of the Dom Research Center
Vol 1 No 7 Fall/Winter 2002
Overview on the Roma in Turkey
by Ana Oprisan
Location and Identification
Because of the self and
haetero-identification problem faced when it comes to the Roma in Turkey, it is
sometimes very difficult to claim their presence in different areas or near to
certain closed religious communities. In Istanbul, they live in specific
mahalles (neighborhoods), as Kasimpasha – Curukluk, Kucukbakkalkoy, Sulukule,
Uskudar Selamsiz, etc. Besides the sedentary Roma, there are the nomads who
leave the places they lived in towns, and they start following a
pre-established itinerary, from spring to autumn, due to occupational reasons.
The Roma in Turkey are called as Cingene, Kipti, Pos¸a (in Eastern Anatolia), Mirti (in Hakkari, Mardin, Siirt and South part of Van), Kocer, Arabaci (the ones who use horse carriages) etc., or with the pejorative “esmer vatandas¸” (“brunet citizen”). There are also a different group of Greek Christian Roma, the Balamorons, identified in Turkish as “Yunan cingeneleri” which means the “Greek Gypsies”.
Romani is spoken in the local communities from Rumeli, Uskudar and the Pashalar area of Van town. From the linguistic point of view, there are also some dialectal differences from one area to another. In the language spoken by the Roma people in Turkey, you can encounter words from some Turkish dialects spoken in Anatolia, from Kurdish or Greek. The language of the traveller groups in Anatolia is obviously assimilated, so Romani language is mixed with Kurdish, Turkish or Persian and, in this case, the linguistic switching-code is usually used.
Information regarding the language spoken by the Roma people in Turkey appears in the censuses from 1935 and 1945, Romani language being identified as Kiptice (the language of the Kipties).
- Mother Tongue
The 1935 census
shows also that 3,847 men and 4,008 women (then a total of 7,855 people) had
Kiptice (Romani) as mother tongue. The Roma were also the group with less
individuals who knew how to read and write. According to that census, in 1935,
only 141 men and 25 women of Roma origin could read and write.
According to the 1945 census, there are 4,463 people who have Kiptice (Romani) as mother tongue, 193 people as second language, then a total of 4,656 Romani speakers. A great number of Roma people live in Edirne, Canakkale and Istanbul. According to the 1945 census, a great part of the people “without a religion” (tr. dinsiz) are the ones who have Kiptice as mother tongue; from those “without religion”, 23.7%, meaning 133 people are known as being Cingene.
Even if a great part of the sedentary Roma were Christian in the past, the nomad Roma claim to be Muslims. Instead, they keep on manifesting some different forms of religion, which have nothing to do with Islam (as keeping elements of Christian sacrality), as is the spring festival Hirdelezi / Hidrelezi (also celebrated by all the Muslim Roma in the Balkans and by the non-Roma Alevi population in Turkey), during the first week of May.
On the other hand, the Posha groups from Van area are known as Muslims, but it was proved in the past that the ones who lived in Tokat acted as Christians. The Roma living in the South East part of Turkey seem to be more close to the religious beliefs of Cuki, Alevi (see also the Abdala groups) or Ismaili. At least it is known that some Mirtip are Muslims of Shafi rite.
Taking into account the Roma occupations, they are grouped in branches. Classification is made not only according to the job done but by the religious orientation or by the area they live. The relationship between groups is not always a good one.
A great part of the Roma people do not like and do not accept the word “Cingene”, due to its pejorative meaning which, in time, was associated with negative expressions as “cingene dugunu” (“gypsy wedding” – something which is not done as it is supposed to be done), “cingene kavgasi” (“gypsy fight” – violent fight), “cingene borcu” (“gypsy debt” – when a debt is tripled by other debts), “cingene calar, kurt oynar” (“the gypsy sings, the wolf dances” – wrong people to the wrong place or an unprepared person doing something he cannot actually do). As another example, because the word Posha (or Bosha) is used with a pejorative meaning, the Armenians in Istanbul, especially the ones living in Tashkopru or Boyabat areas re-named “Posha”, even if it is obvious that they are not Roma.
During the Ottoman Empire a great number of Roma came in the Balkan area together with the Ottomans (XIV century), as members of the army or as companions of the troops. In many official documents of the time there are information about them, the Roma being named as "cingene", "chingane" or "kibti".
