The Soil Does Not Have History

“The soil does not have history”—uttered the leader of the APK council members at a meeting in the City Hall of Fatih municipality. The meeting with the local leaders of Turkey’s ruling party was convened at the request of four of us—a writer, a doctoral student in Ottoman history and two professors teaching Ottoman history in Istanbul—trying to persuade the municipality officials that the destruction of the Yedikule vegetable gardens should stop. Yedikule gardens are famous among the older generation of Istanbulites mostly for their lettuce, almost a meter in height, which used to be grown in the fields. The stone water-wells, five meters in diameter and twenty-meters deep, and the lore surrounding them, regularly dazzle visitors of the ancient city walls who are surprised at the discovery of agricultural lands, with an elaborate irrigation system, still in use in the middle of a fifteen-million-person city.

Tucked between residential buildings from the 1980s and 1990s and the city walls of Istanbul dating from the fifth century, these gardens make Istanbul the only city in the Mediterranean basin and beyond where remnants of the old, urban market gardens remain in use. They have dwindled in number in the past fifty years. Today, a few of them, with a total size of forty-thousand square-meters, yield several hundred tons of produce and supply the adjacent neighborhood markets with fresh rocket, parsley, radishes, and figs. The historical documents we found in the Ottoman archives, and that we presented to the public in an article written in the midst of their destruction, show that the successive generations of Yedikule gardeners have been feeding the city since the seventeenth century.

Scores of historians, both Turkish and foreign, have written at length about Istanbul’s urban history through the prism of buildings, palaces, walls—the political history of the city. However, the Yedikule gardens or the “soil,” as the municipality and developers referred to it, did not have a written history. The trees at Gezi park were to fall to clear way for the reconstruction of a building that qualifies as historical according to the ruling party’s narrative. The nineteenth-century Ottoman military barracks to be reconstructed and repurposed into a shopping mall on the site of Gezi park were precisely the kind of built environment that used to define the city’s past in the written historical accounts. For sixty years now, the accepted history of the city has been that of a “predator,” a city consuming goods from afar, importing grains and water from increasingly remote places, as it grew in the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. The gardens were never regarded as significant source of food according to this historical narrative, which served city developers to justify the expansion of the city into adjacent agricultural lands. One of the first victims of this practice, in the 1950s and 1960s, were the water and the agricultural land at the very core of the old city—the Bayrampaşa stream and the market gardens following its flow into the sea.

The historical narrative of the city as a predator and the continuous encroachment on Istanbul’s agricultural land was challenged in the midst of the Gezi protests when activists in the park designated a plot that they called the Gezi Vegetable Garden. Close by, in the neighborhood of Cihangir local people occupied vacant land on a steep slope that by the end of June was planted with vegetables and called the Roman Garden. Hundreds of people joined our struggle to protect the Yedikule gardens when they were bulldozed in July to be turned into cafeterias, an artificial river, playground, and a restaurant. The news spread quickly and many activists showed up this summer to protect the Gümüşdere agricultural fields. The Association of Agricultural Engineers won a major legal battle in the protection of the agricultural land in Beykoz. If twenty-years ago the people in Kuzguncuk were struggling alone to preserve their historic vegetable garden, today hundreds of farmers and activists from different parts of the city are uniting to regain the agricultural land taken from the citizens.

The Yedikule gardens were not merely a place where vegetables were produced: they are a site where knowledge was shared and transmitted. The evicted gardeners in Yedikule arrived from the mountainous villages of Kastamonu in the 1960s and 1970s. They settled in Istanbul as apprentices of the last generation of gardeners from Macedonia and Albania, who were gardeners of Istanbul since the sixteenth century. By the end of the 1980s, the older generation of gardeners was completely replaced as the new generation of gardeners from the Black Sea appropriated the old techniques and seeds—adding their own creativity and imagination. The survival of the Yedikule gardens is not merely about protecting monuments and historical artifacts, but of their use value and cultural meaning.