The settled yörük of Fethiye miss the hard but much-loved lifestyle of their predecessors but they work hard to ensure that this rich, natural and independent way of life is not lost.
Strictly speaking these people are not yörük but transhumance, as their seasonal pastures were fixed. True nomads follow an irregular pattern of movement, however this distinction is often not observed and the term nomad is very often used for both.
An ancient culture
For many hundreds of years, at the beginning of every summer, the southwestern town of Fethiye’s yörük population, used to make the long trek from the hot coastal plains to summer in the cool pastures and grassy highlands of the western Toros Mountains.
They would take their entire homes, bundles of possessions, sheep, goats, camels, horses, donkeys and extended families, and set up their tents in the mountains, only returning to the coastal villages in the autumn before the first snows.
But in the space of a single generation, the vast majority has now settled: living and working in the town and only visiting their ancestral highland areas for a picnic or family holiday.
Nevertheless, many of Fethiye’s nomads miss this natural way of life and come together to reminisce about the old days and celebrate the hard but much-loved lifestyle of their predecessors.
Keeping the traditions alive
A few men and women are actually making it their life’s work to ensure the rich, independent and unhurried way of the life of the nomad isn’t lost in modern, fast-pace Turkey.
Beşkaza is the old name for the Mediterranean town of Fethiye and its hinterland, stretching from the sea to the mountains and encompassing many villages and hamlets, which very often have the same names as their coastal counterparts.
Some believe the demise of the Yörük culture in this part of Turkey was inevitable. The Turkish government had a huge settlement program in the late 1970s and early 80s in which nomads were given land to encourage them to settle permanently.
Since then, tourism, agriculture and commerce have taken over from raising animals and now it is becoming a rare sight to see their groups of black tents and vast herds of goats or sheep in the mountains during the summer months.
Proud to be Yörük
Meryem Balıkçı lives in Fethiye and, to anyone who doesn’t know her, she seem to be an ordinary resident of this Mediterranean town, as indeed she is. But when she talk about her life a very different picture emerges, one that is shared by a decreasing percentage of Fethiye’s population: She is yörük.
Unlike her parents’ generation, she no longer make the annual summer trip to the high grasslands but she does manage to visit her beloved prairie lands for a week’s holiday from time to time.
“But I am still Yörük in my heart, thank God,” says Balıkçı.
Memories of childhood
Meryem Balıkçı’s memories of her childhood are still clear in her mind. Her family belonged to the Karakeçililer tribe of nomads, the main tribe of the Beşkaza area, who spent the winter living on the coast between Gavurağılı and Karadere, close to Patara.
“There are different groups of Yörük in different parts of Anatolia, all of which have distinct identities. We were called the Karakeçililer, or Black Goats tribe, who used to trek for many kilometers from the coast to the Toros Mountains with two or three, even four hundred head of goats. I remember it was a long, long way for a little girl. Every May, we would set off on the long trek to our land in the highest prairie – about 2,000 meters above sea level. With all that exercise, we had a very healthy lifestyle, with rosy cheeks, which makes us recognizable even today.”
Her son Deniz appeared and she explained that his fairness and blue eyes are common among nomads.
“The majority of nomads are descended from Türkmen who came from the steppes of Central Asia, including my father who sadly died when my twin brother and I were still in the cradle. We are the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. My wonderful mother, a real Turkish woman, looked after us and was always busy. After my father passed away, she hired a needy relative as a shepherd for our livestock and to grow the crops during the summer, and we carried on with our nomadic lives for another five years. I remember the delicious kaymak cream my mother made from the goats’ milk. She used to make tasty cornbread too. Oh! I love the food my mother cooked. Now my son prefers cornflakes!” she said, raising her hands in mock horror.”
The next part of this story will be describing the heritage, crafts and life style of Fethiye’s yörük community.