The first tax registration applied to the Roma population of the Rumelia Villayet (Balkan area) was elaborated in 1475. Another registration of this kind, this time regarding the Christian Roma (probably established in the region before the Ottoman conquest), belongs to 1487-1489 period. One more comprehensive and detailed tax registry of the Rumelia Villayet refers to the period between 1522-1523. This register contains the number of the Roma houses, references about their religion, the area populated by the Roma, their occupations and their legal status. There were a great variety of taxes applied to the Roma people, almost the same with the ones applied to the Christians. A similar approach can be observed in the Special Law for the Roma of the Villayet of Rumelia, issued by Sultan Suleiman the Great, in 1530, and in the Law for the supervision of the Sandjak Roma, issued in 1541 (sandjak was not a territorial and administrative unit, but a defined category of Roma who served in the Ottoman army).
In the tax registers from that period the Roma were described in detail (age, occupation, marital status etc.) and were grouped in units of taxes (djemaati), each unit with its supervisors. The djematies were not always linked with the territorial units and they could include the nomad Roma as well, the so-called gezende (tr. gezme – travel).
Between the XV-th and XVI-th century there was a tendency of the Roma people to change their religion, so, in the XIX-th century the Muslim Roma became a majority.
The Roma civil status in the Ottoman Empire was rather complicated, due to the fact that they had a special role in the social and administrative organisation of the Empire. Even if the population was devised in two important categories (believers vs. heathens or reaya), the Roma had a special status, they being differentiated on the ethnic criteria (unusual for the Ottoman Empire) without a clear distinction between Muslim and Christian Roma (when it was about taxes). Generally, their condition was similar to the one of the submitted local population, with the exception of some minor privileges given to the Muslim Roma (who worked for the army). The status of the Roma in the Ottoman Empire was, certainly, superior to the one of the Roma in Western Europe, in the same historical period. A relevant example was the fact that many Roma slaves fled from the vassal principalities of Valachie and Moldavia, forward to find a safe place in the Empire.
EXCERPT from Dimitrie Cantemir, “The System or the Structure of the Mohammedan Religion”, written in 1722 at Sankt Petersburg and published later in “Opere complete”, vol.VIII, tom II, Editura Academiei, Bucharest, 1987, Sixth book: About Other Arrangements of this Religion, Thirty second Chapter: About Idolatries and Mohammedan Atheists, pages 527 - 529.
“… about the Gypsy people, who is numerous in the Turkish country”
The Turks and together with them the other Muslims say that the people of the Gypsies are related with Pharaoh and state that the large Empire of the Pharaohs, exalted in the Holly Scriptures, belonged to the Gypsies; and they also say that the same people (when Moses and all Lord`s prophets cursed it), having no knowledge of letters, books and any other divine or human law, spread all over the world, by the mercy and the commandment of God. The Gypsies who believe in Muhammad consider themselves to be perfectly pious by this only title, but beside this, they do not look for the commandments and the conditions of the Law; they ignore all of it without doing or preserving anything the Law says; there are no prayers of any kind, no fasts and they don`t want to even hear about Mecca; instead of sympathy they commit larcenies, frauds, charms and witch crafts (all forbidden for the Muslims).
The Sultan Suleiman, the first Ottoman emperor with this name (named also The Law Maker), when he had elaborated and enhanced his political canons and other regulations adequate to administration, wanted to enforce a law also for the Gypsies and, in this respect, he commanded that all the older Gypsies get together, no matter if they were Christians (because many of them walk around in the name of Jesus, linked by the Greek or by the Armenian church), or Muslims. And he asked everyone about his family and what religion he had. Some of them confessed they believed in Christ, but others in the Prophet Muhammad. Then, the Sultan fixed for the ones believing in Muhammad a place to stay in Constantinopole`s outskirts (where there was the old church of Vlaherne). He gave them Imams and Hodjas to teach the old people and the children the Mohammedan Law (sheriat) and other arrangements and Muslim ceremonies, then to teach them to frequent the mosque, to veil their women and to make marriages according to the religious Law.
