When we think of cultural heritage in cities, we tend to imagine monuments made of stone: Hagia Sophia, Galata Tower, or Topkapı Palace. But some of Istanbul’s most ancient sites are not buildings at all. Dating back almost 1,500 years, the urban gardens known in Turkish as bostan are an example of living, growing history. And what could be better than history you can eat?

The most famous garden that survives today is around Yedikule, a fortress within the land walls built by Emperor Theodosius II. These land walls were accepted onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985. Predating the walls, the farmland in this area also continued to be used throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

The protected land

Located on prime real estate, the garden have been facing pressure but many are campaigning to protect them as well, such as Yiğit Ozar, president of the Istanbul Archaeologists Foundation. “The land walls were a three-fold system: a front wall, a back wall, and a moat. In the Ottoman period we know that the moat and the space between the walls were used as farmland,” Ozar told The Guide Istanbul. “They consciously chose to use the land in this way in order to prevent construction around the walls. There are records from the Ottoman parliament and high court stating this intention.”

As Ozar explains, there were practical reasons for not allowing construction near the Byzantine walls. “At one point in the Ottoman period they tried developing the garden area inside the wall. But right behind the area is a hill that rises towards Kocamustafapaşa, and when rainwater flowed down the hill and through the garden those buildings were flooded,” says Ozar. “Apart from flooding, another reason for keeping the area undeveloped was the risk of fire. As Istanbul’s houses were built of wood, fires could easily spread out of control. The gap around the walls could act as a firebreak.”

The UNESCO-protected area extends around 300 meters on either side of the land defenses. Ozar argues that UNESCO’s conditions of “integrity” and “authenticity” also include the urban gardens, which are part of the cultural landscape that frames the walls. “All together the walls, the gardens, the Byzantine monasteries, Blachernae Palace, the Byzantine and Ottoman cemeteries, and the tombs and mosques create this cultural landscape,” he says.

As well as the gardens’ cultural importance, they also have great benefits for the city’s ecologists and chefs. “Going back several generations, local people went there on the weekends to have a picnic with the famous Yedikule lettuce,” Ozar explains. “The archaeologist Chantel White found a special kind of mint while researching the gardens, and we discovered that the Ottomans intentionally planted this breed of mint. Somehow the seeds didn’t die in the soil, so this rare Ottoman mint springs up as a wild plant there.” Today most of the garden farmers are migrants from the Black Sea province of Kastamonu, while in Ottoman times the land was farmed by Greeks and Albanians.

Cultural heritage versus urbanization

Plans to develop parts of the gardens brought historians and environmentalists into conflict with the municipality in 2013. “The municipality wanted to zone an area near Yedikule for construction and turn the rest of the garden into a park. But due to the protection zone, this construction would not have been legal,” says Ozan. “We held meetings with the municipality and sent complaints to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums and the local body responsible for upholding the UNESCO plan. There was also a reaction from the general public against the development of the garden. Finally we managed to convince the municipality of the area’s historic importance, and the development came to an end.” But in 2016 similar arguments are still ongoing, with the municipality stepping in to remove some temporary buildings next to the wall. The municipality claims that the buildings are a security risk while Ozan says they necessary to store the tools used for working the gardens.

But he also sees reasons to be optimistic about the fate of the historic gardens, citing the case of Piyalepaşa mosque. “The mosque was built in the sixteenth century by Mimar Sinan. Around it is a large garden that was maintained to provide income for the mosque. In recent times, parts of it have fallen victim to a motorway and car park. Just one part remains beside the mosque,” he explains. “Finally in 2015 there were plans to destroy the garden completely by building an underground car park with a useless green area on top. We applied to the local protection board for the cancellation of the plan and succeeded. This is an exemplary decision in the protection of Istanbul’s cultural assets.”

We can also take hope from the case of the historical garden in Kuzguncuk, a calm neighborhood on the shore of Üsküdar. The first title deed to this garden dates from the reign of Sultan Mehmet IV in the seventeenth century, when it belonged to a local Greek called İspiro Şore. In 1977 ownership of the garden passed to the government’s Directorate General of Foundations. Despite attempts to build on the land in 1992 and 2012, the garden has survived largely intact up to today.

How to support your local garden

With your shopping basket

  • The Dürtük collective organizes regular sales of Yedikule vegetables in Beyoğlu – follow their Facebook group to get your fresh produce. Alternatively, go straight to the garden and make friends with the farmers.
  • You can also find garden-grown produce at weekly markets in neighborhoods such as Beşiktaş (Saturday), Tarlabaşı (Sunday), and Kasımpaşa (Sunday). Many sellers have signs on their vegetables explaining where they come from, or you can simply ask.

With your voice

  • Facebook page Yedikule Bostanları is a community dedicated to spreading knowledge about the urban gardens and rallying support from locals.
  • Slow Food Turkey organizes talks, events, and petitions about the city’s urban gardens and healthy, environmental eating in general. Follow the group’s Facebook page for updates.
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