Centuries-old event a wet test of sheep loyalty

Published 28.08.2016 22:36

Shepherding is a tough task but with a loud whistle, or kaval, a shepherd's pipe as well, as basic herd management skills, you can keep your sheep flock together for a long time. What if you are supposed to convince them to cross a river? This was the basic challenge for 42 shepherds gathered at a unique event yesterday in the western Turkish province of Denizli.

The eight-century-old event is a fun ritual for shepherds, a case of one-upmanship and a day of indecision for the animals dragging their feet to the banks of the Büyük Menderes River.

Gathering in the early hours of the day on the banks, shepherds, watched by a large audience including local lawmakers and dignitaries, struggled to keep their flocks together. They counted on the "leader," a sheep pushed into the water first to draw the animals to the river, almost submerging the short creatures. After all, the sheep always follow the leader, as proven in multiple cases in Turkey and elsewhere including when an entire flock jumped off a cliff after the hapless leader wandered over the edge. This instinct did not kick in when it came to the river, however. Shepherds tried their rhythmic whistling and songs to motivate the flock. Some succeeded, to the applause of the crowd, while others were stuck on one bank of the river with their stubborn flock.

The event is a tradition based on a nomadic myth. According to the legend, a shepherd who fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy flock owner, asks for his daughter's hand in marriage. The wealthy man, reluctant to have his daughter marry a poor man, asks him to complete a seemingly impossible task as a precondition of the marriage. "You will feed the sheep with salt for three days and you will have them cross the river without sipping a drop of water," he says. The shepherd manages to do it but the father still does not allow the marriage to proceed and the daughter dies of "her love" after this. Today, the event is not as tragic as the legend but the salt feeding part is left out as it is already a tough challenge for shepherds of the modern times to keep the heads of easily irritated sheep above water.

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