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Karakacan Greeks Kotel Bulgaria.JPG Sarakatsani children in Kotel, Bulgaria.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Greece 80,000 (1950s est.)[1]
Bulgaria 2,556 (2011) - 25,000 (est.)[2][3]
Republic of Macedonia 500 - 1,500 (est.)
Greek Orthodoxy

The Sarakatsani (Greek: Σαρακατσάνοι) are an ethnic Greek population group,[4][5] who were traditionally transhumant shepherds, native to Greece, with smaller presence in neighbouring Bulgaria, southern Albania and Republic of Macedonia. Historically centered on the Pindus mountains and other mountain ranges of continental Greece, the vast majority of the Sarakatsani have currently abandoned the transhumant way of life and have been urbanised to a significant degree.


There have been various theories about the origin of the name Sarakatsani; according to the most popular one, the name derives from the Turkish word karakaçan (from kara = 'black' and kaçan = 'fugitive'), used by the Ottomans in reference to those people who were dressed in black and were fleeing on the mountains during the Ottoman occupation of Greece.[6] According to another theory, the name derives from the village of Sakaretsi, the supposed homeland of the Sarakatsani.[7]

History and origin

Despite the silence of the classical and medieval writers, scholars argue that the Sarakatsani are Greek people, possibly descended from pre-classical indigenous pastoralists, citing linguistic evidence and certain aspects of their traditional culture and socioeconomic organization. A popular theory, based on linguistics and material culture, suggests that the Sarakatsani are descended from the Dorians,[8][9][10][11][12] who were isolated for centuries in the mountains. Their origins have been the subject of broad and permanent interest, resulting in several fieldworks among the Sarakatsani.


Many of the 19th century descriptions of the Sarakatsani do not differentiate them from the other great shepherd tribe of Greece, the Vlachs, a Romance-speaking population. In many instances the Sarakatsani were simplifyingly described as Vlachs. Aravantinos discusses how the Arvanitovlachs were erroneously called Sarakatsani, although the latter were of clearly Greek origin,[13] increasing the differences between the two groups and stating that the Arvanitovlachs were actually called Garagounides or Korakounides.[14] There were other names the Sarakatsani were referred to such as Roumeliotes or Moraites, related to the place they were found. Otto, the first king of modern Greece, was well-known to be a great admirer of the Sarakatsani, and is said to have early in his reign fathered an illegitimate child with a woman from a Sarakatsani clan named Tangas.[15]

Since the 20th century a multitude of scholars have studied the linguistic, cultural and racial background of the Sarakatsani. Among these, Danish scholar Carsten Høeg, who traveled twice to Greece between 1920 – 1925 and studied their dialect and narrations, is arguably the most influential. He states that there are no traces of foreign elements in the Sarakatsani dialect and their material culture have no traces of sedentism. Furthermore, he attempted to find examples of nomadism in classical Greece, similar to that of the Sarakatsani. He visited the Sarakatsani of Epirus, mentioning other groups with no fixed villages in several parts of Greece as well.

Beuermann, a German scholar, rejects Høeg's rationalizations, 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, but it does not necessarily imply that they did not exist earlier. Probably the term 'Sarakatsani' is a relatively new generic name given to 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 the Sarakatsani are either 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 become nomadic shepherds. Angeliki Hatzimihali, a Greek folklorist who spent a lifetime among the Sarakatsani, remarks the prototypical elements of Greek culture that can be found throughout the pastoral way of life, social organization and art forms of the Sarakatsani. She also points out the similarity between their decorative art and the geometric art of pre-classical Greece.[16]

English historian and anthropologist John K. Campbell arrives at the conclusion that the Sarakatsani must have always lived in − more or less − the same conditions and areas as they were found in his days of research in the mid-1950s. He also highlights the differences between them and the Vlachs, regarding the Sarakatsani as a distinctive social group within the Greek nation.[17] Nicholas Hammond, a British historian, after his treatment concentrated on the Sarakatsani of Epirus, considers them descendants of Greek pastoralists of the region of Gramos and Pindus in the early Byzantine period, who were dispossessed of their pastures by the Vlachs at the latest by the 12th century.[18]

Additionally, there are less popular theories about the origin of the Sarakatsani. Among them E. Makris (1990) believes that they are a pre-Neolithic people, while London-based scholar John Nandris inserts them in a more complex context of nomadic people interacting with one another and Arnold van Gennep connects the Sarakatsani with the Yörüks.

Sarakatsani and Vlachs

Sarakatsani girl in traditional costume; Pindus, Greece.

Romanian and Aromanian scholars have tried to prove the supposed common origin of the Sarakatsani and the Aromanians; the latter - collectively known as Vlachs - constitute the other major transhumant tribe in Greece and speak Aromanian, an eastern Romance language, while the Sarakatsani speak a clearly northern dialect of Greek.

The Sarakatsani partially share the geographic distribution of the Vlachs in Greece, although they extend farther to the south. Despite the differences between the two populations, they are often confused due to their common transhumant way of life and the Sarakatsani are frequently described as Vlachs. Moreover, the term 'Vlach' has been used in Greece since the Byzantine times to indiscriminately refer to all transhumant pastoralists.[17] Besides, the presumption that a nomadic society, such as the Sarakatsani, would abandon its language, 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.

