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.

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.

 

Gardens between Worlds

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

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

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

Sebah, 1890s

Sebah, 1890s

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

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

Artamonoff, February 1937

Artamonoff, February 1937

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

 

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

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

Artamonoff, Summer 1938

Artamonoff, Summer 1938

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

 

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

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

Michael Luo, July 2014

Michael Luo, July 2014

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

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

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

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