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.

The Puzzles of the Gardens from the 10th Century Onwards

In some cases, the more you learn about a topic, the more questions arise and the further from the truth it seems you become. The role of the bostans throughout history both fascinates and frustrates me for this very reason. Last week, we looked at a few photographs of a former Yedikule bostan in the Fatih neighborhood. In class, we discussed how the photographs we looked at painted a linear progression of this bostan from a fertile land to an abandoned area but that that wasn’t necessarily the case. What happened in between these snapshots? Are we to believe the area was unchanged and static in between the images? My guess is no. Continuing with the idea that spaces do not follow a linear progression in terms of function, last Thursday we visited the former Langa bostan (famous for its cucumbers) where it became apparent that the area went from being a land area, to one filled with water that became a central port, back to land whose alluvial soil made it the perfect place for a bostan. Part of the bostan has already been destroyed to build a metro station and another part will soon be destroyed to build a parking lot — the thought alone saddened me. The function of this space is in no way linear over the years, which leaves me wondering what function other garden sites have played throughout history. This past weekend, other students enrolled in the Harvard summer school program and I were fortunate enough to journey to Gallipoli and ancient Troy. While at Troy, I was greatly intrigued by a well I saw dating back to c. 300 BCE. My curiosity regarding this well, its function overtime, and what that says about the surrounding space continue to leave me with more questions than answers.

Aside from the living remnants and literary and pictorial sources describing the gardens, some surviving primary sources on gardens dating back to the 10th century AD with the publication of the Geoponika exist today to aid the study of gardens’ historical past. The Geoponika, a Byzantine Greek farming manual from the 10th century AD dedicated to Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, reveals the many influences and techniques of farming practices dating back to the 3rd century BC as well as the important role farming played not only for pragmatic purposes but also for medicinal, therapeutic, and leisurely ones (Dalby, Geoponika, 247). In Book 12, part 2, entitled “Making a vegetable garden,” Andrew Dalby translates Florentinus’ section as, “Gardening is essential to life. For health and convalescence a garden should be developed not at a distance from the house but in proximity to it, where it will give enjoyment to the eyes and pleasure to the sense of smell.”(Dalby, 247) Additionally, Dalby notes that Homer and Hesiod are quoted and language used primarily in the 3rd century BC appear in this text, showing the longstanding history and presence of gardens (Dalby, 13). The many authors cited in this text further reveal the great focus on gardens through history. However, as this was a text only members of the elite had access to, were there different practices others followed or are these the only ones? Two typikas, “Typikon of Athanasios Philanthropenos for the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople” and “Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Lips in Constantinople” from the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively, law books for monasteries, reveal the important role gardens played in providing food as much of the diet was fruits and vegetables. From this information, can we say most monasteries relied heavily on fruits and vegetables during these periods? Two surveys from 1455 and 1735 survive today which also reveal the presence of bostans in numerous quarters during these years. The 1735 survey tells us there were 344 bostans with 1,381 gardeners employed (“The Survey of the Bustans (Gardens) in Istanbul intramural from 1735”).

While these three sources make it clear that gardens were numerous when these sources were written and played an important role throughout history, they leave the reader with a number of new questions to ponder. What was the situation of gardens in between these periods? Do these documents tell the entire story during the periods they were written? These sources also leave me with many questions regarding the sources’ weight in the present. How should these documents influence our views on bostans and the preservation of them today versus how do they? These documents are clearly instrumental to the study of the agricultural past but what do they say about the present and the future? Is the historical presence and importance of gardens evidence enough for the preservation of them? Despite the many missing pieces of the puzzle, it is clear the importance of the gardens in history is truly immense and the primary sources discussed earlier further speak to that.

Istanbul’s Agricultural Historiography

A complete historiographical analysis of the economic and agricultural history of Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire includes various types of primary sources. This diversity helps to avoid misplaced assumptions or forgotten actors and draws a more complete picture of the past. Dominant power structures often write a history that reflects distinct motivations and intentions without considering many other perspectives. Less traditional primary sources like literary and artistic exphraxi, professional manuals and guidebooks, religious typica, and city surveys include important but perhaps underrepresented actors that contributed to the agricultural development of Istanbul.

