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The Sheep of Turkey

by Catherine de la Cruz
Originally published 1985
reprinted with permission of Author

"The Sheep of Turkey" was written in the spring of 1985 - Catherine was a substitute teacher at Utah State University in Logan where she was assigned to teach classes for the professor who had taught the sheep classes.
"I happened to be there preparing for an international conference on "Wool On A Small Scale" to be held there that June. While preparing classes, I was overjoyed to find the old livestock books in their library and wrote several articles at that time - for dog, sheep and fiber publications. Finding both the Lydecker and Mason books in the same library gave me pre- and post-world-wars statistics on sheep in the Mediterranian area, since both studied the same region."
     - Catherine de la Cruz

To truly understand the history of the Livestock Guarding Dog, regardless of breed, we must first understand the history of the animals they were selectively bred to guard. Throughout Asia, Europe, the mid-East, on American and Western ranges and suburban farms, the Anatolian, the Pyrenees, Maremma, Komondor, Kuvaz and Sar as well as other less familiar breeds do the job they were bred for nine-thousand years to do; protect their sheep.

The word 'sheep' has a very ancient origin. It is traced through the Anglo-Saxon 'scaep' or 'sceop', through the old German 'saf' and 'awi'. The old Teutonic 'avis', the Latin 'ovis' and all derived from the Sanskrit, 'avi', a modification of the root 'av', signifying 'to keep or to guard'.

'Sheep' accordingly means that animal that requires to be carefully tended or guarded in contrast to cattle, which are able to take better care of themselves. The Sanskrit origin of the name is taken as proof by some that at least some of the domesticated sheep to Europe trace their ancestry to an eastern source.

Sheep are mainly an Old World group, of which the earliest evidence of domestication seems to be found in the areas of Iraq, Iran and the Taurus Mountains of Turkey. There is speculation that the genus 'Ovis' also evolved from the common ancestor of the goats and antelope, 'Rapicaprini'. Their natural migratory habits made them a fairly predictable source of food for early hunters, and patterns of seasonal migration of both humans and sheep appear in northwestern Iraq, about 10,800 BC. Evidence from middens at Tepe Ali Kosh and Tepe Sabz, in southwestern Iran, show an increase in numbers of sheep and goat bones from the earliest period (7500-67500 BC) through the pre-pottery Neolithic (6750-6000 BC). After that period, while sheep and goats remained an important part of the diet wild game such as gazelle and Onager increased in availability and actual number of sheep bones decreased. The percentage of sheep bones, which were those of immature animals (lambs), increased however - a strong argument for the presence of a domesticated flock.

The wild-type coat color in sheep (with the exception of the Alaskan Bighorn) is a dark upper body, and a lighter belly, a pattern which is designed to render the animal inconspicuous as possible when standing in full sunlight. The wild-type coat is also a hair coat, instead of the fiber we know as wool, which is present in wild types primarily as an undercoat.

The earliest use of sheep was as meat, but with domestication came their use as dairy animals. A clay tablet from southern Mesopotamia records a farmer's production of milk, butter and cheese, more than 4000 years ago. It is not uncommon, even today, to see sheep being milked in many less developed parts of the world. There are projects being developed in such diverse places as Europe, England, Utah and California to re-develop breeds of sheep primarily selected for there milking ability.

Because of the importance of sheep as a food source, little emphasis was apparently placed on the fleece until historic times. The pelt of the sheep was probably used for covering from earliest times, just as were the pelts of other hunted animals. And although some expert’s claim that weaving was an early method of clothing construction, it is the opinion of this fiber-artist that felt was the earliest and therefore probably the earliest construct from wool. Thus, when the loom made its appearance in the Middle East around 6500 BC, the evolution of the sheep's hair coat from hair to wool had probably already taken place.

Evolution Of Sheep Color

The evolution from wild color (various shades of black, gray and brown) to white took place at different rates in different areas, and again, we can turn to what we know about fiber arts to explain the difference.

While the natural range of color is wool lends itself to a pleasing array of neutral shades, the ability to dye the wool depends on the availability of appropriate plants for dyestuff, and a quantity of water for both dying and rinsing. The steppes of Eastern Asia and the arid plateaus of the Middle East often lacked both items. Water was scarce and what there was, was needed for drinking. Often, water that is considered drinkable for livestock is too full of minerals (particularly iron) and organic matter to be useful for good dying. So the nomadic peoples of the Middle East and Asia followed their sheep in their annual migrations from the lowlands to the hills and back again, using the meat and milk, the hides and wool, making felt and spinning yarn, weaving rugs and garments, and giving little thought to changing the color of the wool.

The beautiful blues, reds and greens seen in Old Turkistan textiles used the most available liquid with which to make the dyes; urine. But the regular use of water-soluble dyes most likely developed in the river valleys of Asia and the Middle East. And with the ability to dye wool came a demand for the color of wool most easily over-dyed; white. Thus, the valleys draining into the Mediterranean became known for their white sheep, as well as their vibrant dyed colors. In the 9th century BC, the poet Homer praised the whiteness, thickness and quality of wool produced in Thessalia, Arcadia and Ithica.

Selection Of Dog Color

And what has all this to do with Livestock Guarding Dogs? It is now a well-accepted theory that the original LGD's evolved from a wild-type dog, and such the common wild-type colors of agouti, black and tan, and fawn were most common. The occasional white or spotted pup in a litter was probably singled out for saving as a pet, given the human trait of choosing and saving the unusual. (Witness the campaign to save the white tigers; a color useless in the wild.) And so a variety of colors became available in the gene pool at a fairly early stage of breeding these dogs.

