Foreigners living in Istanbul often say they love the place for its history, while some say it’s the people who make it special. We find life here mystifying for the unpredictable dialogue between the two, the way 15 million or so people reconcile their daily lives with this city’s rich past. To live inside this beautiful crash course is invigorating and, at the same time, a heartbreaking experience. Where else does the elegant silhouette of migratory storks cross a skyline of construction cranes busy laying a metro tube to connect two continents, a project whose progress was stalled by the unexpected discovery of one of the richest underwater archaeological finds ever, a lost port full of ancient boats filled with age-old cargo? Walking these streets, every day we see something so fabulous that it takes our breath away, just as we spot something around the corner threatening to smash it.
As we see it, no place showcases the beautiful impossibilities of Istanbul better than the vegetable gardens in Yedikule. Situated in the filled-in moats at the base of the 1,600-year-old Theodosian Walls along the southern flank of the Old City, these urban farms (known as bostans) form a green belt of neat gardens that are a touchstone in the local culinary world: Yedikule’s marul – romaine lettuce – is famous and even branded. So much about Istanbul can be told in a passing glance out of a cab window at shoddy apartment blocks, glitzy new gated communities, wide roads alongside crumbling Byzantine-era fortifications and then the sight of these mirage-like farms, fenced off with makeshift material running right up to the ancient walls. It’s a jarring introduction to this megalopolis but it has always kept us optimistic, hinting at what could be. For us, these gardens represent the wily, untamable spirit of the city itself.
Just beyond a fence made of chicken wire, Sevki Kaplan, a sturdy 53-year-old, lives with his wife in a rough lean-to built into a fragment of the outer city walls. Up a path densely shaded by fig trees, near a long, narrow patch of the inner walls, we found Sevki Bey sitting in the sun, surrounded by piles of purslane. He slapped bunches of the greens on an overturned vegetable crate with broken slats and tossed them into a pile. “Seeds for next year,” he said.
Sadly, there might not be a next year for Sevki Bey’s crops. Just beyond the Byzantine wall that borders his garden, the local municipality is bulldozing a large chunk of urban farmland to make way for a park. Historians agree that these gardens have been a constant element of the landscape of the city for several centuries, if not more. To some, the destruction of the Yedikule gardens is tantamount to killing off a living part of the Byzantine city itself. Koç University archaeology professor Alessandra Ricci sees Sevki Bey’s daily work as an activity that should be protected under UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. In a paper published in 2008, she wrote, “The surviving orchards tucked in-between and immediately outside the Land Walls do indeed represent a rare testimony of intangible cultural heritage of the Byzantine and possibly Ottoman period city.”
Aleksandar Sopov, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies who is currently doing field research in Istanbul, told us, “This is the only historic city in the Mediterranean basin with such intensive agriculture in the middle of the city. It is absolutely unique.” According to a social impact study co-authored by Sopov, today, roughly 300 people work in these gardens on 37 acres of land, producing about 35 tons of fruits and vegetables annually. “These are not for recreation like the Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston. These are professional farmers with knowledge going back generations from working this land,” he added.
In the calm clearing of the inner walls there was, ironically, nearly no sign of the bustling Istanbul we live in. There was no noise or commerce, no signage boasting of the municipality’s most recent accomplishments, no indication of place other than the telltale Byzantine brickwork of the walls. All we saw in either direction were rows of planted gardens, wooden stakes holding up plants and the occasional hunched figure in the distance. It was as if Constantinople had been conquered by a civilization of green thumbs slowly overtaking the place with vegetation. It was one of the most serene places in the city.
Yusuf Bey, who grew up near the Yedikule bostans and is the owner of Titiz Manav, a fruit and vegetable shop in the Beyoğlu fish market, waxed nostalgic about the Yedikule lettuce. “Talk to the old-timers in the neighborhood and they’ll ask, ‘Where is that fatty Yedikule marul we used to eat?’” he told us from behind a stack of produce. “It’s fresher and there aren’t three middlemen raising the price.” Moreover, he praised the farms for giving life to the space. “Where there are no farms there is a nest of filth. Where the farmers have taken ownership, it’s a beautiful green space in the city.”
Back in Yedikule, as municipal bulldozers blithely cleared gardens just down the path from him, we asked Sevki Bey what he thought about it all coming to an end. “Allah closes one door and opens another,” he said. Through in farming this land he may be a link in a chain going back centuries, Sevki Bey actually only arrived in Istanbul a few years ago from a village in Kastamonu on the Black Sea. There, he’d been ruined by wild boars that destroyed his crops like a perennial scourge of locusts. (His content manner changed to bitterness when he spoke of these boars.) He arrived in Istanbul with his wife and settled where he knew people doing work that he’d always done: farming. He told us that when he arrived, this particular plot was a wasteland filled with trash. He cleaned it up and started growing cabbage and chard, arugula, lettuce, onions and purslane, which he sells at a stand outside his gate or in a weekly market in the nearby Zeytinburnu neighborhood. “We don’t have much, but somehow we get by,” he said, smiling.
Sevki Kaplan believes in God and fate, and has learned not to sink deep roots anywhere. “It’s all written,” he said. “If they destroy my gardens, perhaps I’ll go work as a garbage man.” Indeed, it may be written – by omnipotent forces in Ankara. As far as we can tell, the new master plan for Istanbul (or at least what parts of it have been revealed to the public) will squeegee the city of many of the people who have been patiently nurturing it for decades, if not centuries. These days, establishing ownership of public spaces or property of dubious ownership almost always excludes people like Kaplan, street food vendors and even the otopark “mafia,” who used to do a brisk trade turning the empty lots of the city into parking lots. “İstanbul’un taşı toprağı altındır” (“Istanbul’s streets are paved with gold”) is a saying that migrants from the countryside have all heard but now it seems more applicable as a slogan for the auctioning off of major public lands, which are consistently snatched up by a small group of government-friendly conglomerates whose “development” projects – shopping malls, high-rises, clusters of ersatz “Ottoman-style” villas – are slowly sapping Istanbul of its soul.
Does Istanbul still have room for someone like Sevki Kaplan, an urban farmer with a garden that sits on previously neglected land whose value has suddenly been discovered by the powers that be? As the bulldozers nibbling closer and closer to his rows of purslane told us, the answer, sadly, seems to be “no.” “I understand the need for gentrification in a global world and an ever-changing city,” says Turkish food writer Güzin Yalın, who remembers visiting these gardens in her youth and cherishes them as a space that fosters a connection between urban and agrarian denizens of Istanbul. “Yet I cannot help but wonder why it always has to be for the worse.”