Mavroudi and Dolezal discuss the importance of exploring potentially problematic sources that require a significant amount of interpretation. For subjects that no longer exist, exphraxi can be useful tools through which to understand history. “The multiple allusions to divergent genres, in effect, contribute to more precise definitions of late Byzantine culture, not the least of which is sustained attraction to gardens, real or imaginary.” (Dolezal and Mavroudi, 2002) Alternatively, a quantitative analysis of city surveys and censuses can describe an increase or decrease in the amount of farms and gardeners in various neighborhoods within Istanbul. The very inclusion of bostans in a survey might indicate a type of centralized regulation and therefore a higher degree of control and oversight. This introduction of government presence to the management of urban farming demonstrates the role bostans have played as an integral part of city life.

Similar to the exphraxis examined by Mavroudi and Dolezal, the Greek Byzantine Dioskorides’ Materia medica pharmacology encyclopediaand Geoponika farming manual have important cultural implications that inform the agricultural history of what is today Istanbul. In addition to the practical utility of farms and their crops’ nutrition, Book 12 of the Geoponika describes the intangible value of gardens and the importance of their proximity to residential zones. “Gardening is essential to life. For health and convalescence a garden should be developed not at a distance from the house, but in proximity to it, where it will give enjoyment to the eyes and pleasure to the sense of smell…” (Cassianus, 2011)Dioskorides similarly discusses the uses of plants medicinal qualities in the Materia medica. While neither document says anything about specific Byzantine gardens, they represent a vocal and visual discourse that indicates a high level of social and academic engagement with agriculture in the ancient empire. This commentary suggests that an “informed involvement in the everyday realities of plants and their medicinal uses” was expected from those that were responsible for the public good. (Brubaker) The significant cultural value given to these farms and gardens by these manuscripts may also be applied to the city’s gardeners. Creating a lucrative market for plants that could be grown in an urban environment for medicinal, hygienic, or superstitial applications and required a skilled gardener would likely have important social implications.

Istanbul’s monastic typica also provide important information on the status of gardens and urban farms from the 12th through the 14th centuries. The typicon for the St. Mamas’ monastery in 1158 describes important connections between manual labor and spirituality that includes gardening and providing food sources for its monks. There is also an interesting community building element for the role of gardener and for the act of sharing meals. “Vine-dressers, gardeners and others working outside the monastery should take meals along with the other monks in order that ‘the name brotherhood may not be just a name.’” (Philanthropenos) The gardens of the St. Mamas monastery also provide most of the food eaten by the brothers. According to the document their diet consists largely of vegetables (mentioned no fewer than eight times), legumes, bread, fruit, cheese, and fish. While fish were probably bought elsewhere in the city, the explicit inclusion of “gardener” as a manual labor position indicates that monks grew at least some of the food. Furthermore, due to vows of poverty, one can infer that most sustenance items were made within the monastery’s grounds.

The typica of the Convents of Lips and Sts. Kosmas and Damian are valuable in deciphering how much land was operated as working farms and gardens in Istanbul. The Convent of Lips included at least 18 hectares of operational gardens with an additional 74 hectares of arable land and about 17 hectares of vineyards “inside Constantinople” including Blanga and Galata. (Palaiologina) The Convent of Sts. Kosmas and Damian owns at least 2,342 hectares of arable land both inside (Blanga, Chalcedon, Galata) and surrounding (Philopation) the city as well as 92 hectares of vineyards and 24 hectares of olive trees. (Palaiologina) This substantial amount of land dedicated to agriculture speaks to the cultural and economic significance of gardening in Istanbul between the 12th and 14th centuries.

The urban farms and agricultural history of the city requires creative interpretations of primary sources that may, at first glance, not seem to contribute directly to the historical narrative. The ephemeral nature of gardens as subjects need not inhibit thoughtful historical analysis.

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. 

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).