Columella, writing in Spain in the 1st Century AD, assumed all LGD's to be white, as were the dogs he saw. Spain, being generally well supplied with water, developed white sheep shortly after their introduction to that area, sometime prior to 4000 BC. Columella wrote, "The dog should be white like the sheep lest the shepherd, in driving off the wolf at twilight, mistake his dog for the wolf". The key words there are 'white like the sheep'.

In investigating the usual color range of LGD's throughout Europe and Asia, we find them to be just about any color 'except that of the local wolf'. So it is most logical to reason that the shepherd picked his dog on factors other than color - size, stamina, thriftiness, courage, but possibly also noticed that it was easiest to introduce a new dog to the flock when it was generally 'sheep colored'. And in many parts of the world, that meant something other than white.

Colors Of Mid-Eastern Sheep

Lydekker, writing 'The Sheep and its Cousins' in 1912, described breeds of sheep, common in his time, now generally replaced by 'improved' breeds. "In the Arabian or Bedouin sheep, the body is covered with long, fine, soft and silky wool. In the matter of color, there is considerable variation, but as a rule, the head and neck are white and he whole body black. Self colored individuals, ranging in tint from yellowish white to black are occasionally met with". This sheep was said to range in Syria, Mesopotamia, Turkestan, Afghanistan and even northwestern India.

The Colchin long-tailed sheep are kept for both their mutton and their wool. The skin of the young lambs is known in commerce as Astrakhan, used for fur purposes, generally black, rather coarse and curly and sold for the manufacture of cheap coats. These sheep were exported from Greece and Turkey in Classical times and were considered by Dr. Lydekker to be the fabled 'Golden Fleece' sought by Jason.

Comparisons made between descriptions made by Lykekker (1912) of the ranges of various breeds of sheep, and those made by Mason (1967) show a rapid decline in the range of the colored breeds and a large increase in white flocks, due in part to the importation of Spanish Merinos. As remote regions became more accessible by truck and train, the demand for white wool for industrial urban and foreign markets has increased.

Colors Of Turkish Breeds Of Sheep

Mason describes the White Karaman as the most numerous breed in Turkey. It is a fat tailed breed, ranging about 26-30 inches at the shoulder and weighing from 95-110 pounds. He describes the boundaries of its territory thus, "In the west, a line from Bolu through Eskiseher to Kase; in the north from Bolu through Kastamonu to Erzincan; in the east from Erzincan to Lake Van in the south, it goes as far as the Mediterranean coastal plan".

Then he describes the Red Karaman, known in Turkey as the Kizil Karaman, Kizil being the Turkish word for 'red', "East and south-east of Erzincan in eastern Turkey, up to the borders of the USSR and Iran, the White Karaman is replaced by the Red Karaman. It thus occupies the vilayets of Erzurum, Kars, Karakose (Agri or Bayazit) and also occurs in Mus, Bitlis and Van. Some are exported to Syria where they are called, Turkish Brown".

The alternative name of Mor-Karaman is in reference to its dark purple-brown color, 'Mor' being the Turkish word for Maroon. The variety in Rize and Coruh Vilayets in the extreme northeast has a smaller body and tail. It is called Hemsin, after a mountain village in Rize. The Red Karaman is larger, with a bigger tail than the White Karaman.

It merits classification as a separate breed and not merely as a color variant. Height is 26-30 inches for females (ewes) and 30-32 inches for the males (rams). Females weigh about 125 pounds and the males 155-165 pounds. (Read any good LGD standard lately? Sound familiar?)

The all White Karaman is most common west of Ankara; in the Ankara and Konya Vilayets, black markings predominate. The occasional piebald animals is said to be the result of a cross with the Red Karaamn.

The Kerik of Amasya is raised in the mountainous regions of northern Turkey. The majority are white, with dark spots on the head. In the east, dark individuals occur, as a result of crossing with the Red Karaman. Most of the sheep of Turkey belong to the fat-tailed carpet wool breeds.

The common breed of European Turkey (Thrace) and of northwest Anatolia is the coarse-wooled Kivircik, of which 85% are white, but 15% color indicates a still-ongoing evolution from color to white. Merinos have been used for some years to 'upgrade' the Kivirciks and a Turkish Merino is not recognized. Karakuls have only recently been imported into Central Anatolia.

Colors Of Livestock Guardian Dogs

So, what do the colors of sheep breeds have to do with the color of Anatolian Shepherd? Originally, that was probably the determining factor in the prevalent color in dogs. But as the demand for white wool replaced that for colored wool, the sensible Turkish shepherd was not about to replace a good line of working dogs simply on the basis of color. He knew that the fawn dog would throw white and piebald pups if he had a desire for a particular color. And so, because he had a sound economic reason for replacing the colored sheep with white, he did so. But no such reason existed for replacing the colored dog.

The connection between the colors of dogs and sheep is no longer obvious, so has been overlooked by most visitors to Turkey in recent years. Thus, dog-fanciers tend to make the same mistake made by the Roman Columilla nearly two thousand years ago. They assume that what they see locally is true throughout a given region, but just as the boundaries of countries are generally artificial, ignored by wandering shepherds (unless guarded by armed soldiers), so the boundaries of 'breeds' of animals, whether sheep, dogs or cattle, are artificial and the researcher who disregards this fact risks making unwarranted generalizations.

Perhaps the formulators of the Beagle standard said it best; "A good hound cannot be a bad color!" It is time we realized neither can a good working dog!


Description Of Sheep Breeds In Turkey
From Mason, "Sheep Breeds Of The Mediterranean"

Historical Sheep of Turkey


Other reading on Anatolian Shepherd Dog Breed History


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