By: Hassan Ali

Translation: Yousef Awad

The Awassi sheep breed is widespread across the Middle East, with significant populations in various countries. In Turkey, it comprises approximately 1.8% of the total sheep population. Its distribution spans southern Anatolia, particularly in the border regions of Antakya (Hatay), Gaziantep, and Urfa, along with the primary range in Syria. Known by various names such as Awassi, Arab, Naimi, or Levantine in Turkey, these sheep are also prevalent in Iraq, where they are referred to as Awassi, associated with the Awasi tribe residing between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iran’s Ahwaz region is another location where Awassi sheep are found, known locally as Ahwazi, reminiscent of the name Awasi. Additionally, they are widespread in northern Saudi Arabia, termed Al-Naimi after the Al-Na’im tribe, which inhabits regions across the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. Revered as the most significant and widespread sheep breed in the region, Awassi sheep have adapted to the diverse environmental conditions, particularly in the Levant, including Syria and its desert areas. Referred to as Baladi, meaning local, in the Levant, they are also known as Al-Awas, Al-Naimi, and sometimes Al-Dayri, with a reference to Deir ez-Zor, a city located 200 km east of Palmyra.

 The origin of Awassi sheep can be traced back to the deserts of the Levant and Iraq, making this region their oldest known homeland. Referred to scientifically as fat-tailed sheep due to the prominent fatty deposit that replaces their tails and covers the hind area, these sheep have inhabited the Awassi region, encompassing the Levant and Mesopotamia, for a minimum of 5,000 years.

During the era of the Kalb bin Wabara Al-Qada’i tribe, which migrated from Yemen along with other Qada’i tribes and settled in the desert of the Levant, particularly in the region around Palmyra, their abundance of sheep was notable. So numerous were their flocks that they were mentioned in Islamic religious texts, citing a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that likened divine forgiveness to the vast number sheep’s hair belonging to the Banu Kalb. However, in the tenth century AD, the Naim tribe gained dominance over the Levant desert, including Palmyra, supplanting the influence of the Kalbins. As a result, the Naim tribe inherited the sheep of the Kalbin, which eventually came to be known in modern times as Naimi sheep or Awassi sheep, among other names. 

In 2003, Syria was classified as one of the most important sheep exporting countries in the world, as there are about 17.8 million heads of sheep in Syria, more than 13 million of which are of the Awasi variety, according to statistics from 2010. Mr. Muhammad Khair Al-Sabti confirmed this number during an interview that the researcher conducted it with him. The increase in the number of sheep was also reflected in sheep productivity, as Awassi sheep contribute 78%, 30% and 100% of the total production of red meat, milk and wool, respectively. Awassi sheep feed on plant products, as they graze on undeveloped wheat and barley fields, and on crop residues such as wheat and corn. In general, the price of Awassi lamb, which is in high demand in Syria, was about 35% higher than the price of beef. In order to improve Awassi sheep, the General Authority for Scientific Agricultural Research in Syria has established a small number of stations spread throughout the country.

There are three different types of Awasis that are classified according to the color of the face: the Shukra, which has a reddish-brown face, the Abasa, which has a black face, and the Porsha, which has a gray face.

The Awassi sheep include the following types of sheep:

1- The Awassi, which is local and also called the local or Syrian: found in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, depends on the expanded feeding system in breeding, and is the most widespread.

2- Al-Naimi: This is named after the Al-Na’im tribe, which is widespread in the Gulf countries. This type is allocated for breeding and acquisition due to its beauty, large size, and soft wool.

3- Improved Awassi for dairy production: This variety was developed in Palestine as the best milk producing category in the Awassi family. It is larger in size and weight and more distinctive than the regular Awassi.

The residents of Palmyra, known as Tadmurians or Palmyerens, continue to engage in the husbandry of Awassi sheep despite the risks posed by the ongoing conflict. For generations, the Tadmurians have relied on the resources provided by Awassi sheep, utilizing their milk, wool, and leather to sustain various crafts and traditions. This longstanding relationship with Awassi sheep has shaped the livelihoods of the Tadmurians, who have inherited expertise in milk processing, wool spinning, hand weaving, leatherworking, and the crafting of leather goods.

While archaeological endeavors have shed light on the ancient city and its cultural legacy, the modern city of Palmyra has suffered neglect and abandonment. Few comprehensive studies exist to document the cultural and natural heritage of the Tadmurians, who possess a unique connection to the Awassi sheep—a testament to their enduring heritage amidst challenging circumstances.

Figure 1: Places of distribution of Awassi sheep in Turkey. Source: Google Maps (edited by Hassan Ali, 2023).

Figure 6: The Palmyra Desert within its administrative borders in Syria. Source: Google Maps (edited by Hassan Ali, 2023).

Figure 7: Awassi sheep in Palmyra. Source: (Hassan Ali, 2023).

Figure 8: Types of Awassi sheep. Source: (Ahmad AlKhanee, 2023).

Figure 9: Dock in the Awass sheep. Source: (Ahmad AlKhanee, 2023).

Leave a comment