A modest contribution to the debate on the “Balkan Egyptian” identity and the general question regarding the historical origin of “Gypsies”; proposing the concept of “Gypsiness”, along with a multiple-origin hypothesis
“And I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and will disperse them through the countries.” _Ezekiel 30:23
“They are called Gypsies: we call them heathen people from Egypt who travel about in our countries.” _Arnold von Harff (1471 – 1505)
“In stern wanderings I spent my life; Two lines will teach you who I’ve been. Egypt, Hungary, Switzerland, Beelzebub and Swabia, Have named, reared, fed, slain and buried me.” _Christian von Hoffmannswaldau (1616 – 1679)
“Give me to drink, little cousin!
I am from Egypt.
I come from Pharaoh,
Like all Gypsies.
“Open the door to me, cousin, For I too am from Egypt, For I come from Pharaoh, Like all true Gypsies.” _ Fabian de Castro, el Gyptano (1868 – 1948)
In the midst of the large scholarly work that has been produced with respect to Gypsy identity, history, and ethnicity, of which I claim no encompassing knowledge or academic mastery, the contribution, I hope, of this essay, is limited to promoting the idea of Gypsiness as a historical lifestyle rather than specific ethnicity, which is directly based on a multiple-origin hypothesis. These two contributions are not exactly new, and there has been reference to them in several writings on the Gypsy identity which sought to recount or speculate their origins in times contemporaneous with their first appearances in Europe, and also in recent scholarship, particularly in the works of Wim Willems.
Even though I do present some historical data which seem to reinforce certain aspects regarding Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis, this paper aims not to prove or promote the ancient Egyptian origin of Balkan Egyptians or Gypsies in general. Rather I have endeavored to examine the conceivability of the Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis narrative, and of the issue of the Egyptian origin of Gypsies in general, by referring to several historical occurrences which prove the continual presence of true Egyptians in Europe through out the Hellenistic era and late antiquity, specifically in Southern Greece and several coastal cities in the Black Sea region. Further, I enumerated and quoted several references to Gypsy-like communities, whether settlers or nomadic, whether called Egyptians or other appellations, who were reported in Europe through out late antiquity and the early middle ages, prior to the migration of Indian Roma or their arrival in Europe. I have also speculated regarding the possible connections between the many dispersed Jewish and other tribal communities in late antiquity, and the subsequent emergence of the Gypsy phenomenon in Europe.
These, among other historical and sociological discrepancies in Gypsy appellations, and which I will briefly address in this paper, contradict or at least seriously challenge the theory of a single Indian origin and single ethnicity of all Gypsy communities, an implausible theory which have been based on the emergence of linguistic and genetic evidence corresponding to present-day Gypsy communities around the world. I maintain that though this Indian origin corresponds logically to present-day Gypsy communities, not just in Europe but also in the Middle East, yet I find it extremely unlikely that that Indian identity engulfs every Gypsy community in these regions, and certainly including those which seem to have existed in past times, including even before the Indian migration to Europe!
Lastly I have addressed the possible reasons behind the evident predominance of “prejudice” in Gypsy-related research. Then I attended to the question (proposed by Sevasti Trubeta and others) of the likelihood of “identity preservation” in powerless Gypsy communities, referring at the same time to the idea of the fundamental similitude (as opposed to dualistic dissimilarity) in the human social experience, proposing that though social differences are maintained due to group hardships and desires for social power and distinction, and that ethnic and cultural variations may indeed be historically verified, yet certain universal similarities manifest themselves in common religious and spiritual popular practices, as is the case in the worship of St. Sara by various Gypsy groups.
I have minimized the use of and referencing to ethnological/sociological academic jargon and concepts, since my aim here is not to impress or please any kind of specific reader as much as to make this essay accessible, as much as possible, to any one interested in its subject, including especially those who constitute its subject; the Balkan Egyptians, the Roma, and differently-identified Gypsy or itinerant communities. Therefore a lot of basic and introductory passages and sections are provided to allow comprehension of further historical and sociological remarks and analysis by those who may be reading about the debate of Gypsy identity and origin for the first time.
Documents written by Balkan Egyptians are indispensable for the telling of the story of Balkan Egyptians; many of these documents, I found, are written with a knowledge or usage of English that is peculiar to their authors. I made no effort to adjust or reform the text, since it is systematically comprehensible.
I would like to thank Wim Willems, Sevasti Trubeta, and Christelle Fischer-Bovet, for their kindness and generosity, having been readily willing to send their works to me.
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1. Introducing the Balkans and its Egyptians
The Balkans, or also the “Balkan Peninsula”, is a geopolitical and cultural region of southeastern Europe. It involves the following contemporary states: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo which is still not entirely recognized as a sovereign state by some other states (including China and Russia), though it is recognized by the United States and most European states. Because of manifold historical events, some other states which are not particularly identified as Balkan, are mentioned as closely related to Balkan history. These include Moldova, Romania, Slovenia, and Turkey. There are no clear cuts or sharp separating lines regarding who is who when it comes to a historical perspective of the Balkans. It is a region of such confusing and complex mosaic of identities, despite of, or perhaps because of it being surrounded by three different seas from three different directions.
The geographic location of the Balkans necessitated it to become a meeting point of so many cultures, sometimes contradictory ones. Ancient Greek culture and language endured here probably more than anywhere else in the world, even well after the domination of the entire region by the Roman empire. Slavic, Byzantine, Bulgarian and Serbian empires struggled and clashed together and succeeded one another throughout post classical times (i.e. Middle Ages) in ruling the Peninsula. By the 16th century the Ottomans ruled the region and introduced Islam to its inhabitants. They did not get out of it until 1913 when a Greek-Serbian-Bulgarian alliance attacked the Turks fiercely. Ottoman wars against European powers in the Balkans seem to have been the major cause of the backwardness of the region, which is estimated to have suffered a drastic loss of no less than two thirds of its population throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. But the expulsion of the Turks led also to the rise of nationalism in the Balkans, the consequences of which were sometimes grave and are still strongly felt today.
The modern history of the Balkans is complex and continually violent, with the First World War seeing internal dissections and wars, and the Second World War seeing the unity of all Balkan states behind the Axis allies (Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria) against Greece and Yugoslavia who eventually succumbed to the Axis forces. By the end of the war, Germany left Romania and Bulgaria to the Russians, and the rest of the Balkans to poverty and starvation, and at least 1 million dead. The Soviet Union took control of most of the Balkans afterwards until the Soviet collapse, following which the age long identity mosaic of the Balkans begun to erupt as a serious problem, and up till the present. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, rise of Serbian nationalism, rapid formation of new national identities, and many other countless factors, caused a great flux and confusion of ethnic migration and confrontation. Great violence occurred everywhere in the Balkans, with few exceptions, and only in recent years did the region begin to come to some calm, yet laden with continued disagreement and discontent caused by the conceptions of national and group existence and identity.
This brief narrative was important in order to provide a background of the bigger picture, in which the subject of this paper, the Balkan Egyptians and other Gypsy communities, were involved for so long a time, and may have stood witness to all its details, yet mostly unnoticed, not cared for, as if like passing-by pilgrims!
Balkan Egyptians live in a number of Balkan states, mainly in Kosovo, Albania, and the Republic of Macedonia, but are also found in smaller numbers in other Balkan states. In each of these countries pronunciation of their “Egyptian” name differs: in Albania they are “Gjyp, Egjyp, Magjyp, Evgjit, and Jevg”, in Macedonia “Gjupci, Egjupci, Jupci, Ejupci, and Ojupci”; in Bulgaria they are “Agupti”; In Turkish “Kepti or Kiptijani, and Misirli”; they are also sometimes known as “Faraon, Firaon, and Farvan” (Zemon 2003:8). Their mother tongue is mostly Albanian and rarely Macedonian (Marushiakova and Popov, 2001:471), and their professed religion is Islam, which was adopted during the Ottoman rule of the Balkans (Zemon 2003:8). In the grand societies of each of these states, they are generally considered to be migrant Gypsies (or Roma), and the common names which these societies assign to them often carry a derogatory designation (such as “Magjup” in Kosovo and Albania). Their social and economic conditions are characteristic of many other marginalized and disrespected downtrodden minorities around the world, especially the Gypsy minorities. Muhamet Arifi, a prominent leader of the Egyptian community in the Balkans, gives report of their current conditions, along with another minority group called “Ashkali”:
“The Ashkali and Egyptian communities are still facing with education, employment, health, property documents, civil registration and many other problems. Because of low education the unemployment percentage is still around 98%. There is no policy made from the government of Kosova or international community for finding long term solution for employment for the Ashkali and Egyptian communities.” (Arifi 2009:3).
The situation is so bad to the extent that many Balkan Egyptians attempt, and usually succeed, in migrating illegally to western countries in search for better conditions of life (Plaks 2008). But “the biggest problem”, to quote Arifi, is that when they are being forced to return, they return to live in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps:
“There are still IDP camps in Kosovo. The Kosovo Government is working and trying to close the IDP camps but that is difficult because more and more people are returning by force from Western Europe. Those people do not have where to live so the only solution is to go and live in existing camps. Ashkali and Egyptian forced returnees are having problems to get personal documents, their children can’t go to the school because they don’t speak Albanian, they are facing with many health and economical problems etc. No one is assisting those forced returnees. The Kosovo Government is telling them to go to UNHCR, and vice versa.” (Arifi 2009:3).
Another report mentions the following:
“Minorities do not feel adequately protected by the authorities in Kosovo […] Organized systematic ethnic cleansing took place in 1999 and 2004, but at all times ongoing insecurity has been chronic. What is critical is not only the actual insecurity but also the perception of minorities as to whether they can be adequately protected.” (Baldwin 2006:16).
These reports are sufficient to give us a full picture of the life of the Balkan Egyptians, and would enable us to imagine for ourselves if we wished, all the other unmentioned details of poverty and backwardness, of everyday life, and the social and economic marginalization and discrimination in which they live.
It is important to keep in mind that Balkan Egyptians are not alone in this condition, and that other minority groups, such as the Roma and Ashkali, all of whom are considered “Gypsies”, en masse, also suffer by the same degree or sometimes even more (Zemon 2005:25).
Balkan Egyptians have to wage war yet in another troublesome domain other than economic strife; that of the assertion and defense of their very group identity: they have to continually prove, that they are not Gypsies, not Romani, not Albanian, and not without origin; and that they are all the sons and daughters of Isis, who proudly carry within themselves the spirit, if not the blood, of the Egyptians who at the very beginning of the story of nations, brought the light of civilization unto the world, when it was still imperceptibly plunged into the darkness of primitiveness!
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2. Transformation of Gypsy ethnogenesis
§ The Gypsy as an “Egyptian”
Conclusions regarding the first appearance of wandering Gypsy communities and lifestyle remain speculative: there may have been some scanty reports of Gypsy-like musicians and entertainers in Persia as early as the 5th century CE (Goeje and Sampson 1907:181-83), but such very early date may possibly be the result of mere folktales or fables which sought to provide an imaginative origin of the much later appearance of Gypsy communities. However no connection is established between those possible early Gypsies of Persia, and those who will first appear in Europe only by early 14th century, when we begin to find reliable historical documents describing their itinerant or vagrant lifestyle and domains of socioeconomic activities, particularly as blacksmiths, musicians and entertainment performers, fortune-tellers, and sometimes also as mercenaries.
The origin of Gypsies remained a subject of speculation and investigation ever since they arrived in Europe apparently through Constantinople; they were certainly migrants, who had their own unique physical characteristics, language, and social norms. For a long time it was believed by those who interacted with them in everyday life, and by those who wrote entries in their diaries or even dedicated research-essays and studies about them, that they have come from “Egypt”! This is the origin of the word “Gypsy”; it is a phonetic alteration of the word “Egyptian” in one of its European, Latin, or Greek forms. Why and how they came to be recognized as Egyptian is not really known either; the most commonly accepted theory among contemporary researchers is that they may have feigned an Egyptian identity as this would somehow contribute to a better social standing and repute of theirs. Another speculation states that the Egyptian origin was imposed on the Gypsies by the local inhabitants, or even by intellectual writers (such as the 18th century Swiss writer Antoine Court de Gébelin), via reference to biblical narratives, in which Egyptians were condemned to be “scattered and dispersed among the nations and through the countries”, as in the proclamations of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
The matter of the origin of this identification of Gypsy communities as “Egyptian” will be discussed in detail later; but whatever the speculations may have been and continue to be, the belief that Gypsies came from Egypt was so widespread to the extent that most of these manifold itinerant groups, which multiplied and grew rapidly across Europe beginning from the 14th century, were systematically referred to as “Egyptians”, even in Shakespearean literature:
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people: she told her, while she kept it,
‘Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies.” (Othello, the Moor of Venice, 1603).
There are however countless non-fictional historical documents in various European languages which demonstrate this connection between Gypsy communities across most of Europe, and Egyptian “self-identification” in various contexts. In England alone, where a wealth of legal historical documents exists since post-medieval times, we find for example the well-known “Poor Law Act” (39 Elizabeth, cap. iv.), which was passed in 1596, containing in the second section the following clause concerning persons who were to be deemed “rogues and vagabonds”:
“… all tynkers wandering abroade … and all such p’sons, not being Fellons, wandering and p’tending themselves to be Egipcyans or wandering in the Habite, Forme, or Attyre of counterfayte Egipcians.”
And in an earlier date, On December 5, 1545, we find a bill (37 Henry viii.) titled “pro animadversione in Egyptios”, which was concerned with the punishment and expulsion of Gypsies; after being introduced into the House of Lords, it was later sent to the House of Commons under the title “pro expulsione et supplicio Egyptorum” (Journal of the Home of Lords, vol. i. pp. 273a, 272b, 273b, 274a).
A fuller description of the Gypsies in British legal documents is to be found in a famous 1530 Act of Parliament (22 Henry vm. Cap. 10. aka “the Egyptian Act”) which states:
“Afore this tyme dyverse and many outlandysshe [outlandish] People callynge themselfes Egyptians, nsyng no Crafte nor fifticte of Merchaundyce had comen into this Realme and gone from Shire to Shire and Place to Place in greate Company, and used greate subtyll and crafty meanes to deceyve the People, beryng them in Hande [persuading them] that they by Paknestre coulde telle Menne and Womens Fortunes and so many tymes by crafte and subtyltie had deceyved the People of tbeyr Money and also had comytted many and haynous Felonyes and Bobberies to the greate Hurte and Deceyte of the People that they had comyn amonge. From hensforth no suche Psone be suffred to come within this the Kynge’s Bealmo.” (Crofton 1888).
A more fascinating story is preserved in Scottish legal documents, which shows that those Gypsies were not just called Egyptians by others and did not just call themselves Egyptian, but that they had actually given Egyptian names to the places in which they resided, and that some of these places in Scotland have preserved their Egyptian names till the present! David MacRitchie, a late 19th century Gypsiologist and regular contributor to the the “Journal of the Gypsy Lore”, discovered two farmlands in two different localities in Scotland (the southern outskirts of Edinburgh, and the parish of Farnell in Forfarshire), both of which bore the name “Egypt”! And although certain recent areas in the first farm contained some “scriptural/biblical names” such as “Hebron Bank, Caanan Lodge, and Caanan Lane”; Egypt was unique in that it was “so known in the title-deeds of the estate on which it stood as far back as a charter of the year 1652”. MacRitchie continues:
“It may be safely affirmed that in the year 1652, when the farm bore the recognised designation of ‘Egypt,’ there was not a single street or villa on the adjoining portion of the Burgh Muir, then probably an ‘open and unenclosed’ common. Indeed we have quite a modern illustration of how the pre-existing name of ‘Egypt’ might suggest a host of similar names in later times, for within the last few years the farm has been cut up into suburban streets and villas, and over the site of the farmhouse itself runs the brand-new ‘Nile Grove.’ […] Of course when a place is designated ‘Egypt’ in a title-deed of 1652 the presumption is that it had been so known for a considerable time before that date. Lawyers do not readily accept a recent name …” (MacRitchie 1888:53).
Today, the name “Egypt” has vanished from the southern outskirts of Edinburgh; and perhaps because there is no farmland there anymore, and that the place has become an urban center. Yet, the river-stream that used to run through this region, which the Gypsies may have given the name of “Nile Grove” several centuries ago, has become now a “street” of the same name, “Nile Grove street”! However, in the other region that MacRitchie mentions, which is still cultivated as a farmland to this day, the name of the entire district, “Forfarshire”, has changed now to “Angus” district, yet, the farm named “Egypt” still exists there, with its same old name, to this day!
Definite signs of psycho-social attachment to Egypt by many Gypsy communities have been reported in various writings: 17th century Turkish traveller “Evliya Çelebi” wrote in 1668 that “… when the Gypsies take an oath among themselves they swear ‘by Egypt and by our Gümülcine.’” (quoted by Dankoff 1991:155). Gümülcine was the Turkish name of “Komotini”, a Greek city in eastern Macedonia and Thrace; this means that starting from the time of the first records we find of the presence of Gypsy communities in this region in the 14th century (when it is thought that they have claimed an Egyptian ethnicity) and till mid 17th century when the city was under Ottoman rule, the attachment to Egypt by those Gypsies that Çelebi had encountered was at least equal to their attachment to Gümülcine, the city in which they were actually living!
With regard to places names, we find so many references starting from the 14th century, in legal documents, in laws and decrees, in contracts of transactions and donations of slaves, in travellers’ diaries and in literature, to a place called “Little Egypt”, which was identified as the geographic source from which came the flow of Gypsy communities into Europe. It is not clear whether it really existed or where it was, though many references affirm its location in Greece (Modon, the Peloponnese, or Messenia) or in Turkey (Nikomedia or Izmit).
Other signs of attachment to Egypt are recorded in various Gypsy folktales, whether symbolically or directly; reference to Egyptian things, the Nile, the Pharaoh, the Sun-king, and even to agricultural life (even though Gypsies were mostly nomadic). As we have seen above, sometimes Gypsy communities were known by names that were directly connected to the word “Pharaoh”:
“In a Slavonic record of the year 1698 [Gypsies] were termed gens Pharaica, and in Hungary they were also formerly called Pharao nepek (Pharaoh’s people), or Pharao nemzetseg (Pharaoh’s race).” (Pischel 1908:298-9).
And from more recent times, I select the following excerpts from the remarkable and expressive songs of Fabian De Castro (1868 – 1948), a renowned Spanish musician and painter, known as “El Gyptano” (see John 1911:135-9):
“The following handful of songs from the voluminous traditional repertoire of El Gyptano, though of small linguistic or ethnological value, and divorced as they are from the magical accompaniment of the guitar, illustrate at least the profoundly rooted belief of the Calés in their Egyptian origin, and the spirit of solidarity which animates their race. As for Fabian, his conviction of his noble descent from the Pharaohs is unalterable.”
By these mountains and valleys,
Descend the poor Gypsies,
In search of Pharaoh.
Give me to drink, little cousin!
I am from Egypt.
I come from Pharaoh,
Like all Gypsies.
Open the door to me, cousin, For I too am from Egypt, For I come from Pharaoh, Like all true Gypsies. Every one who is a Gypsy Denies not his descent : I seek not quality, But a friendly welcome. As Pharaoh says: Join your hands, Because in our race We are all brothers.
This is but a tiny selection from countless other similar sources all across Europe, including Nordic countries, which I wished to present here to demonstrate both the extent of visibility of Gypsy presence in European societies, and the extent of how the appellation “Egyptian” applied to them through out that history.
§ The Gypsy as an “Indian”
Beginning from the 19th century, with the study of Indian languages by European philologists, some such philologists began to notice a solid and systematic similarity between those Indian languages and the language spoken by the wandering Gypsies in their European streets! Those similarities were so strong on the phonological and syntactical levels to the extent that attributing both of them to the same source was inevitable. Soon it followed that, since those Gypsies spoke an Indian language, their original homeland must have been India, where their very first migration must have started from.
By then there were already many European “Gypsiologists”, whose published works on the subject constitute itself the subject of the early history of ethnography. The Indian linguistic revelation brought about an explosion of fresh speculations regarding other historical and social matters concerning Gypsy communities, which with the immutable power of demonstrative science now plainly contradicted and even ridiculed earlier established speculations as mere “mythologies”, and the revolution against the Egyptian genesis of the Gypsies was declared ultimately triumphant in the second half of the 20th century, when now even genetic research gave substantial indications of another solid connection between present-day Indians and at least a considerable number of present-day Gypsies in Europe.
In the Indic language spoken by Gypsies, the word Rom means “a man” or “husband”; from this word comes the appellations “Romani”, which finally came to replace “Gypsy” and now stands for both the language and ethnic identity of the previously-called Gypsies. Thus, today itinerant and vagrant communities in Europe are called “Romani” (or also Roma) and so is the name of the language they speak. The appellation “Gypsy” persists in common usage and is sometimes now considered to be politically-incorrect, especially due to it being laden with derogatory connotations.
The Romani people in recent decades have established numerous local and international organizations to advance their socioeconomic conditions in the various western societies they inhabit. The Romani identity became internationally recognized and reinforced especially following the official recognition of their Indian origins by the Republic of India (Toninato 2009:7-8).
Today, among almost all ethnologists and researchers concerned with itinerant and Gypsy communities, the idea of the Egyptian origin is considered to be as much mythical and unfounded as the idea of a god-created, rather than biologically evolved organic species! Nevertheless, as much as the linguistic demonstrability of the Indian origin has persuaded most of the Gypsies to identify with the Romani identity and reject the idea of an Egyptian origin, in the process of conceptual migration to the new established Romani identity, several other Gypsy communities finally appeared, perhaps for the first time, and showed that they have never forgotten and were never confused about their true historical and ethnic origins, and that no linguistic or genetic news would be enough to persuade them to abandon their true identity to which they tightly attach their social and historical collective self.
