The Day of the Goat

In the mountains of southwestern Turkey, a summer ritual draws a crowd

By / August 2015

The phone rang at 11 p.m. “We’re going tomorrow morning,” my friend said. “Can you be at my house by 6:30?” Where were we going? What were we going to do? I didn’t quite catch what Ergun said. I assumed it had something to do with his modest herd of 15 cattle that he keeps on a summer range somewhere up in the mountains, but I couldn’t be sure.

I had met Ergun two years earlier, in Altındere, or “Golden Creek,” a village at the mouth of a valley that climbs far into a maze of mountains, the same mountains that dominate the view from my fifth-floor balcony in town. I had heard that the gorge traced all the way back to Babadağ, or “Father Mountain.” I had wanted to explore those earthen monsters beyond my window for a long time.

Over a breakfast of tomatoes, cheese, olives, bread and hot, black tea at his house the next morning, I asked Ergun what he had in mind. He spoke a word I don’t know, kırkım. It was the same word he used on the phone the night before.

“What’s a kırkım?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, “it’s when everyone comes together to shear the goats’ hair in the summer.”

“So we’re going to meet up with a bunch of goatherds in the mountains?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said.

“And they’re all bringing their goats?” I continued.

“No, no, no. Just one guy’s goats. But he has about 300 of them.”

We set out, Ergun and me and two beasts of burden, a horse and a donkey weighted down with bags of fertilizer for Ergun’s garden, which was in the woods somewhere along the way. The village road became a tree-shrouded mountain path. There was the sound of water rushing over rocks. We ventured farther into the valley, passing small garden plots filled with green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and corn. Beside nearly every garden stood a small “earth house,” stone structures with timber roofs covered by nearly a foot of dirt and live grass that serve as summer homes for many villagers.

“I’m hoping to build one next year,” Ergun said.

After stopping for tea with Ergun’s mother, who was busy tying heavy sections of a felled oak tree to a mule and hauling them to a smoldering pile to make charcoal,  we waded across the stream and unburdened the horse and mule of the fertilizer. Soon the forest dwindled away and the trail thrusted us out into a beautiful, rock-strewn mountain valley. Ergun pointed up at one clump of trees set among the craggy peaks. “That’s where we’re going,” he said.

Amid the trees, there was another of those earth houses. This one belonged to three brothers, Orhan, Zeki, and Fatih. Opposite the house, against the mountainside, was a wooden porch-type structure, where we removed our shoes and took a seat on cushions. Tea was served. Half-a-dozen women swarmed busily in and out of the house. Then two men wearing matching hats appeared from around the side of the hill. A thin man and his nephew descended from somewhere above. A group of teenagers arrived from the same direction we came.

Together we climbed a path through a garden to a corral made from rocks, sticks and brush. Inside there was a herd of 300-some black, white, brown and gray long-haired goats. The animals crowded into the steepest part of the pen. On the lower side of the oval-shaped corral someone had already hammered nine pairs of crude wooden stakes into the ground. The stakes formed two lines, about six feet apart. Ramazan, a goatherd who looks more Irish than Turkish, was fastidiously tying a long rope from stake to stake, leaving a loop about three feet long at each station.

Some of the men produced pairs of spring-loaded shears. Their heavy, fleecing blades looked more like garden clippers than the barber-shop variety. Others moved toward the goats, lunging and grabbing at horns, back legs, goatees. They dragged the goats to the bottom of the pen, where they tied them up and started snipping, beginning with the hair on the goat’s back, right above the tail.

After 5 or 10 minutes, each goat was shorn clean and untied and another round of snipping began. The purpose of the shearing isn’t primarily financial, but to keep the animals clean and cool before they start mating in a month or so. Breeding males were given what the goatherds called the American haircut, a mohawk along their backs, to distinguish them from the fold.

About an hour in, a tray full of hot tea and Turkish delight circulated. Afterwards, the men returned to their posts. Catch. Tie. Shear. Release. But this time a couple of woven sacks appeared, each one large enough to hold at least two grown men. The ones not holding or shearing began stuffing handful after handful of coarse hair, as well as dirt and goat droppings, into the sacks.

Şinasi Harmanaş, a goatherd from a neighboring village, told me that the roughly 200 pounds of goat hair will fetch $50 and will be woven into Turkish carpets.

As the last few goats were gathered and tied, the last goat hair shorn and collected, the day’s hosts prepared the meal to feed the 35 people who showed up to lend a hand. In addition to goat meat, there was a “shepherd’s salad” of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions, all finely chopped and mixed together, plus goat yogurt and lots of bread on the side. It was a polite but somewhat frenzied meal, with everyone circled around two large trays, eating from common serving dishes.

Most of these semi-nomadic goatherds live on the mountains all summer long. They’re isolated, scattered across slopes watching after flocks and herds. Yet there is an incredible bond of community between them. They rely on one another. Together they accomplished in a few hours what would have taken a week to do alone.

While I navigated the meat bowl, lean and fatty portions, liver, heart and stomach, I heard gun shots erupting from the other side of the house. I glanced nervously at Ugur, a fifteen-year old goatherder sitting beside me. He was undaunted.

“They’re just celebrating that we’re done,” he said.

After more tea, Turkish delight and story-telling, the day’s festivities ended with some bargaining. A few of the non-goatherders in attendance picked out and purchased animals for the approaching Islamic sacrifice holiday. One escaped before he could be tied up. But the goatherders weren’t any more worried than Ugur had been about the gunfire. They knew the goat would be back.


Andy Owens is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.