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.

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. 

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.

Change and Continuity in Yedikule

Change and continuity. Those two words epitomize both the community of Yedikule and the story that is modern Istanbul. If a picture tells a thousand words, then these four images of the same Yedikule bostan and the community that surrounds it – taken at intervals over a 125-year period – captures at one glance the extraordinary changes that have overtaken this historic city in recent decades. Istanbul’s bostans have largely fallen victim to the engine of Istanbul’s economic success: a globalized economy, many major construction projects, rising land values, and an increasingly urbanized population no longer interested in farming as an occupation all have contributed to the demise of the bostans that were once such a distinctive feature of this city. However, Istanbul is a city featuring elements of timelessness and continuity as well as change, and these photos capture that element as well. While the ancient city wall continues to stand in surprisingly good condition, the bostans have largely disappeared from these photos and the Istanbul landscape as a whole. However, there is still some space for their return – literally and metaphorically – provided that the case for their continuing social and economic value is made and accepted.


Sebah, 1890s

When we look at Sebah’s photograph of Yedikule from the 1890s, we see an area characterized by greenery. This is not the open, largely barren landscape we see today. Rather, Yedikule is lush and forested – cultivated fields are interspersed with dense tree cover. An imposing line of cypress trees – like an advancing army – appears in the distance. Aside from the historic city wall, the land is largely undisturbed by human structures – a few modest houses can be seen, mostly to the left of the wall, and the spire of a mosque appears in the distance. However, though indicating the presence of a community, these buildings are secondary players in the scene depicted – here, nature and farming predominate. Although the colorless photo is old and grainy, the lushness, vitality, and abundance of the land is palpable, as is the respect and reverence it is accorded.


Artamonoff, 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

Unknown, 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.


Turning to the photographs from 1937 and 1938, we see the same land almost fifty years later, though it might take a moment to realize it. The once largely rural, arboreal vista is no more. Artamonoff’s photograph, taken in February when the earth is barren and the trees skeletal, highlights the disappearance of the tree cover and general foliage, but the observation holds true for the summertime 1938 photograph as well. The supremacy of nature that characterized the 1890s landscape has been transformed by the late 1930s into a landscape of cultivated plots contained by a growing urban presence. Most of the trees have been replaced by houses, and the land that appears here has been tamed into smaller, controlled plots. The once-mighty army of cypress trees on the far hill has been significantly thinned, though it still stands. However, while the landscape has changed, the continued presence of the bostan fields, and the evident care in their cultivation, is testament to the continued importance of farming to the Yedikule community, despite the encroaching development. And although more buildings have been constructed, the “sacred space” for the gardens between those buildings and the city walls so prominently featured in Sabah’s photograph has been maintained.


Silber, 2014

Silber, 2014

Fast-forward to 2014, where I stand on the same ancient city walls featured in Sebah’s photo looking out onto… what, exactly? It is not immediately clear. Aleksandar walks us through a guided-meditation description of the once lively garden that occupied the space before us only a year earlier, but it is difficult to imagine that anything once grew here – even the weeds seem to be having a difficult time surviving in the dehydrated soil. A dense colony of buildings has now managed to extend its presence nearly to the edge of the wall, and there is not a garden in sight. Looking out onto this arid urban wasteland, one wonders: what will become of this former bostan? Will the results of the city’s development plan – detailed on a billboard located somewhere on the lot – be able to replicate and/or surpass the vibrancy of the former farming community?

The myriad social and economic benefits of the bostans exist both in tangibles and intangibles. In terms of tangibles, the bostans provide a local and affordable food source in an increasingly expensive city where food costs can consume 30-40% of an average family’s income. They also provide a model of local sustainability countering the global agri-business model of the mass, long-distance transport of food – with the concurrent nutritional and ecological repercussions. In terms of intangibles, there is the value of preserving active green spaces in city planning (as opposed to inanimate, passive green spaces), the loss of community that surrounded local food production and the parallel economy of neighborhood food sharing that resulted, and the loss of a historic institution that marked Istanbul as being unique among other big cities (how many other large cities grew sufficient produce within its city limits to supply a noteworthy portion of the vegetal needs of its population until the mid-1950s?)

