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.