Indeed many of these groups were distinct from the Roma in that they did not speak the Romani language in the first place, but rather adopted the national languages of the societies in which they lived:
“A questionnaire commissioned by the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior and administered among Gypsies in 1893, showed that only one third of all those questioned used Romani as their mother tongue.” (Willems 2014:6).
Further, the genetic evidence has been so far only indicative, but not conclusive, nor in any way generalizable or applicable to all Gypsy communities without exceptions:
“Post-war genetic research has been preoccupied with the Indian origins of the Roma, pursuing the ‘Indian connection’ even in studies meant to focus on severe genetic disorders. Most studies have remained in the realm of scientific exploration, away from the health needs of the Roma. Many publications display judgemental and paternalistic attitudes, that would be considered unacceptable if used with regard to other populations. […] Single locus comparisons have resulted in controversy, with some pointing to close genetic affinity between Roma and Indians, and others indicating that the Roma are indistinguishable from Europeans.” (Kalaydjieva et al 2001:3).
The destruction of the Egyptian genesis makes no difference, since, of all itinerant communities who do not identify with the Indian genesis, there is but one, that continues to adhere to an Egyptian origin, namely the Balkan Egyptians. Other groups adhere with equal emphasis to other ethnogenesis narratives, where the original homeland is identified sometimes as Iran, sometimes Turkey, Sometimes Arabia, and so on.
I turn now to discuss how ethnologists and sociologists have so far responded to these stubborn Gypsy communities which insist to remain outside the comfortably generic Roma category, by examining the particularly bewildering, and revealing, case of the Balkan Egyptians!
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3. Balkan Egyptian narrative vs. ethnological research
Among the Balkan Egyptian people and their leaders, there are several stories, ranging from mythologies and folktales to narratives which show some historical substance, that are being proposed as possible -and sometimes certain- explanations and demonstrations of the Egyptian origin and descent of the Balkan Egyptian people. Rubin Zemon (b. 1970), one of the most leading Balkan Egyptian intellectuals and activists, writes about the availability of ample evidence of the presence of his grandfathers in the Balkans since ancient times:
“According to the newest scientific researches and thesis, the migration of population from Ancient Egypt in Balkan Peninsula is happened during the time of Pharaoh Ramesses the Second (1279-1213 BC) or called by Herodotus ‘Sesostris’, as colonists for exploration of iron and gold mines from Balkans to Egypt. Some scholars, afro-centrist, have the position that migration of population from Egypt to Crete and Balkans (Greece) is happen as a consequence of the expansion of Hyksos in Middle East and Egypt, during the time of Amenemhat III, pharaoh of Middle Kingdom of Egypt in 18th century BC. However, for the present of Egyptian population in Balkans we have a lot of archaeological traces in entire territory of the Balkans. A big number of historical documents are exist as a witness for Egyptians present in Balkans during the Ancient time, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman period.” (Zemon 2006:1).
Zemon also claims that it is possible to “make the reconstruction of the migration waves of Egyptians in Balkans”, and refers to archaeological discoveries of “temples of Isis and other Egyptian gods around the Balkans, but the most famous are the temples of Isis in Lihnidos (Ohrid) and Heraclea (Bitola).” (2003:6). Then he refers to linguistic evidence: “many Balkans and European scientist […] are saying that in Balkans languages exist a lot of elements of Ancient Egyptians language.” (2003:7).
Moving on from the ancient past, there are yet indications of continuity of such Egyptian presence in the Balkans in two significant historical records that Zemon refers to:
“According to some documents from the Vatican archive the Egyptian population is present in the Balkans in year 306 A.D. We may follow the continuation of the present of this community during all the history periods until now. Even, in 1867 in a newspaper ‘Macedonia’ that is published in Istanbul (8 August 1867) we may find one letter that was sent to the editor of that newspaper signed by ‘An Egyptians from Prilep’, with a context for protecting and fighting for the minority and religious rights of his people.” (Zemon 2003:3).
At present, there is what Zemon considers to be both sociological and linguistic evidence of the unique non-Gypsy identity of Balkan Egyptians in comparison to the very identity of Gypsy or Romani communities:
“The Balkans Egyptians are living the stationary life, and they never in the history lived so called ‘wondering’ or ‘nomadic’ life. […] Balkans Egyptians never spoke and don’t speaking the Roma language.” (Zemon 2003:6-7).
Curiously, Zemon hints (2003:8) at the extent by which Balkan Egyptians have remained Egyptian despite of their age-long separation from their homeland, by pointing to several distinctly Coptic and ancient Egyptian cultural practices that, according to Rade Bozovic, a professor of Arabic at Belgrade University, are being practiced by both national Egyptians and Balkan Egyptians to this day! Professor Bozovic has observed that, like national Egyptians, many Balkan Egyptians “regard wheat as a symbol of fertility”, and that though they may have adopted Islam, “they have for centuries annually celebrated the day of St. Athanasius, a Christian patriarch from Alexandria”. Further, Balkan Egyptians may apparently have preserved some ancient Egyptian practices of burial that even national Egyptians have certainly abandoned, in that they “decorate their graves with pyramid-shaped gravestones”, which have characterized their graveyards to such an extent that we find in topographical maps made by the Yugoslav army an area high on a mountain above Ohrid marked as “Egyptian graveyard”. (Sudetic 1990).
There are many more manifestations of attachment particularly to the ancient Egyptian identity, which we find evidently in some Balkan Egyptian folktales, and which reflects itself in the manner Balkan Egyptians name their cultural organizations:
“A number of Egyptian cultural associations were established, among these were ‘Pyramid’ in Ohrid, ‘Cleopatra’ in Struga, ‘Bela kula’ (White Tower) in Kitchevo, and a children’s folklore group, ‘Little Egyptian’ in Ohrid. […] a Cultural association of the Egyptians in Albania ‘Nefreta’ (i.e. Nefertiti), registered on March 22, 1993, […] In 1999 was formed and the Association ‘Drita’, which is publishing a newspaper ‘Papirus’.” (Zemon 2003:4-5).
Balkan Egyptians exhibit generally a sense of pride in their original history, including their now-forgotten original Egyptian language:
“… the Ohrid Egyptians (who are predominantly Albanophone) do not consider Albanian their mother tongue but merely as what they call their kucni jezik (home language).” (Duijzings 2000:136) .
The above is a brief presentation of the Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis narrative and the various manifestations of their socio-cultural attachment to the Egyptian identity, as these are conceived and told by Balkan Egyptians themselves. The distinct character and identity of Balkan Egyptians in modern times, comparing to other “typical” Gypsy communities (i.e. Romani), have been observed and mentioned frequently in various kinds of writings; the most visible such distinct characteristics being the tendency, capacity, and desire to blend in the host society and adopt its norms and language, and to remain sedentary rather than pursue a wandering lifestyle. These features of Balkan Egyptian lifestyle make a sharp distinction between them and the Romani people, who in turn recognize these differences and react with contemptuous rejection to the Balkan Egyptian group (Zemon et al. 2011:73,134. Koinova 2000:13).
However non of these present-day distinctions of group identity and social/linguistic actual practices suffice to establish as fact the truth of the Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis from a sociological, ethnological, and particularly a historical point of view. It becomes the task to researchers to inspect and review every element of such ethnogenesis narrative, and the first obstacle we find is that, for example, Zemon does not make proof of most of his historical claims, nor produces the aforementioned reconstruction of Egyptian migration waves into the Balkans, nor points to historical documents, records, or resources which support the probable authenticity of most of the data he presents (except for Herodotus’ quotes, the Vatican documents, and the 1867 Balkan Egyptian contribution to the newspaper). This situation leaves vacant the intellectual and rational space that should otherwise function as the primary support to the Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis narrative, thereby rendering that very narrative as implausible or even mythical.
Ethnologists and sociologists in particular seem to respond to such lack or weakness of historical demonstrability by resolving to some psycho-social speculation or another, that becomes the ready-made recipe with which to interpret and explain the phenomenon of group self-identification. This is precisely the condition in the case of Balkan Egyptians, whose identity is considered by most ethnologists to be totally “mythical”, to the extent that today, we find in a poorly written “Historical Dictionary of the Gypsies” the following psycho-social speculative diagnosis:
“It seems likely that the Egyptians emerged from the population of Albanian-speaking Roma who found, after 1990, that there was no advantage in being Albanian in either Kosovo or Macedonia. However, they had little inclination to call themselves Roma, because of the low social status of this group.” (Kenrick 2007:73).
Such perspective does not merely demonstrate the ignorance of the researcher regarding the proven existence of the Balkan Egyptian identity for a whole century, and possibly more, before 1990(!), but more importantly it demonstrates how once a psycho-social interpretation becomes applicable to the self-identification of a certain social group, it subsequently transforms into an interpretive pattern that can be imposed over other social groups whose self-identification is yet unaccounted for in the historical record.
Indeed it is well-known that Gypsy communities around the world are quite flexible and imaginative with regard to their self-identification! The argument suggests that this happens in a manner that is either identical with or akin to the narration of folktales, where the elderly and talented storytellers of a given community respond to social transformation and the opportunities or disadvantages that arise with it by making mythical stories of alternative origins and affiliations with a different identity that will make their presence in the host society more acceptable or less undesirable, or will distinguish the group in a positive sense from other similar migrant or itinerant groups. Such spontaneous story-telling of new origins and affiliations possibly happen on self-unconscious and genuine levels, thereby succeeding in accomplishing the process of rapid make-belief to establish a new origin and identity of the entire group, the members of which apparently do not seem to be disturbed by, or at all conscious of the discrepancy and inauthenticity of departing from one origin/identity to adopt another, even if this will happen more than once in the lifetime of one generation! Marushiakova and Popov list various examples and patterns of such “mythical” identity transformation in the Balkans, one example of which is to be found in how Gypsies in Bulgaria have often claimed to be of Turkish origin (Marushiakova & Popov 2001:469).
However, it seems to me that the systematic and categorical rejection of the possibility of authenticity and truth in all historical storylines of Gypsy communities which continue to hold on to non-Indian origins, reflect the same paternalistic and judgemental attitudes quoted above with regard to genetic research, and that would equally be considered totally unacceptable and improper if they corresponded to populations and nations with sovereign power and which take pride in their historical self-identification.
And indeed, once these ethnological conclusions are being mentioned in relation to the development of the Balkan Egyptian identity, certain inconsistencies arise: The transformation of group self-consciousness and self-identification that is characteristic of Gypsy communities would be contextually puzzling in the case of Balkan Egyptians, whose group-identity seems to be unexplainable by and contradictory with many of these rigid and standard ethnological explanations. To elaborate on the matter: in Bulgaria, a true Turkish minority had already existed before the Gypsies there begun identifying themselves arbitrarily as Turks to gain access to social benefits. Thus, even if it is true that a community of common Romani Gypsies in the Balkans may have arbitrarily identified itself as Egyptian, wouldn’t this identification in itself suggest that a true community of Egyptian minority had already existed there once before? And if the Balkan Egyptians were in truth just Roma, why would they aspire to transform their Romani identity into a particularly “Egyptian” one, especially when this is not going to lead to more recognition or acceptance, or less undesirability by the surrounding communities, but on the contrary, will incur upon them more trouble as they become now required to fend for their identity and battle to prove its authenticity against the paternalistic, mocking and dismissive storms of not only other Roma groups (Milchevski 2011:73. Vangeli 2011:134), but also the “scientific” research, along with the grand societies and the troubled governments which employ such ethnographic research to ensure the continued marginalization of these migrant communities?
Unlike historians, ethnologists and sociologists respond to the lack of historical evidence and demonstrability regarding the genesis of a social group either by promoting (sometimes apparently self-unconsciously!) their own equally non-evidential and non-demonstrable historical speculations, or by ignoring the historical dimension of analysis and investigation altogether! Thus, in order for their abstract analyses of the various, distinct, and obscure Gypsy communities to bear generalizable fruit, they seem willing not only to ignore, but also to bend every unanswered question and unsolved puzzle to fit with a conclusive generalization that, however much befitting to some circumstances it may be, it remains ineffective in other circumstances.
In this way, ethnological research of Gypsy communities in the Balkans, particularly that done by Marushiakova and Popov, seem to start from a ready conviction of the impossibility or extreme remoteness of the probability of a true historical Egyptian, Turkish, Iranian, Arabic, or other origins of the Gypsy community, yet the manner by which they describe how these self-identifications have arisen is full of inconsistencies and speculation: At one point they speak of the folkloric nature of consciousness as it manifests itself in the process of self-identification, but then they speak of the Roma’s self-conscious awareness of their Indian origins. Then again they speak of the re-expression and translation of this awareness into folktale, and then again they speak of the self-unconscious collective desire of one group to distinguish itself from the Indian identity by claiming an Egyptian or other origin (Marushiakova & Popov 2001:467-70) – hence, the psycho-social interpretive pattern does not prove any more evidential or demonstrative in any way other than through utter speculation.
Nevertheless, the tendency among Gypsy communities to arbitrarily adopt a social identity of their choosing does not seem so entirely befitting in the case of Balkan Egyptians, and the lack of historical evidence or demonstrability of their proclaimed origins should only direct our attention and curiosity to history, rather than to ignore it.
Based on that neutral attention and curiosity, we will for a while stop presuming that the Balkan Egyptians have acquired the idea of being Egyptian from the age-long association between the Gypsy identity and the Egyptian origin that was either imagined by them or imposed over them by others. For now, we will carefully and dispassionately ask ourselves, where did the idea of “Egypt” come to the Balkan Egyptians from? And if theirs were only folkloric or mythical claims as research suggests, why was it Egypt in particular and not any other land, that the Balkan Egyptian community decided to build its story around?
* * *
4. Historical indications
I wish to take Zemon’s historical references, which he utilizes as the historical foundation of the Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis, as a basis for investigating the historical dimension of such ethnogenesis in this paper. Zemon makes the following distinct references (Zemon 2003):
1. Verified reference from the Vatican Archives of a document describing the (unexplained) arrival of a military force of Egyptian infantry and cavalry into the Balkans in 306 CE. (p. 3).
2. Verified reference to the appearance in a 1867 newspaper called “Macedonia” of a correspondence undersigned by “An Egyptians from Prilep” “with a context for protecting and fighting for the minority and religious rights of his people” (p. 3) [this reference is very important in that it establishes the existence of a belief in a Balkan Egyptian identity and ethnogenesis since at least 1867].
3. Reference to the following quotes from Herodotus’ Histories:
a) “… [King Sesostris] traversed the continent, until at last he passed over to Europe from Asia and subdued the Scythians and also the Thracians. These, I am of opinion, were the furthest people to which the Egyptian army came, for in their country the pillars are found to have been set up, but in the land beyond this they are no longer found. From this point he turned and began to go back;and when he came to the river Phasis, what happened then I cannot say for certain, whether the king Sesostris himself divided off a certain portion of his army and left the men there as settlers in the land, or whether some of his soldiers were wearied by his distant marches and remained…” (Book 2, 102-3).
b) “… but if one enumerates their ancestors in succession going back from Danae the daughter of Acrisios, the rulers of the Dorians will prove to be Egyptians by direct descent.” [Book 6, 53]
c) “… the ancestors of Acrisios, who (according to this account) belonged
not to Perseus in any way by kinship, they say that these were, as the Hellenes report, Egyptians. How it came to pass that Egyptians obtained the kingdoms
of the Dorians, and what they did to raise themselves to such a position, these are questions concerning which, as they have been treated by others, I shall say nothing. I proceed to speak of points on which no other writer has touched …” (Book 6, 53-5)
4. “There are preserved a lot of temples of Isis and other Egyptians gods around the Balkans, but the most famous are the temples of Isis in Lihnidos (Ohrid) and Heraclea (Bitola).” (p. 6)
Searching after every piece of information Zemon mentions about such ancient Egyptian presence in the Balkans, I found only reference to a Pentelic marble torso of Isis dating back to 2nd century BC, that was unearthed during construction in Ohrid, Macedonian, now exhibited in the National Institute and Museum of Ohrid. (Kuzman 2009:192). However, although this hardly indicates the presence of any such “temple” of Isis, Isis in particular would be very problematic in proving a particular Egyptian presence any where in all of Europe, since it is well known that her worship continued across most of Europe even well after the consolidation of Christianity. The ruins of a city (not a temple) bearing the name of Heraclea do exist in Bitola, only, Heracles was a Greek, not Egyptian mythological figure; I found no relationship between this location with Egypt or Egyptians, neither in the time of its foundation (4th century BC) nor later in history.
But before rushing to conclude that Zemon’s statements are pure fables, let us first look at what recent research and excavations in the Black Sea region show.
§ Egyptian artefacts and slaves in the Hellenistic age
“Historians interested in resolving the diplomatic niceties have cited, but not been greatly concerned with, artefacts of Egyptian provenance, whose connection with the wider world of international relations has not seemed particularly convincing. Yet artefacts frequently incorporate more information than the simple witness of goods exchanged. The accumulating symptoms of knowledge about, and interest in, things Egyptian, by various communities in the Black Sea area, suggests that the relationship between the northern and southern ‘poles’ of Hellenistic abstract geography deserve to be examined more systematically. […] Two recent discoveries, both in the Crimean peninsula, have revived scholarly interest in the character of relations between the Black Sea region and the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt during the Hellenistic period. One is the wall painting from Nymphaion, discovered in 1984, which shows a magnificent oared ship clearly inscribed ‘Isis’ on its bow. The other is an altar slab from Chersonesos, inscribed with a dedication by a man named Charmippos, son of Prytanis, to Sarapis, Isis, and Anoubis. The white marble slab, which was reused in a rock-cut water cistern, was found near the sacred area in the far north–eastern part of Chersonesos, during excavations there in 1993. Preliminary studies of the Nymphaion fresco and of the Chersonesean dedication have highlighted the enormous gap that exists between such discrete types of new data, and scholarly perceptions of relations between the rulers of Bosporos and the Ptolemies, indeed between all the communities neighbouring on the Black Sea and Egypt. The dedication from Chersonesos, which Vinogradov and Zolotarev have dated, on prosopographical and palaeographic grounds, to the middle of the 3rd century BC, is the earliest demonstrable evidence of the worship of Egyptian deities in the northern Pontic region. Whether we accept a date as early as c. 250 BC, or prefer a more conservative estimate, early in the 2nd century, the inscribed altar creates a much bolder perspective within which to view other epigraphic documents recording dedications to Ptolemaic Egyptian gods. These include the Istrian inscription that refers to the introduction of the cult of Sarapis in Istros, following advice from the oracle of Apollon at Kalchedon; and a series of four inscriptions recording dedications to Sarapis, Isis, and other gods from Mesembria. But we are still woefully ignorant about the social and cultural, much less political, climate in which these developments took place. The emergence of new patterns of behaviour in one area of the Pontic coast begs a whole raft of questions about other sites in the region, questions that we are simply not in a position to answer, at least not yet.” (Archibald 2007:253-4).
Note that relationships between Egypt and Macedonia continued in the Roman period:
“At the same time, the public monuments of Macedonia took inspiration not only from Rome itself but also from regions throughout the empire. This is particularly well illustrated by the sanctuaries to the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis that are among the best-preserved and most elaborate shrines in many Macedonian cities.56 In their earliest forms, these sanctuaries go back to the third century BC and testify to the popularity of the tutelary divinities of the Ptolemaic monarchy far beyond Egypt. The sanctuaries were however greatly elaborated in the Roman imperial era; at Dium, for example, the cult complex of Isis was completely rebuilt in the late second century AD while that of Thessalonica had an extensive renovation in the third. These sanctuaries, which featured imported Egyptian objects as well as Greek-style cult statues, attest to the continued ties between Macedonia and Egypt during the Roman Empire – this is not surprising given Thessalonica’s position as the largest and most important port in the Aegean and Alexandria’s as the great trading capital of the eastern Mediterranean.” (Kousser 2010:536).
Zofia Archibald and Alexandru Avram, discuss the possible political motivations -as opposed to culture diffusion- behind the presence of Ptolemaic artefacts in the Black Sea region (Archibald 2007:260-61), and Tacheva concludes that no generalization or certainty exist in relation to the “ethnic origin and social status of dedicators”, pointing to the possible “slave status” of some of them (Tacheva 1983:62-3). A most significant perspective appears here; a clear reference to the possibility of an Egyptian migration of some sort or another into the Black Sea region in late antiquity:
“Tacheva-Hitova surmised that the cults of Isis, Sarapis and Anoubis were introduced by ‘persons of Egyptian, Greek, or Anatolian origin’, and that the cults were avoided by natives, particularly in rural areas. Such a conclusion presupposes that interest in these cults, and in things Egyptian, remained confined to small groups of outsiders. […] One inscription from Tomis, dated to 160 AD, refers to the oikos tōn Alexandreōn (the ‘house of the Alexandreiana’) which has been interpreted as an association of Alexandrian merchants. A trading network linking the Black Sea, especially its northern and western shores, with Alexandria via Rhodos is widely accepted on the basis of identified Rhodian amphora stamps. […] But we have yet to explain how and why exotic [Egyptian] objects (Hadra vases, watercolour painted urns, faience beads and ornaments, alabaster and glass vessels), and exotic ideas, such as the cults of Sarapis, Isis and Anoubis, took root in these areas, where discreet, unmediated contacts with Egypt were comparatively rare.” (Archibald 2007:261-2).
