Every year, local shepherds gather near the ancient hamlet of Asagıseyit, on the ford of the Buyuk Menderes river, to commemorate one of their less fortunate ancestors in a sheep herding competition. The shepherds paint their flock in bright colors and have to convince them to cross the river on their command, in an orderly fashion, in front of an audience of up to 5000 spectators.
The competition is the result of an 800 year old love story that killed a beautiful girl and crushed the life of a young shepherd.
The legend says that once upon a time, a handsome shepherd fell in love with the the local landlord’s beautiful daughter. The girl reciprocated and the shepherd boldly asked the girl's father for her hand in marriage. The mighty landlord refused to give his daughter to a humble shepherd. However, when the heartbroken daughter fell ill from sadness, he accepted on condition that the suitor accomplished an impossible task. He had to cross the river with his whole flock, without losing a single sheep, while not allowing them to drink, despite the fact that the sheep would have been fed only salt for three days prior. This way, the young shepherd would either become a hero or lose face and be a disgrace.
The young man accepted, and with the help of his ram, named Karabas (“Blackhead”), and the support of onlooking villagers, he won the challenge. However, after crossing the river, all of his sheep except Karabas died of thirst. However, when he went to claim his loved one anyway he found her dead, exhausted by illness, when she had learned of his ruin.
The legend says that the shepherd disappeared in the mountains, and in campfire tales, shepherds still claim to have met or to have been saved by a mysterious old man dressed as an ancient shepherd.
Since then, the river crossing competition has become an end of summer festival to commemorate their legendary ancestor.
Shepherds from the villages of the valley gather during the night, with their flocks escorted by the massive "Kangal" shepherd dogs, still wearing iron collars with spikes to fight off wolves and bears, among the deafening peal of sheep bells.
Every flock has its own lead ram, or “el koyun”, painted with bright colors with henna and beet juice, decorated with necklaces and frills, and shorn in quirky patterns. The ram is the alpha male leader of the flock that the shepherd relies on and treats as a pet. Every shepherd has to prove, in front of thousands of people, to have the trust of their ram, which in turn will guide the sheep into the river.
Sometimes the ram hesitates, or plainly refuse to swim, turning his back to the shepherd, disgracing him until his chance to redeem himself the next year. Other rams blindly jump into the murky waters, swimming to their shepherds arms, for the cheers of the crowd.
The mayor of Cal proudly announced that the authorities have asked the event to be included in the UNESCO list of immaterial World heritage.