Gypsies and Africa
18-19th centuries, H. Grellman and A. F. Pott reliably determined connections
between Gypsy and Indian languages it became obvious that the Gypsies originate
from India. The problem was narrowed to when they left it and by what ways they
proceeded to the west. Without much ado the vast majority of scholars chose the
shortest route of their advancing (India – Persia – Byzantium) dating the exodus
to 5-10th centuries CE. The links between Gypsies and Egypt taken for granted
for a long time were easily rejected and considered an absurd mistake. As it
seems, it is high time they were researched again, especially because of lack of
convincing evidence in written sources pointing to the advance of Gypsies
through the Middle East.
with a curious and very important fact that goes entirely unattended. During the
crusade period (1096-1270) no one of Europeans who visited the Near East didn’t
utter a word about Gypsies! And there are quite a few narratives about oversea
lands written at the time, for example ‘Tractatus de locis et statu sancta terre
ierosolimitane’ by an unknown author (late 12th cent.). Rare mentions of
so-called Athinganoi in Byzantine sources don’t allow to identify them with the
Gypsies that spread throughout Europe in 15th century.
description of Gypsies that leaves no doubts that it refers exactly to them was
given as late as in 14th cent. by the Franciscan Friar Symon Simeonis who met
them on the island of Crete in 1323: ‘We saw there a people outside the city who
declare themselves to be of the race of Ham, and who worship according to the
Greek rite. They wander like a cursed people from place to place, not stopping
at all, or rarely, in one place longer that 30 days...’ Then similar reports
began coming one after another. Ludolphus of Sudheim who visited Palestine in
the middle of 14th cent. wrote: ‘Mandopolos, or Mandines, have no faith, and
they are Egyptians saying they come from the family of Pharaoh; they are
excellent thieves who wander from place to place, make sieves and other
utensils, and don’t fear the heat of the sun...’ A contemporary of Ludolphus,
John of Hildesheim, supplied the following information: ‘Also in the East and
all oversea lands live quite peculiar Christians who are called Mandopolos
there... They move in crowds together with wives, children and donkeys, don’t
sow and reap, don’t shelter in houses either in winter or in summer... They
speak a language of their own, which is not understood by others, whereas they
understand many languages...’
had spent several centuries in Byzantium earlier, as many researchers claim, it
is difficult to understand why they couldn’t become civilized just a little. If
they actually couldn’t do it then their bizarre behavior would have been
reflected in Byzantine literature. But it speaks nothing about a people that
roams in crowds from place to place. So a question suggests itself: Didn’t some
events occur in neighboring countries at the time that could cause an influx of
Gypsies to the East Mediterranean? As it turns out, such events took place. In
the beginning of 14th century Egyptian Muslims took away the power from the last
Christian ruler of Nubia, forcing the conversion of its population to Islam.
of Gypsies in North Africa is supported by such an authoritative informer as the
Arabian traveler Leo Africanus (early 16th cent.). He already had an opportunity
to see Gypsies in Europe, therefore one can trust his identification: ‘The king
of Nubia constantly wage war either with the people of Goran, who are one of the
tribes of GYPSIES leading a hard life in the desert and whose language no one
understands, or with another people...’ Note an almost verbatim coincidence in
the reports of John of Hildesheim and Leo Africanus concerning the uniqueness of
consider also the problem of the origin of the word ‘rom’, being the
self-designation of European Gypsies whereas their Asian relatives don’t use it.
Among scholars, a point of view prevails that Gypsies came to designate
themselves by this word because they spent several centuries in Byzantium
citizens of which called themselves Romans (Rwmaioi in Greek). This explanation
looks unconvincing just because, in Gypsy language, ‘rom’ has an additional
meaning – male, husband. Traces lead us to Egypt again. Herodotus writes in his
History: “They (Egyptian priests) said, ‘Each one of the statues had been pi-romis’...
And ‘pi-romis’ means in the tongue of Hellas (Greece) ‘honourable and good MAN’
(II, 143). This report of Herodotus is supported by demotic and Coptic texts in
which we find the word ‘rom’ in the sense of ‘man’, ‘male’.
In the end,
it can be indicated that coming of Gypsies to Europe correlates in a way with
disappearance of the mysterious people of Garamantes who abode in the region of
Sahara in old times and whose name accords with ‘Goran’ (see above). It is worth
noting that the first of ancient authors to supply information about Garamantes
was the same Herodotus.
Crum W. E. A Coptic Dictionary. Oxford, 1939.
Griffith F. L. Catalogue of the demotic papyri
in the John Ryland’s Library. Vol. 3. Manch., 1909.
Leo Africanus. Description of Africa.
Shinnie P. Christian Nubia. In Cambridge
History of Africa, vol. 2, pp. 556–88. New York, 1978.
Sinclair A. T. The Word ‘Rom’. Journal of the
Gypsy Lore Society, New Series, 3, 1909-10, p. 33-42.
Soulis G. C. The Gypsies in Byzantine Empire
and the Balkans in the Late Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Washington, 15,
1961, p. 143-165.
Wiener L. Gypsies as Fortune-tellers and as
Blacksmiths. Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, New Series, 3, 1909-10, p. 4-17.