The Sarakatsani (Σαρακατσάνοι) are a group of Greek transhumant shepherds in Greece. Historically centered around the Pindus mountains, they have been currently urbanised to a significant degree. Most of them now reside throughout Central and Northern Greece. Smaller numbers also exist in Bulgaria.

Pastoral tribe

The Sarakatsani traditionally spent the summer months on the mountains and returned to the lower plains in the winter. The migration would start on the eve of Saint George's Day in April and the return migration would start on Saint Demetrius' Day, on October 26. However, according to a theory, the Sarakatsani were not always nomads but only turned to harsh nomadic mountain life to escape Ottoman rule. Yet many of the Sarakatsani residing in Epirus, Macedonia and Thrace, provinces that remained under Ottoman control until 1913, developed subsequently amiable relationships with the Turkish officials who were among the purchasers of their dairy products as well as of lamb and mutton.

As national states appeared in the former domain of the Ottoman Empire, new state borders came to separate the summer and winter habitats of many of the Sarakatsani groups. However, until the middle of the 20th century the crossing of borders between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia was relatively unobstructed. In the summer, some groups went as far north as the Balkan mountains while the winter they would spend in the warmer plains in vicinity of the Aegean Sea. After 1947, as inter-state borders were sealed with the beginning of the Cold War, some Sarakatsani were not able to migrate anymore and were subsequently settled down outside Greece.

Traditional Sarakatsani settlements were located on or near grazing lands both during summers and winters. The most characteristic type of dwelling was that with a domed hut, framed of branches and covered with thatch. A second type was a wood-beamed, thatched, rectangular structure. In both types, the centerpiece of the dwelling was a stone hearth. The floors and walls were plastered with mud and mule dung. Since the late 1930s, national requirements for the registration of citizens has led many if not most Sarakatsani to adopt as legal residence the villages associated with summer grazing lands, and many Sarakatsani have since built houses in such villages.

During the winter, however, their settlement patterns still follow the more traditional configuration: a group of cooperating households, generally linked by ties of kinship or marriage, build their houses in a cluster on flat land close to the pasturage, with supporting structures (for the cheese merchant and cheese maker) nearby. Pens for goats and folds for newborn lambs and nursing ewes are built close to the settlement. This complex is called stani (στάνη), a term also used to refer to the cooperative group sharing the leased land.

Their life centers year-round on the needs of their flocks. Men and boys are usually responsible for the protection and general care of the flocks, like shearing and milking, while the women occupy with the building of the dwellings, sheepfolds and goat pens, child care, the domestic tasks, preparing, spinning and dying the shorn wool, and additionally they try to keep chickens, the eggs of which provide them with their only personal source of income. Women also keep household vegetable gardens, with some wild herbs used to supplement the family diet. When children are very young, child care is the province of the mother. When boys are old enough to help with the flocks, they accompany their fathers and are taught the skills they will someday need. Similarly, girls learn through observing and assisting their mothers.

The pasturage used by a stani is leased, with the head of each participating family paying a share at the end of each season to tselingas, the stani leader, in whose name the lease was originally taken. Inheritance of an individual's property and wealth at the time of his death is largely passed through males: sons inherit a share of the flocks and property owned by their fathers and mothers. However, household goods may pass to daughters, and prestige of the family is visited on all surviving offspring, regardless of gender.


The most popular theory about the origin of the name Sarakatsani or Karakatsani, is that it probably derives from the Turkish word karakaçan (kara = 'black' + kaçan = 'fugitive') meaning 'those who flee to uncultivated lands'. The first element (kara) of the word, was used by the Ottomans to denote the black garment of Sarakatsani, which indicated their mourning for the Fall of Constantinople. It is said that for the same reason, they also slaughtered the white lambs and left alive only the black. An alternative and less popular theory states that their name comes from the Aromanian word sarac-tsani meaning 'poorman'. The Sarakatsani were recorded under this name for the first time only at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, thus the quest for their true origins gave place to a lot of speculative theories among the scholars.

Language and culture

The Sarakatsani speak a northwestern Greek dialect, Sarakatsanika, containing many archaic elements which have not survived in other variants of modern Greek, due to their isolation on the Greek mountain ranges. Almost all Sarakatsani in Greece have abandoned their nomadic way of life and assimilated to mainstream modern Greek life. According to John Campbell, their settlements, dress and costums make them a distinct social and cultural group as part of the collective Greek heritage, and they do not constitute an ethnic minority. Their folk art consists of song, dance, poetry, and some decorative sculpture in wood, as well as elaborate embroidery such as that which adorns their traditional costume. Principal motives used in sculpture and embroidery are geometrical shapes and human and plant representations. As far as their medicine is concerned, the Sarakatsani use a number of folk remedies that make use of herbs, honey, lamb's blood or a combination thereof.


