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Defender of Urban Gardens

April 14, 2016

Defender of Urban Gardens

April 14, 2016
in Harvard Gazette

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

Aleksandar Shopov vividly remembers the day in July 2013 when he returned to a cherished spot — the Yedikule gardens, which line the old city walls of Istanbul — to find them surrounded by bulldozers. The gardens had fed people for 400 years. Now, the city planned to bury them in rubble and build a 90,000-square-meter park with cafes and an artificial river.

“I had to do something — and not just for a love of trees.” There was more at stake, said the Harvard doctoral student.

For the gardens were part of Istanbul’s history, a living example of a past in which agriculture was an integral part of the city. They had been tilled by Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, and, more recently, Syrian and Afghan refugees. “Their destruction would be the destruction of that history that I study and write about,” he said.

Shopov is a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and the History Department in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Originally from Skopje, Macedonia, Shopov said he grew up in a family of “poets, scientists, and revolutionaries” — his grandfather was the famous Macedonian poet and WWII resistance fighter Aco Shopov — so it was natural for him to help lead the fight to save the gardens. He organized peaceful protests and set up a field school at Yedikule, where he taught classes on farming, met with city officials, gave press conferences, and wrote about the history of the gardens.

Though he’s modest about the impact of his effort, one of his advisors, Alison Frank Johnson, history professor and director of graduate studies at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES), said Shopov’s “research has uncovered evidence that these farmlands deserve historical protection just as historical buildings do. Recently, development of one of these gardens has been halted, due to the evidence Shopov uncovered.”