John Campbell states, after his own field work among the Sarakatsani in the 1950s, that the Sarakatsani are in a different position from the Vlachs, meaning the Aromanians and the Arvanitovlachs, who are bilingual in Greek and Aromanian, while the Sarakatsani communities were always Greek-speaking and knew no other language. He also asserts that the increasing pressure on the limited areas available for winter grazing in the coastal plains had resulted in a competitive dispute between the two groups on the use of the pastures. In addition, during the time of his research Vlach groups often lived in substantial villages where shepherding was not among their occupations, while their cultural elements such as art forms, values and institutions, are different from those of the Sarakatsani.[17] The latter, for instance, differ from the Vlachs in that they dower their daughters, assign a lower position to women and adhere to even stricter patriarchal structure.[18]

The Sarakatsani themselves have always stressed their Greek identity and deny having any relationship with the Vlachs. The Vlachs also regard the Sarakatsani as a distinct ethnic group, calling them Graeci (i.e. Greeks), a name used by Aromanians to distinguish the Greek-speaking populations from themselves, the Armânji.


Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Today, almost all Sarakatsani have abandoned their nomadic way of life and assimilated to mainstream modern Greek life, but there have been efforts to preserve their cultural heritage. The traditional Sarakatsani settlements, dress and costumes make them a distinct social and cultural group, as part of the collective Greek heritage, and they do not constitute an ethnic minority.[17] Their folk art consists of song, dance, poetry, as well as some decorative sculpture in wood and embroidery on their traditional costumes, which resemble the geometric art of pre-classical Greece.[16] In medicine, they use a number of folk remedies including herbs, honey and lamb's blood.


The Sarakatsani speak a northern Greek dialect, Sarakatsanika (Σαρακατσάνικα), which contains many archaic Greek elements that have not survived in other variants of modern Greek.[19] Carsten Høeg states that there are no significant traces of foreign loan words in the Sarakatsani dialect, and that foreign elements are not found either phonetically or in the grammatical structure. Despite the fact that Sarakatsanika includes a few words related to pastoralism of Aromanian origin, the Aromanian influences on the Sarakatsani dialect are the result of recent contacts and economical dependencies of the two groups.[20]

Kinship and honor of the kindred

Sarakatsani men in West Macedonia, Greece (1935).

The kinship among the Sarakatsani adheres to a strong patrilineal descent system. When reckoning descent, lineage membership is calculated along the paternal line alone; in determining family relationships, the descendants of a man's maternal and paternal grandparents provide the field from which his recognized kin are drawn. Kinship is not counted beyond the degree of the second cousin. Within the kindred, the family constitutes the significant unit and is a corporate group. A conjugal pair is the core of the extended family, which also includes their unmarried offsprings and often their young married sons and their wives. The Sarakatsani kindred constitutes a network of shared obligations and cooperation in situations concerning the honor of its members.

Their marriages are arranged and there can be no marriage between two members of the same kindred. The bride must bring into the marriage a dowry of household furnishings, clothing and more recently sheep or their cash equivalent. The husband's contribution is his share in the flocks held by his father, which remain held in common by his paternal joint household until some years after his marriage. The newlywed couple initially takes up residence near the husband's family of origin, while divorce and remarriage after windowhood are unknown.

The concept of honor is of great importance to the Sarakatsani and the behaviour of any member of a family reflects back upon all its members. Therefore, the avoidance of negative public opinion 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 watchful of the behaviour of the rest household members.


The Sarakatsani are Greek Orthodox Christians and associated with the Church of Greece. God is seen in strongly paternalistic terms, as protector and provider, as judge and punisher of evil deeds. The family is thought to be a reflection of the relationship expressed among God the Father, Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, where the father is the family head, responsible for the spiritual life of the family, and each household constitutes an autonomous religious community. They have interwoven Christian with folk beliefs like the evil eye, while superstitious beliefs and practices have traditionally been prevalent among the Sarakatsani; however there are no formally recognised magical specialists among them.

The Sarakatsani honor the feast days of Saint George and Saint Demetrius, which fall just before their 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, while Easter week is the most important ritual period in Sarakatsani religious life. Other ceremonial events, outside the formal Christian calendar, are weddings and funerals; the latter are ritual occasions that involve not only the immediate family of the deceased, but also the members of the largest kindred, while 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 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 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.[21][22] The Sarakatsani were found in several mountainous regions of continental Greece, with some groups of northern Greece moving in neighbouring countries in the summer, since the crossing of borders between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia was relatively unobstructed until the middle of the 20th century. After 1947, inter-state borders between these countries were sealed with the beginning of the Cold War and some Sarakatsani groups were trapped in other countries, not able to return to 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 led most of the Sarakatsani to adopt as legal residence the villages associated with summer grazing lands, and many have since built houses in such villages.

