rocket serves to combat body odor (tl. Dalby, 259). There would only be a remedy like this if there was a need, which seems to be the case with the growing socialization of the Byzantine society. The rise of coffeehouses paralleled with the phenomenon of urbanization revolutionized the social scene of Ottoman Constantinople. Individuals were socializing at degrees previously unmatched and there grew a greater inclusive nature about the city. This was in the time when public gardens began to flourish. Gardens in this sense also served social needs as being the forum for discussion, courtship, and basic human interaction beginning in the 15th century.

The relationship of man and nature is a very unique one. In the early city gardens of Constantinople, there existed a mystical and revered spirit of the  gardens as they embodied the idea of man’s conquest of nature (ed. Littlewood, 115). Overtime, the skills of gardening became specialized and there arose a separate term and occupation for “gardeners” (tl. Bandy, ch. 9). Finally, gardens were transformed to be conquered by humans once again, but in a completely different context, while still embodying the socialization of the era. Today, we see man against nature repeatedly. The fine line between symbiosis and disruption, unfortunately, has only blurred over time, and today, we find ourselves questioning our relationship with gardens as being one of fruitful ends or ultimately destructive outcomes.

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).


Three Yedikules.

As a field trip for the course, we went Yedikule, to see the bostans that still exist and the areas that were bostans before. To make a comparison on what is changed and what remained, in a place where used to be a bostan, we took pictures. Having three other photos of the land from past, it became possible to capture somethings with different pictures from different times, around the same point, depicting the situation of green lands under the conditions of different Yedikules on relation to different Istanbuls.

Sebah, 1890s.

Sebah, 1890s.

The first one from 1890s is an Istanbul of late Ottoman Empire, in a setting where agricultural production still has its primary value. From the mosque and the houses around, it can be understood that there is a neighborhood. Of course, the bostans are occupying the hugest part of the picture. Also, aside from the bostans, the number of trees is considerably high in comparison to today. The photo gives an impression of an immeasurable land which seems to have no end.

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.

Artamonoff, 1938.

Artamonoff, 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 second and third ones are from 1930s, from the early times of Republic of Turkey when there is a shift happening from the imperial times and practices, changing the city life and people’s occupations. In Artamonoff, February, 1937 and Artamonoff, 1938, more houses can be seen than the bostans. The trees are still there. However, probably due to the the point of view or maybe the season being winter, the photo from 1937 looks drier. It is like the occupation of the settlements started to grow around the whole area. The limitlessness in the late 19th century photo seems to come down to the feeling of vastness.

Uçar, July, 2014.

Uçar, July, 2014.

Uçar, July, 2014.

Uçar, July, 2014.

The fourth one, taken in 2014, belongs to a more globalized, modernized Istanbul and its needs. There is no bostan at all. There is only the dry land with the houses. Some trees are still there. One of the last set of settlements as a building complex, that can be seen in a fifth picture is surrounded with walls due to probably security reasons. That is like marking the line between nature and concrete. The funny thing for me was to see the trees planted between the barbed wire and the houses. It is also the barbed wire in between the natural land and the planted trees that is likely for the sake of avoiding the settlers at the lower levels seeing only the wires as a view while looking through their windows. Furthermore, the land is now limited with the limits of a modern city. From the ground, it is unlikely to see anything beyond -if not a long tree- if there is a building in front of you. And looking from top of the walls, only feeling is the feeling of a city and it is possible to locate some important places from that height.

After we talked about the one big constant being the city walls in all the photographs, I also realized, they were built in 5th century, and up until 20th century, they contributed to the “immeasurable” or “vast” outlook of the city. Only at the time when people built things that made the walls cannot be seen, city stated to look more intense but smaller.

Istanbul’s bostans that were sustainably farmed to maximize harvests had gardeners that were experts but also had their guilds.[1] While we were walking around the area with second and third generation farmers who once owned a land and now lost some of it and facing to lose more, it is not seem to be an organization as guilds that would protect them or give some community spirit to the situation, within the bostancıs, at least. Considering their one of the biggest problems as the uncertainty of their situation due to on-going projects considered for their lands or their changes in the value of their products’ in the market, the organization thing becomes more significant.

According to Kaldjian, views perceiving Istanbul’s bostans as archaic, with no place in a modern world city, capable of producing little more than a nostalgia, is shallow and suggest a limited appreciation of creative community building and smack of misplaced elitism.[3] Moreover, looking at the photographs, there is an obvious loss of green area with an ongoing settlement expansion. Having said that, my main question here is; can a modern city and nature exist together or nature should be adjusted to the modern without reminding its non-modern timeless feature; but also since every case is unique, what can be the case for Istanbul, a city of bostans and gardens from the first place?



[1] Paul J. Kaldjian, “Istanbul’s Bostans: A Millenium of Market Gardens”, Geographical Review, Vol.94, No.3, People Places and Gardens (Jul.2004), 285 and Gülru Necipoğlu, “ The Suburban Landscape of Sixteenth-Century Istanbul as a Mirror of Classical Ottoman Garden Culture”, in Theory and Design of Gardens in the Time of the Great Muslim Empires, ed. A. Petruccioli, E.J. (Brill, 1997), 44.

[2] These issues are debated in the articles, on the situation especially after 1990s, by Paul J. Kaldjian, “Istanbul’s Bostans: A Millenium of Market Gardens”, Geographical Review, Vol.94, No.3, People Places and Gardens (Jul.2004), pp. 284-304, on the comsumer city idea by C. R. Whittaker, “The Consumer City Revisited: The Vicus and the City”, Journal of Roman Archaeology” 3,(1990), pp. 110-118 and also especially for the Ottoman Case and its relation to current issues by Aleksandar Shopov & Ayhan Han, “Yedikule Market Gardens and the New Istanbul Topographies: Expansion of Agricultural Land in Ottoman Istanbul in the Seventeenth Century”, pp. 1-14.

[3] Paul J. Kaldjian, “Istanbul’s Bostans: A Millenium of Market Gardens”, Geographical Review, Vol.94, No.3, People Places and Gardens (Jul.2004), 300.