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Pastoralism in Munzur

 

As dusk settles over the Munzur Valley like a greyish-purple mist, plumes of dust sweep through its villages, kicked up by hundreds – often thousands – of hooves. The dirt lanes that meander between old stone-and-mud houses (and newer homes of brick and cement) fill with the sounds of bleating and baa-ing and the occasional moo. Villagers separate their sheep, goats, and cows from the main herd, guiding them into outdoor pens or the stables that are built beneath almost every house. After hours of grazing in the foothills or on the floodplain, it’s time for the animals to settle in for the night. 

 

Flocks come in for the night

 

For centuries, life in Munzur has revolved around agriculture – mainly pastoralism. While most households grow kitchen gardens, and some sell their produce, people have typically relied on herding as their primary source of sustenance and income. Though this has been changing for the past several decades, as increasing numbers of families have adopted more modern ways of making a living, much of the valley still depends on sheep, goats and, to a lesser extent, cows. It’s no surprise that several of the region’s most important saints happen to be miracle-working shepherds.

 
 

Livestock is raised for meat and milk, which is converted into yogurt, butter, several types of cheese, and ayran (a drink ubiquitous in Turkey, made from a blend of yogurt, water, and salt). Herding families keep whatever they need for themselves, then sell their sheep, goats, and dairy products to buyers, often in cities outside the Munzur Valley, such as Elazığ. Even families that have given up herding as a primary occupation usually own a couple of cows, and maybe a few sheep, to provide fresh food for their own household.

 
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Even in Ovacik, one of the Munzur Valley's largest towns, people keep livestock. 

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Even in Ovacik, one of the Munzur Valley's largest towns, people keep livestock. 

 

Over a hundred years ago, the wool from sheared sheep was used to make cicim kilims – rugs woven in meter-wide strips that are stitched together to create a large finished piece. These days, however, weaving has largely been abandoned; wool may be used for knitting socks or stuffing mattresses and pillows. 

 

A woman in Ovacik beats sheared wool, to clean it.

 

Traditionally, families in Munzur have long been semi-nomadic, and even today some still move with the seasons. From September to late May or early June, they live at their homes in villages in the valley, migrating to the high mountains in summer. 

 
 

During winter months, the valley is often buried beneath several feet of snow. With nowhere to graze, the herds stay in their indoor corrals nearly all day. They’re fed grasses and grains that were harvested during the summer, and are led outside only to drink at the communal watering troughs that are built in each village. This is the slow season in Munzur, when people have the least amount of work to do.

 

Below - top photo: Families that resettled in apartment buildings in Ovacik after their villages were destroyed by the Turkish Army in 1994 (see Dark Days) keep their animals in community stables, like this one:

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Herders who still live in their villages keep their animals in stables under their houses.

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Herders who still live in their villages keep their animals in stables under their houses.

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Taking the sheep to water...

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Taking the sheep to water...

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...and the horses, too.

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...and the horses, too.

 

In winter, women often stay around the house, tending to domestic chores, such as cooking, baking, and tending to the children, while men - even from small villages - often go into town. 

 

Baking bread over a fire on a cold winter day.

At home with the baby. 

Making tea and baking buttery bread in a wood-fired oven.

Meanwhile, men gather in town.

 

In spring, once the snow melts, and in fall, before winter arrives, the valley is much busier. Herds are taken out to graze for several hours each morning and again each afternoon. Milking is usually done twice a day, soon after the animals return from their walkabouts.

 

Grazing in the floodplain of the Munzur River. 

 

At the end of May or beginning of June, families load their horses with canvas tents, cooking pots, mattresses, clothing, and everything else they need to create a home away from home, then they trek with their herds up into the mountains that tower over the Munzur Valley. The climb is steep – some sections of the trail switchback for miles up nearly sheer slopes – so nomadic families move slowly, taking a few days to reach the high country, where streams trickle across swaths of grass littered with stones.

 

An entire village-worth of sheep and goats moves along a trail in the Munzur Mountains.

Camped in a yayla.

 

Every summer, husband and wife Efrail and Aynur San migrate from the village of El Baba, in the Munzur Valley, to their traditional alpine pasture, known as Keper. At the edge of a mile-long meadow - or yayla - they pitch their white, cone-shaped tents, which are dwarfed by the rocky peaks and ridges that rise around them. Nearby, the tents of others from their village (and the adjacent village of Gözeler) are set up, creating a little nomadic community about 9000 feet above sea level. Though each family builds a corral for their own sheep and goats, they often graze their animals together, taking them out on long looping routes so they don’t overuse any one area. 

 

The tents of Efrail and Aynur San, and others from the village of El Baba, pitched in a high meadow, are dwarfed by higher peaks. 

