Postcard — May 22, 2015, 12:30 pm

Uprooted

The destruction of Istanbul’s ancient urban gardens.

HarpersWeb-Postcard-Yedikule-photo-400

The set of The Cherry Orchard, erected on a bostan in the Yedikule neighborhood of Istanbul. Photograph by Kristina Williamson

One evening last August, in a garden in Istanbul’s Yedikule neighborhood, a slight, gray-haired man stood alone on a makeshift stage outdoors. Behind him loomed a craggy land wall, built by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II to protect the city from invaders. After a long silence, the man began to speak. “Everyone has gone,” he said in Turkish. “They’ve forgotten me.” The audience strained to hear his quiet voice over the rumble of cars on a nearby road. In the half-darkness, it was still possible to make out the forms of fig and mulberry trees, a single cherry tree, and the outcroppings of a plot of black cabbage that bordered the performance space. “If one could speak the language of these cherries, of these figs,” he said, “what they have seen . . . But these people have no respect for nature. No respect for trees. They want to cut them all down.”

1 Members of the Initiative told Harper’s Magazine that, after the play was produced, the group issued a statement disassociating itself from New Brooklyn Theater.

This was the final scene of Visne Bahçesi, known in English as The Cherry Orchard, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play of the same name. The play tells the story of a wealthy merchant’s efforts to purchase a family’s orchard and replace it with more lucrative summer cottages. The family resists him but ultimately loses their land. The production was developed by New Brooklyn Theatre in collaboration with an activist group in Turkey, the Yedikule Gardens Preservation Initiative, to address the continuing destruction of Istanbul’s historic urban vegetable gardens.1 Called bostans, the oldest of these gardens are believed to have grown along the Theodosian wall for over a millennium. But, over the past several decades, more than half have been destroyed to make way for new development projects.

The final scene of The Cherry Orchard concluded as the gray-haired servant clasped his hands and looked out toward the audience. “We dug this well with our own hands so that the water would flow out. But they do not respect this labor either.” The man, played by Ahmet Öztürk, one of the farmers whose bostan is currently being threatened, paused and then spoke his final line. “If you ask me, they are all good people, but they don’t know much.” Overhead, a stiff wind rippled the deep red Turkish flag, as it had all night.

2 Historically, bostans were 10,000 square meters on average. But this number has decreased over the past several decades.

A bostan is an in-between space. Unlike a farm, it is part of the urban landscape itself: necessarily close to the market, and, in the case of Yedikule, nestled among land walls and fortress towers. These bostans produce far more than a typical garden. On an average 8,000 square meters of land, most of them can grow up to thirty tons of vegetables each year, including tomatoes, peppers, parsley, black cabbage, and marul, a variety of lettuce that has been synonymous with the Yedikule bostans for centuries.2 (In a nineteenth-century political cartoon, the neighborhood was represented by a head of its famous lettuce.)

The Marmaray, Istanbul’s newest rail line, deposits riders in Kazliçesme just across a busy highway from Yedikule. From the elevated platform, above the car dealerships and the buses and taxis, it’s possible to spot the westernmost gates and towers of the fifth-century city walls. These parallel fortifications of brick and stone protected Constantinople from siege up until 1453, when the Ottomans attacked with cannon fusillade. The conquering Ottomans added three towers to the four existing Byzantine ones to form the fortress that gives this neighborhood its name, which means “Seven Towers.”

3 Though the Geoponika was compiled in the tenth century, Johannes Koder, a scholar of Byzantium, finds evidence that orchards were planted along the Theodosian walls in an earlier, sixth-century manuscript.

Because the land on either side of the Yedikule walls is situated above an underground stream, it has always been used to grow crops. An imperial edict in the fifth-century Theodosian Code—a collection of Roman laws published on the authority of the Byzantine emperor—granted farmers the space to store agricultural tools inside the nearby towers. Historians find the next mention of these gardens in the tenth century. The Geoponika, a compendium of Byzantine agricultural practices, outlines the planting cycles and the vegetable varieties they produced centuries ago—both of which resemble those of the bostans today.3 The continuity is due in large part to the farmers who have passed on their skills and knowledge over generations and through waves of migration. In the early Ottoman era, the Yedikule bostans were farmed by Greeks and Armenians, who shared their knowledge with Bulgarian farmers, followed by Albanians and eventually by migrants from Cide, a Black Sea region of Turkey. Their descendants tend the few remaining gardens along the walls today.