But six months passed after this event and the Imams saw no Gypsies coming to the mosque. They heard that they had celebrated marriages without Imam`s presence. It was this reason whereby the Sultan understood the bad situation they [Gypsies] lived in. Hearing this, the Sultan decreed that every Gypsy person had the liberty to choose their religion, adding also the favour to exempt from any tax the ones who confessed the Mohammedan religion. Making this decision public, he asked the tax collectors to record the number of the Gypsy people and those who said they were Christians received the haradj – the payment order and began to pay the taxes. After six months, the tax collectors found that none admitted to being a Christian Gypsy. Then, the Sultan commanded that the Christian Gypsies had to pay the haradj together with other Christians in the Empire and the Muslim Gypsies must pay double. This decree is still in power  and this is the reason why all the Gypsies who believe in Muhammad (and there are a great number of them) pay double taxes. If the Christian Gypsy will pay five talents, the Muslim Gypsy is forced to pay ten. The conclusion is that, as in the past the Gypsies were not obliged to have any religion nor comply with any law; nowadays we see our Gypsies everywhere in the same situation”.
The taxation system of the Ottoman Empire was regulated by a number of factors; namely religious identity, ability to pay and the information of the defterdars to central governement regarding the tax liabilities of the population. The ability of members of the ayan, or notables to shelter whole communities from the state fisc was another important factor from the seventeenth century, as was the ability to move beyond the reach of the Porte and thereby evade imposition, a clear advantage for nomadic and semi-nomadic groups. It has been frequently discussed by Romani Studies scholars in relation to Ottoman Gypsies that the tax liability existed both for Christian and Muslim Gypsies, something regarded as illegal under the sheriat, or religious law. The notion that the Muslim inhabitants of the Empire paid no taxes whilst the Christians paid the “poll-tax” or cizye, haraç, ispence or other names applied to the discussion has given rise to much confusion. Ottoman fiscal organisation was a complicated and dynamic system that changed according to exigencies frequently over the existence of the Empire, but the fundamental revenues came from the cizye and mukataas, a variety of different revenue sources detailed in the registers of the Treasury. These were almost entirely contracted out for collection by private tax-farmers, who themselves might sub-contract the actual collection. The poll-tax amounted to some 48% of the state budget in total; in 1475 the Rumeli cizye totalled 850,000 gold ducats, whilst that of Anadolu amounted to a mere 20,000. In the same year, the tax revenue from Gypsies amounted to 9,000 gold ducats, clearly demonstrating that the Ottomans were taxing Gypsies as a separate category long before the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, Kanuni (1520-66). Despite Cantemir’s ingeneous explanation, there has not been found to date, an explanation of this differentiation. However, it must be noted that Muslims did pay taxes on a variety of goods and services and as avariz. Most importantly, the Muslim male population was liable for anything up to 25 years military service with the Sultan’s armies. Those Christains perfomring military service as border guards and auxilliaries (and there were many) received dispensations. Muslim Gypsies paid tax of roughly half that of the Christian Gypsies (which Cantemir reverses), though whether as suspect Muslims and unreliable tax-payers (like the Alevi Tahtacilar, Yoruks or Kizilbash), or as a form of ‘ethnic’ discrimination is not clear at present. Until the firman of 1878 abolishing the exemption of Muslim Gypsies from the armed forces, except in exceptional circumstances, a bedeli askeri was levied from them on a household basis, similar to the cizye.
The tax liabilities of communities also changed frequently, depending upon the need of central government to finance the various aspects of its functions, most notably war. Whilst Christians did pay the cizye as hakuk, or lawful taxes exacted under the sheriat they also paid a variety of taxes in the Balkan lands dating from previous feudal regimes, often called ispence or harac. These replaced the feudal ‘dues’ exacted by lords over the peasantry in the pre-Ottoman era, were considered to derive from the kul status of the peasantry under these regimes and were therefore not recognised by the sheriat. They were always collected by the local cavalry officer (sipahi) in cash payments. Muslim communities paid a variety of taxes under the legalistic notion of avariz, or exceptional war-taxes, but these came to be regular rather than exceptional by the end of the sixteenth century as the Ottoman state’s need to finance the so-called ‘Long War’ with the Habsburgs became acute. The frequent attempts at reorganisation and improvement of the collection during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially under the Koprulu dynasty of grand vezirs meant frequent adjustments to the levels but never the eradication of the tripartite division of the cizye, despite pressure on the sultans to do so. The division of ala (wealthy), evsat (middle) and edna (poor) remained the basis for the cizye throughout the Empire’s history.
Adrian Marsh, Romani Studies Network, Istanbul