Urban Agriculture in Pre-Modern Istanbul

By Ayşe Nur Akdal

Today, one can find it bizarre to come across a rural element in cities. However, historically, there was not a clear distinction between urban and rural. Agricultural and urban space existed together. Due to a lack of sufficient preservation and transportation technologies, easily perishable foods, such as dairy products and vegetables, were produced in urban areas. Istanbul was a good example with widespread and plentiful market gardens (2017; 11-18).

Map of Istanbul during the reign of the Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909)
Figure 1: Map of Istanbul during the reign of the Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) | Source: Sultan II Abdülhamid Dönemi Harita ve Planlarında İstanbul

Johann von Thünen, a German agriculturist, developed a land use model in the early nineteenth century. This model was based on transportation costs and the durability of agricultural goods with easily perishable food close to the city center, while other production zones, such as forests, fields, and ranches encircle it. However, this model takes the productivity of the soil and climate conditions as homogeneous. Also, it assumed that transportation functioned with the same efficiency in any direction (2017: 35-36).

Von Thünen’s Land Use Model

Figure 2: Von Thünen’s Land Use Model | Source: Market Gardens and Gardener’s of Ottoman Istanbul, pp:36

In reality, when we adapt this schema on Istanbul, zoning becomes rather amorphous because Istanbul was a port city. Beside the market gardens in and around the city, the Marmara region was crucial in terms of fresh product supply. As shown in the map below, the wood came from the west coast of the Black Sea. Olive oil and dried fruits were supplied by Western Anatolia, grains came from various places, mainly from the Balkans and northern regions of the Black Sea, and livestock was brought from the Balkans and Eastern Anatolia. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Ottoman territory was not constant due to land losses starting in the seventeenth century. The supply network had also been subject to change. 

Locations of basic resources for provisioning Istanbul during the  long 18th century
Figure 3: Locations of basic resources for provisioning Istanbul during the  long 18th century | Source: Market Gardens and Gardener’s of Ottoman Istanbul, pp:38

Based on the extent of these networks, historians have generally presented imperial Istanbul as a city of consumption – sometimes even a “parasitic” city. However, I suggest that this argument is not valid in terms of fresh produce supply. The fruit and vegetable gardens of Istanbul played a crucial role in nourishing the city throughout its history (2017: 36-39).

Market Gardens next to City Walls
Figure 4: Les Murs 1870s-1880s / Market Gardens next to City WallsMarket Gardens next to City Walls | Creator: Abdullah Frères | GRI Digital Collections: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/96r14_ref12685_asz

Istanbul had a semi-rural character like other pre-modern cities. According to registers dating mainly from the eighteenth-century, Istanbul had hundreds of market gardens in and around the city with more than one thousand gardeners working in them. These gardens kept their prominent position until the nineteenth century and their centuries-long stability clearly show their persistence and central role in the urban economy (2017; 60-61). Agricultural activities were perceived in terms of both urban and rural production, and market gardens were understood to be part of urban agriculture (2017; 64-65). The gardens were all different sizes and they commonly had a mixed-type production. In a standard market garden there was a barracks, a water well, some agricultural tools, and sometimes a stable for the animals (2017; 65-67).

Water extraction system in a market garden around Belgradkapı, İstanbul
Figure 5: Murs de Sept Tours: Porte de Belgrade 1890-1899 | Water extraction system in a market garden around Belgradkapı, İstanbul | Creator: Sebah & Joaillier 1890-1899 | GRI Digital Collections: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/96r14_ref12587_wea

In terms of their status in the property regime, market gardens of the city were different from the private gardens that belonged to the sultan, called hasbahçe. Most of these private gardens were multifunctional, providing commercial and recreational services. Some supplied directly to the palace, while others sold to the market. These gardens were cultivated and protected by a military group called bostancıs (2017; 79-81). On the other hand, there were market gardens whose property rights belonged to various social classes and groups ranging from high-ranking bureaucracy to commoners. However, most of them were owned by the elite. Almost all of these gardens were related to some waqf in one way or another (2017; 74-77). On the other hand, the management rights were usually leased to commoners or delegated to a gedik holder. Gedik is a term that had come to mean the right to practice a particular trade at a specific work. Generally, the lease holder or the gedik holder worked with his laborers in the same garden (2017; 42).