Among the Sarakatsani there is a strong patrilineal bias, and when reckoning descent — as opposed to determining contemporary family relationships — lineage membership is calculated along the paternal line alone. Contemporary kin relationships are not counted beyond the degree of the second cousin. Within the kindred, the family constitutes the significant unit and is, unlike the larger network of personal relations of the kindred, a corporate group. The descendants of a man's maternal and paternal grandparents provide the field from which his recognized kin are drawn. The extended family has at its core a conjugal pair, and includes their unmarried offspring, and, often, their young married sons and their wives. The Sarakatsani kindred constitutes a network of shared obligations and, to a degree, cooperation in situations concerning the honor of its members.

Sarakatsani marriages are arranged, with the initiative in such arrangements taken by the family of the prospective husband in consultation with members of the kindred. There can be no marriage between two members of the same kindred. The bride must bring with her into the marriage a dowry of household furnishings, clothing, and, more recently, sheep or their cash equivalent. The husband's contribution to the wealth of the new household is his share in the flocks held by his father, but these remain held in common by his paternal joint household until some years after his marriage. The newly established couple initially takes up residence near the husband's family of origin. Divorce is unknown and remarriage after widowhood is unthinkable.

Honor of the kindred

The concept of honor is of great importance to the Sarakatsani. The behavior of any member of a family reflects back upon all its members, therefore the avoidance of negative public opinion, particularly as expressed in gossip, provides a strong incentive to live up to the values and standards of propriety held by the community as a whole. Men have as their duty the protection of the family's honor, and are therefore watchful of the behavior of the rest of the household. In the wider field of village and national interests, the Sarakatsani are subject to local statutes and Greek law.


The Sarakatsani are Greek Orthodox Christians and associated with the Church of Greece. Despite the fact that their participation in the institutional forms of the church is not particularly marked, they believe strongly in the concepts of God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. God is seen in strongly paternalistic terms, as protector and provider, as judge and as punisher of evil deeds. They have interwoven Christian with folk beliefs like the evil eye. Each hut shelters an icon or icons upon which family devotions focused.

The Sarakatsani honor the feast days of Saint George and Saint Demetrius, which fall just before the seasonal migrations in spring and early winter, respectively. Especially for the Saint George's feast day, a family kills a lamb in the saint's honor, a ritual that also marks Christmas and the Resurrection of Christ. Easter week is the most important ritual period in Sarakatsani religious life.

Other ceremonial events, outside the formal Christian calendar, are weddings and funerals. Funerals are ritual occasions that involve not only the immediate family of the deceased but also the members of the larger kindred. Funerary practice is consistent with that of the church. Mourning is most marked among the women, and most of all by the widow. Beliefs in the afterlife are conditioned by the teachings of the church, though flavored to some degree by traditions deriving from pre-Christian folk religion.

The family is thought to be a reflection of the relationship expressed among God, the Virgin Mary and Christ, where the father is the family head, responsible for the spiritual life of the family. Each household constitutes an autonomous religious community. There is a strong belief in the efficacy of magic, like the casting of the evil eye, however there are no formally recognised magical specialists among them.

History, origin and controversy

Despite the silence of the classical and medieval writers, most scholars argue that the Sarakatsani have ancient origins, citing linguistic evidence and certain aspects of their traditional culture and socioeconomic organization. The anthropological characteristics of the Sarakatsani also classify them as one of the earliest populations on the Balkans and Europe. Their origins have been the subject of broad and permanent interest.

Sarakatsani's self-perception

Among the variety of scientific hypotheses, the Sarakatsani's self-perception of their origins should be taken into account. According to a popular legend, the Sarakatsani once lived on the Pindus mountains or in an area called Sirako (Sirakovo, Sarakatsanovo, etc.). Unable to bear the despotic rule of Ali Pasha, they fled to the mountains where they started raising sheep to support themselves. This legend may be associated with the upheaval in southwestern part of the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th and early 19th century, which also concurred with the resettlement of the Aromanians mentioned in Ottoman and earlier sources.

19th-century accounts

Much of the 19th century descriptions of the Sarakatsani do not differentiate between them and the other great shepherd tribe of Greece, the Vlachs. In many instances the Sarakatsani were simplifyingly described as Vlachs, which was a generic term for pastoral people. In his Monograph on Koutsovlachs (Μονογραφία περι Κουτσόβλαχων, 1865, reprinted in 1905), an Epirote Greek named Aravantinos discussed how the Arvanitovlachs were erroneously called Sarakatsani although the latter were of clearly Greek origin.

