21 May 2012 · 4 minutes
Living History: Belgrad Forest
As part of the TOG Guidance Project’s Guidance of Nature activity, when we went to Belgrade Forest and met with that extraordinary nature, I wanted to do a little research and compile some information to share with you about this place.
Belgrade Forest served as Istanbul’s water source in both the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. After his Belgrade Campaign (1521), Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent settled Serbian prisoners brought back from the campaign in Ayvat Village in Belgrade Forest. The purpose of the settlement was to revive the old villages left by the Byzantines. Over time, this village became known as Belgrade Village, and the surrounding forest began to be called Belgrade Forest.
About 30 years later, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent appointed the famous architect Mimar Sinan to repair and build new water structures in Belgrade Forest. All of the dams in the forest underwent maintenance about 300 years later.
Between 1620 and 1839, seven dams were built or rebuilt around Belgrade Forest to meet the water needs of Istanbul, especially the Taksim and Beyoglu areas. These dams were the Kömürcü Dam (1620), Büyük Dam (1724), Topuzlu Dam (1750), Ayvad Dam (1765), Valide Sultan Dam (1796), Kirazlı Dam (1818), and Sultan Mahmud II Dam (1839).
Each of these dams had historical significance; for example, water from the Büyük Dam was used to supply the Basilica Cistern, which dates back to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (6th century), located 19 kilometers away.
The waters of three of these dams reached Taksim and were distributed to the city; the name Taksim is derived from this (*taksim etmek: to divide, distribute).
The Bahçeköy Aqueduct, which passes in front of Boğaziçi University’s Sarıtepe Campus and is used daily by residents, was built by Sultan Mahmud I in 1731. The aqueduct is 409 meters long, 27 meters high, and has 21 arches. It supplied water to Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş, Ortaköy, Galata, Kuruçeşme, Arnavutköy, Kasımpaşa, and the Sultan’s Palace.
In 1817, Belgrade Forest was protected by a security unit consisting of 200 personnel, including 70 cavalry and 130 infantry. Currently, it is attempted to be protected with only 5 guards.
The largest recorded fire in Belgrade Forest occurred in 1826 when the Janissaries, rebelling against the abolition of their corps, started a rebellion and were eventually driven into Belgrade Forest. Since the Janissaries’ rebellion could not be suppressed even after 3 months, a large part of the forest was burned down along with the rebels.
The Serbs living in Belgrade Forest were expelled from the villages they had settled in 1894 during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II due to polluting the drinking water.
While Belgrade Forest was once a significant water source in ancient times, it lost its importance as Istanbul developed into a metropolis. The water provided here only corresponds to about two to three days of water consumption for Istanbul.
Fatih Sultan Mehmet also used this forest as a hunting ground during his reign and famously said:
I will cut off the arm of anyone who cuts a branch from my forest, and the head of anyone who cuts down a tree.
In 1953, it was declared a “Protection Forest” by the Council of Ministers, considering its positive impact on the quantity and quality of water. Belgrade Forest covered an area of 13,000 hectares in 1822, but it has now shrunk to 5,408 hectares. This two-thirds reduction was caused by uncontrolled tree cutting. 635 hectares of Belgrade Forest are used as a practical area for scientific research and application by the Istanbul University Faculty of Forestry, making it one of the most studied forests in Turkey.
Belgrade Forest belongs to the “deciduous” forest type, consisting of many species of trees and plants that shed their leaves in winter.
The main tree species in Belgrade Forest is oak, covering 75% of the entire forest, including Quercus robur, Quercus pubescens, and Quercus frainetto. In the northern slopes, there are also oriental beech trees, while Anatolian chestnut trees are found on the southern slopes. Other tree species, either individually or in clusters, include hornbeam, poplar, linden, Scots pine, black pine, willow, mulberry, hazelnut, cherry, plum, blackthorn, bramble, wild pear, and laurustinus shrubs.
There are countless monumental trees in Belgrade Forest. The most important among them is the “Yorgun Çınar” tree, which is 1,150 years old and has a circumference of 17 meters.
The forest is home to 71 species of birds and 18 species of mammals. Due to the hunting ban, wildlife has been able to thrive. You can encounter foxes or wolves in remote areas and deer in the inner parts of the forest.