Gardening was labor-intensive work compared to other sectors, with almost twice the average employee numbers per enterprise. In terms of their size and employment capacity, gardens in Istanbul were mostly medium-sized with an average of four workers per garden. Yet there were a few large ones employing up to fifteen gardeners. According to a study by Cengiz Kırlı and Betül Başaran about the artisans of Istanbul, market gardens were the city’s third-largest employer, following coffeehouses and barbershops (2012; 10).

Istanbul, as the Imperial capital, attracted migrant labor from various parts of the empire. The Balkans, the most densely populated region of the empire, was the main supplier of gardeners. The towns these migrants originated from were mostly located in present day Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania. I counted all the towns, large and small, that hosted seasonal migrant gardeners, which amounted to an approximate total of one hundred. Towns such as Permet, Bitola, and Ohrid were centers of intense chain migration. Red dots on the map show the towns that had high levels of migration. 

Hometowns of Gardeners Working outside the City Walls (from Yedikule to Eyüp) in 1733
Figure 6: Hometowns of Gardeners Working outside the City Walls (from Yedikule to Eyüp) in 1733 | Source: Market Gardens and Gardener’s of Ottoman Istanbul, Appendix G 

The gardeners consisted mainly of non-Muslims and the majority of them were young men. They found jobs through networks such as kinship and townsmanship. They could enter the city with permission papers and certification of a guarantor. Newcomers usually resided in peripheral districts or in the barracks in the gardens (2017; 81-93).

In conclusion, urban agricultural systems in Istanbul, with their extensity and complexity, existed for more than a thousand years but began to collapse at the turn of the nineteenth century. Modern urbanization, industrialization, and intensive construction starting in this period gradually ended the reign of urban agricultural systems. Modernization brought more standardization and changed sanitization regulations in urban areas. Thus, in the modernist way of thinking, market gardens began to be seen as dirty, unfitting, and unsanitary for the city (2017; 95-99). This vignette below is a good example. It was printed in 1939 in the early republican period. It announced a decision of the municipality of Istanbul to close market gardens that had “creeks of sewage” passing through them on the grounds that they caused epidemic diseases.

A vignette about sanitization of market gardens, 1939
Figure 7: A vignette about sanitization of market gardens, 1939 | Source: Cumhuriyet Newspaper Archive

After the 1950s, rapid population increase and road construction projects caused dramatic changes in the urban form and the emergence of new settlements. In these new conditions, Istanbul’s long-standing agricultural system became endangered within a few decades. Also, road construction projects realized throughout the country led to the food market’s reliance on fossil fuels, and market gardens of Istanbul lost their prominence in the urban economy and food system. Today, most of the market gardens are gone, leaving behind few cultural remnants. The few remaining gardens lost their agricultural significance. The memory of the gardens lives in the names of streets, mosques, and squares, which provide clues to their whereabouts (2017; 95-99).


Akdal, Ayşe Nur. Market Gardens and Gardeners of Ottoman Istanbul. İstanbul: Libra, 2017.

Kırlı, Cengiz and Betül Başaran. “18. Yüzyıl Sonlarında Osmanlı Esnafı.” In Osmanlı’dan Cumhuriyet’e Esnaf ve Ticaret, edited by Fatmagül Demirel, 7-42. İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2012.

Ayşe Nur Akdal received her BA degree in 2012 from the Urban and Regional Planning Department, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, and went on to do an MA in the Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History at Boğaziçi University, where she is currently a PhD candidate. She has been a research fellow at the Istanbul Studies Center (ISC), Kadir Has University, since 2016 and her MA thesis on “Market Gardens and Gardeners of Ottoman Istanbul” was published in 2017.

Citation: Ayşe Nur Akdal, Urban Agriculture in Pre-Modern Istanbul, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.08.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30169

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Max Weber Stiftung (2021, 3. August). Urban Agriculture in Pre-Modern Istanbul. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut2g

Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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