In the footsteps of Romanian shepherds (noises outside my head)

They say facebook is an echo chamber, a closed circuit masquerading as cosmic freedom. Your comments, likes and shares get mirrored back to you, implying you’re at the centre of the universe while actually life is elsewhere and you couldn’t matter less. But a lot of vital information comes from facebook and without it, it would be harder for me to communicate with friends and contacts abroad. Sometimes I get that echoing feeling on the moor outside our house. It’s when the sheep are there, bleating to each other in urgent, almost intelligible messages. I’m a bit wary of getting drawn in to their social media, though. Once I overheard a BBC radio broadcast warning people not to listen to sheep too often, because they’d end up only being able to say ‘Baa’. Maybe Wittgenstein could have written about that. The narratives around sheep and shepherding are so conflicted these days: some say the animals are stupid and we’ve got too many of them (we should eat less meat, grow more trees, reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere), while others bless the shepherds and their charges (they are a source of not one but two kinds of food not to speak of old-fashioned sheep’s tallow – for when the electricity cuts out, they provide one of the best textiles known to humankind, they keep the countryside looking like it should – pace George Monbiot, they nourish the soil, spread seeds which encourage biodiversity, inspire a sense of well-being, are metaphors for selfless piety, and they send children to sleep). You can see which side I’m on.

Sheep loose on the road outside a town in north-east Romania

My view is simple: there is a fascination in other people’s lives, particularly when they come from cultures that are different from your own. Having had the luck to watch Romanian shepherds at work in beautiful but dangerous surroundings, it was natural to want to know more about them. How, dangerous? Like herdspeople of Central Africa, Romanian shepherds keep their animals in the open countryside and have to protect their flocks day and night – the threats coming from big carnivores, storm and drought. There are other more pernicious dangers in that the landscape itself is being consumed by urban development, roads and pollution.

View from a bus window on a journey from Cluj to the Maramures

In Romania, there was another phenomenon to dream about: transhumance. The more I looked at transhumance, the more exciting, adventurous and poetically alluring it became. On paper. In films. But on the ground? In books, I found that Romanian – usually Transylvanian – shepherds walked their animals hundreds of miles between seasonal pastures. They’d been doing so for hundreds of years. They did it for practical reasons; they made their living from sheep and when the grass ran out at home, it made sense to find it elsewhere. In the environmental, economic and political climate that they found themselves in, that sometimes meant travelling across frontiers into lands where people spoke different tongues and had completely different expectations. A putative map of Romanian pastoral transhumants could encompass a large hunk of Europe; if you allowed shepherds who travelled overseas (but without their sheep), it would reach the western United States. My fancy was caught by the idea of their journeys to the east, to Bessarabia (present-day Moldova), southern Ukraine, the Crimea and the Caucasus. Maybe even further east. Making them up in my head, it was easy to see them as pilgrims, although religion wasn’t what motivated them. But transhumants weren’t driven solely by money either: they couldn’t be, given the realities of the road. Some faith, or at least a kind of gung-ho adventurousness was essential, surely? I wanted to find out.

Ghita a 263.jpg
Andrei, a hired shepherd who was working for Ghita, a young sheep farmer from Jina in the Marginimea Sibiului area. The photo was taken during eight days I spent with the flock at the start of its spring transhumance from Salaj to Sibiu in April 2012. Ghita later became famous as Ghita Ciobanu, featured on mobile phone ads on tv and hoardings across the country. He also took part in the national protests against Romanian laws that discriminated against shepherds.

What time period are we talking about here, anyhow? At first I concentrated on the late 19th century, after the Crimean War (1856) and the Romanian War of Independence (1877-78) when Tsarist Russia got the upper hand over Ottoman Turkey and the Orthodox Christian shepherds (if they weren’t pagans or a mixture of the two), left their homes in the Carpathian Mountains (dominated by the Habsburg-Hungarian regime), and walked (sometimes in long-drawn out stages of a year or two) into Muntenia (between the Carpathians and the Danube), to Dobrogea (that mysterious maritime province between the Danube and the Black Sea), and north into the steppes where the grass grew up to their ears. And then on to the east, to the Crimean peninsular with its balmier climate, and yet further east to the soaring Caucasus Mountains with their extraordinary, archaic polyglot culture… And the more I looked the earlier the transhumances became – obscure mentions of 16th century shepherds walking into Russia, while other people found connections between Carpathian herders and south-east Moravia and the Beskid Mountains dating from the 15th century and earlier. Probably. Shepherds didn’t keep written records, but customs authorities and tax collectors did. Doing a double backwards somersault brought me to the Mesolithic imaginings of ethno-archaeologists. Such as John Nandris, whose meticulous methods combine with a romantic vision that make it possible, likely, and totally conceivable that after the last Ice Age, Thracian, that is proto-Romanian, sheep breeders haunted the Carpathians and built folds which were a model for ones you can still see today. I may not be being totally accurate about the ethnicity of these trampers of the mountains but when talking to Romanian students of transhumance, it’s clear they believe that sheep-rearing was a speciality of their ancestors, the Dacians, and I am not in a mood to contradict them. Leap-frogging over the millenia can be dizzying, so I will return to my main theme: Romanian transhumant shepherds trekking east.

In search of individual life-stories, I was lucky enough to meet Toma Lupas, a former mayor of Saliste, a market town in the Cindrel foothills near Sibiu. Toma struck a match on my research idea, and in 2009, he and several colleagues brought out a book that documented the personal histories of scores of local people, all of them linked in some way with eastern transhumance. Some were characters that I had met myself, but most were new to me. “Oieri margineni in Crimeea si sudul Rusiei” was not only a gift to Romanian culture, it encouraged me to look further too.


