Turkey: Istanbul's Historic Lettuce Fields Fall Victim to Urbanization
Istanbul’s Yedikule gardens present something of an incongruous sight: good-sized agricultural fields squeezed between modern apartment buildings on one side and the city’s historic Byzantine city walls on the other. They are also an ancient sight – according to researchers, urban farmers have been cultivating the land near the walls here since most likely the 6th century. In fact, agriculture is so established in the area that romaine lettuce from the Yedikule fields – the area’s main crop – had long ago developed a citywide reputation for its exceptional taste.
Now, though, these patches of green and the lettuce they produce are under threat, victims of yet another one of the government’s “urban transformation” projects, which tend to look at Istanbul’s past as the greatest impediment to the city’s future (this Tumblr site gives a good sense of the gardens and the plan to replace them). This week, workers from the local Fatih municipality started bulldozing the fields with little warning, as part of a plan to create a large park in the area. While there’s nothing wrong with building parks, the scant details given by the municipality about its plans have left locals and historians concerned, particularly since the Yedikule gardens are considered part of an area that is under UNESCO protection as a cultural heritage site. The fact that the local municipality is the same one that was responsible for the complete tearing down of Sulukule, a nearby neighborhood with a long-standing Roma population whose own history in the area went back for centuries, only raised concerns that little would be done in terms of preservation when it comes to this latest project.
The agricultural history of the area turns out to be quite fascinating. As Alessandra Ricci, an archeologist and Byzantinist at Istanbul’s Koc University, suggests in an article she wrote, the land around Istanbul’s land walls served as an important source of produce during Byzantine (and even Ottoman) times. “The nature of the landscape around the Land Walls is further reinforced by a Byzantine text known as Geoponika(12.1) with sections composed already in the 6th century C.E. The text does systematically provide information on the greens to be planted at different times of the year or seasonal cycles,” she writes. “For the city of Constantinople, the Geoponika, lists a large variety of green salads, endive, carrots, onions and cabbage among others. Along with these greens appear others of a seemingly less common usage as mustard, rabe and collars. Absent from this text are legumes, olives, millet and eggplants to cite a few.” In that sense, not only is agriculture in the Yedikule gradens are a tradition that goes back to Byzantine, but so is the raising of the gardens’ signature crop, romaine lettuce.
Despite some small protests at the gardens, for now it appears that the Fatih municipality will go ahead with its plan to destroy the fields. Coming after so many other projects that have permanently erased crucial living remnants of the past, it seems worth asking at this just what do Istanbul’s elected officials have against the history of the city they have been charged with protecting?
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