Revealing the Invisible: Nomads in Turkey and Iran

This crater at Nemrut is the summer pasture of Kurdish nomads who move down into the Tigris valley during the winter. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1969.
Anthropologist Roger Cribb visited and documented them in 1981. Although the campsite is visible in this field photograph, it is impossible to see in the CORONA satellite image. Source: Roger Cribb, 1981.
A plan of the Nemrut camp. Source: Roger Cribb, Nomads in Archaeology, Fig. 10.3.
A few Kurdish families still migrate from the Taurus mountains into the Tigris river valley, as seen in this contemporary photograph. Source: Jason Ur. Photographer: Guido Guarducci, 2008.

Pastoral nomadic and sedentary agricultural lifestyles have been in conflict in the Near East for millennia. Whenever a centralized state controlled the Near East, sedentary agriculture flourished thanks to the construction of elaborate irrigation networks. When there was no established state, the irrigation networks fell into disrepair, and pastoral nomadism was widespread.

Pastoral nomads practice transhumance--seasonal migration to obtain optimal grazing for their livestock. Because of their mobile lifestyle, nomads leave few traces on the landscapes they travel. The introduction of irrigation systems and agriculture to these landscapes has erased what few signs they do leave behind. This phenomenon makes pastoral nomadic groups difficult to study.

Remote sensing technology serves as a valuable tool for landscape archaeology in the Near East. Recent satellite images only show the landscape after the reintroduction of farming. CORONA imagery from the 1960s and early 1970s provides a view of pastoral nomadic landscapes before irrigation systems damaged them. Without these photographs, archaeologists would be unaware of campsites formerly located on modern agricultural land. Both the difficulties of studying pastoral nomads and the advantage of using CORONA imagery are highlighted here. While CORONA imagery does not provide a clear view of Kurdish nomad campsites in eastern Turkey, it does illuminate the movement of Shahsevan nomads in northwestern Iran.