Photos of Romanian shepherding families who settled in Mariupol, southern Ukraine from 1912. (Thanks to the Preda family of Tilisca, Marginimea Sibiului.)


Some of the individuals we rediscovered have been described in this blog already. Today I’m mentioning the latest twists in the saga’s tail.


Twist 1: After Pastoralism Journal published Dupa coada oilor, in 2014, I received a message on facebook telling me I’d been talking bullshit. O-oh. It was to do with what I’d written about a breed of sheep called Tigaie. My critic was Dan Zloteanu, a businessman with a passion for the subject of Romanian transhumant shepherds. He told me the hardy but fine-fleeced Tigaie are not related to luxuriant Merinos as I’d averred, but had been around the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkans yonks before Merinos arrived. Once he realised I was also fascinated by the shepherds’ eastward treks, Dan gave me his personal take on them, firing off a wealth of information which I’ve condensed: “They started in the Ottoman period, after the Russo-Turkish war of 1770. The Russians wanted to repopulate the areas they’d taken from the Tatars. Now part of southern Ukraine and the Crimea, they were known as the Nogai Steppe, after the Nogai Tatars whom the Russians had recently ousted. The tsar sent agents to Muntenia (that part of southern Romania next to Transylvania and then ruled by the Ottoman Turks), as well as Bessarabia, Bulgaria and even Serbia, in order to lure shepherds to bring their sheep to the now empty lands where the grass was abundant and the winters bland. All the Russians asked in return was the payment of customs duties when the sheep crossed their borders.”

The Romanian shepherds in question were mostly natives of Transylvania who had already moved east of the Carpathian Mountains. Many of them came from the Marginimea Sibiului, that enclave of shepherding villages in the southern Carpathians I had come to know well. As the mocani, as those particular herders were known, walked north and east, they stopped off in Moldovan villages in Bessarabia and the Budjak region (now in south-west Ukraine). Eventually they spread to the northern Caucasus (where there were other Moldovan settlements, founded after the Russian conquests of 1812). In fact, the distances aren’t so great, and some of the shepherds went even further – one settled in northern Iran.

But in 1910, the Russian authorities changed their attitude towards the shepherds. They began sequestering Romanian flocks, which is how the Tigaie – in Russian, Tigaiskaya – was introduced to Russia. Tens of thousands of sheep were requisitioned and shepherds were forced to remain in Russia too. This was news to me, because I thought the shepherds had been free to move about as they liked until the October Revolution and the Civil War. (Other enquiries had shown that one of those Moldovan villages had been near Krasnodar, the north Caucasian city where my Russian teacher and historian, Vasile, lived. Vasile volunteered to look for it on my behalf. It turned out that Moldovensko as I think it was called had disappeared. But it reminded me that another Russian friend, Elena, whom I stayed with in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was the daughter of a Moldovan woman whose family had been exiled during Stalin’s time. As my enquiries developed, I began to hear of many more experiences like that. A poignant picture of forced diaspora began to overlay the happy-go-lucky image I had of transhumance. Here’s a link to a map showing some of the Moldovan villages.)

Twist 2: The person who alerted me to Dan’s criticism was Ion Aproteosei, editor of a facebook group called Dialectologie romaneasca si paralele romanice to which Dan also belongs. Ion is a natural diplomat, making it easier for Dan and me to risk a conversation, and he put me in touch with other people, one of whom was Vlad Cubreacov. This Vlad hies from the town of Crihana Veche near the south-western edge of the Moldovan Republic. Crihana was a stopping point for transhumant Romanian shepherds, but they came from a different part of the Carpathians to the one I knew: the majority were from Poiana Sarata, a village between the Nemira and Vrancea ranges in Bacau judet. That is much further east than Marginimea Sibiului and belonged to a now-defunct county with the picturesque name of Trei Scaune (Three Thrones). Vlad has been collecting data on individual families from church and other records. He has compiled lists of family names and nick names that reveal a mixture of Romanian, German and Tatar heritages.

Twist 3: The other person Ion connected me with was a Romanian diplomat called Vasile Soare. He has served as ambassador to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While there he revived interest in the Romanian communities that had taken root there after tens of thousands of were deported to Central Asia by Stalin. Here’s a link to an article about his work.


These are the some of the echoes reverberating round my head thanks to facebook and other sources.  They seem real enough to me.

Ion Ciorogariu was the son of a shepherd from the village of Tilisca (Marginimea Sibiului), southern Transylvania (Romania). Ion spent his early childhood with his parents and siblings in the Budjak area of what is now south-west Ukraine but was then part of Greater Romania. Ion called the settlement Lambroca but it’s better known as Lambrovka, now Lambrivka, and was founded specifically to help Jewish people who wanted to work their own land as farmers. In  fact, Lambrovka was part of a wider agricultural scheme that became a model for kibbutz farming in Israel. Lambrovka had a flock of 500 Karakul sheep and Ion’s dad was hired to look after them. I met Ion in 2007, thanks to Ilie Martin, a native of Rod, whose great grand-father had kept sheep ‘somewhere in Russia’. Dan Zloteanu told me that the shepherds of Rod had been forced to stay in Russia after 1910, leaving their Romanian birthplace bereft of its menfolk. Rod is just a few miles from Tilisca.
Tataraseni is a village in Dorohoi, a judet in the Romanian province of Moldova (not the Republic!), and gets its name from the fact that it was reputedly sacked by Tatars in the 18th century.
From Tataraseni, I was driven by cart to meet one of the sheep farmers who still work in the nearby steppe. (Thanks to Steve and Liliana Humphries for their hospitality in Tataraseni.)



Shepherd near Tatareseni with his herding dogs, his sheep, and in the distance, his fold.




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