In this context, it may be highly relevant to look into the history of Egyptian slavery in Greece, several indications of which exist from as early as 2nd century BCE. For example, a Greek document (SB XX 14659; R.Scholl, Corpus der ptolemäischen Sklaventexte [Stuttgart 1990], 9). dated 7 January 197 BCE. describes the sale of an Egyptian female slave named “Thasion” who had been enslaved as a result of “the revolt in the land”, which refers to a period of revolts and instability in Egypt where Egyptian rebels had arisen against Greek rule:
“In 197 BC Thaubastis daughter of Sokrates declares possession of a young Egyptian slave Thasion, whom she had bought from the fisc on a public auction. […] The legal basis of the enslavement is formed by a royal decree promulgated 198 BC. This shows that the sale was not an isolated case, but the result of a conscious policy against the [Egyptian] rebels: both the rebels themselves and other members of their family were enslaved and sold by the government to the highest bidders.” (Clarysse 2004).
§ Warfare connections
One of Zemon’s verifiable references to “Egyptians” in the Balkans prior to the arrival of Roma in Europe, is what was found in this very curious document of the Vatican Archives dating back to early 4th century CE. which describes a somewhat pompous arrival of Egyptian infantry and cavalry into the Balkans! Where they have come from and why they came? We never know! There has been suggestions that these Egyptians may have been Christians (Copts) fleeing from the Roman persecution at its zenith, by seeking refuge in the Balkans:
“In fact, a population from Egypt had actually reached the Balkan during the fourth century – between 306 and 338, according to a document from the Vatican’s Archives discovered by the British historian Hugh Poulton. They were perhaps Copts (persecutions against Copts reached a peak in 304). It seems that the Evgjits (or Jevgs, or Ashkali – currently a population of around half a million, living mainly in the Western Balkan) could be the descendants of this migration.” (Courthiade 2003:273).
Yet it is not unconceivable that they may have been already in Europe, stationed in one location or another in the dying Greek dominions, which is only few steps away south of the Balkans! For Egyptians have been already here once before, four centuries earlier or perhaps less, during the Ptolemaic rule. Then it is true that the migration flow went from north to south, that is, from Macedonia to Egypt, yet we find several references to what came to be known as the “Machimoi”! The Machimoi is an ancient Greek word meaning “warriors” or “fighting men”. In his “Histories”, Herodotus relates the presence in Egypt of a privileged class of Egyptian men who are completely devoted to warfare and military service, he describes them by the word of “Machimoi”, which eventually became a reference to particularly Egyptian fighting military men.
An important inscription (OGIS 102) which is considered to date to Ptolemy VI’s reign (145 BC) documents the presence of machimoi, among other Greek ethnicities, in Crete, Thera, and Arsinoe in Peloponnese, southern Greece (Fischer-Bovet 2008:103). Apparently, those Egyptian soldiers stationed in the south of Greece were already involving themselves in the propagation of educational and religious services and organization, which may explain the aforementioned distinct presence of Egyptian artefacts and cults:
“It is particularly interesting to find the machimoi constituting a religious unit, evidently distinct from the stratiotai whom we know to have been there at the same time. The distinction between Egyptian and Greek was thus maintained in the religious sphere, even though they served as parts of the same garrison. Ptolemaic soldiers on Thera, then, are revealed to have been active in more areas than their official capacity. They contributed to the maintenance of the gymnasium and helped fill the positions of responsibility in that institution. In this and other ways they played an important role in the social and religious life of the island, reinforcing the crown’s ties to the city.” (Bagnall 1976:130).
Further, we find other documents which indicate quite clearly that some of those Egyptian soldiers may have began to be Hellenized by acquiring Greek names and becoming katoikoi or military settlers:
“[118/117 BCE; 112 BCE.] Egyptians might also have attained official Greek status through military service. Egyptian names are occasionally found in lists of katoikoi (military settlers), but there seems to have been a preference, as we might expect, for adopting Greek names in what was felt to be a Greek context. Ten texts excavated from Tebtunis witness the gradual replacement of the Egyptian nomenclature of a man who first appears in the texts as Maron (itself a Hellenized form of the Egyptian Marres) alias Nektsaphthis, son of Petosiris. Although he first appears in these documents with a double name in 119/118-118 BCE (P.Tebt. I 62. 110, 84. 115), his father only acquired the Greek name Dionysios over time (P.Tebt. I 61. (a) 40, 64. (a) 107). Within a few years the Egyptian names of both men cease to appear altogether in favor of their Greek names (P.Tebt. I 63. 127, 85. 59, 75. 10, 245). Two of the last documents mentioning Maron concern land granted to him for his military service (P.Tebt. I 106 in 101 BCE and P.Tebt. I 105 in 103 BCE); in each he is called a Macedonian. [P.Tebt. I 61 (a) fr. 2 recto; P.Tebt. I 75 fr. 3 recto.]” (O’Connell).
In ancient times the factor of human-resources and size of an army was detrimental in deciding who triumphs and who looses; Egypt, being one of the most populous countries by ancient standards, saw the utilizing of Her Egyptian men in warfare abroad not just by the Greek rulers, but also by the Persians, as evidenced in one of the most famous battles in ancient history, the Battle of Cunaxa, 401 BCE. In this battle we find reference to “Egyptian infantry” in quite big numbers, fighting for king Artaxerxes II of Persia on the banks of the Euphrates near present-day Baghdad, Iraq. This shows that people carrying both the Egyptian ethnicity and culture were actually present, particularly as conscripted soldiers, at various locations outside their homeland through out their ancient history – (It is noteworthy that Jews and Ethiopians were imported to serve in the Ptolemaic army as well).
We do not know what happened eventually to those Machimoi in southern Greece, and the four centuries which separate them from the other Egyptian soldiers mentioned in the Vatican document, are long and eventful enough to ridicule any attempt of serious historical speculation! But in general it keeps appearing to us that the two most visible possibilities of relationship between Egyptians and Europe in general and Macedonia (including the Balkans) in particular prior to the arrival of Indian Roma, are in the domains of warfare, and metal work. It is well-known that these two domains or “occupations” _contrasting with the two other occupations, public performances and fortune-telling_ have been the most common among most Gypsy communities since their first arrival in Europe, and this remains to be the case to this day (naturally excluding warfare!). This has been the case to the extent that it has been suggested that the involvement of Gypsies in warfare in different times and countries (such as in the conscription of thousands of them in different European armies from the 15th to the 17th centuries and perhaps to later dates also) was the reason behind their enjoying a degree or another of power or protection in these countries, in that “it becomes evident that they constituted a real danger to these countries, and that no edicts issued for their expulsion or suppression could be too strongly worded or enforced.” (MacRitche 1891a:228) And indeed, we find many instances in which Gypsy troops were either the cause behind turbulences with official authorities, or were captured during battle and sent elsewhere in Europe (such as Wallachia) to be sold as slaves. However it also appears that the different kings and their armies were more in need for them than afraid of them, as the following quote from Grellmann’s famous Dissertation shows:
“This occupation [metal work] seems to have been a favourite with them from the most distant periods, as appears not only by Bellonius’s account, but by an older record, of an Hungarian king Uladislaus, in the year 1496, mentioned by the Abbe Pray, in his Annals, and Friedwaldsky, in his Mineralogy, wherein it is ordered, that every officer and subject of whatever rank or condition do allow to Thomas Polgary leader of twenty-five. tents of wandering Gipseys free residence every-where, and on no account to molest either him or his people ; because they had prepared musket bullets, and other military stores for the Bishop Sigismund, at Fünfkcirchen. Another instance occurred in the year 1565, when Mustapha, Turkish regent of Bosnia, besieged Crupa; the Turks having expended their powder and cannon balls, Gipseys were employed to make the latter, part of iron, the rest of stone ceased with lead.” (Grellmann 1807:38-9).
The involvement of Gypsies in warfare is a very significant aspect that requires much attention with regard to investigating the question of origin; for the positive remarks with which they are often described in the context of warfare contrast sharply with other contemporaneous accounts of them as being either miserable and lowly thieves and vagabonds, or skilled performers and fortune-tellers; suggesting certainly several modes of Gypsy lifestyles but also possibly several ethnicities of Gypsy communities:
“I always considered our [Scottish] Tinklers the very reverse of cowards. Heron, in his journey through part of Scotland before the year 1793, when speaking of the Gypsies in general, says: ‘They make excellent soldiers whenever the habit of military discipline can be sufficiently impressed upon them.'” (Simson 1866).
§ Craftsmanship connections
“The [Egyptian] products themselves, the glass vessels, the distinctive blue faience ornaments, and the pungent spices, created the reasons for wanting to know more about the distant regions with which they were connected. For some, the knowledge sought was of a technical kind, directly associated with the manufacture of glass and faience artefacts. For others Egyptian wisdom had wider ramifications, since knowledge about cult and knowledge about technical secrets were indissolubly interconnected. What we would still like to know is where and how the ‘mentoring’ process took place, through which the knowledge and techniques were passed on. We know little about the articulation of these networks in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, when the manufactured products were technologically restricted. But thereafter the picture began to change, so that by the second half the 4th century the finest products were extremely ambitious, and the number of manufacturing centres is now known to have included Macedonian workshops, as well as active Bosporan ones, particularly in and around Pantikapaion. Published evidence from the 3rd and 2nd centuries suggests that specialisation continued to develop at key regional centres, including Olbia and Pantikapaion. Glassmaking has traditionally been a technique with closely guarded secrets, passed on within family networks.” (Archibald 2007:267).
Archibald suggests that such diffusion of Egyptian “closely guarded secrets” and knowledge of glassmaking, as far away as Panticapaeum (present-day Ukraine), points to the possible migration of those families who possessed such secret knowledge, especially given that a certain relation was found between these newly emerging centers of glassmaking and the propagation of the cults of Sarapis and Isis:
“It is likely that glassmakers were immigrant specialists and even more likely that they were among the votaries of Sarapis and Isis. The co-incidence of glassmaking and of Egyptian cults is especially striking in the Bosporan Kingdom. The distribution of foreign craftsmen in relation to the pattern of Egyptian cults does seem to offer fruitful possibilities for future research.” (Archibald 2007:267).
But to return to the domain of metal work, it is noteworthy that before the linguistic evidence proving the Indian origin of Gypsies became so solidly established, many European Gypsiologists of the 19th century had actually arrived through research at very curious and interesting possibilities and questions, some of which actually correspond positively with Zemon’s narrative. I quote below the curious work of Henry van Elven, which was probably highly contested at the time of publication, 1891, due to the emergence of linguistic evidence proving a more recent Indian origin rather than an Egyptian or any other ancient origin. Elven establishes the fact that the very beginning of various forms of metal work in western Europe was introduced by Gypsies:
“It may be, and I believe can be shown, that the most ancient types of coins before the Koman connection were struck by Gypsies. In every case the same metal is used, and beside the local emblem (horse, or mistletoe, or head — with or without helmet, — always very badly executed and coarsely struck), one finds on the reverse, or even on the face, ornaments analogous to those on the bronze jewellery of Gypsy origin. […] We can only advance as certain these two facts : the Bohemians or Gypsies, blended with the Celtic population, have very probably been the first to work our earliest iron mines; Gypsy smelters, few in number, were the coiners, chiefly of counterfeit money, among the Germans of our frontiers and frontier provinces.” (Elven 1891:235-6).
Elven then points to the ancient history of the story of metal work in Europe, and not only that, but also its possible connection with Egypt:
“Prior to the Middle Ages, in the dawn of history, and also during the little-known period of the settlement of Celts, Gauls, and other Eastern peoples in the West of Europe, the Gypsies have played a very important role in the introduction of bronze-working into the West. Our archaeological collections and our protohistoric data warrant us in saying that the Celts and Gauls were preceded by brown races, of medium stature, knowing how to make and work in bronze, who, concurrently with the Phoenicians and the Pelasgiaus or Etruscans, brought into Europe the art of working in bronze. On the other hand, it is proved by our numerous archaeological deposits of the bronze age, which are unreservedly attributed to nomadic, prehistoric founders, that the Celts, Gauls, and other peoples coming in from the East were accompanied in their movements by nomadic founders, coming like themselves from the East. These nomadic smiths are the Gypsies, and their appearance in Europe dates, not from the fifteenth century, but from about the year 2000 B.C. These beliefs rest upon the following data: The objects discovered in our archaeological deposits of the bronze age are all those of a small-handed race, or resemble the ornaments of Buddhist idols. Their technique, then, is of Hindu origin.” (Elven 1891:141). But then immediately afterwards he adds the following footnote: “It is probable, if not proved by the labours of Faidherbe on the subject of the introduction into Europe of working in iron, that that art reached us from Africa and Egypt. Does this not coincide with new immigrations of Gypsies?” (Elven 1891:141).
It is in such text that, I believe, we can see the very beginning of the tendency to submit to the dominance of the certain linguistic evidence of Indian origin, on account of probable historical evidence of an earlier and older origins. As we can clearly see, Van Elven struggles to assemble together two contradictory and irreconcilable data: the first is that which he calls “prehistoric Gypsies” and “brown race”, whose presence in Europe is decidedly ancient, and whom he himself speculates regarding their probable Egyptian origin in a footnote, and whose presence in Europe is closely related to work in Bronze; the second is that it has been proven through linguistic evidence that Gypsies in present-day Europe are of Indian origin. Not knowing that the Buddha was not born before the 6th century BCE. Elven seeks to solve the riddle by ascribing to the ancient bronze objects a “Buddhist ornamentation” and attributes their manufacturing to a “Hindu origin”.
Despite of it being scarcely sourced, and though he often refers to “our documents and old traditions” as the sources without specifying them; Elven’s work stands out in its emphasis on the early presence of Gypsies in Europe since pre-Roman times, although there were similar opinions and observations by other 19th century Gypsiologists, such as Mr. J. Dirks who, in a 1848 book titled Heidens of Egyptiers (p. 15) disagrees with the opinion that there were no Gypsies in the Netherlands before the 15th century, stating the following:
“We believe that one can with good reason plead against this, that the tales referred to date from a much earlier period than the fifteenth century, and that they [Gypsies] descend from Pagan times.” (quoted by MacRitchie 1891b:255).
Despite of being obviously cautious and non-conclusive, David MacRitchie, another important 19th century Gypsiologist, generally seems to have been inclined toward the opinion that there was enough evidence to suggest a discrepancy between the recent dates associated with the Indian migration, and much earlier and older archaeological remains and historical records which indicate the earlier presence of a Gypsy-like lifestyle in Europe, particularly that which was associated with the domain of metal work. In support of Elven’s assessments, he quotes a “Report on the Researches of Dr. Edouard Dupont in the Belgian Bone-Caves on the banks of the River Lesse,” in which the author, Mr. C. Carter Blake, wonders about the remains of the people who lived in these caves in the Gallo-Roman period, saying “might they not have been the Gypsies, or Bohemians, when they made their first appearance in our country?” (MacRitchie 1891b:254).
The fact that blacksmith has been one of the most common occupations among almost all known Gypsy communities to this day, has been often used by researchers as proof of their common origin or ethnicity, and their general homogeneity. Yet there is nothing in the historical records which links that particular job, blacksmith, with a narrative of an Indian origin. On that topic there is in historical records much that reinforces the narrative of Balkan Egyptians rather than challenge it. Something would be obviously missing in the all-inclusive Indian-origin narrative, and researchers supporting it would be in need to find out how and why did the Indian Roma in their multitude come to adopt that particular job, and how to solve the riddle of its ancient presence in Europe by a Gypsy-like “brown race”, in a manner that avoids the blunt contradictions and fallacies present in Van Elven’s explanations which imaginatively link it to a Buddhist and Hindu origins.
§ Summary and some conclusions
We have seen that Egyptian Machimoi soldiers were present in southern Greece around 145 BC, along with many Egyptian monuments and artefacts indicating the worship of Sarapis, Isis and Anoubis, apparently not by the native people but by “a small group of outsiders”. Proof of Egyptian slaves, punished for their involvement in the great Egyptian revolt against Greek rule, by being sold in Greece around 197 BC. Various kinds of metal work, especially with bronze, and glassmaking, reflecting the dissemination of Egyptian high craftsmanship in various parts of Europe, as far as Panticapaeum (present-day Ukraine). Reference to a 160 CE. “house of the Alexandreiana” indicating presence of Ptolemaic merchants from Alexandria in the Black Sea coastal city of Tomis, southeastern Romania. And finally, the 306 CE. unexplained arrival of Egyptian soldiers right into the Balkans. The worship of Egyptian deities, particularly Sarapis and Isis, among other manifestations of Egyptian cults, including representation of Egyptian deities on coins minted in several ancient European cities, would continue through out the Roman period as well, though now increasingly losing its significance and vitality. (Tacheva 1983:58-62). We find a further reference to the possible factor of Egyptian (or North African) slavery in the Ottoman era, in direct relevance to the Balkans, in Albania:
“In a travel report on Albania , Jonny Behm gives an account of a ‘former nigger quarter’ in the Albanian town of Berat inhabited by a heterogeneous population living in conditions of extreme poverty. According to Behm, the inhabitants of this quarter (who were about to disappear at the time of his travel) were descendants of slaves brought from Egypt during the Ottoman era in the service of a Pasha. Behm, however, does not associate this group with the Gypsies/Roma and, as the context of his report suggests, there is no indication of any relevance of this designation among the few remaining members of this group of supposedly Egyptian origins. Behm’s account of Berat contains similarities with the cases of some Turcophone members of the Muslim minority in Greek Thrace who, due to their self-described ‘dark skin colour,’ believe that their ancestors arrived from Africa during the Ottoman era, perhaps as slaves from present-day Sudan, though they could not state this with any certainty.” (Trubeta 2005:77).
These distinct and specific events and records do not necessarily indicate continuity neither in relation to each other nor in relation to present-day Balkan Egyptians, they do however indicate continuity in the Egyptian presence in Europe through out these periods, such Egyptian presence in itself is a significant factor in the Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis, and it should be noted that the discovery of these above mentioned cases is not even the result of an extensive research on that Egyptian presence, in whatever form and for whatever reason, in or around the Balkans in the Hellenistic age and late antiquity. There may have been much more that this present paper does not cover, and there certainly may have been much more that we do not know anything about and have not yet excavated. This little much of knowledge, however, about that much of Egyptian presence in Greece and the Black Sea region in the Hellenistic age, is sufficient to show that delusion at least does not persist in the Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis, more than ignorance does in the dismissive perspectives of those who describe their narrative as a complete “myth”! I now turn to late antiquity and the middle ages, no longer looking for traces of Egyptian presence, but rather searching for something more important: the predominance of tribal nomadism, and ethnic diffusion and dispersion, as a possible source and precursor of the subsequent Gypsy lifestyle in Europe, independently from or concomitant with the source of Indian migration.
§ Jewish connections
The relationship between “Gypsiness” and Jews! Another possibility that has been largely ignored by researchers, which, in my opinion, shows the large extent by which present-day researchers have been generally uninformed or dismissive of the possible Gypsy-like lifestyle of ethnicities which no longer exist in the present day, or which still exist but are no longer leading a Gypsy lifestyle, or which still exist and lead a Gypsy lifestyle but have forgotten from which origin they really came and what circumstances had led their great grandfathers to adopt and propagate this kind of life many centuries ago (which very much applies to the Roma themselves, before philology reveals the secret!). In this sense we find that reference to Jews in connection with explaining or describing Gypsiness was much more common in the writings of early Gypsiologists than it is in modern ethnology or sociological research. There is however a starking similarity between persecuted Jews and Christians in the Roman period; and later between persecuted Jews and Gypsies – one can imagine them all Gypsying from place to place with nothing in mind other than to escape persecution, simply, to survive, or being sold as slaves where ever those trading in them existed in Europe. I see a further similarity between Jews and Balkan Egyptians in modern times, for example, in the eventual improvement in their lifestyles whenever they finally reach a more tolerant and safe social environment, in which they blend in with the local population and adopt their language without losing their unique cultural and religious identity. It is very clear that the dichotomy of forgetfulness and attachment born of problematic self-identification have been settling with equal heaviness over the troubled communities of both Jews and Gypsies across their histories! There are many references to Jews with connection to Gypsiness almost throughout recorded human history, but the most fascinating hypothesis has been proposed by “Sándor Avraham” who presents himself as a Rom and who is also obviously Jewish himself. In an undated online essay titled “The True Origin of Roma and Sinti” that “intends to set the principles on which a new, accurate and serious research about the origins of Roma and Sinti should be founded, instead of the insistence in going on with an only-linguistic and misleading trend”, Avraham promotes an all-inclusive Jewish origin of the Roma themselves! Avraham does not deny that a migration had occurred from India to the West, only, he presents a fascinating narrative that has no real historical substance, which demonstrates how the Roma’s was only an Indian sojourn rather than origination; he says: “Roma do not belong to the Indic (and not at all to the Aryan) background, but to a Semitic and more precisely Hebrew origin. […] Roma’s ‘prehistory’ began in Mesopotamia, in the lower Euphrates Valley; their ‘proto-history’, in the lower Nile Valley and Canaan.” Another highly ambitious online essay of Avraham, titled “The Origin and Identity of the Arabs”, shows clearly that, aside from Biblical scripture, the author is lacking the historical knowledge that would be appropriate for the task he sets himself to undertake. Nevertheless the power of analytic, speculative, and intuitive reasoning which the gods have bestowed on him is unmistakable, hence I wish to represent and discuss his narrative of an all-inclusive Jewish ethnogenesis of the Roma, if at least to represent the very challenging observations and criticisms that he utilizes to question the legitimacy of an all-inclusive Indian ethnogenesis. At first Avraham sets out to demonstrate with right reasoning how the Indic language spoken by Roma does not suffice as evidence supporting an Indian ethnogenesis:
“The whole hypothesis regarding their alleged Indo-European ethnicity is founded on a sole thing: the Romany language. Such theory does not take account of other more important cultural facts and evidences that show that Roma have nothing in common with Indian peoples besides some linguistic elements. If we have to take seriously any hypothesis that considers only language to determine a people’s origin, then we must assume that almost all North-Africans came from Arabia, that Ashkenazim Jews are a German tribe, that Sephardic Jews were Spaniards belonging to a religious minority but not a different people, and so on. Black American people do not even know what language their ancestors spoke, consequently they must be English. Definitely, language alone is not a sufficient basis to establish ethnic background, and all the other determinant facts are against the Indian origin of Roma – including also some clues in the Romany language itself. The most relevant elements that persist in any people since the most remote past are of spiritual nature, that are manifested in their inner feelings, typical behaviours, subconscious memory, namely, their atavic heritage.”