In another work of the same author titled Chronography (Χρονογραφία), he elaborates more on the Sarakatsani and discusses about the existence of the Sarakatsani. He also states that the Arvanitovlachs were called Garagounides or Korakounides increasing the differences between Arvanitovlachs and Sarakatsani, who according to one theory originated in the Greek village of Saraketsi.

There were other names the Sarakatsani were referred to such as Roumeliotes (by authors such as Georges Kavadias) even though the Sarakatsani did not use that name themselves, or Moraites (according to Fotakos) when they migrated to Thessaly from Morea after 1881.

20th-century accounts

A multitude of 20th century scholars have studied the linguistic, cultural, and racial background of the Sarakatsani. By now, they clearly distinguished the Sarakatsani as a distinct entity, and the linguistic, cultural and racial background of the Sarakatsani started to be meticulously researched.

Among these, the Danish scholar Carsten Høeg who traveled twice to Greece between 1920 and 1925 is arguably the most influential. He visited the Sarakatsani in Epirus and began studying their dialect and narrations. Høeg published his findings in 1926 in his book entitled The Sarakatsani. In his work, he stated that there are no significant traces of foreign loan words in the Sarakatsani dialect. These foreign linguistic elements are neither found phonetically nor are they found in the overall grammatical structure of the dialect. In addition to this, he writes that the Sarakatsani material culture shows the trace of sedentary origins. There were groups of Sarakatsani in the 20th century with no fixed villages, whether in summertime or in winter traced as such by Høeg. He also found the Sarakatsani in several parts of Greece, Thessaly, Macedonia, Pelagonia, Thrace, around Lake Copais in Boeotia, and on mountain ranges like Pindus, Rhodope and Vermion. Høeg attempted to find examples of nomadism in Classical Greece as an equation for that of the Sarakatsani. Høeg was criticized by Georges Kavadias for exaggerating the link between the 20th century Sarakatsani population and the ancient Greeks and ultimately Høeg's classical Greek background was thought of having influenced - sometimes in a biased way - the conclusions he outlined as to the origins of Sarakatsani. A German scholar, Beuermann, rejects Høeg's rationalizations of these facts, which is relevant to the claim frequently put forward that the Sarakatsani are the "purest of the Ancient Greek population". There appears to be no written mention of the Sarakatsani previous to the 18th century. From this, one can conclude that the term Sarakatsani is a relatively new generic name given to a quite an old population that lived for centuries in isolation from the other inhabitants of what is today Greece.

Georgakas (1949) and Kavadias (1965) believe that either the Sarakatsani are descendants of ancient nomads who inhabited the mountain regions of Greece in the pre-Classical times, or they are descended from sedentary Greek peasants forced to leave their original settlements around the 14th century and to become nomadic shepherds.

The Greek ethnographer Angeliki Chatzimichali (1957), who spent a lifetime among them, believes that the pastoral way of life, the social organization and the art of Sarakatsani show further prototypical elements of Greek culture, for instance the similarity between the Sarakatsani decorative art and the geometric style of pre-classical Greece. In 1964, the English researcher J. K. Campbell arrives to the conclusion that Sarakatsani must always have lived in more or less the same conditions and areas as they were found in his days, they were very endogamic and they should be considered an isolate group.

Nicholas Hammond, a British historian, after his treatment concetrated on the Sarakatsani populations of Epirus, in his work Migrations and Invasions in Greece and Adjacent Areas (1976), considers them descendants of Greek pastoralists who herded their sheep on the central range of Grammos and Pindus in the early Byzantine period and were dispossessed of their pastures by the Vlachs at the latest by the 12th century.

In 1987, the London based scholar John Nandris, who observed the Sarakatsani "on the ground" continuously since the 1950s, summarizes his account of this tribe by inserting them in a more complex context of nomadic people interacting with one another. Interestingly, he alludes to the Yörük connection though he is keen not to jump to any definitive conclusion. This theory was also supported by Arnold van Gennep.


Until the mid-20th century, the Sarakatsani were scattered in many parts of the Balkan Peninsula, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Yugoslavia, but today they live mainly in Greece, with only some populations left in Bulgaria only. It is difficult to establish the exact number of the Sarakatsani over the years, since they were dispersed and migrated in summer and winter, while they were not considered a discreet group in order that census data specify figures for them. Besides, they are often confused with other population groups, especially with the Aromanians, who are also nomadic shepherds. However, in the late 1950s their number was estimated to be approximately 80,000 throughout Greece, when the process of urbanization had already started for large masses of Greeks.