The changes to the landscape I have identified in comparing my 2014 photo to the photos of previous years are not shocking. It is not uncommon for cities to change, and while change is not a perfectly linear process, patterns and trends – such as a general shift away from the prevalence of agriculture – can be observed. However, what is shocking about the differences observed in Yedikule over the years that we have seen photographed is the fact that the vast transformation of this landscape has occurred largely in recent years, when the assault against the bostan began in earnest. That an Istanbul institution that survived for centuries could be largely destroyed in such a short period of time reveals how quickly history can be erased. And it also reveals just how quickly the defenders of the bostans will need to move if they want to save them.


Yedikule Gardens from the 1890s to Present Day as seen through Photographs

What is truly fascinating and surprising to me upon close examination of the images of Yedikule Gardens, the gardens that sit near the intersection of the Theodosian walls and the Marmara Sea in the Fatih neighborhood, are the similarities in the images of the region taken in the 1890s, February 1937, 1938, and today in July of 2014 (see below for images). In all the photos, the Theodosian Walls and the surrounding structures, built around the 5th century by the Romans to protect the city, are present. From the images, it is as if the part of the Theodosian Walls that border the Yedikule garden are meant to protect the garden. Perhaps this is due to the contrast in size of the tall walls to the large, lower expanse of ground with much shorter houses beyond. The relative strength in height of the walls is not only meant to keep intruders out of the city but also to keep intruders away from anything near the walls. Interestingly, the Yedikule gardens lie on the side outside the Theodosian Walls but the power of the wall still seems to be threatening outsiders from approaching. Or is the outsider in this case the inner city of Istanbul? It is as if the Theodosian Walls are meant to protect aspects of the city of Istanbul from itself as the beautiful antiquity of the Walls denotes a preservation of history, which the Yedikule gardens embody, and which the city’s desire to develop the area into a modern recreational area does not. Not only do activists fight to keep the gardens alive and prevent the city from destroying the gardens but the loud, inanimate Walls do too.

While the images appear quite similar to me, a few differences can be detected. A difference in the landscape of the area can be seen when comparing one photo to the next. The multitude of trees present in the 1890s image is invisible in the 1937 and the 1938 ones, paving the way for garden space. Current images of the area show the abandoned and uncared for former gardens standing right between the same Walls and houses (with some developments) as if begging the question of why everything surrounding the gardens has been preserved while the continuation of the gardens is in question today.

It is clear that gardens have been present throughout Istanbul’s history beginning in the Byzantine period and during the Ottoman Empire. As Aleksandar Shopov and Ayhan Han write in their paper “Yedikule Market Gardens and the New Istanbul Topographies: Expansion of Agricultural Land in Ottoman Istanbul in the Seventeenth Century,” according to one document from 1735, 344 gardens existed with 1381 people employed within Istanbul (Shopov, Aleksandar and Ayhan Han, “Yedikule Market Gardens and the New Istanbul Topographies: Expansion of Agricultural Land in Ottoman Istanbul in the Seventeenth Century,” 3). While mentions of the Yedikule Gardens from certain time periods are lacking as Shopov and Han write, the Yedikule Gardens carry Istanbul’s history of gardens in one of the few gardens still remaining (Ibid, 3-4). In Henry Maguire’s essay “Gardens and Parks in Constantinople,” he speaks of the strong presence of gardens throughout the Byzantine empire evidenced through many writings despite the lack of them still standing (Maguire, Henry, “Gardens and Parks in Constantinople.”). And in Gulru Necipoglu’s piece “The Suburban Landscape of Sixteenth-Century Istanbul as a Mirror of Classical Ottoman Garden Culture,” he speaks of the great role gardens played as spaces not only of economic growth but of leisure, relaxation, and enjoyment (Necipoglu, Gülru, “The Suburban Landscape of Sixteenth-Century Istanbul as a Mirror of Classical Ottoman Garden Culture”). Thus, when looking at the images of the Yedikule gardens overtime, the tall Walls seem to reinforce the importance of the Yedikule Gardens as a space of great history and antiquity.


Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 6.31.21 AM

Sebah, 1890s

Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 6.33.17 AM

Artamanoff, 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.

Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 6.35.13 AM

Artamanoff, 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.

yedkule 1

Rosenthal, July 2014

Rosenthal, July 2014

Rosenthal, July 2014

Rosenthal, July 2014

Rosenthal, July 2014