4 Öztürk at times has shared his garden with displaced farmers, shrinking the size of his own bostan to about 3,050 square meters.

Ahmet Öztürk is a small and wiry man in his early fifties. His family has farmed their bostan in Yedikule for three generations. The gently terraced garden unfolds over about 5,000 square meters of land.4 Each year, it produces more than twenty tons of vegetables and fruit, including black cabbage, parsley, purslane, arugula, tomatoes, and gourds, shaded here and there by fig and mulberry trees—and an occasional cherry tree.

Öztürk’s bostan first came under threat in 2006, when Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) declared the Yedikule bostans a “renewal zone” and slated them for redevelopment. The first bostans were bulldozed in September of that year to make room for the construction of residential buildings, which were completed four years later. In July 2013, two months after the start of protests in Gezi Park—where Turkish citizens rallied against the A.K.P.’s plans to replace the nine-acre urban green space with a shopping mall—the municipality bulldozed the bostan across the wall from Öztürk’s. In videos of the destruction shot by activists, farmers and garden workers cry out against the machines heaping shovelfuls of dirt over the lush vegetation. Later in the videos, as the bulldozing progresses, women bend silently to salvage what remaining plants they can, the rumble of the machines the only sound. (The municipality has yet to make use of the bulldozed land.)

A small, vocal group formed in reaction to the bulldozing. The Yedikule Gardens Preservation Initiative included architects, artists, archeologists, historians, journalists, and students. The Initiative aimed to educate the community about the bostans. In addition to collaborating with the New Brooklyn Theatre, they brought various scholars, artists, and bostancis—as those who farm the bostans are called—to give lectures and presentations, typically in Öztürk’s garden, and submitted an application to the Council for the Preservation of Cultural Properties on behalf of the eighteenth-century wells and water pools so crucial to the gardens. But nothing has yet come of these efforts.

In Istanbul’s Old City, the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia and the Ottoman-era Topkapi Palace have both been converted into museums. Didactic wall panels and audio guides explain the ceremonies and council meetings that once took place within these walls. In the bostans, however, flowering common mallow cultivated in the tenth century still grows—as does a variety of sweet basil that was likely introduced by an Albanian bostanci. And the black cabbage Öztürk grows just behind the The Cherry Orchard’s performance space is a crop that was brought over from the Black Sea regions in the 1950s.

Each night during the play’s three-week run, the audience was led in twos and threes along a narrow path of Öztürk’s bostan, past his crop of black cabbage to an upper terrace where the stage was set. People in the neighborhood as well as people who had never seen the bostans stayed after the show and asked questions. They added their names to a list of supporters. Reporters and photographers came to the performances. At least four national papers ran stories. CNN Türk came to film the play and interview the cast and crew. Different guests joined a post-show question-and-answer session—a member of parliament, a historian, an architect. A group of local kids came to watch the play every night for a week and stayed to help clean up afterward, stacking the stools and removing the many candles from the stage so they wouldn’t melt in the heat of the next day’s sun. As they later told one of the actors, they had never seen a play before and wanted to see what happened in the next episode.

T  he Cherry Orchard closed on August 31. Afterward, Öztürk returned to hoeing the earth where the stage had been. His bostan remains for now. Though he has not received an eviction notice, three years ago the municipality increased his rent fivefold. When I spoke to him last summer, he estimated he was $200,000 in arrears.

When I last saw Öztürk, he was planning to plant a rare plot of marul. Those who know the lettuce will draw two fingers from the corners of their mouth to mimic its succulence. These days, however, very little marul is grown in the Yedikule bostans; the tall, broad heads of lettuce require the kind of space that is hard to come by. When I asked Öztürk what he thought about Chekhov’s play, he put his hand to his chest. It was evening, and the neat square plots were hardly visible in the dark. “It’s my life,” he said, thumping his hand on his heart. “It’s about me.”


Alyssa Pelish writes and edits in New York. Her work has appeared in Slate, Science, Los Angeles Review of Books, Denver Quarterly, The Quarterly Conversation, and 3 Quarks Daily, among other publications.

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