Sergey E. Rysev

Gypsies and Africa

After, in 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.

Lets begin 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 didnt 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 dont allow to identify them with the Gypsies that spread throughout Europe in 15th century.

The first 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 dont 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, dont sow and reap, dont 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...

If Gypsies had spent several centuries in Byzantium earlier, as many researchers claim, it is difficult to understand why they couldnt become civilized just a little. If they actually couldnt 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: Didnt 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.

The presence 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 Gypsy language.

Lets consider also the problem of the origin of the word rom, being the self-designation of European Gypsies whereas their Asian relatives dont 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 Rylands Library. Vol. 3. Manch., 1909.

Herodotus. History.

Leo Africanus. Description of Africa.

Shinnie P. Christian Nubia. In Cambridge History of Africa, vol. 2, pp. 55688. 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.



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