Then he shows how the following calculations, used by Donald Kenrick as proof of the Indian origin of Roma, do not really make any such proof:
Kenrick: “The time the Rroms spent in Khorassan (one or more centuries) would also explain the number of Persian stems integrated in the Rromani vocabulary (about 70 – beside 900 Indian stems, and 220 Greek), since Khorassan was a Persian-speaking region.” (2004:109).
Avraham: “The same pattern is valid for their Indian sojourn. As such words do not prove a Persian origin, not even the Indian words prove an Indian origin, but only a long-lasting stay!”
In line with Exodus and the biblical narrative, Avraham relates how Israelite tribes were delivered from slavery in Egypt and, upon return to Canaan, were exiled around 722 BCE. by the Assyrian invaders into the kingdom of Hanigalbat-Mitanni, “a land where a language very close to Romany was spoken.” Avraham continues:
“This was the beginning of their newly acquired language evolution, and the beginning of their oblivion as the people that once they were, except for their consciousness of being different, a peculiar people …”
At last, according to Avraham’s speculative hypothesis, the Israelites arrived in India after having been exiled again from Hanigalbat-Mitanni by the Assyrians:
“There are descendants of the Israelites exiled by Assyrians in every part of India, from Kashmir to Kerala, from Assam to Afghanistan. They are being identified, not through their language, that is Indic, but through other cultural features – yet, none of them gathers as many Hebrew elements as Roma! As a matter of fact, concerning the place where the commonly known as lost Tribes of Israel migrated, overwhelming evidences show that the largest number resettled in India during the Persian and Macedonian rule, and most of them preferred the Scytho-Sarmatic area, namely, the Indus Valley, Kashmir, Rajasthan and the upper Ganges region. Of course they were no longer one homogeneous mass, as they migrated in separate groups to different lands and generated new distinct ethnic entities, this means, that Roma are only one of several Israelite groups that no longer know their origin – the difference is that Roma returned back to the west, and caught the attention of Europeans, while the others remained in the east and are still ignored, and perhaps have lost most of the features that allow to identify them, characteristics that Roma have kept up to an acceptable degree. What scholars do not take in consideration when they study the Roma origin topic is the ethnic complexity of India in that period and assume that it was an almost mono-ethnic, monolithic Aryan people, what is a fallacious assumption and definitely misleading for their research. Indeed, the strictly Aryan region was south-east from Uttar Pradesh and east from Rajasthan-Gujarat, while these regions and the lands to the west of them were inhabited by Scytho-Sarmatic, Iranic and even Greek peoples, plus the Israelite exiles. A general research on the peoples and tribes dwelling from the northwestern area of the Indian subcontinent to the Iranic region reveals that almost all of them, if not all, keep in their traditions the belief that they came from the west, usually relating their immigration either with the exiled Israelites or the contingents brought into that area by Alexander the Great. Some Pashtun clans, as well as most Kashmiri tribes claim Israelite ancestry and even trace their family origin to King Shaul; a similar tradition exists among the Kalash of Nuristan, that in many aspects recall the Roma people.”
Then occurs the flight from India which, other researchers consider to be the starting point:
“The scenery in which the Romany exodus took place is better understandable if we consider the beginning of brahmanic oppression and forced inclusion into the caste system as the reason for an organized group of people, with a distinct culture, laws and religious patterns, to emigrate towards a defined direction: the Christian kingdoms in the West.”
Since Avraham, with good reason, considers as more primary references to the true identity of a people the “spiritual nature, that are manifested in their inner feelings, typical behaviours, subconscious memory, namely, their atavic heritage.” – he proceeds to make the most significant aspect of his essay, by referring to the popularity among many Roma groups of Prophet Eliyah of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, by stating that “most ‘Romany’ tales are labelled as ‘Jewish’ tales as well, and both claim to be the original source.”, and by discussing in detail the spiritual and religious practices of Roma. Although Avraham presents a list of beliefs which, though he thinks correspond particularly to Judaism or the Hebrew heritage, they may as well correspond to many other religions and faiths and spiritual practices (including Hinduism in fact), yet he does present a convincing relevance between two widespread and unique practices that are truly peculiar to both Gypsy and Jewish communities:
“The Romany concept of ‘marimé’ is equal to the negative form of the Jewish concept of ‘kosher’, the first indicates ritual impurity, while the second refers to ritual purity. Besides this viewpoint difference, the essence is the same (it is like saying if the cup is half-empty or half-full). What is marimé for a Rom, is not kosher for a Jew, so both of them will take the necessary measures in order not to be defiled with such things, or if they are a necessary, unavoidable contamination, they both will follow certain rules to be purified. In the same way as Jewish kashrut, the rules that regulate marimé are a fundamental value in Romany society that set the behavioural boundaries within their social and spiritual realm and condition their relationship with the external world (the Gadje society).Roma classify everything into two categories: ‘vuzhó’ (=kosher, pure) or ‘marimé’ (impure). Such classification regards primarily the human body, but is extended to the spiritual realm, the house or camp, animals and things. The human body: the rules concerning the parts of the human body to be considered impure are exactly the same ones that we find in the Mosaic Torah (Leviticus, chapter 15). […] Clothes: they are accurately distinguished since they must be washed separately, in separate recipients assigned for each category. Impure clothes must always be washed in the marimé basin, and pure clothes are still separated from the tablecloth and the napkins, which have their own washing recipient. Upper body clothes and children’s clothes are washed in the vuzhó basin, lower body clothes in the marimé one. All the woman’s clothes are impure during her menstruations and washed with the marimé items. The only people that apply these washing rules besides Roma are Jews. […] Birth: the childbirth is an impure event and should take place in an isolated tent right outside the camp, when possible. After the child is born, the mother is considered impure for forty days, mainly the first week: this rule is unique of the Mosaic Torah – Leviticus 12:2-4 -. During this period, the woman cannot get in touch with pure items or perform any common activity like cooking or even appear in public, mainly in presence of the elders; she cannot attend any religious service. Special dishes, cups and tableware are assigned to her, which are thrown away after the 40 days of her purification are over, the clothes she wore and her bed are burnt, as well as the tent or caravan where she lodged during those 40 days. This law is unknown to any people except Roma and Jews. Death: as well as in Judaic Law, somebody’s death conveys impurity to everybody and everything that was related to that person in that moment. All the food present in the house of the dead should be thrown away, and the whole family is impure for three days. Particular rules are to be observed during those three days, like washing oneself with water only in order not to make foam; to comb or shave is interdict, as well as sweeping, making holes, writing or painting, taking photographs, and many other things. Mirrors are covered … The concept that contact with a dead body attaches impurity is not found in any ancient tradition except in the Jewish Bible (Leviticus 21:1). Things: they can be marimé by nature or by use, or be defiled by accidental circumstances. Whatever is touched by the lower body is impure, like shoes, chairs, etc. while tables are pure. The rules that concern these laws are described in Leviticus 15 and other Hebrew Scriptures. […] In case that the girl runs away with her fiancé without the consent of her parents, they are regarded as a married couple, but the husband’s family must pay a compensation to the wife’s parents, usually equivalent to twice the dowry amount; that compensation is called ‘kepara’, a word that has the same meaning of the Hebrew term ‘kfar’ (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). The payment of the dowry by the male partner’s family to the female’s parents is a biblical rule, exactly the opposite to Indian peoples, in which it is the bride’s family that pays to the husband’s one.”
Avraham presents further parallels between Roma and Jews:
“Roma do not feel any attraction at all towards Indian culture or music (what is more, Roma women have a low-pitch voice, in contrast with the Indian singers, a detail that may be insignificant, but maybe not), while they have always preferred Middle Eastern music. In Eastern Europe, most of the folk expressions are either Jewish or Romany, and many times the same work is attributed to either one or the other of these two traditions. “Klezmorim” bands were often composed by Roma together with Jews, and the European Jazz style has been cultivated by Roma as well as by Jews. Flamenco is probably originated among Sephardic Jews before they were expelled from Spain, and later developed by Roma that remained in that country. In other aspects, Roma have a great commercial skill (and if they have to work in partnership Jews are preferred) and those who choose a professional insertion in the gadje society usually prefer the same careers chosen by Jews (perhaps connected with the purity laws, that do not allow to perform every kind of work). Last but not least, Roma make a distinction between common “Gadje” and Jews, who are not considered fully Gadje but an intermediate category that observes the purity laws and consequently not subject to marimé suspicion.”
Avraham’s fascinating speculations, most of which are supported merely by biblical references (or no references at all), would face some challenges:
1. The genetic factor, inconclusive as it may be yet, does not reveal any affinity to possible Semitic origins. [though intermarriage can be a justification here – many present-day Jews themselves may also be genetically indistinguishable from the societies in which they have integrated themselves through out the ages.]
2. The fact that there are other fundamental Gypsy characteristics (for example significance of the occupation of blacksmith) that finds no explanation in a Jewish or Hebrew context, and that not all Gypsy communities fit with such Jewishness that Avraham ascribes to their most profound experience of life, and this applies also to linguistic references:
“Attempts to associate the origin of customs and beliefs with the origin of individual terms denoting them have not always proven fruitful, however. Some ancient Indic terms are used for Christian concepts acquired in all likelihood in Europe, as in rašaj ‘priest’ and trušul ‘cross’. On the other hand, terms like kris ‘court’ and magardo ‘polluted’ are derived from Greek, though the associated concepts are often believed to be much more ancient. For this reason, attempts to use the composition of Romani vocabulary to reconstruct the ‘original’ Roma culture or the environment from which the ancestors of the Roma originated have usually proved futile.” (Matras p.5).
3. How was it possible that, upon arriving in Byzantium, Roma were able to recall and refer to their sojourn in Egypt, while forget completely about their Jewish identity which, according to the narrative, even outlasts the sojourn in Egypt?
4. Reference being mostly based on biblical narrative [not to say biblical narrative has fashioned Avraham’s construction of the Jewish ethnogenesis!], while with the exception of Assyrian inscriptions mentioning the subjugation of the Israelite tribes (i.e. the Sennacherib or Akkadian Clay prism), no references exist in Egyptian, Persian, and Indian documents, to such “long-lasting” presence of the wandering and exiled Israelites. Yet the most powerful of Avraham’s observations is his reference to the actual, that is, non-speculative close affinity or even identicalness between present-day Jewish and Gypsy widespread and fundamental practices of social life, including very unique and distinct rites related to birth, marriage, and death, as we have seen in the quote above. Another strong similarity, observed by myself, between Jews and Gypsies, is the narrative of exodus from Egypt; we find in several Gypsy folktales this same uniquely self-contemptuous depiction of the social group, that goes so far as to assert how the immoral actions of Gypsies in Egypt, stealing from the Pharaoh himself for example (his bread, or other secret items of wisdom or power, etc.), morally justify their subsequent expulsion and destiny of endless wandering [though this may have been acquired by Gypsies upon conversion to Christianity].
Then if the Jewish ethnogenesis cannot be established or is being viewed as remotely probable [just as is the case with the Egyptian ethnogenesis], the question becomes how did Gypsy communities come to acquire and adopt those distinct Jewish practices [just as is the question becomes how did they came to adopt an Egyptian identity in the case of investigating the Egyptian ethnogenesis]? What kind of interaction between Jews and Gypsies may have led to such profound assimilation? We find again and again a certain pattern of interaction between Jews and Gypsies, especially with view to the persecution of both communities and the Jewish mingling with the somewhat less persecuted Gypsy communities across history. I quote below, for example, Grellmann’s summary of the theory proposed by the German historian Johann Christof Wagenseil (1697):
“He [Wagenseil] considers the Gipseys to be German Jews; who, about the middle of the fourteenth century, to escape the dreadful persecution which raged against them all over Europe, especially in Germany, secreted themselves in forests, deserts, and subterraneous caverns. In these hiding-places they remain above half a century, not making their appearance again till the period of the Hussites; as the Hussites heresy then engrossed the public attention, with regard to the Jews all was safe. But not daring to declare themselves, they fell on the device of saying, that their respect for the Mosaic law would not permit them to become Christians, at the same time styling themselves, in general terms, Egyptian pilgrims. Those who did not yet know what they were, nor whence they came, from their wandering about (einherzeihen) called them Gipsey (Zigeuner). To establish this supposition respecting the origin of the Gipseys, he refers to their language, which he says is a mixture of German and Hebrew, quoting, in proof of his assertion, near fifty words, which are evidently Hebrew.” (Grellmann 1807:140-2).
This theory was proposed in a time when no awareness of the Indic language spoken by the Gypsies was yet known, though we have no reason to affirm that those Gypsies referred to by Wagenseil did in fact speak Romani! Nevertheless we do find again here a reference to Hebrew vocabulary present in Gypsies’ spoken language, and a curious story about how Jews and Gypsies mingled and wandered together as if they were the same people in the context of escape from persecution. This is one possible explanation as to how Gypsies may have come to adopt certain Jewish social and religious practices, especially that we find references to the same condition of mingling and even intermarriage between Jews and Gypsies in moder times, due the brutal persecution of both of them during the second World War, where we find evidence of many cases of intermarriage, especially in deportation or displaced-people camps in Eastern Europe, resulting eventually in this unique identity, the Zhutane Roma, which literally means “Jewish Roma” (Kenrick 1999:92, Marushiakova & Popov 1997).
Avraham himself points to the age-long close affinity in the social and even linguistic conditions between Jews and Gypsies particularly in Eastern Europe since medieval times:
“It is a significant fact that the largest number of both, Jews and Roma, found a safe haven in the Scytho-Sarmatic Europe for many centuries: indeed, the centre of both cultures has been Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary, and Russia. Romany language would have virtually disappeared if Roma would have not dwelled in those countries, as it is a proven fact, Romany grammar and a considerable part of the original Romany terms have been lost in Central and Western Europe, due to persecutions and banishment of the open expression of Romany culture, in the same way as Jews were forbidden to practise their own Jewishness – without forgetting what would imply for Roma to be labelled as ‘Aryan’ after the Shoah/Porhaymós… The sojourn of both peoples in Eastern Europe has even determined some characteristics concerning clothing, in fact, the present-day typical suit and hat worn by the most Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews belongs to the Polish and Baltic notables of the late Middle Ages and the subsequent period, and is not so different from the suit and hat worn by men of the most ‘orthodox’ Roma groups. Besides clothing, Roma men usually have side whiskers, an acceptable substitute of the Jewish ‘pe’ot’.”
Finally, one couldn’t but leave the space open for the possibility that some Gypsy communities in Europe, may have indeed been of Jewish, not Indian origin, or that the level of interaction between Jews and Gypsies in Europe was strong enough to the extent of “Jewishizing” some Gypsy communities. In the following chapter titled “lexical indications” we will see that there has been speculations yet about the possible relationship between Jews and the “Athinganoi”, a persecuted group of “heretics” (circa 5th century CE.), who may have been Jews, and whose name, “Athinganoi”, we will later find associated with every manifestation of Gypsy lifestyle across all Europe.
§ Tribal connections
The manifold Turkic and other tribal ethnicities -confusing in themselves as it may be- which flourished in late antiquity and early medieval times, provide a more recent example of ethnic formation and dispersal. These were a collection of varied ethnicities that lived all over Asia and northwestern China. Many of these ethnicities led a completely and continually nomadic lifestyles, and though this proves not much, it is at least noteworthy that these particular nomadic communities have had an intense interaction with Eastern Europe through out the middle ages. And though many of these ethnicities were or have become eventually nation-states, (such as Turkey itself, which language is still spoken by some Gypsy communities in eastern Europe to this day; and some of such Turkish-speaking Gypsy communities insist upon their Turkish origin) – some other ethnicities, such as the “Cumans” (11th century CE.), after having established for themselves a “homeland under the sun” in eastern Europe, they eventually became diffused as minority communities in other rising homelands under the sun, such as Bulgaria, Hungary, and Wallachia (present-day Romania). A very similar story occurred with the “Avars”, a tribe of mighty military nature that was assembled by different bands of different ethnicities, the people of which spoke different versions of Turkish. They succeeded in establishing a powerful military empire in central and eastern Europe by the 6th century, only to disappear eventually by the early 9th century leaving little trace behind them. There are many similar Turkic nomadic communities whose fate was similar to that of the Cumans and Avars, and who ended up diffused and dispersed in eastern European and Asian territories: The Huns (Eastern Europe, since 1st century CE.), The Bulgars (since 2nd century CE.), and the Alans (since 1st century CE. Who spoke an Iranian language and founded Alania between the 9th and 12th centuries in the Caucasus). This same pattern of nomadic life in late antiquity and early medieval times was not confined to Turkic tribes, but can be found among the Slavs, as well as in Germanic tribes which had originated in Europe itself, such as the Vandals, Goths, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii, and others. These waring Germanic, Slavic, and Turkic tribes traversed ceaselessly across Europe, Iberia, Anatolia, and north Africa, sometimes as powerful invaders, other times as diffused migrants. The impact of such migration must be taken in consideration with regard to contemplating and investigating the origins of Gypsiness, as a pattern and style of communal living and social consciousness, that may not be necessarily confined to a specific ethnicity; in very much the same way as most researchers today have abandoned the belief that those manifold Germanic, Slavic, and Turkic tribes of late antiquity and early medieval times could be viewed as homogeneous communities. I see another similarity between the sure diffusion of all these tribes in Europe, and the possible diffusion of the Egyptians who, according to the Vatican document, arrived around just the same time in the Balkans; I see them both gradually taking off their armor, selling their shields, spears, and bows, and wandering here and there till this day, or until they have settled as a minority in a prejudiced, but sufficiently tolerant society. By contemplating and investigating the life and history of these tribes, we will find remarkable similarities with what appeared later as the Gypsy lifestyle; most significantly in my opinion was the manner by which these manifold tribes created and abandoned their collective identities in favor of other ones, according to circumstances:
“It was Reinhard Wenskus in his comparative study of German ethnogeneses who worked out some of the mechanisms of collectio, of collecting and holding together a gens, an early medieval people; and he made it clear that the idea of common origin was a myth.” (Pohl 1998:16).
To my view, the myth could apply equally to either an Egyptian, Jewish, or an Indian origin, if any one of them had to become the sole origin accounting for all Gypsy communities. Researchers of the ethnic history of those medieval tribes as well as of ancient ones, emphasize how the deaf and dumb archaeological remains cannot yet tell us how the members of those tribes felt with regard to their self-identification (Pohl 1998:21). It is strange to me that this same considerate attitude is generally lacking when it comes to Balkan Egyptians and other Gypsy communities who obviously feel detached from an all-inclusive Romani, Albanian, or whatever other imposed identity, but on the contrary, researchers very much exhibit the same paternalistic, incurious, and aversive dismissiveness toward the very feelings of those communities as do the societies and governments which host them. Is it because these communities are contemporary, thus without historical significance, that we do not pay attention to their own stories and feelings; or is it perhaps because they are still alive, not yet dead, and thereby constitute a part of our own generally miserable and backward social realities?!
* * *
5. Lexical indications
Let us now turn to inspect what do “words” say about the origin and history of Gypsies!
Before the Indian origin and the word “Roma” come to being in relatively recent times, we find in European history many reports of many groups which had led a Gypsy lifestyle, but who were never called Egyptians, Pharaohs, or Gypsies (or any of their derivatives), and we do not know whether they ever claimed an Egyptian origin or not. The following is a categorization of only handful of the most well-known appellations:
1) Racial: “Kalo” or “Kali” can be understood as “Black” in the Romani language, referring to dark skin color.
2) Vocational: “Tinkers”, and possibly also “Kalderash” (and its derivatives) – referring mostly to the vagrant or itinerant lifestyle, especially that associated with metal work and blacksmith, the last appellation, “Kalderash”, being possibly a derivative of the Latin “Caldaria” meaning “cauldron” or bucket, that which is held by the blacksmith Gypsy.
3) Ethnic (Turkish, Persian, and Arabic): “Horahane” (or Xoraxai and other derivatives): I have not found a known etymology for this word which refers mostly to Muslim Gypsies who adhere to a Turkish origin. The “Lyuli” in Russia, who are also known as “Jughi”, even though they refer to themselves by “Mughat”, a curious word of Persian origin meaning “fire worshippers”(!). Others in the same region are known as “Ghurbat”, which apparently derives from Arabic with a meaning of “strangers”.
