A History of the Romani People
According to scholar Ian Hancock, there are about 12 million people worldwide who belong to the ethnic group known as the Romani, more commonly known to outsiders as Gypsies. Most Romani—about eight to 10 million of them--live in Europe, where they are that continent’s biggest minority; in some countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, they amount to as much as 12 percent of the total population. In addition, there are Romani scattered across Asia, Africa, North and South America and Australia as well.
But while the Romani are numerous, their precise origins have long been mysterious. When the Romani showed up in medieval Europe 700 years ago, their dark skin led some Europeans of the time to assume they were Turks or Egyptians; in Russia and Romania, they were referred to as “pharoah’s people.” By one legend, they are descendants of 12,000 musicians who were given as a gift to Bahram Gur, the ruler of Persia, in the Fifth Century AD. As the story goes, after just a year, Bahram Gur grew tired of his entertainers and sent them away, on a journey that eventually led to the far corners of the Earth. Other, even more fantastic explanations have portrayed the Romani as descendants of survivors of the lost city of Atlantis. Some even have imagined them as the heirs of a prehistoric race of nomadic horsemen that spawned other peoples such as the Bedouin, the Basques and the Native Americans.
As Hancock details in his 2002 book “We Are the Romani People,” however, linguistic detective work, historical events and in recent years a growing body of genetic evidence point to India as the Romani people’s ancestral homeland. The grammar and vocabulary of the Romani language both bear similarities to languages spoken in the Indian subcontinent around 1,000 AD, which suggests that Romani ancestors once lived there but left roughly around the time that a Muslim army (known as the Ghaznavids) invaded India in an effort to spread the Islamic faith. Romani ancestors may have been taken away as slaves or unwilling conscripts to the Muslim forces, or they may have fled as refugees.
Either way, according to Romani historian David Crowe, by the 1100s, eastern European historical documents bore references to a new group of immigrants, who worked as skilled metal craftsman, musicians, and soldiers. Some eastern Europeans initially saw the Romani as useful new residents. Within a couple of centuries, however, the Romani people were in a far more dire situation, most especially in the Balkans. Laws were passed barring Romani from marrying spouses from other groups, and many Romani were seized and forced into slavery, a practice that persisted for five hundred years into the mid-1800s.
Those Romani fortunate enough at least to remain free became persecuted outcasts, excluded from European society and forced to remain on the move. According to historian James Minahan, author of “One Europe, Many Nations: A Historical Dictionary of European National Groups,” Romani were subject to many of the same sort of restrictions and penalties exacted against the Jews, another hated group. And like the Jews, the Romani were accused falsely of a litany of heinous crimes, ranging from involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus to child-stealing and cannibalism. Despite obvious links between the Romani language and India, some even argued that that the Romani were not really a separate ethnic group, but merely an amalgam of criminals and lowlifes from mainstream European society who darkened their faces with clay or berry juice to appear different. In some ways, the ultimate culmination of that anti-Romani hatred came during World War II, when the Nazis decided to exterminate the Romani people altogether. When the war ended in 1945, an estimated two million Romani had perished, including 500,000 who had been sent to the Nazi death camps.
While the Romani people proved resilient enough to survive even the horrors inflicted by Hitler, in postwar Europe they still faced exclusion, prejudice and poverty. In an article on the World Bank’s website, former World Bank president Sir James David Wolfensohn and philanthropist George Soros note that European Romani often are forced to subsist in ramshackle settlements, and are denied employment and hospital treatment because of their ethnicity. Romani children even have been forced to attend schools for disabled children, even when they have no mental or physical disabilities. The average European Romani lifespan is 10 to 15 years below that of other Europeans.
But there is room for optimism about the Romani people’s future. The United Nations, the European Commission, and other international organizations have begun pressuring countries to end their exclusionary policies and to give the Romani people an opportunity to participate more fully in society. In addition, European Romani have formed organizations such as the Roma National Congress to represent their interests and press for change.