In Greece, the Sarakatsani populations can be primarily found in Central Greece on the mountain ranges of Giona, Parnassus and Panaitoliko, in Epirus on Pindus mountains, on Rhodope in Thrace, in Central Euboea and on the mountains Olympus and Ossa. The great percentage of them have abandoned the nomadic way of life and live in their villages, while their descendants have largely populated the principal Greek cities.

Sarakatsani in Bulgaria

In Bulgaria, according to the 2001 census, 4,107 individuals identified as Sarakatsani (Bulgarian: каракачани, karakachani). In the census, this identification is considered separate from the identity of the Greeks in Bulgaria. Local organizations, however, estimate the number of Sarakatsani at up to 20,000. In Bulgaria, they are regarded as a distinct group of possible Vlach or Slavic origin. Most live in the vicinity of Sliven where their headquarters reside, but also along the Stara Planina range; today most of them are Bulgarized.

A Bulgarian theory states that the Sarakatsani are descendants of Hellenized Thracians who, because of their isolation on the mountains, were not Slavicised.

Contrary to these views, the Sarakatsani themselves identify as Greeks because Greek is their mother tongue and they consider themselves "the purest of Greeks". Finally, they add that they are Bulgarian Karakachans because they live in Bulgaria where their children, they themselves and, in quite a few cases, their ancestors were born. The features outlined so far identify the Sarakatsani in Bulgaria as a small ethnic group. Bulgarian ethnologists regard an ethnic group as part of an ethnos living in a foreign-language environment, a part of ethnos that has preserved its language and cultural specificity, as well as its ethnic self-identify, and may also be dispersed. Nomads or sedentes, the Sarakatsani in Bulgaria fit into this outline, varying to some extent by place of residence.

Sarakatsani and Vlachs

During the 20th century and up to the present day, Romanian and pro-Romanian Vlach and Aromanian scholars have tried to prove the supposed common origin of Sarakatsani and Vlachs. These attempts were based mainly on speculations, over-generalizations, vague assumptions based on the similar nomadic way of life of the two groups and the fact that the term Vlach is still used in Greece to describe inconsiderately all the shepherd and peasant people. Moreover, these attempts were based on assertions that the Sarakatsani simply gave up their supposed former language during the 18th century in favour of assimilation into a Greek-speaking environment. The presumption that a secluded, endogamic society in the multicultural world of the Ottoman Empire would abandon its language for no obvious reason at all, then translate all of its verbal tradition into Greek and create within a few generations a separate Greek dialect, has to be examined with caution.

Their non-Sarakatsani neighbors refer to them as Vlachs, a reference to their seasonal migrations in search of pasturage for their flocks. This term is, however, misleading, for it suggests a cultural or linguistic relationship with the Koutsovlachs and Arvanitovlachs, population groups who speak an entirely different language than the Greek dialect used by the Sarakatsani.

John Campbell, social anthropologist, states after his own field work among the Sarakatsani in the 1950s, that the Sarakatsani are in a different position from the Vlachs and the Arvanitovlachs, who both speak a Romance language along with Greek, while the Sarakatsani communities were always Greek-speaking and they knew no other language. Indeed the Sarakatsani speak a clearly northern Greek dialect with no more Latin words than the other Greek dialects have. Many of the foreign words used in the dialect are of Turkish or Slavic origin, but these could have been loanwords.

The Sarakatsani themselves have always stressed their Greek identity and denied having any relationship with the Vlachs. Additionally Vlach values, institutions and art forms are different from those of the Sarakatsani. The Sarakatsani differ from the Vlachs in that they dower their daughters, assign a lower position to women and adhere to even stricter patriarchal structure. The Sarakatsani also claim that they have always been in the forefront of those who fought the Greek national aspirations. On the contrary, although the Vlachs had a considerable contribution to the development of the modern Greek state, some of them collaborated with the Italian occupation authorities during the World War II and had been affected by Romanian nationalist propaganda in the early 20th century.

The Vlachs regard the Sarakatsani as a distinct ethnic group and called them Greci (i.e. Greeks) and even today officially deny having any relation to the Sarakatsani. Campbell asserts that a competitive dispute often existed between the two groups as to who would have use of the pastures, as both were shepherd people and there was an increasing pressure on the limited areas available for winter grazing in the coastal plains.