4) Referring to place of origin. The most common being “Bohemians”, although in practical use it is equivalent to “tinkers”, the origin of the word comes from “Bohemia”, an old kingdom of central Europe.
5) Appellations of unknown origin: “Sinti”, “Manouches”, “Modyar”, “Lovari”, “Rudari” (or Ludari), “Lingurari”, “Cilices”, “Zlatari”, and “Mandapolos”.
And these are only the appellations known and used in Europe, there are much more in Iran, Turkey, and other middle eastern and north African countries. Some of these appellations, particularly “Sinti” and “Bohemians”, were very common even in 19th century ethnography.
Of all these appellations, however, the most prominent and widespread across all Europe is “gitan”, “gitano”, “tsigani”, “cigano”, “çingene”, “zigeuner”, “tzigan” etc. – although many researchers continue to attribute these appellations to the word “Egyptian” solely on the basis of phonological affinity, these words derive from “Athinganoi”, the earliest record of which we find as far back as the 7th century CE. in a book titled “De receptione Haereticorum” (Cotelier, “Monumenta eccles. Graeca”, III, 392; P.G., LXXXVI, 34) in which the author, “Timotheus the Presbyter of Constantinople” describes the Athinganoi as a heretic Christian sect who “live in Phrygia, and are neither Hebrews nor Gentiles. They keep the Sabbath, but are not circumcised.” (hence the questionable Jewish connection).
The origin of this name, though generally thought to be Greek, continues to be unknown; George Soulis notes that “the problem of the origin of the name ‘Athinganos’ still awaits a convincing explanation from the philologists.” And then he makes the following significant remarks:
“One must not overlook the fact that the name ‘Athinganos’ is unknown to the Gypsies who call themselves Rom, or to the various peoples who harbored them before their appearance in Byzantium.” (Soulis 1961:146).
Grellmann makes a sarcastic list of the endeavors made in his time to locate the origin of both the name “Athinganos” and the ethnicity which corresponds to it:
“Various conjectures have been formed, and coincidences have been searched for, to obtain a solution of these queries. Some persons adverted to this or that name only of the Gipseys, without attending to other circumstances. Because they were likewise called Gipseys (Cingani), they must immediately derive their origin from the Greeian heretics, called Athingans : then again they must have wandered from the African province formerly called Zeugitana [present-day Tunis]. Another time they are supposed to be the fugitives driven from the city Singara, in Mesopotamia, by Julian the Apostate.Others again transplanted them to Mount Caucasus, and made them Zochori ; or to the Palus Maeotis, making them descendants from the Ziches [Ziehen, Zigier, or Zincher, among the ancients, called in the earliest times Achaeans, dwelt in the country now inhabited by the Circassians.] Some people imagined that instead of Zigeuner, they should be called Zigarener, which they thought a corruption of Saracener, and they must certainly be Saracens. Another writer (to return to Africa) conducts them from the Mauritanian province Tingitane, and supposes them to be the Canaanites who, being driven out by Joshua, settled here. Still another brings them from Mauritania, and, to corroborate his opinion by the name, calls them descendants of Chus; as he thinks nothing can have a greater affinity in sound, than Zigeuner and Chusener. Herbelot judges the coast of Zengebar to be their mother country, Bellonius, on the contrary, looks for them in Bulgaria and Wallachi, where their ancestors are said to have lived, under the name Sigynner. Cordova stumbled on Zigere, formerly a city of Thrace, which he assigns as their native soil.” (Grellmann 1807:137-8).
And as we can clearly see that the appellation “Egyptian” was not the only one that had caused much confusion, and that other terms, especially the widespread “Athinganoi” (or derivatives of it), could not even be related to any historical geographic location as is the case at least with Egypt. But this term was so widely used to the extent that, as the expression “Gypsiologist” was used mostly in connection with English-speaking 19th century ethnologists, the word “Tsiganologue” was used to describe French-speaking ones.
Yet this term also, just as the term “Egyptian”, became in modern research systematically interpreted as that indicating Indian-origin Roma! The 1385 document which is today used as proof of the presence of “Roma” in the historical region of Wallachia (present day Romania) at that date, only mentions the donation of forty slave “Atigani” families, just as later documents do as well. Does this alone suffice to conclude that these “Atigani” families are identical to the Indian Roma? Especially when the only two facts that we know about these families are them being enslaved and their name, “Atigani”, which most probably derives from the heretic Athinganoi who were mentioned seven centuries earlier. Are these “Athinganoi” the ancestors of the later “Atigani” whose name we find across Europe associated with every manifestation of Gypsy lifestyle seven centuries later? And if even of that we cannot be sure, how is it possible to conclude that those 14th century so-called Atigani were instead Roma calling themselves or being called so?
And while the argument was proposed (i.e. by Grellmann 1807:1 and others) that societies in different geographic locations may have called the Roma alternatively by different names, we find many historical evidences which show that these distinctions in naming Gypsies were held in the same time and place: For example in Greece, even till today, Gypsies are “known by two names: Yieftos (Egyptians) and Tsignos (from atsingani).” (Kenrick 2007:55). And much earlier in history, in 14th century Byzantium, not only were both “Egyptians” and “Atsinganos” used at the same time with reference to Gypsy-like communities, but yet a third name also, Katzivelos (κατζίβελος): “This Byzantine name, the origin of which remains obscure, has been preserved in modern Greek to this day.” (Soulis 1961:151).
In this fashion, in a 2009 paper “Gypsy Slavery in Wallachia and Moldavia”, Marushiakova and Popov readily come to the conclusion that the late 14th century slaves called “Ciganus tentoriatos” of the “Fagaraş” region in Transylvania, and the “Egyptians who worked on the fortification of the castle of Braşov” also in Transylvania about a century later (1487), must for some reason be both of Indian origin, and therefore cannot possibly be different from one another. Thus, no doubt seems to arise in their minds, that the two communities may have been indeed different not just in name, but also in origin and ethnicity, and consequently not just different from one another, but also perhaps from the Roma – when they themselves report that in 1445, a Prince Vlad II Dracul, brought to Wallachia from his military campaign against the Ottomans south of the Danube, a few thousand slaves who were then thought of as “looking like Egyptians”. That is to say, from the researchers’ 2009 perspective, so long as these so-called Egyptians were a community of slaves or workers leading a Gypsy-like lifestyle, and the same for the so-called “Ciganus”, then both of them must have been of the same Romani Indian origin; it did not matter that the contemporaneous Transylvanian perspective had distinguished them from one another by assigning a different name for each group, even though both of them were simply slaves. And likewise, it does not say anything to these researchers, that around the same time, one more appellation also existed in Byzantium, to distinguish contemporaneously between the Egyptians, the Atsinganos, and yet a third community called “Katzivelos”.
Here, Avraham notices the following:
“There is also another Greek word with which Roma have been identified in Byzantium: ‘Athinganoi’, from which derive the terms Cigány, Tsigan, Zingaro, etc. The Byzantines knew very well who the Athinganoi were, and they identified Roma with them. Indeed, the little information we have about that group fits in many aspects with the description of the present-day Roma. There are not enough proofs to assert that the Athinganoi were Roma, but in the same way there are no evidences to assert that they were not. The only reason by which the possibility that the Athinganoi might be identified with the Roma has been discarded a priori is because they are mentioned about the beginning of the sixth century c.e., when, according to the inveterate ‘Indian-origin-supporters’, Roma should not be in Anatolia by that time.“
In this sense, to prove the single Indian origin theory, researchers have been utilizing any record of any communities which had led a Gypsy lifestyle in all European history, irrespective of possible presence prior to the Romani migration, and to variations in how they had been called by others or called themselves, what languages they spoke, and what religious or folk practices and beliefs they held, and then arbitrarily typified each and every one of these historical communities as Roma. Further, those among such researchers who sought to provide an explanation to the geographically wide and historically deep diversity, they have sufficed with attributing it all to an epidemic tendency to switch and change collective identity for different sorts of possible reasons. Thus, a single physical origin of their ethnic identity, and a single psycho-social origin of their tendency to adopt several ethnic identities, including imagined ones. Never before and not in any other case have been ethnic, sociological, and historical research, so proudly triumphant!
* * *
6. “Gypsiness” and a multiple-origin hypothesis
A man who is lost in a thick and dense forest, does not disbelief in the very existence of the various trails and forks the he finds in his way, merely because they evidently lead to different destinations rather than a single one! And as we inspect the many narratives which do not fit together or lead to a single origin, this should not lead us to conclude their fallacy, but rather perhaps should make us grow increasingly doubtful and cautious regarding the affirmation of a theory that insists on a single source. Wim Willems writes:
“What we know about the still scarcely written history of Gypsies obliges caution when considering the proposition that they make up a single people. What I mean to say here is that not everyone to whom the label of ‘Gypsy’ has been applied, by themselves or by others, leads an itinerant way of life, speaks Romani (or at any rate one of its variants) stands out through bodily characteristics from others in their surrounding, is conscious of being subject to strict, group-specific mores, or shares an awareness of common roots. This is not to contend, however, that Gypsies do not exist. The history of the persecution of persons and groups so labelled, continuing as it does in the present, is already in itself sufficient to establish the reality of their existence beyond denial. […] It is merely that this has probably not always been true and it seems that the idea that all ethnic Gypsy groups belong to one people obscures, rather than clarifies, their complex history.” (Willems 2014:6-7).
The same debate regarding the historical origin of Gypsies may be found in research concerning the “Illyrians”, a group of tribes who lived in the western Balkans, and to whose existence as a kingdom we find references in historical documents as early as the 7th century BCE. But here, and although the debate is about the origins of dead people, researchers show much more carefulness in supposing them a homogeneous group, and despite of the systematic reference in historical documents to these various tribes en masse simply as “the Illyrians”:
“Just as ancient writers could discover no satisfactory general explanation for the origin of Illyrians, so most modern scholars, even though now possessed of a mass of archaeological and linguistic evidence, can assert with confidence only that Illyrians were not a homogeneous entity.” (Wilkes 1995:38).
Yet although the Gypsies of Europe have been called by so many different names and continue to claim different identities and tell different stories and speak different languages, most researchers are for some reason unwilling to speculate a multiple-origin possibility of the great diversity in their group self-consciousness and sense of identity.
That we are researching a geopolitical location and social groups of great ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity, and whose history involves a lot of migration and interrelationships among one another or members of the host societies, and that had witnessed and are still witnessing many complicated historical layers of eventfulness – all this should only give more reason and urgency to hold on to carefulness, skepticism, and inconclusiveness, rather than affirm the results of simplistic logical estimations, or deductive and syllogistic speculations and generalizations. But it is precisely this historical flux and inconclusiveness, along with the lack of sufficient historical data, that have for centuries invited all sorts of interpretations to flourish next to one another in all sorts of directions. Take only for example the striking opposition between the work of Italian writer “Francesco Griselini” (1717 – 1787), in which great effort was made to demonstrate the true Egyptian origin and civilized character at least of some Gypsy communities, and Grellmann’s Dissertation (1807) which reflects his own aversion against the Gypsies more than it does what he proclaims to be their aversion against civilization!
The subject matter consists of various minority groups or communities who speak different languages, claim different identities, and narrate different historical experiences and origins. What complicates the matter further, is that in the continent in which they all live, international wars, civil wars, and formations of nations and states, have caused a continuous flow of migration, deportation, and resettlement, to sweep many of these groups back and forth and force them to mingle and interact together and with the troubled and tensed national societies in which they found themselves born or to which they escaped or were expelled. It would be very comfortable to resolve all these differences among all these minority groups by applying a single origin and single historical narrative to them all, the Roma narrative and the solution of a single Indian origin; but some of them claim to be Turks, some Iranian; some call themselves Ashkali, some Arabs; some are sedentary, some nomadic – and further, the researcher observes that these people are not exactly of the knowledgeable or consistent kind when it comes to self-identification, and based on that, the researcher realizes that of the truth about the identity of these groups we can only know less rather than more, and with the paradox arising from contradictory perspectives of earlier research (say Griselini Vs. Grellmann), later Gypsiologists and present-day researchers eventually felt the urgent need to free themselves from the confusing and inconclusive chaos and flux of Gypsy history by grasping with both arms into the only substantial evidence, the linguistic and genetic, which conclusively brings many, but not all, of these groups, the Roma, together with the Indian origin.
“The controversy hinges on different views as to whether anything remains of the original distinctiveness based on foreign origins following centuries of assimilation, acculturation, intermixing and intermarriage. At a recent academic conference one participant, employed by the Dutch Civil Service and perhaps frustrated by the determined lack of agreement among other members of the group, suggested that genetic and DNA testing could possibly now resolve the issue of origins once and for all. Once again, the weight of contemporary science was being called upon to resolve this age-old controversy.” (Mayall 2004:11).
Here arises a new development: the researcher knows something very important about these Gypsies that non of them seem to have known about themselves, their very true historical origin, and that of the language which they continue to speak.
“Roma have never said that they came from India until some Gadje in the 20th century c.e. told them that they have studied and that “science” establishes that they are Indians!” (Avraham).
Though it is not to be ignored that some Gypsy migrants may have actually proclaimed their Indian origin, although of the authenticity of the following report we cannot really be sure:
“… an exception was made by the band which appeared at Forli, in Italy, in 1422, some of the members of which said they had come from India, as we are told by Brother Hieronymus in his Forli Chronicle.” (Pischel 1908:315-6).
Nevertheless and in all cases, an explanation is certainly needed as to how these people came to be called, and were actually calling themselves “Egyptians” (i.e. Gypsies) all that long, apparently since their first arrival in the region and across all Europe, and that that mythological belief of their Egyptian affiliations had grown so deep among them to the extent that they have created all those folktales and popular narratives which connect them to Egypt as far back as ancient times, told these folktales to their children and exchanged these narratives apparently with the continuous and successive waves of further migration from India, or from elsewhere, until they had somehow totally forgotten about their own Indian or Jewish or whatever origin, and were many centuries later startled when the evidence of their Indian origin was too strong and convincing that they had to acknowledge it.
As we have seen, the explanation that is usually provided for all and every thing that connects these itinerant and vagrant groups with Egypt, is that, upon arriving at the gates of cities, they for some reason found it profitable to proclaim themselves Egyptians:
“Among all the legends, one of the most persistent is the alleged Egyptian origin of the Rromani people, which they themselves began to circulate as early as the sixteenth century. […] In both cases, the prestige of Egypt, reflected in the Bible, and the stories of persecutions suffered by Christians in that country probably encouraged greater acceptance of the Egyptian legend than of the real Indian origin, and it probably helped them in obtaining safe-conducts and recommendation letters from princes, kings and even the pope” (Kenrick 2004:118).
First, Kenrick here ascribes, like many other researchers, a rather late date to the origination of the Egyptian self-identification (which he yet considers an early date!), not knowing that it was already known in Byzantium two centuries earlier!
“It is interesting, too, that the Byzantines’ use of the term for the Egyptians, from which the modern Greek name for the Gypsies derives to designate the Gypsies clearly indicates that the legend of their Egyptian origin was already known in Byzantium and did not originate later in Europe, as is often believed. I am tempted to think that it is to the Gypsies also that Nicephorus Gregoras refers when he speaks of the group of Egyptian acrobats that appeared in Constantinople during the reign of Andronicus II (1282-1328).” (Soulis 1961:148).
But what matters more, is that most researchers find that questionable explanation of how the Egyptian self-identification came to be, “sufficient” to deny any truth or substance behind the possibility of a true Egyptian origin, or any other origin apart from the Indian one. All these stories and historical documents which I have presented here in this paper, in which many references to “Egyptians” are found, would be according to those researchers originated from this very first instant of “lying” made by the first Indian migrants!
I am not opposed to agreeing with the possibility that social and historical lies can grow so big in time to the extent of wiping off entire collective memories and dictating new inculcated ones, after all, the inhabitants of such once great civilizations as Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, today simply call themselves “Arabs”, without memory, without the slightest consciousness of the vast, deep, and magnificent history that had existed before the conquest of their countries by the invading Arab tribes, and that still reflects itself in their everyday language, culture, and social norms, thus distinguishing them at once from one another and from their Arab invaders, whose language and religion they had adopted leaving behind earlier languages and religions, along with the very collective memory and self-consciousness of earlier original or like-wise acquired national identities. And indeed the behavior of switching identities is not unique to the Gypsies but, most probably, various instances of it are to be found all over the globe, including in established societies which have led a sedentary agricultural life, such as many Nubian and south Egyptian farmers, for example, who after the consolidation of Arab rule and Islam in their countries, struggled and succeeded in converting to Islam and bribed officials to obtain false documents claiming their descent from an Arab origin, and even from specifically a “noble” Arab origin (i.e. from the family of prophet Mohamed).
However, what I find questionable is the massive extent by which this little and insignificant lie by a group of impoverished migrants have become established as an unshakable truth over an entire continent. After all, the lie of “being Arab” in the Middle East, for example, and how it finally became an established truth, involved the mobilization of massive Arab armies and coercive violent battles behind it, and subsequently was sustained by British and American colonial and neo-colonial religious and educational influences, to ensure its continuation! Further, even if a little lie about insignificant migrants can gain such currency, is it not important to investigate why these first Indian migrants had chosen to present themselves particularly as “Egyptians”, whether pilgrims or slaves, especially, as Avraham notices, that such self-identification does not fit with the end they seek from it:
“The oldest records concerning the arrival of Roma in Europe report their declaration of having been slaves of the Egyptian Pharaoh; so there are two possibilities: either it was part of their historic memory or else it was something that they invented in order to find people’s favour – the second possibility is very unlikely, since such declaration may identify them only with one people, which was exactly the most hated one in Europe, and not the most convenient identity to choose.”
And even in the reasoning of Kenrick, who is one of the most prominent promoters of the all-inclusive Indian origin, we find the following assertion:
“Observing remnants of a former Egyptian migration to Asia Minor and the Balkans, they realised it would be profitable for them to pretend they were Christians from Egypt, chased out by Muslims or sentenced to restless wandering to atone for their apostasy.” (Kenrick 2004:117).
But does not this reinforce Zemon’s theory, that self-identification of the Roma as Egyptians indicates that true Egyptians were present in these European lands before and were already allowed passage through this way because of their Egyptian identity?
“Our opinion is that the Egyptians, as we told before, were inhabited and integrated in Balkans and European society, much more before the Roma came in Middle Age. When the Roma came in Balkans and Europe, with their ethnic specifics (wondering life and their professions) they didn’t were accepted well by the people. For these not accepting are exists a lot superstitions, folk stories and even some laws that were brought from some middle age states with discriminatory norms. The Romas, to overcome a lot of unpleasant situations and with the goal to be accepted by the population and integrated in the society, probably were ‘pushed’ to identify themselves as Egyptians (people from Egypt- Gypsies), because somatically (by the color of the skin) are similar with the Egyptians. These ‘usurpation’ of ethno-names, ethnic mimicry and wrong identification,have their consequences until today in the society, science and finally in the politic international community and particularly states. In this context is important to say that the ethno-names that are related with Egypt for the members of the Balkans Egyptians community are endo-names, but for the Romas are egzo-names.” (Zemon 2003:9).
Zemon here further promotes the possibility that the Romani people did not claim any such Egyptian identity, but that the societies which received them had imposed the designation (hence “exonym”) “Egyptian” or “Gypsy” over them (which actually still happens to this day!). Courthiade claims that this was exactly what happened in the Balkans _(though he does not tell us how he knew this!)_ as a result of the arrival in 306 CE of those Egyptian soldiers mentioned in the Vatican document:
“Their arrival stirred the imagination of peasants in the Balkans to such an degree that when the Rroms arrived, much later, the local population believed them to be Egyptians too.” (Courthiade 2003:273).
This theory suggests that the eventual imposing of the exonym “Gypsy” over all itinerant and migrant communities is due to the fact that true Egyptian migrants were the first to arrive or pass-by Byzantium/Europe, and that they had had such physical appearance or/and led such lifestyle that, whether Gypsy-like or not, was sufficiently similar to later migrant communities as to drive host societies to either call them or consider them to be Egyptians as well, that is, Gypsies.
Hence, according to this hypothesis, as such Egyptian identity became imposed on and adopted by either Roma or non-Roma communities themselves, and as the recent linguistic and genetic evidence regarding the Indian origin became established, and also as the question regarding the origin of the usage of the terms “Egyptian” and “Gypsy” in European history remained unanswered, ignored, or simply attributed to a hypothesized lie rather than to a prior true Egyptian presence – eventually the words “Egyptian” or “Gypsy” became generically interchangeable with “Roma”, interpreted as “Roma”, not only in the present, but also in the past, in the historical documents, even though they may indeed had been referring to non-Romani Gypsies who were in fact of Egyptian or any other non-Indian origin. And as we have seen, in the midst of this interpretive process to the word “Gypsy” or “Egyptian”, the term “Athinganoi” also, along with all its derivatives, without any justification, have been as well systematically interpreted as Roma!
This hypothesis suggests also that the expression “Gypsy” (or “Egyptian” in that certain context) may then reflect a generic form of “lifestyle” rather than a specific ethnically, racially, linguistically, or historically definable social group; a suggestion which meets well with the vast and widespread presence of this old phenomenon across many lands, and which leaves the door wide open in front of the possibility that “Gypsies” (as in impoverished and marginalized communities leading that lifestyle) may indeed have existed everywhere and migrated everywhere, whatever they called themselves, whatever languages they spoke, and whatever they knew or knew not about their own history and origins as they kept roaming from place to place with no intention other than to barely survive:
“But, still, we are left with the question ‘Who are the gypsies?’ Essentially this study has been leading to the conclusion that they are and have been whoever people have wanted them to be.“ (Mayall 2004:390).
