The Transformation of the Summer Pasture: Geography, Migration, and Social Change in the Middle East 




The Transformation of the Summer Pasture: Geography, Migration, and Social Change in the Middle East

Chris Gratien, Ph.D. Candidate, Georgetown University

Summer is upon us and as in many summers past, millions will visit the various beaches of Turkey's Aegean and Mediterranean shores in search of fun and sun at popular holiday destinations such as Bodrum, Ayvalık, Fethiye, and Kaş. The warm coasts of modern Turkey are increasingly a vacation destination for those looking near and far for excitement or relaxation. The phenomenon of beach culture and many of the things that come with it are historically recent on the global stage; yet, summer sojourns to alternative locations are nothing new. In fact, long before the beach resorts of Bodrum, swarms of seasonal travelers once flocked not towards but rather away from the coasts during the hot Mediterranean summers.

The summer destination of choice throughout the Ottoman period was of course the mountains, where cooler air promised health and respite from the scorching heat of the plains and coasts. While for well-to-do city-folk this might have been a trip to a summer home in the mountains, all segments of society participated in this seasonal migration. In particular, pastoralist communities would move their entire herds and property to a summer pasture referred to as a yaylak (or yayla), where they would set up camp until the passing of the hottest months allowed them to migrate back down to the grassy plains for winter grazing. This seasonally migratory pattern arose out of a symbiosis between geography, climate, and human activity that defined life and politics in many parts of the Anatolian countryside.

Changes in the political, economic, and technological contexts of human society have dramatically transformed the function of the yaylas that nonetheless continue to hold symbolic significance for many. The massive migrations of people and animals have become a thing of the past, and while this has meant an overall decrease in the geographical significance of highland plateaus, people continue to find new ways of making use of these spaces. This short essay offers a historical glimpse at summer pastures and the migrations they encouraged over the course of dramatic changes in ecology within Turkey over the past two centuries complete with a compilation of maps new and old.

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