Rootlesness and ritualization

In her book An Island Apart, the travel writer Sarah Wheeler traces scions of the Sarakatsani in Euboea. They can also be found in the island of Poros. She writes:

I was fascinated by this elusive, aloof transhumant tribe with beguilingly mysterious origin. They fanned out all over the Balkans and have most closely associated with the Pindus and the Rodopi mountains in the northern mainland: in the fifties there were about 80.000 of them. They spent half of the year in their mountain pastures and the other half in their lowlands. Their rootlesness was balanced by an elaborate ritualization of almost every aspect of their lives, from costume to the moral code. Evia was the only island used by the Sarakatsani except Poros which was the furthest south they ever got (and perhaps Aegina too). In Evia they were, until this century, only found in the chunk of the island from the Chalcis-Kymi axis northwards about as far an Ayianna, and the cluster of villages around Skiloyanni constituted the most heavily settled Sarakatsani region on the island. There were 50 Sarakatsani families living on Mount Kandili, working as resin-gatherers encased in layers of elaborate costume. Photographs taken only few decades ago of Sarakatsani women in traditional costume sitting outside their wigwam-shaped branch woven huts. Many of them had quite an un-Greek looks, and were fair; perhaps that explains the blond heads you see now. The Sarkatsanoi were known by various names by the indigenous population, usually based on where they were perceived to have come from, and in Evia they were generally called Roumi, Romi or Roumeliotes after the Roumeli region. People often spoke of them misleadingly as Vlachs. They are settled now, mainly as farmers, with their own permanent pasture land. Their story is one of total assimilation.

Summary of theories

The anthropologist Georges Kavadias summarizes some of the theories about the Sarakatsani in Pasteurs-Nomades Mediterraneens: Les Saracatsans de Grece as follows:

  1. The Sarakatsani are the lineal descendants of the Dorian tribes who lived in what is today Greece over three thousand years ago. This theory is endorsed by Greek historians and by Western European scholars.
  2. They are an indigenous nomadic people dating back to Neolithic and therefore pre-Hellenic times.
  3. They are a branch of the nomadic Vlachs who became Hellenized. The Sarakatsani have similar socio-political patterns of organizing themselves as the Vlachs. Each socio-political unit was called a celnicat, in which each unit was lead by a leader known as a celnic (in Vlach) or tselingas (in Greek). The word celnic/tselingas is of Slavic origin meaning 'forehead'. This theory is endorsed by Romanian propaganda and Romanians of Vlach descent such as Nicolae Iorga, Tache Papahagi and Theodor Capidan, as well by the Austro-Hungarian scholar Lajos von Thalocy.
  4. They are a Christianized branch of the nomadic shepherd tribe of the Yörük Turcomans (according to Arnold van Gennep).

Notable Sarakatsani

Military figures

  • Antonis Katsantonis (1775 - 1809), famous klepht leader in the pre-revolutionary period.
  • Lepeniotis, Antonis Katsantonis' brother, also a klepht. Elected officials
  • Lefteris Zagoritis, Member of Parliament since 2004, Secretary of the New Democracy party.
  • Georgios Souflias, Member of Parliament 1974-1996 and since 2000, minister in various cabinets since 1977 (currently Minister for the Environment and Public Works).
  • Georgios Sourlas, Member of Parliament 1981-2000 and since 2004, formerly Minister for Health, currently Vice-President of the Parliament.
  • Nikolaos Katsaros - Member of Parliament 1981-2004, formerly Vice-President of the Parliament (1989-2000), author of the book «Αρχαιοελληνικές ρίζες του Σαρακατσιάνικου λόγου» ("Ancient Greek roots of the speech of the Sarakatsani").
  • Ioannis Printzos, Prefect of Magnisia 2002-2006.
  • Loukas Katsaros, Prefect of Larisa since 2002, formerly appointed Prefect of Kozani.


Further reading

  • A. Beuermann, Formen der Fernweiderwirtschaft (Transhumanz-Almwirtschaft-Nomadismus), Verhandlung des Deutsches Geographentages, Vol.32; 277-90, 1960.
  • J. K. Campbell, Honour, Family, and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community, Oxford, 1964. ISBN 0-19-519756-9
  • Kavadias, Pasteurs-Nomades Mediterranéens: Les Saracatsans de Grèce. Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1965.
  • Nicholas G. L. Hammond, Migrations and Invasions in Greece and Adjacent Areas, Park Ridge, N. J., Noyes Press, 1976.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roumeli — Travels in Northern Greece, London, 1966.
  • Sarah Wheler, An Island Apart, Abacus Press, London, 1992.
  • Johns Hopkins University Press, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 99, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 263-266.

External links

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