The six-hectare gardens in the center of Istanbul, which are more than 1,500 years old, have helped feed the city's residents over the centuries and are connected with its religious history. But current city management has a restoration project that could disrupt a unique urban ecosystem.
ISTANBUL — The historic urban gardens of Yedikule in Istanbul are at risk of destruction once again. After damage in 2013 caused by the neighborhood municipality of Fatih, the gardens are now facing further disruption and possible damage as the greater Istanbul municipality plans more "restoration" work.
The six-hectare gardens are more than 1,500 years old, dating back to the city's Byzantine era. They were first farmed by Greeks and Albanians, then people from the northern city of Kastamonu, near the Black Sea. Now, a wide variety of seasonal produce grows in the garden, including herbs, varieties of lettuce and other greens, red turnip, green onion, cabbage, cauliflower, tomato, pepper, corn, mulberry, fig and pomegranate.
Yedikule is unique among urban gardens around the world, says Cemal Kafadar, a historian and professor of Turkish Studies at Harvard University.
“There are (urban gardens) that are older than Istanbul gardens, such as those in Rome, but there is no other that has maintained continuity all this time with its techniques and specific craft," Kafadar says. "What makes Yedikule unique is that it still provides crops. You might have eaten (from these gardens) with or without knowing about it."
Kafadar spoke at a class in the gardens on Jan. 14, organized by the Yedikule Gardens Initiative, a citizen group working to preserve the gardens.
As I listened to Kafadar taking audience on a trip through history, these words stuck with me: "The soil is an archive. It never loses its ability to retain information, unless it has been ruined."
As we toured the gardens, we saw this soil archive firsthand, and heard from people who learned to farm this land from their parents, who in turn learned from their parents. One of the most experienced gardeners has been working this plot for 40 years.
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Grand Mosques tutelage
Our first stop was the garden of Recep Kayan, famous for artichokes. Kayan says he feels nervous after seeing the gardens of his friends demolished. “We earn a living here," he says. "We have been fighting here for eight years, but it is uncertain what will happen. Tomorrow they may have us out."
We leave Kayan’s garden and head to a garden parcel tended by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Most of the gardens were at one time owned by institutions, Kafadar explains, including the grand mosques of Suleymaniye and Fatih.
We wander the gardens, heading for those outside of the historic city walls. As we approach the Gate of Belgrade, we notice construction work between two walls. Somebody closes the door to block us from photographing damage that the work has caused.
Costs have risen with the increasing cost of fertilizer.
On the other side of the wall, the ground is rich with every shade of green. We notice gardeners picking sheep’s sorrel as we exit. Gardener Kadir Kaplan says he has been working here for the past 40 years. He sells his product to bazaars in the neighborhoods of Fatih, Zeytinburnı and Esenyurt, but lately his costs have risen with the increasing cost of fertilizer.
We continue, walking though the gardens outside of the walls. Our last stop is the garden of Dursun Kaplan, chair of the Yedikule Gardeners’ Association. Kaplan says that at one time, the garden could produce enough green produce to meet Istanbul's needs.
“The prices at the bazaar are balanced when the greens grown here. As of now, mint is as low as 5 liras ($0.27). It falls to 1-2 in the summer. The prices rise when we run out of greens," Kaplan says.
September 2022. Interior, courtyard and surroundings of the Yedikule Fortress Museum in Istanbul, Turkey.
Tolga Ildun via ZUMA Press Wire
Creep of municipal construction
Kaplan uses ancestral seeds in the garden, and used to have a greenhouse and fig trees inside the walls. But work crews from the Istanbul regional municipality demolished the greenhouse and tore down the trees. We move to a part of the garden where another municipal construction crew is digging up earth with a machine and loading it onto a truck. We poke around until authorities notice us.
The gardeners are seen as "occupiers."
Bricks with the marking of “Fratelli Allatini Salonicco” attract our attention. They must be from the Allatini brick and tile factory, founded in the late 1880s in Thessaloniki, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. We also notice fresh damage on the walls.
The gardeners are seen as "occupiers," and pay an occupation tax to the municipality. On one hand: a gardener picking sorrel in a garden he has tended for 40 years; on the other, a municipal construction machine, damaging the walls, tearing up the garden and destroying history. Who is the occupier?
Let this story end with professor Kafadar’s words from the beginning of his class: “The political side of this has been on our minds since the beginning. I have heard this from many friends: is it right to do this in these days, when the (Istanbul municipality) has enough troubles of its own? It is not an unfair question. Abandoning criticism cannot be our culture.”