Below: Efrail and Aynur San milk a sheep

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Efrail’s stubble-covered face is creased by age and exposure to the elements. He says he migrates to the mountains in summer, as countless generations of his ancestors did, for two reasons: first, it provides time for the pastures he uses in the valley to rejuvenate after they’ve been grazed in spring and before they’re grazed again in autumn. Even more importantly, he says, the climate is much, much cooler in the mountains than in the valley, where daytime temperatures in July can easily reach 100 degrees. The lower alpine temperatures are crucial for the process of making certain types of cheese, including the region’s famous tulum peyniri, which fetches much higher prices than any other kind of cheese made in Munzur. It isn't made in winter, Efrail explains, because the sheep produce much less milk then. “For us,” he says matter-of-factly, “coming up here is necessary.” 

 
 

Despite the challenges of camping out in the mountains for over three months of the year, Efrail and Aynur like their nomadic life and say they would never choose to remain sedentary as long as they remain physically able to migrate. But not everyone feels the way they do, particularly those from the younger generations.

 
 

From the Efrail and Aynur's camp, if you hike up past a small lake, up and over a couple of saddles, and down a grassy chute of a valley, you'll reach another meadow called Türk Yaylası - Turkish Pasture - where an extended family from the village of Güney Konak spent the summer of 2014.

 
 

One tent was home to Yusuf and Birgül Varlıel, and their 9-year-old daughter, Eylul. Birgul, in her mid-30’s, expressed her utter weariness of nomadic life, and wished she never had to migrate to the meadows again. “Everything is difficult up here – there’s no electricity, there’s no firewood, making bread is much harder than at home, doing laundry is a pain, and staying clean is impossible! Just look at me!” she said, laughing, but dead serious.

Birgül Varlıel

Birgül Varlıel milks on a cold and rainy evening in the mountains.

 
   Eylül         Varlıel   - age 9 - loves to sing and dance like a pop star.

Eylül Varlıel - age 9 - loves to sing and dance like a pop star.

 
 

In the neighboring tent, Burcu Varlıel, who was twenty, agreed with Birgul. She missed her friends and, with no mobile phone connection, text messaging and Facebooking was impossible. Most people her age don’t want to live as shepherds for the rest of their lives; and most of those who go to college, even if they return home to Munzur in summer to help their families, will ultimately find other careers.

 
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Burcu Varliel

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Burcu Varliel

Above: Kids help churn milk 

 

Right:  Hanım Balcı slices freshly-made cheese inside her tent

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every herding family has dogs to help protect the flocks from bears and wolves. Despite their sometimes fearsome size and strength - and the nail-studded collars that many wear - many of the dogs are extremely friendly and quite beautiful. 

 
 
 


below: 1 -Shepherds drive their flocks over the meadows

                   2 - Bringing the herds in for the night                              

3 - Nomadic tents at night                              

 
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In addition to the inherent inconveniences of living in the wilderness, the families who remain nomadic also have to deal with the presence of armed militant guerillas that roam the mountains. The militants belong to groups such as The Liberation Army of Turkey’s Workers and Villagers (better known as TIKKO) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known as the PKK). They tend to travel in small units composed of perhaps five or six fighters, who find shelter in caves and rarely stay in one place for too long.  Though they’re usually quite friendly and have no intention of harming the shepherds, they do drop in on the nomads’ camps from time to time, looking for a good meal. This poses two problems for the herders: first, the extra mouths can be a burden on a family’s limited supplies of food; and second, it’s a crime to offer any kind of assistance to the militants whatsoever, including giving them a few pieces of bread. If the Turkish Army believes that any family is feeding the guerrillas, serious consequences could ensue.  This creates a stressful dilemma for nomadic families, since they consider hospitality a great virtue and would never willingly turn a stranger away hungry.

 
 

Already, many herding families from Munzur have stopped migrating to the high country, choosing to stay in the valley during summer. Since they can’t make the types of cheeses that require cooler temperatures, they focus on other dairy products, like butter, and on selling their animals for meat, which these days brings in the highest profits – and further reduces the incentives to move up to the meadows.

 
 

“In ten, fifteen, maybe twenty years,” Efrail San predicted, “nomadic life in the Munzur Valley will be over.” The meadows of the Munzur Mountains, however, would not be empty for long, he said; herders from around Diyarbakır would most likely start migrating there – but they would have to pay the government for the privilege, since it is not their traditional grazing territory (families from Munzur don’t have to pay fees to use their high pastures).

 

Sheep flock to their shepherd high in the Munzur Mountains.

Keper Yaylası- note the tents of families from El Baba on the left hand side, and several other tents on the right hand side of the meadow. 

Below: 1 - A misty mountain evening at Türk Yaylası                                    

2 - Nomadic tents                                                                       

3 - Sheep resting and drying in the sun after a rainstorm

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The thought of nomadism disappearing from Munzur struck many people – particularly those older than forty – as tragic. “I love the mountains;” says Ecrim Varliel, “the wildlife, the flowers, the fresh alpine air….” He himself had stopped migrating several years earlier, due to certain family obligations, and he deeply regretted its absence from his life. He believes that living in the mountains helps create a strong connection to the natural world. That connection, he says, is a core element of the Alevi religion, and one that can only be understood by immersing oneself in nature, not by simply hearing or reading about its importance.

For more on the Alevi religion, and its relationship to the Munzur Valley, continue to the next page: Alevism in Munzur

Ekrem Varliel