Origins Of The Gypsy/Roma/Rom History
History of the Gypsy/Roma
Diverse, nomadic…to be Roma, or “gypsy,” is to be a member of an ethnic minority that is difficult to define in any definite, factual terms. Throughout their history, the Roma have been comprised of many different groups of people, absorbing outsiders and other cultures while migrating across continents. This has resulted in creating a patchwork of groups calling themselves Roma, Romani, Romany or Gypsy, each with differing cultures, customs, and now in only the current times – written languages.
Despite their differences, the Roma do share certain attributes. Made up of four “tribes,” or nations (natsiya), they are bound together at least through Rom blood and Romani (or Romanes), the root language they share. The Roma also hold common characteristics: they are extremely loyal to family and clan; a strong belief in both Del (God) and Beng (the Devil); belief in predestiny; and Romaniya, loosely translated as certain standards and norms in codes of conduct (which vary in degree from tribe to tribe). At their core, because of their history, they are a people who are adaptable to changing conditions.
There are conflicted points of view to where the Roma or Gypsies originated. Because they arrived in Europe from the East, they were thought by early Europeans to be from Turkey or Nubia. They were even thought to have been from Egypt, and were called, among other things, Egyptians, or ‘Gyptians, which is how the word “Gypsy” originated. The most popular belief among scholars has the origins hail from India. But even their beginning in India is muddled with disagreements and an abundance of cold hard facts. Because of this, the Roma/Gypsy foundation in India has several versions.
Deep in the heart of India around 400 AD, work wasn’t as plentiful as it once was in the small villages. This dilemma forced a handful of Indians to become traveling craftsmen and entertainers. They moved along the countryside entertaining villagers at night and using their skills with wood and/or metal during the day. This subtle start to the nomadic life worked well from this point forward. The handful of wandering people grew in numbers as others embraced the nomadic lifestyle, yet they were still able to stay below the Persian radar until 440 – 443. This is when, rumor has it, the great Persian Shah Bahram Gur persuaded ever so forcefully that the Indian King Shangul should send him 10,000 Luri musicians so that they can run around Persia entertaining the hard-working people. The name Luri is used as opposed to Roma or Gypsy because before the 10th Century, gypsies did not exist by the name of Gypsy or Roma. They were known by various names tribal names including Zott, Jat, Luri, Nuri, Dom, Sinti, Domarai and Athengani.
Around 820, long after the Luri entertained the countryside of Persia, the Zott arrived and set up state on the banks of the Tigris River. The Zott enjoyed life there until the Byzantines attacked Syria in 855. After the war, the Byzantines took huge numbers of Zotts as prisoners. Partly because of they were known for their excellent craftsmanship with wood, metal and construction, the Zotts were used as slave labor to shore up and expand upon the empire. In addition to manual labor, their entertainment skills were also of high value as well as their gift of foretelling the future.
From 1001 – 1026 King Mahmud from Ghazni used put forth a forceful effort to wipe out the Sindh and the Panjab tribes in India. King Mahmud invaded some seventeen times with a mixed army of Turko-Persian from Ghazni (which would be modern – day Iran). Rajput warriors, the Indian fighters (which included Roma/Gypsy), were fierce and cunning, but King Mahmud finally wins. His reward was half a million Indian/Roma/Gypsy slaves.
Another version of the Indian origins doesn’t make any mention of the Roma/Gypsies until the war with King Mahmud (who was called Muhamad Ghazni in this version) in 1001. Here the 500,000 Rajputs fighters were prisoners of war and placed in Afghanistan. While prisoners, they were ordered to convert to Islam by threat of the sword. Many resisted and were either killed or they escaped to Armenia and/or Greece.
Yet another version of the same story had the rulers of India put together troops from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to fight King Mahmud (Mahmud of Ghazni in this version) and keep Islam out of Hindu territory. The Indian/Rajputs Troops were victorious. The descendants of these troops crossed over to south-eastern Europe for asylum, to escape forcible Islam conversion by the Turks, around 1300.
Some other theories that have had people take notice of the Roma/Gypsy origins includes that the first Gypsy was a son of Eve, from her sexual relationships with Adam after his demise. No mention was ever said how he survived the great flood (as in Noah and that Ark). Some others feel that Tubal Cain and his half-brother, Abel, are the originators of the bloodline based on the Book of Genesis, Chapter IV Verses 19 – 22; “Lamech took unto him two wives and the name of one was Adah and the name of the other Zillah. And Adah bore Jubal. He was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. And Zillah she also bore Tubal Cain, a instructor of every artificer in brass and iron."
Another theory which has gained steam over the years was that the Gypsies/Roma is descendants of Abraham’s children by his second wife, Keturah. She gave him six children; Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbah and Shuah. When the Israelites left Egypt, the children’s descendants went with them. Exodus xii.38: “and a mixed multitude went up also with the Children of Israel.”
While the origins remain scratchy, what most can agree on is that there were great migrations through Roma/Gypsy history that had dispersed them throughout the world, beginning with the first wave when it was assumed they left India over a thousand years ago. The next great move, known as the Aresajipe, was from southwest Asia into Europe during the 14th century. The third great migration was from Europe to the United States during the 19th century and early 20th century after the abolishment of Romani slavery in Europe.
In the second half of the 18th century, European scholars studying the Roma/Gypsy found that the Romani language shared basic words, including numbers, action, family relationships, etc. with the Eastern Indian languages. So it appeared that its roots appear to be based on Sanskrit, the historical language of the Hindus of India.
While the “official” language of the Gypsies, Romani, has many dialects, it is a spoken-only language. There are, still, many common words used by each dialect. Thus, based on language alone the Roma/Gypsy are divided into three sub-groups (which like everything else about the Gypsies is surrounded by controversy): the Domari of the Middle East and Eastern Europe (the Dom), the Lomarvren of Central Europe (the Lom), and the Romani of Western Europe (the Rom). Among themselves the Roma speak their own language; otherwise they speak the language of the country they currently occupy.
The wheel represents a sixteen-spoked chakra, which is the Romani symbol. A chakra is a link back to the Gypsy/Roma’s Indian ancestry (India has the 24-spoked Ashok Chakra in the center of their flag) and represents movement forward and Creation. The Romani flag is green and blue with a red chakra in the center. The Roma motto is “Opré Roma” (Roma Arise) and the song “Gelem, gelem,” also known as “Djelem, djelem” and “Opré Roma,” is the Romani anthem.
Today there are approximately more than twelve million Roma/Gypsies living across the world. It’s difficult to put a final tally on their numbers, as many Gypsies lie about their heritage due to economic, social and political reasons.
Source: The Mysterious & Magical Gypsy/Roma by Allie Theiss (paper for Middle Eastern Class – 2009)
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