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Roma History


Roma ventured into modern-day Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo along with, and often ahead of the Ottoman advance; Byzantine scholars had already made note of their presence in modern-day Greece. A likely-inaccurate historical assumption placed Roma in the Balkans by the 1350s; most scholars now agree that the Persian phrase Cingarije simply denoted shoemakers, though that word eventually evolved into the pejorative Serbo-Croatian phrase Cigani. Besides Ragusa in 1362, Roma were first noted in Zagreb, Croatia in 1373, and villages of sedentary Roma in Western Bulgaria were noted in 1378.

Malcolm, 1998: p. 205

Roma appeared in the city-state of Ragusa (Dubrovnik, Croatia)- described by Noel Malcolm as the 'Hong Kong of the medieval Balkans'- in the 14th and 15th centuries. These Roma settlers bore Slavic surnames- evidence of considerable time spent among Serbs or Bulgars. They likely fled from Ottoman-ruled Serb territories. In Ragusa Roma found work as servants, along with their traditional trades of blacksmithing and music. Ragusan records in the Historijski Archiv indicate that Roma, though in low standing compared to the Ragusan elite of rich families that dominated sea-borne and inland trade, were never subject there to the abuses they would soon encounter in the rest of Europe. Some Roma even owned homes within the town.

Crowe, 1995: p. 196; Fraser, 1992.
In Ragusa- now Dubrovnik, Croatia- late fall is overcast. Clouds choke the southern Adriatic; hard rains hit the walled city, overflow from the gutters and pound the smooth cobblestones below.

November 5th, 1362:
The Ragusan goldsmith Radenus Bratoslauich accepted as a deposit eight silver pieces from two dark-skinned, black-haired men- one Vlachus and Vitanus. Ragusa was an empire built on trade; it had outposts as far away as the ancient mines of Novo Brdo, Kosovo. Its traders controlled Bosnian silver from Srebrenica. Its diplomats fawned and played greater empires- Turks and Venetians- against one another. It invented the concept of ship quarantine and outlawed slavery before any other nation in the world. Its ships later took part in the Spanish Armada.

Radenus refused to return the dark men’s coins; Vlachus and Vitanus filed a petition with the local authorities, who ordered the goldsmith to do so. Ragusan ships then sailed the known world; strangers such as these were not unusual. But the official noted on the petition that these men were Egyptiorum.

The petition survives- in the Dubrovnik Historijski Archiv. It is the first reliable record of Roma in the former Yugoslavia.

The first reliable source placing Roma in Kosovo notes the presence of Christian Gypsies in Prizren in 1491; their main trade was smithing.(Malcolm, 1998: p. 206) This vocation survives among them; in Prizren’s Terzi Mahalla, there were 65 blacksmith shops up until a few decades ago, and in Prizren there is a street called Fatatarde- Blacksmith Street.

Those ‘Christian gypsies’ converted to Islam long ago. In the Ottoman lands, most Roma converted to Islam, along with a significant portion of the Bosnian and Albanian populations. Coastal areas of Albania proper avoided the near-thorough Islamization of some ethnicities in the interior because of their proximity to Italy, Montenegro and Greece, and the priests that found their way to them. In Kosovo, most Albanians and Roma converted. The Ottoman millet system decreed different rates of payment to the empire for Christians and Muslims; conversion came with financial benefit, as well as the right to ride horses and bear arms. Muslim Roma were still subject to Christian taxes. This may be because the Ottomans did not take their supposed Muslim beliefs seriously.(Crowe, 1995: p. 198)

The Ottomans viewed Roma as an unruly, albeit harmless population; the process of ghettoization- confining Roma to specific neighborhoods, first called Ciganluk, and later, simply Mahalas- began under them, as did increased taxes for Roma of no fixed employment (privat, in today’s terminology). The Ottomans felt uneasy at the idea of nomads within their territory, though they themselves began their history as nomadic raiders under the ruler Osman; the seasonal wanderings of the Muslim Bijeli Cigani- White Gypsies- were banned. A Roma census carried out by the Ottomans in the 1520s noted 164 Roma families in Pristina, and 145 in Novo Brdo; many of them had Serbian names.(Malcolm, 1998: p. 206 )

In the north, Serbian blacksmiths pressured Roma into not plying trades that put them into competition with the Slavs. The Turks taxed them more heavily. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Roma population of the former Yugoslavia grew, fuelled by Roma slavery in bordering Moldavia and Walachia (modern day Romania). Escaped Roma slaves made for the border, where the only thing they were subject to was taxation. Many Roma settled among the Serbs; in the north, they adopted Orthodox Christianity, and many lost the Roma language in the next few generations, leading to the group now referred to as Srpski Cigani (Serbian Gypsies) by both Serbs and Muslim Roma.

Serbia became officially independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 (recognized as such at the Congress of Berlin). The nomadic Roma lifestyle was officially banned in Serbia a year later. This rule did not become truly enforceable until the end of the Second World War; southeastern Europe’s borders were porous, and the Serbian attitude towards Roma lacked the brutality found in neighboring Romania and other areas of Europe. The Serbs regarded the Roma as unruly children, as opposed to heretics and, in tales from Western Europe, the forgers of the crucifixion nails. This attitude was not shared by Kosovar Serbs; when Kosovo was absorbed into Serbia in 1912, the Roma there were, like the Albanians, regarded as leftovers of the Turks. Many were driven from their homes and killed.(Crowe, 1995: 209)

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