It is well known also that Gypsies or Gypsy-like communities exist in great numbers outside Europe, particularly in the Middle East, where they are known as the “Dom”. And again researchers struggle to fit their presence in Middle Eastern countries with a single process of migration that had started from the east in India. But even here, we find various irregularities and variations which make the comfortable single source of migration quite questionable:
“… when the French occupied Algiers in 1830 they found the city and its territory partly occupied by Gypsies, who did not mix with the Àrabs or the Kabyles (Kabàil or the Tribes), with the Jews or the Europeans. They spoke their own tongue, and they were often visited by their congeners of Hungary and other parts of Europe. It is conjectured that these Romà may have passed over from Spain, and possibly that they travelled eastward from Morocco, as Blidah contains many of the race. The question becomes interesting when we find the Egyptian Ghagar claiming to be emigrants from the West.” (Burton 1898:198-9).
That is to say that some Dom Gypsies may have arrived in the Middle East from the north and the west (Europe and Morocco), and not from Iran and Turkey as the all-inclusive Indian-origin theory suggests. And again, while it is possible that a westbound migration into the Middle East may have occurred also, we must not conclude that all such Gypsy communities in the Middle East are necessarily of Indian origin, especially those who speak Arabic and do not know Romani. Egypt itself hosts a massive number of Gypsies, most of them are affiliated with the “Dom” Indian group on account of their full or partial knowledge of the Domari language. But there are other communities which speak Arabic and do not know Domari; we cannot know whether they have forgotten it, or whether they perhaps truly originate from Iran, Syria, and Yemen in the east, Hungary in the north, or Morocco in the west, or any other place on earth, independently from an all-inclusive Indian origin, just as the case may possibly be for Gypsies in Europe who speak no Romani and profess non-Indian origins.
And here it aught be mentioned that Gypsy communities exist in India itself! And there, they are as much strange to that India as are Roma to Europe:
“It is also known that there is no longer one people in India clearly related to the Rroms. The various nomadic groups labelled ‘gypsies’ (with a small ‘g’) in India have no kinship or genetic connection to the Roma. They acquired the label ‘gypsies’ from the British colonial police who, in the nineteenth century, called them that by analogy with the ‘Gypsies’ of England. In addition, they applied to them the same discriminatory rules as to the English ‘Gypsies’. Later on, most European researchers, convinced that nomadism or mobility is a basic feature of Rromani identity, persisted in comparing the Roma with various nomadic tribes of India, without finding any real common features, because their research had been conditioned by their prejudices regarding nomadic groups.” (Kenrick 2004:115).
But if all Gypsy communities are being thought of as Indian-originated Roma, how could there be non-Romani Gypsies in India itself?! And where could they have come from?!
§ The “two groups” theory
We may generally note that with the adoption and establishment of the Egyptian identity by the Roma, and particularly starting from the 14th century onwards, reference to “Egyptians” in the historical record begins to increase and to exhibit a marked suspicion about their true identity (for example as we have seen in the British documents), along with the development of a “growing antagonism and suspicion shown to Gypsies in Western Europe from the late fifteenth-century, illustrating the shift from pilgrims and penitents to ‘spies’ and ‘vagabonds’.” (Marsh 2003).
The transformation of the image of Gypsies can be gathered clearly by referring to irreconcilable and contradictory perspectives of them, which show how they had been perceived by the societies and authorities alike. Even in Grellmann’s 1807 Dissertation on the Gipseys, which was extremely prejudiced against and contemptuous of them, we find the following report:
“The credulity with which people cherished the idea that the Gipseys were real pilgrims and holy persons was attended with the consequence that they were not only tolerated, but, if the information on this head may be relied on, they everywhere received assistance, with express safe-conducts. These safe-conducts are mentioned in several old writings. Münster declares, not merely, in general terms, that they carried about with them passports and seals from the Emperor Sigismund and other princes, by means of which they had free passage through different countries and cities, but that he had himself seen an attested copy of such a letter, in the possession of some Gipseys at Eberbach. Besides Kranz, Stumpf, and Buler, Laurentius Palmirenus also agrees in this statement. […] A pass of another king of Hungary, Uladislaus II. which the Gipseys obtained chiefly on account of their supposed sanctity and pilgrimage, might be quoted. They were not destitute in Transylvania, if it be true, as asserted, that they received this sort of letters of protection from the princes of the house of Bathory. Wehner says, that the Gipseys in France likewise quoted ancient privileges, granted to them by the former kings of that country. Crusius, Wurstisen, and Guler, mention papal permissions, which these people acquired, for wandering, unmolested, through all Christian countries, so long as the time of their pilgrimage lasted. This is the information we find, dispersed here and there, concerning the privileges and passes of the Gipseys.” (Grellmann 1807:118-120).
Given the names of Emperor Sigismund and King Vladislaus II, we can infer that this condition of tolerance had lasted at least till the early 15th century. Yet the later we move in history, the more this attitude changes, even to its opposite. We find more and more conflicting and confusing reports as such:
“In 1416 the city of Brasov (Kronstadt) in Transylvania made gifts of silver, grain, and poultry to one ‘Emaus of Egypt and his 120 companions’. In August 1427 a band of some 100 travellers, presenting themselves as victims of persecution in Lower Egypt, were refused entry to Paris and lodged instead at St Denis. The anonymous chronicler of the Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris described them as swarthy, poorly dressed, the women with knotted shawls, the children with earrings. They were moved on when the Church authorities protested against their palmistry and fortune-telling.” (Davies, 1996:387).
The contemporaneous late 15th century traveller Arnold von Harrf recounts:
“[Gypsies] to this day wander about the country [Modon] calling themselves Little Egyptians. But this is untrue, since their parents were born in the land of Gyppe, called Tzingania, which place is not half way from here, Cologne, to Egypt. For which reason they have become vagabonds and spy out the land.” (quoted in Soulis 1961:155).
Around this same time, we begin to find many references also to Gypsy communities who were not even of a dark skin color, and, to claim Egyptian identity, they went so far as to blacken their faces!
“[Swiss historian and chronicler] Rudolf [Johannes] Stumpf, in his Schweitzer Chronik, published about 1546, and [John] Guler in his Rhætia, published in 1616, both relate that the original Gypsies returned home, and then an idle desperate crew took their place, and by blackening their faces, at the same time using the like outlandish garments, endeavoured to persuade the world that they were the identical Egyptians.” (Crofton 1908:221).
Sometime in the late 15th century and onwards, something must have happened that was the cause behind the total abandonment of “credulity, tolerance and assistance” and gave rise instead to a “growing antagonism and suspicion” toward the Gypsies. The shift is so clear to the extent that one cannot but think that, (1) either the behavior of Gypsy communities had deteriorated so radically in the course of a relatively short time, or (2) a sweeping wave of aversion had for some reason struck every sense of “tolerance” out of all European societies around the same time! Or (3) these were indeed two different responses by the host societies to two different migrant communities, which is the explanation proposed by German sociologist “Reimer Gronemeyer” (b. 1939), that is based on a hypothesis that he calls the “two groups theory”, and which Wim Willems explains and comments on as follows:
“The origin of the split can be traced to the Swiss chronicler Stumpf who in 1538 had described the arrival in Zurich 120 years earlier of 14,000 Gypsies, driven out of Egypt as Christians and completing a seven-year-long pilgrimage. These people owned a lot of gold and silver, and they did not behave as thieves, as was the case with vagrant knaves in his time. Stumpf suggested that the original Gypsies had gone back to their land of origin after their pilgrimage and the contemporary ‘mixed band of deceivers’ had little to do with them or else had fallen to the depths, socially. This ambivalence of thinking is, in my opinion, the earliest expression in writing of what I call the search for ‘the True Gypsy’. The idea was apparently that at the beginning of the fifteenth century ‘real’, ‘good’ Gypsies had been identified, while a century later only reprobates of diverse origin travelled about who would, however, indeed have called themselves Gypsies.” (Willems 2014:15).
And another similar observation:
“There are other records elsewhere of presents and letters of protection to Gypsies, as in the case of the band which appeared in 1417 in the Hanseatic towns, and then advanced into Switzerland and Italy, and produced a letter of protection from the Emperor Sigismund. Isolated bands at first advanced quietly, and this fact, together with the high-sounding titles assumed by their leaders, gave rise to the statement, which has long been believed, that these first Gypsies were radically different from those who followed them, and from the Gypsies of to-day. Kings, Dukes, and Counts of Little Egypt are frequently mentioned in old Dutch and German records, as also in those of other countries. Martin Crusius in his Annales Suevici speaks of a monument near Steinbach erected in honour of ‘ the Right Honourable Lord, Lord Panuel, Duke of Little Egypt and Lord of Hirschhorn in the same country,’ with the Duke’s coat of arms, while in 1498 ‘Freigraf’ John of Little Egypt was buried at Pforzheim.” (Pischel 1908:296-7).
We continue to find several echoes of this “two-groups” theory later on in history, as for example the following report regarding Gypsies in the provinces of Sasmannshausen, Klein-Rekeitscheu, and Alsace-Lorraine in 19th century Germany shows:
“In Sasmannshausen the Gypsy colony offered a wholly different picture from that in Klein-Rekeitscheu. Entirely separated from those who were not Gypsies, they live in small clean cottages. They are industrious workmen, on the railroads, and equally active whenever a livelihood offers itself. They are not easily induced to leave the place; they send their children to school; and. on the whole, they give one the impression of kind and peaceful people. The German population does not object to mix with them. […] ALSACE-LORRAINE. Owing to the strict vigilance of the authorities, wandering bands of Gypsies are seldom seen. Yet there are in this province, as investigations in 1885 showed, eleven families of resident Gypsies, consisting of 53 persons. Besides these, there are also seventy-six families, who, with the exception of a few women, are not of the race of Gypsies. These people belong to nine town- ships, and number 332 souls. In Chateau-Salins they live united, and form a small colony of 47 persons. It is only in winter that they are found all living together in this dwelling. [footnote]: Puchmajer also mentions, in the preface to his Romani Cib (Prague, 1821), that in Bohemia there are people not Gypsies, called Parne (Whites). These have joined the Gypsies, who, in distinction to them, call themselves Kale (Blacks) ; they marry into Gypsy families, and share their wandering way of life. Here in Moravia, and in Hungarian Slavonic, this is not, so far as I know, the case, nor are these designations in use.” (Sowa 1888:31,33).
We find this condition also in contemporary times, and with direct relevance to the Egyptians in Bulgaria (Marushiakova & Popov 1997:73), and also in Albania, in a 1933 article in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (Vol.12, No. 1, pp. 1-32) titled “Albanian Romani. Introduction,” by Stuart Mann, which Trubeta quotes as follows:
“The claim, however, that Jevgs [Balkan Egyptians] have nothing whatsoever to do with the Roma ‘seems to be borne out by the fact that in type and feature the two tribes do not resemble one another in the slightest.’ Consistent with Gypsy discourse, Mann describes Jevgs as possessing qualities that are the inverse of the negative Gypsy stereotype and claims that they are ‘clean, honest, hard-working, and fairly intelligent. Many of their children go to school.’ “ (Trubeta 2005:75).
But in less recent times, there were however those who adopted the first explanation, that of the general “deterioration” in the lifestyle of the same Gypsy communities. The most curious (though apparently wholly speculative) hypothesis was in fact proposed by Voltaire, and in direct connection with an Egyptian ethnogenesis:
“Nothing appears more probable than that those wretches [Gypsies] were a remnant of the ancient priests and priestesses of Isis, intermixed with those of the goddess of the Assyrians. These wandering tribes; as much despised by the Romans as their ancestor had formerly been reverenced, carried their ceremonies and their mercenary superstitions with them all over the world. […] When Christianity took the place of the religion of Numa, and after Theodosius had destroyed the famous temple of Serapis in Egypt, some of the Egyptian priests joined themselves to those of the goddess Cybele, and the goddess of the Assyrians, and went about begging alms, in the same manner as has been since practised by our mendicant friars; but as they could not expect any assistance from the Christians, they found it necessary to add the trade of quack-doctors to that of pilgrim, and practised chiromancy or palmistry, and formed several singular dances. Mankind loved to be amused and deceived, and therefore these offsprings of the ancient priests have continued even to the present time. Such has been the end of the ancient religion of Isis and Osiris, whose very names still impress respect. This religion, altogether emblematic and highly venerable, in its origin as early as the days of Cyrus, degenerated into a medley of ridiculous and superstitious customs. It fell into still greater contempt under the Ptolemys, and, in the time of the Romans, was in a state of the utmost abjection; and, at length, has been wholly left to a band of thieves and pickpockets.” (Voltaire 1756).
Another, much less fantastic observation, was made by 19th century Gypsiologist “Henry van Elven”:
“The feudal epoch was fatal to the vagabond life of the Gypsies among us. Too often they were molested, robbed, and even killed. From that time the era of magic had commenced for them. In the many sorcery trials which I have studied, the names which figure are nearly always little known in our country, and very often one finds the appellation ‘Gypsy,’ ‘vagrant,’ or ‘Jew,’ beside these alien names. […] all this made the wandering metal-worker gradually relinquish his character of an artificer, and become known rather as a tinker, a sorcerer, an ‘envouteur’ and a fortune-teller.” (Elven 1892:237-8).
Although Elven’s conclusions, given their being based on unsourced information, are to be taken with skepticism; if what he proposes sustains any historical substance, the problem would be that feudalism had already started five centuries before the initial tolerance of Gypsies, and was already drawing to an end by the time of the beginning of their persecution. However, his narrative may nevertheless reveal a certain pattern of deterioration that may have occurred at other locations and other times in history.
Given the characterization of Balkan Egyptians by being more sedentary and adoptive to local language and culture, the factors of intermarriage, social mingling, and continued relocation, naturally negates the possibility of finding a racial or linguistic evidence of their proclaimed true Egyptian identity. By the second half of the 20th century, once the Romani identity becomes established and the Egyptian identity abandoned by the bigger number of Gypsy communities (perhaps including by those who were not even necessarily Romani!), researchers explain the frequent use of the words “Egyptian” and “Gypsy”, and all the folktales and historical narratives that have been repeated across generations to demonstrate the Roma’s Egyptian identity before they become aware of their Indian origins, as based on a lie or myth that the first Indian migrants had created for doubtful reasons which we do not yet fully understand.
This myth, whether it was created by or imposed on the Roma, most probably indicates some sort and extent of a prior Egyptian presence in Europe before the Roma’s arrival, and that, given the Roma’s abandonment of their own original identity and adoption of an Egyptian one (as is manifest in folktales and the total forgetfulness of an Indian origin) – this indicates that a process of assimilation of some sort had occurred with reference to the Egyptian identity, and that no such assimilation could have been possible without an already existing Egyptian community and, more over, that that already existing Egyptian community was sufficiently similar (thus assimilable) in some aspects of lifestyle to the newly arriving Roma.
The current partial linguistic and genetic evidence with regard to the question of Gypsy origin, proves that Romani Gypsies of Indian ethnic origins are partially predominant in Europe and other locations in the Middle East right now and since their arrival in Europe, but does not necessarily indicate that the Roma, that is, migrants originating from India, were or are the only people leading a Gypsy-like lifestyle ever to exist in recorded history or at present. Although belief in a single Indian origin is widespread among researchers, this belief seems to originate from another belief that mistakes Gypsiness, so to speak, for an ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and historically definable entity, rather than simply a form of lifestyle that may have been adopted and practiced by several communities at the same time in different or identical geographic locations and historical periods, and by various degrees of uniqueness and imitation with respect to one another. Or as Walter Pohl puts it:
“We do not have to look for ethnicity as an inborn characteristic, but as an ‘ethnic practice’ that reproduces the ties that hold a group together.” (Pohl 1998:17).
Thus it is not unlikely that there may have been more than one origin to the Gypsy lifestyle in Europe, particularly associated with Egyptian and Athinganoi origins (both of which seem to have been established in Europe in a much older and earlier time before the first Indian migration to Europe). This hypothesis would solve the mystery behind the Indians being called or calling themselves Egyptians for so long, and the discrepancy in the names given to similar slave or working communities sometimes under the name “Atsingani” and sometimes under the name “Egyptian”. Some 19th century Gypsiologists, especially Henry Van Elven, have repeatedly emphasized such older presence of Gypsy communities in Europe:
“… truth compels me to say that the arrival of the Gypsies in Western Europe ought to be placed much further back in time than it generally is. The Gypsies have come hither at the very dawn of history, accompanying or preceding the first swarm of Eastern immigrants coming by the Danube route.” (Elven 1892:135).
Similar possibilities of Jewish and tribal, and many other identities that were never mentioned or recovered from the mass of historical documents, may be advanced as potential origins of some itinerant or Gypsy communities in Europe and elsewhere.
* * *
7. Balkan Egyptians today: political dimensions
In the midst of the savage and criminal battles which took place through out the last decade of the 20th century following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and which gave rise to the emergence of new energetic and youthful national identities and nation-states such as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and most recently Kosovo, thus rendering the older and more established states (Serbia vs. Albania) increasingly edgy – accusations and suspicions regarding Balkan Egyptians were probably inevitable. Here, Serbian nationalists were striving to claim territory and history, and though their mother tongue was Albanian, Balkan Egyptians rejected any imposition of an Albanian identity over their population in the time of crisis, when matters of ethnicity and social identity could determine the size of territories that will be given to (thus also taken from) the various battling entities. Thus, we find the following in a number of Der Spiegel (15 October 1990):
“the Serbian leader suddenly claims that the Albanian majority in Yugoslavia are in reality Egyptians […] The chief of the federal commission for the next census, Hisein Ramadani, comes closer to the truth: The hundreds of Egyptians represent at best a handful of Gypsies who have been Albanianised for a long time but suddenly do not want to be Albanians.” (quoted and translated by Trubeta 2005:71).
Trubeta reports further:
“The former secretary-general of the World Congress of Roma and later president of the Romano-Rat (Berlin), Dr Rajko Djuric, characterised discourse about the Egyptians as a ‘comedy,’ an act that lacked seriousness but served political purposes: above all the division and subsequent weakening of the Romani movement. From Djuric’s point of view, the Egyptian movement is the symptom of a ‘devide and conquer’ strategy deployed by politicians in order to gain influence over and thus to instrumentalise large numbers of the Romani population in the service of their own interests.” (Trubeta 2005:79).
It is evident that the accusations against Balkan Egyptians as if they were employed by Serbs or were otherwise seeking to exploit the crisis for their own benefit, shows how much the accusers were ignorant of the age-long self-identification of the Balkan Egyptians as such. Hence, despite of the actual wide academic Serbian interest in researching, and sometimes directly supporting the Balkan Egyptian identity (Duijzings 2000:137-9), and even if the support Balkan Egyptians have found from Serbian authorities was driven by political aspirations, and even if they did in fact seek to advance the uniqueness of their social identity in a moment of crisis, they obviously did not do so solely to serve the political ends of Serbs or otherwise.
The significance, however, of such late 20th century political accusations against Balkan Egyptians, is that they have exercised (and continue to exercise) an impact on ethnological and historical research of minorities in former Yugoslavia and the Balkan states. In this way, after about one decade of the end of the Yugoslav wars, we find in the optimistically-named “Historical Dictionary of the Gypsies” the following assertions under the entry “Egyptians” (italicization by me):
“The name first given to Gypsies when they reached western Europe, as it was thought they came from Egypt. A number of groups in the Balkans previously thought to be Romany Gypsies but who no longer spoke the Romani language began in the last few years to claim that they were not Gypsies at all, but descendants of Egyptian immigrants to Europe. […] The Serbian-led government in Belgrade was pleased to welcome the emergence of the Egyptians, as they helped to diminish the percentage of Albanians in Kosovo and ethnologist Hadzi Ristic stated that he had found traces of Egyptian presence in Macedonia. It seems likely that the Egyptians emerged from the population of Albanian-speaking Roma who found, after 1990, that there was no advantage in being Albanian in either Kosovo or Macedonia. However, they had little inclination to call themselves Roma, because of the low social status of this group.” (Kenrick 2007:73).
Aside from the different layers of ignorance of historical facts in the preceding quote, assertions like these in academic research exercise a disastrous effect not only over the actual life of the subject-matter itself (Balkan Egyptians), but also conceptually, as they gradually, but quickly, transform into established facts through academic pedantry. Thus, we find an accumulation of “academic prejudice” against the Balkan Egyptian and other minority ethnogeneses, manifesting even in the titles of papers, (for example in Marushiakova & Popov 2000: “Myth as process”), and in a paper titled “The Making of Egyptians in Kosovo and Macedonia”, without demonstrating what are these “all data” that are thus indicative, the author writes:
“For Kosovo, all data indicate that the Egyptians recruit their members mainly from the Ashkali (Albanian; Askalije in Serbian), a term that most of these ‘Albanian’ Gypsies use for themselves.” (Duijzings 2000:139).
The same author proceeds as follows:
“… the Egyptians do not want to be Albanians anymore, and moreover, refuse to become Gypsies again. Their claims to an Egyptian identity have been supported by others, notably by Serbian and Macedonian scientists and journalists, who regard the creation of an Egyptian identity as an instrument to affect the numerical predominance of the Albanians. In more general terms, this case clearly shows that political change may lead to shifts in identity, in particular among groups that occupy a relatively weak position within the ethno-political arena. […] the Egyptian leaders have recycled an old and obsolete theory about the origins of the Gypsies.“ (Duijzings 2000:149-150)
This is only an example of so many other similar antagonistic attitudes that, in my humble opinion, are not befitting of a true researcher! This irrevocable certitude that, once proven wrong, is so embarrassingly destructive to the credibility of those who unconsciously succumb so deeply to their own speculations, not to say delusion and imagination! Such academic antagonism is not necessarily psychological (although it may be as we shall see later!), rather it arises necessarily and simply by assuming a definitive negatory nature with regard to another assertion, thus resembling a conceptual extreme in relation to that other assertion that it seeks to negate. Just now, let us have a look on how Balkan Egyptian leaders, whom Duijzings denounces as manipulative perhaps, have viewed the transformation in the political environment in former Yugoslavia as a waited-for opportunity for self-expression and self-assertion, rather than manipulation:
” ‘The Egyptians’ Association has no political goals,’ Mr. Arifi said, explaining that the new political openness in Yugoslavia had given his people their first opportunity to organize and go public. ‘We only want to be recognized as Egyptians in the Yugoslav census. We declared ourselves to be Egyptians on the 1981 census once,’ Mr. Arifi said. ‘But the Government threw us into the miscellaneous category. We have all the rights we need. We don’t need our own schools or anything.” (Sudetic 1990).
Further, it is not true that Balkan Egyptian leaders had done nothing with regard to the affirmation and promotion of their self-proclaimed group identity before the struggle over Yugoslavia had commenced:
“The processes of public presentation of their own identity of the Egyptians came to the surface in the 1970s with the first attempts to have a separate entry for ‘Egipkjani’ (Egyptians) in the censuses in former Yugoslavia, and in the Republic of Macedonia in particular. The Egyptian movement received a new impetus after the new constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was passed in 1974 (Art. 166, 170). It established the right of every citizen to declare his own ethnic belonging. Some Egyptians remember that in the 1981 census some of them declared themselves as ‘Gyupci’, but they were reclassified as ‘Roms’, while others declared themselves as ‘Egipkjani’ (Egyptians) for the first time in Macedonia, but they were also not recorded in the census results and were classified as ‘others’. It became clear that without having a special census entry (Egyptians) their existence would not be public knowledge. In order to achieve this special Egyptian entry people started began circulating petitions not only in Macedonia but in Kosovo as well (nearly 4000 people signed a petition in Kosovo). These petitions were deposited at various levels of government in SFR Yugoslavia. The long struggle ended with success in the census of 1991, when the Egyptian activists managed to persuade the Yugoslav authorities to introduce the Egyptian entry in the census papers, thus actually recognizing their existence. From Kosovo around 13.000 citizens’ signatures were collected. According to unofficial census (the outbreak of the war prevented that census from ever being finalized, and the census was contested by Albanians in Kosovo and some parts of Macedonia) in Macedonia from 1991, 3307 people or 0,2% declared themselves as Egyptians. According the Egyptians this number was too low and did not reflect the actual situation. They wrote again petitions and protests.” (Zemon 2003:3-4).
Antagonism against the Balkan Egyptian identity and ethnogenesis was sustained not only by researchers, emerging national societies and governments, but strangely also by the “Roma political leadership” as well, which is itself representative merely of one of the most miserable and despised minorities in human history!
“Finally, it was especially the Roma political leadership who adopted inimical and sardonic attitude towards Egyptians, accusing them of separatism and mocking on the narrative of Ancient Egyptian origin, thus assuming the role of a hostile Other against which the image of Egyptians was projected.” (Vangeli 2011:134).
As recognition by the state of India to the Roma identity has contributed significantly in supporting and promoting the social and human rights of the Romani people where ever they are (Toninato 2009:7-8), Balkan Egyptian leaders have repeatedly attempted to seek assistance and support, not from the Serbians as they were accused, but from those whom they consider as “brother and sisters”, by establishing contact and relationship with the original homeland, the national and sovereign Egypt. The response of Egyptian officials in the embassies of Tirana (Albania) and Belgrade (Serbia), reveal clearly the degree of political confusion, contradictoriness, and lack of vision, orientation, or purpose, with regard to the foreign policy of the state of Egypt: On the one hand we find such reports which reveal interest and reciprocity; on the side of Balkan Egyptians: in 1991, a book covering Balkan Egyptian folktales, legends and traditions, was written by the Macedonian activist “Stojan Risteski” and submitted to the Egyptian embassy in Belgrade. And in December 1991 Balkan Egyptians issued an official congratulatory statement to “Boutros Ghali” for being the new elected UN secretary general. On the side of Egyptian officials: Egyptian ambassador to Belgrade had invited Balkan Egyptian representatives twice in 1990 and 1991 to celebrate Egypt’s national day (Revolution Day, 23rd of July), where he was quoted saying “I am flattered that they want to be a part of Egyptian heritage.” (Duijzings 2000:126-7. Sudetic 1990).
Yet on the other hand, it seems that the issue of Balkan Egyptians was never handled by Egyptian officials and politicians on any level that was higher than that of embassies; no official statements were ever declared by Egyptian officials about Balkan Egyptians, whether in embassies or by the ministry of foreign affairs – a condition which eventually led to the following confusion (see Zemon 2011:18-9):
Comment of the Government of R. Albania concerning the Egyptian issue: “The allegation of a group of people that is so called ‘Egyptians’ and requires to be considered as minority group exists only in Albania. For this issue we mention again the fact which is expressed even before the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Tirana declared that it does not acknowledge any Egyptian minority in Albania and this community which lives in Albania has no ethnic relation to the Egyptian people.”
Zemon: “During my visit of the Embassy of AR Egypt in Tirana, I had a conversation with H.E. Dr. Refaat Ansary, the Ambassador. He informed me that the Embassy was never asked by the Albanian authorities about the ‘Egyptians issue’ in Albania, and they have never given any official declaration as it is mentioned in the comment of the Government of Albania. This position was repeated on more occasions by the official Egyptian authorities, even at a round table that Union of Balkan Egyptians organized as Side Event of OSCE Review Conference in Warsaw on 6th October 2010, where Mr. Tamer Hamad was presented as a member of AR Egyptian delegation on the Conference.” (Zemon 2011:18-9).
The question that arises in one’s mind now (and that for some reason, as far as we can know, was never asked by Zemon to those Egyptian officials), why does Egypt not recognize Balkan Egyptians?! Indeed, after having expressed his being flattered by Balkan Egyptians’ self-identification with Egyptian heritage, Mr. Hussein Hassouna, Egyptian ambassador to Belgrade, was quoted saying in 1990: “When I first heard about this I thought it was a joke […] It is necessary to prove that they are Egyptians.” (Sudetic 1990).
And here appears clearly the aforementioned lack of Egyptian foreign policy, since, if any such policy existed, the presence of minority groups calling themselves “Egyptians” in various Balkan states, would have most certainly aroused the most serious official Egyptian interest in those Balkan Egyptians; an interest that would be certainly of a cultural nature, but justifiably also political! But such no-statement response of Egyptian officials to Balkan Egyptians abroad, exhibits exactly the same neo-colonial attitude of indifference, and even intentional ignoring, of the affairs of national Egyptians at home! (That, has been the avowed governing policy of Egyptian rulers since the military takeover in 1952!) – Balkan Egyptians are thus destined to continue their struggles without political support from neither the state nor the people of Egypt.
Nevertheless, and despite of all the socio-political pressure that has been continually exercised over the Balkan Egyptian communities and their leaders – they have generally managed to endure and survive, and promote their social and human rights still, by various degrees of success – a condition which speaks well of their general social cohesion and determination:
“Organizations of Egyptians exist in Albania, in the Republic of Macedonia, and in FR Yugoslavia. All these organizations are united in the Union of Balkan Egyptians, which is headquartered in Ohrid, R. Macedonia. The Balkan Egyptian émigrés in Western Europe are united in Union of Balkan Egyptians for West Europe with seat in Mulheim-an-der-Ruhr, FR Germany, with Robertina Ashouri as a chairman. Many organizations of Egyptians from Kosovo exist in Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Sweden. After entering of international administration and forces in Kosovo, a political party of Egyptians (New Democratic Initiative of Kosovo) was established, and today this party has 2 MPs in Kosovo parliament: Mr. Bislim Hoti (president of the party) and Mr. Xhevdet Neziri.” (Zemon 2003:5).
In chapter three we have already covered some other forms of social and cultural organization that have been established by Balkan Egyptians for more than twenty years now, all of which reveal a distinct level of attachment to the Egyptian identity. To those already mentioned we may add the following political-oriented organizations:
“In 1995 the association of the Yugoslavian Egyptians for Kosovo and Metohija began to publish the magazine ‘Voice of the Yugoslav Egyptians’ and in 1998 the association of the Egyptians in Macedonia began to publish the magazine ‘Voice of the Egyptians in Macedonia’. (Zemon 2003:4).
* * *
§ Predominance of bias in Gypsy-related research
The late Egyptian historian and linguist Bayoumi Andil (1942 – 2009) used to say that similarities are much more predominant among human races than are differences, and that what is common between us, even in our self-unconscious practices, is far greater than what is distinctive. In Buddhist psychology, “identity” is seen as something that is a product of Moha (delusion or imagination) which is in turn conditioned by what the individual or group is attracted to or repulsed from, in that if one becomes free from “desire and aversion”, the need for identity vanishes. Much of the problem of self-identification as well as the identification of others, arises in my humble opinion from this simple and inherent human urge to like and dislike. Thus, such natural and instinctive, even cognitive urge, is neither the cause nor effect of dualistic thinking (particularly that which separates subject from object!), it is rather the emotive side of what we imagine to be purely rational, what we imagine to be knowledge!
Indeed many people are instinctively driven to think and feel that differences among peoples are vast, or must be vast, and often without being able to provide any reason for such a stance. It is rather an emotional attitude, based in a spontaneous, compulsive, evolutionary mode of anxiety, similar to that which would give rise to the neurotic screaming of a tribe of apes upon running into another in the forest! The complications introduced by adding such conceptual variables as “minority” and “host society” only reinforce such evolutionary anxiety, give impetus to social desires and aversions, and finally result in tighter grasp on identity. Researchers may indeed be justified with a right reason, or perhaps infallible intuition, when they aspire to disclose with viscous energeticness the fallacies and delusions lying deep at the bottom and core of the self-identification of a social group. But fallacy and delusion are those researchers themselves when they think that theirs is a robbing attack, unlike sunshine, that applies to some specific social groups but not to all!
It is apparently for just the same reasons, the very deep likes and dislikes, desire and aversion, that both the social groups and the researchers investigating them develop prejudices toward their objects of attention! Desire and aversion necessarily arise, and the authority of history becomes involved as an interpretive tool that can be used to change and influence the variables and conditions of the present. Just look carefully, you will find that all of us do just that, only for different goals and desires, which is precisely what gives rise to conflict, since most of the time, being a social animal, goals and desires engulf entire masses of people rather than independent private individuals. But even though the academic researcher is an individual, and moreover, one who claims dedication to nothing other than the neutral search after the truth – even here, we find hidden deep in the consciousness a predominance of desire and aversion even with regard to the subject of research.
Indeed, most of those who sought to engage with the age-long question of the ethnogenesis of Gypsies, have done so with a biased spirit rather than objective, neutral, and dispassionate examination; or else they were those who belonged to the 18th century stereotype of imaginative researchers who based their investigation methods on occult or biblical foundations; such as the case with de Gébelin (or even Avraham in contemporary times), who respectively declared the “tarot” to be of Egyptian or Hebrew origin and thereby explained the Gypsies’ practice of it – or likewise the common explanation of the Gypsy phenomenon in its Egyptian affiliation by reference to the proclamations of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, who all prophesied the dispersion of the Egyptian people across the lands and the nations, etc.
I believe however that any researcher who wishes to venture in proclaiming his or her conclusions regarding the “identification” of others, even if only of a single individual, he or she must at first investigate with equal attentiveness, openness, and earnestness, all conceivable possibilities, rather than only what he or she deems the most likely possibilities. This is so even more when what is considered likely by those researchers is not altogether different from what they reject or ignore as remotely possible! Aside from “scientific” or “academic” integrity, there are self-evident humanistic reasons for this assertion; that so long we are studying a conscious and, even self-conscious subject, we have to take in consideration how it identifies itself more seriously than any other consideration.
Ever since the beginning, opinions, investigations, and perspectives regarding both the Gypsy lifestyle and origins, have been conducted and expressed with an underlying sense of either aversion or sympathy, disgust or admiration, but seldom, even to this day, with neutrality and dispassion. I wish to clarify my point here by giving just one clear example, of how researchers have (rather childishly!) adopted the method of picking from the current (and widely varied) Romani cultural and folkloric traditions that which corresponds to the Indian heritage, to establish further the plausibility of the all-inclusive Indian ethnogenesis! In this regard, Avraham catches Donald Kenrick (2004:109) making a reference to one of the Gypsy folktales, that of “kana kubja” or the “hunchbacked maiden”, and parallels the origin of this tale to the Hindu heritage. Avraham claims that parallels can be established between that same tale and Middle Eastern folk heritage (such as the renowned “1001 Nights”), and adds:
“It is well known that Roma usually adopt tales from the lands where they dwelled, and adapt them to their own fantasy. It is also a fact that most ‘Romany’ tales are labelled as ‘Jewish’ tales as well, and both claim to be the original source. There are also some Persian, Armenian and even Arabic tales in the Romany oral literature. I wonder why the author does not mention the popularity of Prophet Eliyah among many Roma groups… perhaps because he would not be able to explain the ‘Indian’ origin of such tradition. Eliyah was a Prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.” (Avraham).
But then it can be observed that Avraham himself does the same thing too! For any researcher who is operating according to a certain teleology of research, the pre-established desire to arrive at a certain conclusion; this researcher will automatically adopt such selective method that will not only ignore or discredit all that does not reinforce the desired conclusion, but will even go so far as to bend and twist all interpretable data to fit with the pre-established conclusion. This then applies to Avraham as well, whose sharp criticism of the all-inclusive Indian ethnogenesis itself aims at promoting an all-inclusive Jewish ethnogenesis!
As we have seen in the case of the “Hunchbacked Maiden” above, researchers can sometimes become so much fascinated by their own imagination, which drives them to think that a certain human social or religious phenomenon is so extremely unique and distinct, thus, they blindly involve such imagined uniqueness in their supposedly skeptic and dispassionate analysis and investigation; and though there is no escape from a degree or another of speculation in all historical investigation, especially of times, places, events, and peoples, whose existence was not well-documented by contemporaneous sources – yet this does not warrant such speculation to establish its basis merely in imagination. Here again, Kenrick, among many other researchers, imagines the Hindu goddess “Kali” to be “still very popular among Rromani people.” (Kenrick 2004:109). But Avraham here exhibits this double usage of criticism, at once discredits Kenrick’s fallacy and promotes his speculative narrative of a Jewish ethnogenesis:
“This is quite a strange assertion for somebody who intends to be a scholar in Romany culture, as indeed, Roma have no idea about the Indian goddess Kali, and no such ‘popularity’ exists. I do not know if the author has inserted this false statement with the only purpose of reinforcing his theory, but I prefer to believe in his good faith. There is not any element in my family that may lead to think that such a tradition ever existed, and there is not in any of the numerous Roma and Sinti families I met worldwide, from Russia to Spain, from Sweden to Italy, from the United States to Tierra del Fuego (the southernmost land in Argentina), of every Romany branch, from Kalderasha/Churarya/Lovarya to Spanish Kalé, from Estraxharya/Eftavagarya Sinti to Finnish Kale, from Machwaya to South-American Khoraxhané. I challenge anybody to ask Roma who they think Kali was – their answer would be: ‘a black woman’, because ‘kali’ is the female gender of ‘kaló’, that means black (not because they actually know that the Indian idol is also black).“
But then Avraham, ignoring or ignorant of various distinct Hindu elements which persist in Romani spirituality, including that of St. Sara-Kali’s worship, adds the following:
“Sara ‘kali’ is called that way because is a black woman, who, by chance or not, has the name of the mother of the Hebrew people, and this may be the reason by which the catholic Roma have chosen her as their own saint.”
In just the same way as Kenrick endeavors to establish the unique Hindu imprint on present-day Roma, Avraham lists a number of religious or spiritual practices of the Roma as if they were distinctly Hebrew, even though most of those practices mentioned by both Kenrick and Avraham are known almost to every other religion and spirituality! Many speculations based on that aforementioned method of drawing selective parallels and relationships between various historical data, have been used in all sorts of historical research and investigation, including this very paper, in which I have attempted to show that the Balkan Egyptian ethnogenesis is not altogether devoid of historical substance. But problems in interpretation, including blunt and embarrassing errors such as those we find particularly in ethnological research concerning the Gypsies, begin to arise as soon as the researcher posits too much trust, affirmation, or even a sort of faith, in his or her speculations, and proceeds from them as if they were certain, to make further speculations, and so on. Only with genuine dispassion, that is in turn founded over uncompromising neutrality and impartiality, that a researcher becomes able to divorce himself from all quality-judgments regarding whatever conclusions he arrives at or finds probable. There is nothing at stake for such a researcher, nothing to win or to lose, and it is precisely then that research in the Humanities becomes most profitable and beneficial to the human being! But we rarely find this dispassionate attitude in research concerning Gypsies (as well as that concerning Jewish history as well!), except for rare occasions; one almost immediately senses the presence of either subtle or gross, aversive or sympathetic dispositions with regard to the subject-matter, as if that subject-matter was something that is possessed by the researcher, and as if the conceptual will and verdict of the researcher has the potency to materialize in the physical world and to shape it according to its own image, or fails to do so! Thus we find quite clearly a sense of defeat in the following sigh of frustration:
“Processes in search of and attempts at constructing a new, non-Gypsy identity have been observed among other Gypsy communities in the Balkans. These processes have gone farthest with the so-called ‘Balkan Egyptians’ in Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Serbia, who although considered for many centuries as ‘Gjupti/Gjupci’ in Macedonia, ‘Jevg’ in Albania, etc., have at present not only construed their own entire and detailed national history, but have even been granted official recognition by the international forces as a separate community in Kosovo.” (Marushiakova & Popov 2010:45).
The question that arises here is, what is it that makes a researcher want a certain condition to be or become in reality? Where does this seeking, that manifests itself clearly in the very conclusions of research and, I think, also guides it, come from? Is it not the persistence of bias (desire and aversion) in the very depth of the researcher’s consciousness, in just the same way as it persists in the mind of those who constitute the subject of research?!
It remains to be an open question, though, whether such necessary degree of dispassion in study and investigation in the domains of Humanities, may be confused with loss of interest in the studied and investigated subject, or in the field of study itself!
§ Similitude and durability of the popular spiritual experience
I wish to end this essay by contemplating one specific possible answer of this important “unanswered” question posed by Sevasti Trubeta:
“The key question of how the preservation of the memory of an ancient origin is facilitated (if indeed it is) by communities lacking elites and institutions capable of preserving and updating collective memories remains unanswered.”
Examining this question will lead us to a most interesting and important view on collective identity and its propagation through time and the eventfulness of human history. But at first I would like to point to the existence of the opposite of what Trubeta presupposes; the near complete loss of collective memory not in scattered and dispersed minorities, but in entire nations, which although on the apparent level seem to have produced stable elites and institutions, which do in fact teach the history of the nation to children in schools and have them demonstrate that official memory in school tests – yet on the levels of feeling and live collective memory, we find manifest evidence of the near complete forgetfulness and detachment from any such historical affiliation and self-identification.
There are many examples of this in every continent, and perhaps in every country and nation-state on this tiny planet, by various degrees of “historical amnesia”, so to speak. One particular example of this condition is more relevant to the subject of this essay: the Egyptian nation itself, not that of the Balkans, but that of the Nile Valley. And to demonstrate the deep extent by which the ancient Egyptian identity has been breached (not to say severed) with regard to the memory of contemporary Egyptians, it is sufficient to realize that the dominant official cultural and historical discourse in contemporary Egypt responds with the same aversive and sarcastic attitude to which Egyptians in the Balkans are exposed, to alternative perspectives promoting a discourse of continuity with the ancient past in Egypt itself! Although children learn in schools of that ancient past, in reality, the vast majority of the people are unconscious of any continuity or self-association between that past and their present-day identity and intuitive feeling of collective or private self, and it would be declared a “comedy”, also, should someone propose that present-day Egyptians are not any more “Arabs” than they are “Egyptians”! Even in present-day Egypt itself, a country which on the apparent level possesses elites and institutions, what the appellation “Egyptian” really purports is highly confused and intensely contested!
It is quite curious that such alternative discourses of continuity have generally been quite rare in Egypt itself, almost always persecuted by defamation and mockery just as is the case with Balkan Egyptians, as if the proposition of self-identification with the ancient glorious past was socially pejorative rather than exalting! Nevertheless, the most recent such discourse of continuity has emerged indeed, and with much force, in the work of Bayoumi Andil, who succeeded in demonstrating continuity by deconstructing the conceived totality or unity of present-day Egyptian identity and culture into its most basic constituent elements, including the linguistic element, as it manifests in the spoken vernacular rather than the official Arabic. Now it is as if someone had discovered that the Gypsies spoke Romani, and thereby succeeded in tracing their origins back to India rather than to biblical or Little Egypt! But still in Real Egypt no one cares about any such findings regarding the Coptic origins of the very language that Egyptians speak; in fact, a lot of Egyptians become upset and vexed by such findings, which shake the foundations of an imagined, yet chosen Arabic and Muslim identity! A phenomenon which Andil describes as “self-contempt” and ascribes its origin to colonial and neo-colonial educational and cultural conditioning. But Andil comes to a very significant conclusion that may provide an answer to Trubeta’s question:
Andil states that it would not have been possible for him to investigate and discover continuity in Egyptian language and culture had they not been preserved indeed; only, they were not preserved by political or intellectual elites and institutions (these Andil considers to be either totally ignorant or totally “self-contemptuous”, due to their self-identification with not only foreign culture and language, but also anti-Egyptian ones!), rather, they were preserved in the very popular language, proverbs, folklore, and many other manifestations of collective social life and memory on the popular level alone, and on no other level. In his most important book, “The Present State of Culture in Egypt”, Andil gives amble evidence of such striking opposition and total separation between the literate classes and the popular masses with regard to culture and language, and even religiosity, by showing how the popular practices mark continuity while institutional and official practices mark discontinuity.
For the literate classes then the result is cultural alienation, since the members of such classes themselves eventually perpetuate the official and dominant narrative and oppose and suppress alternative ones, and not on the basis of truth or neutrality, as one would expect from an educated class, but on the basis of being forced to connect themselves (either for social protection or self-promotion) to the official authorities, who now constitute the elites and institutions which Trubeta mentions,. It is for that reason that Andil declares Egypt to be “a country without intelligentsia”, practically speaking, it is without “truly national” elites and institutions, but rather neo-colonial ones, and because even the political factions which are opposed to official power, have sufficed to do so only on the political and economic levels, but have given in to the cultural and historical narratives adopted and perpetuated by the official power, thus on the cultural and even linguistic levels continue to be largely divorced and alienated in relation to the popular masses whose interests they claim to represent and promote. This condition of profound cultural alienation may be found in few other unfortunate societies, most visibly in the Philippines, as we gather from the remarkable work of Filipino historian “Renato Constantino” (1919 – 1999) – and to show the extent of such alienation, and just for an example, both Egyptians and Filipinos at present call their countries by the names given to them by foreign occupiers (Arabs and Spanish), and both of them consider their mother tongues to be secondary and inferior to those of the occupiers
(Arabic and Spanish)! That same condition has existed in the past with regard to Balkan Egyptians as well:
“Many nations and ethnic communities at that time didn’t succeed to find ‘the place under the sun’, as are the Balkans Egyptians. In the period of the creation of the nations and the national’s states and on the later historical happenings in the Balkans, the Egyptians didn’t have their intellectuals, mainly they were without education and workers.” (Zemon 2003:2).
There is indeed a striking similarity between the Balkan Egyptian leaders, and the recent nationalistic cultural and political movement in Egypt that promotes Andil’s discourse of continuity. It is quite astonishing how both of them, without any contact with one another, came to proudly affiliate themselves with the “Pharaoh” and reject the religious authorities which champion the biblical triumph of the Semitic god in Exodus! And although intellectuals and nationalists in Egypt approach the matter with more sophisticated air than Balkan Egyptian leaders, and independently from myth and folktale, it is only the elites and institutions of the Balkan Egyptians that can be thought of as a “leadership”, that is, can be said to function usefully with regard to a dependent general population! That is to say, the nationalist elites in Egypt are still largely divorced from society, while Balkan Egyptian leaders are already representative of a society. It is precisely the presence of an organic relationship with a Balkan Egyptian population, and not only because they happen to be increasingly included as a minority in an egalitarian Europe, that gives power and vitality to Balkan Egyptian leaders and institutions, and enables them to wage statesmanship war against assimilation demands by other minorities or even governments, and emerge victorious still.
However for the popular classes in Egypt, (through whose actual culture Andil discovers continuity), and even though they constitute the exact opposite of a minority(!) the result is cultural manoeuvring; and that is so because they have learned to ignore and get around the official narrative; they have learned to transcend alienation by finding their own independent means to perpetuate and renew their collective identity and memory, which even if not preserved in a self-conscious, elitist or institutionalized form, continue nevertheless by the simple force of historical momentum, to be discordant with and diminishing to the monopoly of social power assumed by “self-contemptuous” and “neo-colonial” elites and institutions, which in the context of Egyptian history represent almost the same antagonistic force as the prejudices and aversion of the “host society” in the context of Gypsy history. The manifestations of such “cultural manoeuvring” and independent collective social, religious, and linguistic practices by the popular classes in Egypt, sometimes seem to be identical with their Romani counterparts, _not just in functionality but also sometimes in substance!_ and are highly relevant not only to the ethnogenesis of Egyptians in the Balkans, but also to illuminate further how and why it came to be that Gypsies in general, whether Indian or not, had found it at least possible to become Egyptians, to the extent of forgetting completely about their true origins, over centuries and centuries of assimilation to an Egyptian identity.
There are significant instances and certain social situations in which what is common and similar among all of us, emerges in all splendour and clarity for us to see, and feel. And here, it becomes clear that it did not really matter in the first place, what genesis you and I ascribe to ourselves and to each others. It is only in the domain of conflict that differences are utilized. But the moment in which no more need for self-affirmation arises, we immediately find ourselves not just open to “others”, but also seeking them.
This is mostly the very definition of civilization; all such human products which by their very nature could only become universal, or at least unconditionally applicable and adoptable by any human society. And the act of civilization, the state of being civilized, exists equally in those who produce and create as much as it does in those who adopt. Thus, the only valid and meaningful assimilation must be that which happens voluntarily.
This is the most remarkable aspect about the ancient world, this openness, curiosity and even obsession with regard to all that ‘the other’ produces. No doubt it had led to many wars and conquests, but Bayoumi Andil points to the truth that, despite of all the violence, the conqueror could still become at last assimilated by the conquered! It is this capacity that had brought the Egyptian glass vessels and temples of Isis from Egypt to the Balkans, that allowed the many European communities to welcome and aid those strange Egyptian pilgrims, and that at last made possible the adoption of the Egyptian identity by Indian migrants.
Perhaps one can here generalize and say that most Gypsy communities are unique in this regard. Despite of all the political battles in which they are now forced to plunge, and which, indeed, mark in my opinion a new distinct episode in their general history – they have not changed with regard to religious and spiritual sentiments, such domains of spiritual experience that we resolve to in order to feel pure and wholesome again and again. And this is so not because these various Gypsy spiritual practices are so extremely unique or have been originated exclusively from a certain ethnicity, but rather the opposite, because they are very much universal. And here, it will no longer be possible for you and me to distinguish with any demonstrability the Jewish from the Egyptian from the Hindu from the Christian from the Islamic; for true spirituality is the sphere in which faith in ultimate and transcendent realities obscures _necessarily_ the superficial differences which we imagine to separate not only one human being from another, but the human being from absolutely everything! All that estrangement and alienation with regard to existence, fear and anxiety born of being alive, aware of time, owner of will – all this finally comes into a state of resolution, at least temporarily, through the spiritual experience. It is not for a lesser reason, that the popular masses plunge into the world of ceremonial spiritual practice, and the manifestations of pilgrimage and worship of St. Sara the black by various Gypsy communities, reveal profoundly the essential similitude of the human spiritual experience, and his inherent and enigmatic capacity of spiritual transcendence:
Right on the shores of the Mediterranean in Southern France, the Camargue region, there is a small fishing village called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (the Saint Marys of the Sea). There, since the Middle Ages and till now, on the 24th of May of every year, thousands of Gypsies flock into the little village from surrounding countries, and also some arrive from the far corners of Europe, to celebrate St. Sara, the so-called Patron Saint of the Gypsies! Who is this St. Sara? And what connects her to Gypsies?
The story, of which there are several versions, is centered around some three biblical Marys, whose identities as mentioned in the New Testament could refer to either the Three Marys who came at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday, or those who were present at his crucifixion, or yet those who were the daughters of Saint Anne, or yet other variations. In all cases, the story is decidedly Christian, and St. Sara features in it apparently in connection with a French medieval tale, in which she either accompanies the Three Marys as a maid of one of them, or meets them at the shore of the sea where they had first arrived. Sometimes (such as in the recently famed “The Da Vinci Code”) St. Sara is depicted as the very daughter (or direct descendant) of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Why is she black? We don’t know for sure, but in one of the versions the Three Marys were escaping an early persecution of Christians by setting out in a boat, either from Alexandria or from Palestine, and St. Sara is depicted as an “Egyptian” maid of Mary Jacobe. Is it because of that that she became the patron saint of the Gypsies? We don’t know either; but in the French medieval tale she was depicted as a benevolent woman who collected alms for Christians, a practice which, for some reason, considered by some writers to coincide with the Gypsy conception of compassion and protection. All we know is that sometime in the Middle Ages, this place, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and this date, 24th of May, and the figure of St. Sara (and also the Marys), became what constitutes pilgrimage to many Gypsy communities in Europe.
The aforementioned research pattern of endeavouring to connect certain social or linguistic manifestations with certain origins, which is so characteristic of Gypsy-related research, appears here also. As we have seen earlier, researchers have connected several particular manifestations of this pilgrimage with a Hindu origin:
“Some Romani groups in Europe today appear to maintain elements of Shaktism or goddess-worship; the Rajputs worshipped the warrior-goddess Parvati, another name for the female deity Sati-Sara, who is Saint Sarah, the Romani Goddess of Fate. That she forms part of the yearly pilgrimage to La Camargue at Stes. Maries de la Mer in the south of France is of particular significance; here she is carried into the sea just as she is carried into the waters of the Ganges each December in India. Both Sati-Sara and St. Sarah wear a crown, both are also called Kali, and both have shining faces painted black. Sati-Sara is a consort of the god Ðiva, and is known by many other names, Bhadrakali, Uma, Durga and Syama among them.” (Hancock 2001:1415).
Though Hancock’s observations may seem at first so revealing of the Hindu origin, Avraham contends that they are not, and ventures to promote another origin:
“The devotion of some groups to ‘Sara kali’ in Camargue is connected with Roman catholic tradition, not with the hinduist one. Indeed, there are ‘black virgins’ in almost every Roman catholic country (including Poland!). Sara ‘kali’ is called that way because is a black woman, who, by chance or not, has the name of the mother of the Hebrew people, and this may be the reason by which the catholic Roma have chosen her as their own saint.” (Avraham).
Yet when we search farther into the history of this particular location, we find that pilgrimage and worship were practiced here in much earlier times, well before the arrival of Roma, and again, in direct connection with an unmistakable Egyptian identity! Father Morel, the pastor of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was reported saying:
“According to one legend, Sara, was already in the Camargue in the first century when the boat full of Marys arrived. Sara waded into the sea to greet them. Yet historically it is believed that the Gypsies didn’t enter Europe until as late as the fifteenth century. In another version she was Sarah of Egypt and she came as a servant with the Marys on the boat as they fled persecution. […] There is some evidence that there was worship of Ra, the Egyptian sun god, here as well. The side altar on the left in the church is pre-Christian and dates back to the fourth century, B.C. This has been a pilgrimage site since at least the sixth century A.D. When this church was built in the ninth century, they simply built it around the old altar and columns. Relics were found here from the first century, women’s skulls, from the Middle East.” (Galland 1991:176-7).
And before this location acquires its current name in 1838, it used to be called “Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer”, and before that it was known as “Notre-Dame-de-Ratis. But “Ratis” derives from the Latin “Radeau”, meaning “boat” – and the lexical connotation indicates an ancient Egyptian origin, where the Sun-god “Ra”, is being depicted as a boat that sails without oar or sail across the sky and down unto the underworld (Droit 1963:19). And indeed, the 4th century alter that father Morel refers to was once a part of the “Oppidum Priscum Ra” (Old Fortress of Ra), in which the ancient Egyptian Sun-god was worshiped, and which was later converted into a Roman temple dedicated to the worship of Sea goddesses, and possibly Isis and Mithras, and then later inherited by Christians.
The most striking however, when it comes to affinities between Gypsy and Egyptian religious practices, is the description of religious festivals and processions in ancient Egypt, and how they seem to describe at the same time, and even on the level of details, the musically celebrative festival and procession where St. Sara is being taken into the sea by the celebrating Gypsies:
“Now, when they are coming to the city of Bubastis they do as follows:–they sail men and women together, and a great multitude of each sex in every boat; and some of the women have rattles and rattle with them, while some of the men play the flute during the whole time of the voyage, and the rest, both women and men, sing and clap their hands; and when as they sail they come opposite to any city on the way they bring the boat to land, and some of the women continue to do as I have said, others cry aloud and jeer at the women in that city, some dance, and some stand up and pull up their garments. This they do by every city along the river-bank; and when they come to Bubastis they hold festival celebrating great sacrifices, and more wine of grapes is consumed upon that festival than during the whole of the rest of the year. To this place (so say the natives) they come together year by year even to the number of seventy myriads of men and women, besides children. Thus it is done here; and how they celebrate the festival in honour of Isis at the city of Busiris has been told by me before: for, as I said, they beat themselves in mourning after the sacrifice, all of them both men and women, very many myriads of people; but for whom they beat themselves it is not permitted to me by religion to say: and so many as there are of the Carians dwelling in Egypt do this even more than the Egyptians themselves, inasmuch as they cut their foreheads also with knives; and by this it is manifested that they are strangers and not Egyptians. At the times when they gather together at the city of Sais for their sacrifices, on a certain night they all kindle lamps many in number in the open air round about the houses; now the lamps are saucers full of salt and oil mixed, and the wick floats by itself on the surface, and this burns during the whole night; and to the festival is given the name Lychnocaia (the lighting of lamps). Moreover those of the Egyptians who have not come to this solemn assembly observe the night of the festival and themselves also light lamps all of them, and thus not in Sais alone are they lighted, but over all Egypt: and as to the reason why light and honour are allotted to this night, about this there is a sacred story told.” (Herodotus, Histories II).
And in the Balkan Egyptian context, there is another fascinating story, that of the very life of St. Barbarus, whom George Soulis describes as “a well-known and popular Saint among the Balkan peoples.” There are several widely varied narratives of St. Barbarus’ life, one of them is of particular interest:
“Constantine Acropolites (fl. ca. 1300) informs us that the Saint was born in an African town bearing a name similar to his own. […] The Bulgarian version of the Life of Saint Barbarus informs us explicitly that the Saint was an Egyptian by birth, and that he had joined the pirates at the age of twenty-five. He participated in a piratical raid against the Durazzo area on the Albanian coast, which ended in total disaster. Saint Barbarus, however, the Life continues, being secretly a Christian, was the only survivor of the shipwreck, and retired to a deserted place to do penance. A year later he was discovered there by a hunter, who was impressed by the Saint’s dark complexion, and, although he was unable to understand the Saint’s language, he succeeded in learning that he was a Christian. The hunter immediately reported what he had seen to the local ‘Egyptians’ who were numerous in that region and who then went out to meet Saint Barbarus and conversed with him in their own language.” (Soulis 1961:160).
As we can see, as soon as we attempt to seek a single origin for the religious practices of Gypsy communities, we get the exact opposite of what we seek: multiple possible origins! And beyond the search of a single pure origin, we discover instead, and particularly in religious and spiritual practice, a remarkable degree and capacity of assimilation that definitely transcends the manifestations of identity and difference which may indeed pervade the sociopolitical aspects of Gypsy life. The explanation as to how it is at all possible for us to find Egyptian, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and other elements and traces, converging together in the same moment of spiritual and religious popular practice, may be found here in this example from the history of Egypt:
“In some instances it has been well illustrated that the Christian saint, martyr, or confessor occupied the role of a pharaonic deity. With the advent of Christianity in the Nile Delta and valley, the masses soon replaced the cult of the pharaonic deities with historical or fictitious accounts of saints and martyrs. Historical and legendary personages and events, locally identified in either the Nile Valley or the Delta region, increasingly became objects of veneration and worship. Thus, the vita of a saint, related to a certain community and pregnant with the miraculous, provided a significantly more tangible object of religious identification than the abstract dogmas of the ‘official’ religion. This practice was very widespread in the fifth and sixth centuries. […] One of the interesting qualities of the folk religion is its highly inclusive nature with regard to so-called schismatic Christians, as well as Muslims. Whereas the ‘official’ religion carefully specifies that only the orthodox are eligible to participate in the official cultus, the folk religion knows no excluding criteria. On the contrary, the folk religion is very inclusive. Indeed, many a Coptic mulid [feast] is attended by as many Muslims as Copts nowadays.” (Meinardus 1999:96,99).
Such spirit of “inclusiveness” _which we have encountered earlier in Herodotus’ mentioning of non-Egyptians incorporating their own unique spiritual practices with the context of Egyptian religion_ is not exclusive to the history of Egypt, nor to any particular history, nor is it a characteristic that can be found only in specific human entities/identities that are connected across time through the preservation of social, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic features by elites and institutions – rather, it is a fundamental human capacity, that is of transcendent nature, and that therefore finds expression most evidently in spiritual experience, and in a striking and complete disregard of the limitations of time, place, language, social status, and the appearance of the finite and decaying human body.
Thus, the very search after a single unique origin of a human phenomenon seem to be deeply grounded in an unconscious presumption that such phenomenon is not really human! That is to say, there is an evident contradiction in thinking that the symptoms of language, genetics, and behaviour, may unravel a human being or human society that is fundamentally different from another, and that is so because differences appear only on the symptomatic level! Once these are transcended, particularly through the various degrees and depths of spiritual experience, nothing is found other than the striking similitude of the very fundamental substance and functioning of the human consciousness, through which social assimilation, rather than resistance, becomes not only possible, but also sought. This is to say that, given the materialization of certain social circumstances and conditions, it is not inconceivable that all social groups are equally liable to lead a Gypsy-like lifestyle, and that any social group may become Gypsies, and finally to assimilate its practices with all foreign socio-cultural manifestations and processes which its members find useful, and especially in the domain of spirituality which is common and fundamental to the human being and all human societies, even though it manifests through varying modes of appearance.
Then one could argue that Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 – 1990), pioneer of behavioural science, was quite right when he claimed that environmental conditioning was the most fundamental factor in shaping behaviour, not just in individuals but also in societies. It is not by reference to genetics or the ethnicity of a social group that we can explain enduring patterns of social behaviour, rather it is the effectiveness of such behavioural patterns, their success in bringing about or perpetuating certain social results or conditions that are desirable by the social group, or lack thereof, that determines whether these patterns will be sustained or abandoned in the course of time. The same variables apply to the processes of adopting and assimilating with new socio-cultural resources. Buddhist psychology describes just the same process of conditioning, but goes even further by asserting that identity, or the “self” that responds to the ever changing and fluctuating physical and social environments, does so only on the dualistic basis of desire and aversion, that is, where that “self” is defined solely by liking what it imagines to be reinforcing and disliking that which it imagines to be diminishing. According to Gautama Buddha, these qualities (good and bad) do not exist as such in reality, but only in the conditioned imagination of the conscious and evolutionary mind – that is precisely how various individuals and societies grow to adopt not only different, but also contradictory identities and life-stances, where conflict arises from. This perspective is reinforced by the observation that, even monozygotic (or identical) twins, who are even raised in the same environment, will yet grow to develop different personalities and repertoires of likes and dislikes.
However, the very utility of “social group” is to limit the scope of this initially limitless individualistic imaginative interpretation of reality, and of the self, which unfolds in the consciousness from the very moment of birth, in order to establish an effectively functional system of communication and socio-economic organization. Social identity arises from nothing other than this practical need, in just the same way as individual identity or personality arises from the inescapable evolutionary necessity to interpret reality through the dualism that separates “self” from the world even on the cognitive level. But the individual creates the self out of the sensory and mental direct contact with present physical and social stimuli – society creates its identity out of a conceptual contact with history! Ethnologists have objected so sternly against the Balkan Egyptian and other minority narratives of ethnogenesis, apparently because they have found such process of imaginative play with history to be way too much gross and lacking in the subtlety that characterizes every other historical narrative behind every other nation-state, including those whose very existence was established on the blood of indigenous populations by the thousands! But all in all the whole world seem to have been so far playing by the same rules; and it is only due to this that “elites and institutions” are needed, whether to preserve identity, or to eradicate older ones and replace them with new “colonial” ones as we have seen. The role of such elites and institutions then, according to the present analysis, is to preserve or transform the conditions of social life which in turn contribute to preserve or transform social identities.
But as we have seen, in the background of all this “official” struggle over territories and history, the masses of the popular classes across the whole world, who are still connected with the various forms of spiritual experience by various degrees of depth and devotion, are released from the battlefield by growing inwardly aware of their own fundamental and universal human capacity of transcendence. Despite of all the apparent differences and variety of popular religious and spiritual expression, and despite of all the social, cultural, and political imaginative identifications of a whole society, and despite of the insistence of official authorities on promoting certain social practices and suppressing others; where ever the members of any social group migrate, or even if they never leave their own homeland, a process of voluntary assimilation and convergence will most probably bring together the various manifestations of their and others’ profoundest religious and spiritual practices, and through these practices, whether consciously or unconsciously, the spontaneous preservation and renewal, and also adoption of very ancient elements of identity and civilization becomes possible.
Sometimes I believe that it is due to this human intuitive capacity of transcendence, that instances of total regression to the savage state never occur on a large scale or last indefinitely, in that whatever the world comes to, certain universal achievements of the human civilization, of conscience, and of altruism, cannot be undone.
— [End of paper] —
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