A reconstructed Sarakatsani hamlet in Gyftokampos, in Epirus, Greece.

Their traditional settlements consist of a group of cooperating houses, generally linked by ties of kinship or marriage. They build the houses in a cluster on flat land close to the pasturage, with supporting structures nearby. This complex is called stani (στάνη), a term also used to refer to the cooperative group sharing the leased land, where 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, although household goods may pass to daughters.

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 women occupy with the building of the dwellings, sheepfolds and goat pens, child care, the domestic tasks, preparing, spinning and dying the shorn wool, as well as keeping chickens, the eggs of which are their only source of personal income. Women also keep household vegetable gardens, with some wild herbs used to supplement the family diet. 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.


Until the mid-20th century, the Sarakatsani were scattered in many parts of Greece, with those of the northern Greek regions moving frequently for the summer months to neighbouring countries, such as Albania, southern Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and East Thrace. In the 1940s the inter-state borders were closed and small numbers of Sarakatsani had to settle down outside of Greece. Today, the majority of them live in Greece, with some populations left in Bulgaria, while there are no data on their number in Albania and the Republic of Macedonia.

It has been 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 distinct group in order that census data specify figures for them. Besides, they were often confused with other population groups, especially the Vlachs. However, in the mid-1950s their number was estimated at 80,000 in Greece,[23] but it was a period that the process of urbanization had already started for large masses of Greeks, while the number of the Sarakatsani who had already ceased to be transhumant shepherds sometime in the past was unknown.

The Sarakatsani populations can be primarily found in several regions of continental Greece, namely on Pindus mountain range and its southern extensions of Giona, Parnassus and Panaitoliko in Central Greece, in central Euboea, on the mountains of northern Peloponnese, on Rhodope in Thrace, on the mountains Olympus and Ossa, as well as in parts of Aegean Macedonia. The vast majority of them have abandoned the nomadic way of life and live permanently in their villages, while their descendants have largely populated the principal Greek cities.

The seat of the federation of Bulgaria's Sarakatsani in Sliven.

In Bulgaria, according to the 2011 census, 2,556 individuals identified as Sarakatsani (Bulgarian: каракачани, karakachani),[2] a number significantly reduced compared to the 4,107 Sarakatsani found in the 2001 census.[24] However, their number is estimated up to 25,000.[3] Most live in the areas of the Balkan range, Mount Rila and northeastern Bulgaria.[25] In 1991, they established the Federation of the Cultural and Educational Associations of Karakachans in Sliven.[25]

The Sarakatsani in Bulgaria self-identify as Greeks, considering themselves the "purest of Greeks"; they also add that they are Bulgarian Karakachans, since they live in Bulgaria, where their ancestors, in a few cases, were also born.[25] Contrary to their Greek dialect and self-identification, the Bulgarian government regards the Sarakatsani as an ethnic group separate of the Greeks in Bulgaria, probably of Vlach or Slavic origin.[24] An alternative Bulgarian theory claims that the Sarakatsani are descendants of Hellenized Thracians who, because of their isolation on the mountains, were not Slavicised.[26]

The accounts about the Sarakatsani in the Republic of Macedonia are very rare, probably to avoid any Greek claims upon the modern state's territory due to the Sarakatsani's Greek origin.[1] However, the Sarakatsani are mentioned to have resided in mountainous regions near Bitola and south of Skopje, but their presence is extended even further north, in Kosovo.[1]

Rootlessness 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:

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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 rootlessness 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.

Notable Sarakatsani

Military figures
Elected officials



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  4. Campbell 1964, pp. 3–6: "...the Sarakatsani, as they exist today, provide no evidence of a past history that was ever anything but Greek."
  5. Levinson 1998, p. 41: "...[the Sarakatsani] are ethnically Greek, speak Greek, and are Greek Orthodox."
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  7. Aravantinos 1856: "Σαρακατσιάνοι ή Σακαρετσάνοι έχοντες την καταγωγή εκ Σακαρέτσιου..."
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  13. Aravantinos 1905: "Τοιούτους Αρβανιτόβλαχους φερεωίκους ποιμενόβιους ολίγιστους απαντώμεν εν Θεσσαλία και Μακεδονία, Σαρακατσάνους καλουμένους καταχρηστίκους διότι οι Σαρακατσάνοι ορμόνται εξελλήνων και αυτόχρημα Έλληνες εισί."
  14. Aravantinos 1856: "Οι Σαρακατσάνοι, οι Πεστανιάνοι, και οι Βλάχοι οι εκ του Σύρρακου εκπατρίσθεντες, οιτίνες και ολιγότερων των άλλων σκηνιτών βαρβαριζούσι. Διάφοροι δε των τριών είσιν οι Αρβανιτόβλαχοι λεγόμενοι Γκαραγκούνιδες ή Κορακούνιδες."
  15. Poulianos 1993
  16. 16.0 16.1 Clogg 2002, p. 167
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Clogg 2002, p. 166
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  19. Katsaros 1995
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  21. Tsaousis 2006
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  23. Clogg 2002, p. 165
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  26. Pimpireva 1995, p. 20


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