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Take a drive east from the historic centre of Istanbul into Anatolia and, traffic depending (it is always “traffic depending” in Istanbul), in 40 minutes or so you will hit the district of Atasehir. Here the next chapter in Istanbul’s extraordinary growth from city to megaopolis is being written in the form of a new financial district. With construction well under way, the $2.6bn development will eventually house 80,000 residents and the entire Turkish banking industry, which will relocate en bloc from the capital, Ankara. Almost every building is planned as a skyscraper, creating from scratch a vertiginous skyline that will dominate the area for miles around.
And somewhere in the middle of it all, defiantly holding its ground, is the Nezahat Gokyigit Botanik Bahcesi (NGBB). A contender for the title of “place least likely to play host to a brand new botanic garden”, NGBB straddles the intersection of the O-2 and O-4 motorways, spread across eight “islands” formed by the motorway slip roads and on land leased from the country’s roads directorate.
The 32-hectare garden is the brainchild of Turkish industrialist and philanthropist Ali Nihat Gokyigit, just one of a series of ecological, educational and regeneration projects he has sponsored. Nihat, 88, is one of the founders of Tekfen Holding, an engineering, science and technology conglomerate with a billion-dollar turnover. A serial philanthropist with age-defying vigour, his interests range from the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra – featuring Eurasian and Middle Eastern instrumentation and musicians from a dozen countries – to TEMA, the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats, which he co-founded. The scale of some of TEMA’s schemes is huge; an afforestation campaign for Anatolia, a region notable for 23 endemic oak taxa, aims to “put 10bn oak acorns in the ground”.
Nihat was born in 1925 and raised in the Artvin province of northern Turkey, the mountainous area bordering Georgia. Life has always been tough in such remote areas; a winter trip to hospital might involve up to 60 people in convoy carrying the patient by stretcher through the precipitous terrain of the Karcal mountains. Farming is small scale and the landscape is dotted with the traditional stilted food larder barns where corn, beans, apples and peas are stored over the winter.
In 1997 a TEMA project, funded by the A. Nihat Gokyigit Foundation, was set up to develop sustainable rural projects and eco-tourism in the Camili region of Artvin. This “micro basin” of six villages is in the border country that was part of the cold war militarised zone, and its remoteness means that few introduced species have made their way in.
The result is genetically distinct native species including fruit trees such as walnut, hazelnut and chestnut, which are now propagated by grafting as part of a commercial programme in a nursery specifically set up for the project.
A keystone species in the programme is the Caucasian bee (Apis mellifera caucasica), a crevice-nesting subspecies of the western honey bee found primarily in Georgia and northern Turkey. Believed to be locally extinct, colonies were rediscovered after a nine-month search and, in common with the unique genetics of many of the plant species in the basin, found to be genetically “pure”.
The Caucasian bee is considered one of the most docile bees and is highly productive, making very high quality honey. Camili’s remoteness ensured that the bees had never come into contact with Varroa destructor, the parasitic mite that has devastated bee colonies across the world. Although there is little hope of the Camili bees being resistant to Varroa there are benefits to the introduction of a strong gene pool into the wider beekeeping world. A breeding programme has been put in place to raise tens of thousands of queen Caucasian bees from the Camili colony to help generate income for the region and as a wider apiculture rehabilitation programme for Turkey.
Back in Istanbul, progeny of the Camili bees are stars of the show at the Nezahat Gokyigit Botanik Bahcesi where they are a central part of the education programme, and perform a vital role as pollinators in what will increasingly become an isolated oasis in the vast new banking district.
While the Camili project focuses on in-situ conservation and rural regeneration, the NGBB site offered an opportunity to develop ex-situ conservation for native Turkish plants. Botanically rich, Turkey has almost 10,000 species and about 12,000 taxa – there are 2,500 native taxa in the Istanbul region alone, more than the whole of the UK. Planting at the NGBB site began in 1995 with the aim of creating a memorial garden to Nihat’s late wife Nezahat, a “green lung for the city, big enough somehow to reach her”.
The soil had been either removed down to the bedrock or the profile completely destroyed during the construction of the motorways, so vast quantities of soil and organic matter were brought in before 50,000 trees and shrubs were planted. As the saplings established, Nihat was able – thanks in part to a “courageous bureaucrat” – to extend the lease on the land, eventually to 35 years from the original five. In 2001 work began to change the park into a botanic garden with an educational and environmental mission, including the preservation of threatened plant species. At NGBB the evidence for plant conservation is irresistible; standing on the fringes of the garden admiring a colony of wild Tulipa orphanidea, the excavators and dump trucks building the new financial district rumble by just a few feet away on the other side of a chain-link fence.
Nihat’s ultimate ambition, to “have all the facilities of a major botanic garden, but on a small scale”, is already being realised, with classrooms, seed collection and storage, a herbarium and library.
Led by Professor Dr Adil Guner, the team at NGBB have initiated a master plan to create ecological niches within the eight islands where as broad a range as possible of plant material from Turkey and beyond can be grown. This is not simply a case of acquiring the appropriate plants, but the growing medium too. In the Dry and Halophytic Garden there is lime soil from Ankara supporting Centaurea depressa and Thymus sipyleus, volcanic steppe soil from Karaman planted with Chenopodium botrys, and salty soil imported from Konya in which halophytic Salvia halophila and Limonium anatolicum can grow.
By studying these specially adapted plants further, the eventual hope is that in areas affected by issues like desertification and saline pollution there may be an opportunity to introduce plants as mitigation.
Some of the species grown at NGBB are incredibly rare and often not adequately described, and the production of a Turkish flora – the Turkiye bitkileri listesi – is a long-running task for Guner’s team, with publication of the full flora slated for 2023; the centenary of the Turkish Republic.
The social and historic significance of plants plays a major role in the garden too, with representations of a traditional Bosphorus Yali garden, and the planting of 527 Japanese sakura cherries to commemorate the sailors who drowned when the frigate Ertugrul sank returning from Japan in 1890. Even the underground drainage tunnels that run under the motorways and connect the islands have been put to use, as exhibition spaces for art and educational installations.
There is an eclectic, energetic feel to this young garden. Perhaps that comes from Nihat himself, who seems to have an unquenchable appetite for ecological projects. He shows me an old olive tree – about 500-years-old – that was transplanted into the garden, and points out that it is, in fact, two trees intertwined, one weak and near death, the other thriving despite its age. “It’s as if the weaker tree said to the stronger that it couldn’t go on any more, and so the stronger tree simply embraced it,” says Nihat.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries, London. He was a guest of the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office for UK and Ireland, Turkish Airlines and the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel