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The Karaim and the Gagauz - the Jewish and the Christian Turkic peoples
- a lecture given at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul on February 22 2006

In Trakai in Lithuania opposite the island in Lake Galve where the city's medieval castle stands, there is a street with very special houses. They are all wooden and painted green and yellow and each of them has three windows facing the street.

Here, since more than 600 years, one of Europe's most remarkable and distinctive minorities, the Karaim, have been living on "Karaimu Gatve", i e on Karaimu street.

Their history in Lithuania began when, after the war against the Mongolian Golden Horde in Crimea in 1397, the Polish-Lithuanian King Vytautas Magnus brought 380 Karaim families with him to his capital city Trakai.

They were given the task of guarding the royal castle, as the only access to it was across a bridge from the part of the city the Karaim were allotted . Initially they worked as castle guards. In 1441 they were granted the same rights as the citizens of Magdeburg - known as the Right of Magdeburg by the Polish - Lithuanian king Kasimir IV. This could be seen as a model of self-government at that time , and the purpose was to ensure that they would become permanent residents. The Karaims increasingly engaged in agriculture and horticulture, horse breeding, and different handicrafts and gradually came to constitute a middle class between the aristocracy and the framers who tilled the soil.

The head of the Karaim was the elected "vaitas" and he was their official representative in contacts with the Polish-Lithuanian kings. Their houses had three windows facing the street because this demonstrated wealth while to have four windows was considered to be showy and conspicuous.

On Karaimu Gatve one also finds the only "kenesa" in Europe, the shrine where the Karaim practise the distinctive religion that has given them their identity.

The religion of the Karaim was founded in the 8th century in Baghdad by a man named Anan Ben David. He based his teachings on the written Torah and rejected the oral tradition reflected in Talmud literature.

Thus, according to him God's pure and true words were only to be found in the Old Testament. He considered this interpretation to be a continuation of the old Jewish tradition and himself to be a successor to the Essenes of Qumran.

Everyone should closely study the Old Testament on his own and interpret the text according to his own ideas. "Thoroughly research the Torah and do not rely on my view" is a motto attributed to Anan Ben David. No believer was to follow rules the meaning of which he did not understand even after having read them carefully. Thus, the Old Testament should be interpreted individually and independently, without reference to authorities and with the Ten Commandments as the moral norms. According to some this central message explains the name of the sect and the word karaim is believed to be derived from the Hebrew word " karaa", to read, which may thus refer to the fact that they only accept the written word.

Both Christ and Mohammed are regarded as Karaim prophets and the religion is also influenced by Muslim schools such as the Mutazilit school of philosophy and the Hanafi school of law.

The emphasis on the written word "sola scriptura", which Marin Luther was to assert 800 years later in relation to Rome, made German Protestants regard the Karaim as forerunners of the Reformation.

When the Karaim centre was moved from Baghdad to Jerusalem, the religion began spreading through missionary activities to the Turkic-speaking peoples on the Crimean peninsula and the steppes of the lower Volga region. The Khazars, the Kipchak-Kumans and the Polovts were converted to the new religion during the 9th century, the ulterior political motive perhaps being that they would then constitute a buffer zone between the Russian Orthodox Church advancing from the north and the Muslim expansion from the south and therefore left in peace.

There is another point of similarity between the Karaim and Protestantism which has contributed to preserving their identity, namely, they worship in their own language, Karaim.

This language belongs to the Kipchak group in the Turkic-Altaic family and it is closely related to the language of the Crimean Tatars.

Since Karaim was an isolated linguistic island surrounded by the Slavic languages Russian and Polish, and Lithuanian, it contains many old Turkic words which do not exist in the Turkic languages spoken today. Hence, Karaim is of special interest for comparative Turkic linguistics - a Polish linguistic researcher has compared it to a fly encapsulated in a piece of amber.

After a visit to Lithuania in 1691, Professor Gustav Peringer from Uppsala University was the first to establish that Karaim belonged to theTurkic language group. One of the foremost experts on the Karaim language today is Eva Csato Johansson at Uppsala University.

The Karaim enjoyed their autonomy according to the Right of Magdeburg until the Third Division of Poland in the late 18th century when they ended up in the Russian Empire. Half of the inhabitants of Trakai were Karaim. Their legal status changed. At first, they were lumped together with the Muslim Crimean Tatars, in 1863 however, they received the status of a religious minority of their own with a special high priest, "hakhan", for the western provinces of the Russian Empire.

During the First World War the Karaim were evacuated to Russian towns, mainly to the Crimea. They were able to return in 1920 but found themselves divided between two nations, Lithuania and Poland, where Trakai was now situated. Families got split up and communications between the two communities became more difficult. However, the national feeling got strengthened by the growing nationalism in the resurrected Lithuanian and Polish nation states.

There were therefore extensive cultural activities going on during the inter-war period. A journal "Karai Avazy" (Voice of the Karaim) was published as well as a historical and literary magazine "Mysl Karaimska" (Karaim Thought), which contained texts in the Karaim language. Also a society of the friends of Karaim literature and history was founded.

When the German Wehrmacht ran into the Karaim in their thrust eastward, the latter denied any connection to Judaism. They had always repudiated any connection between Judaism and their religion, claiming instead that they were a distinctive religious community.

They were supported in this by Meir Balaban, a learned Jew from the Warsaw ghetto. He was forced by the Nazis to make an evaluation of the Karaim from the religious and racial point of view. Despite the fact that in his earlier publications he had always characterised the Karaim as a branch of Judaism, he now claimed the opposite to save them from the holocaust.

German National Socialist race researchers declared that the Karaim indeed belonged to a Jewish sect but at the same time established that they had no Jewish blood in their veins but were in fact Turkic Tatars. There was probably a political background to this ethnic determination. Hitler saw in the Crimean Tatars an ally against the Soviet Union and since they regarded the Karaim as Tatars, persecution or annihilation of them would have jeopardised their alliance plans.

After the Second World War the borders were again redrawn and Trakai ended up in the Soviet Republic of Lithuania. The Karaim school building was converted into appartment building and the "kenesa" built in Vilnius during the period of Lithuanian independence became a warehouse.

The Karaim took an active part in the strive for Lithuania's independence. In May 1988 the Lithuanian Karaim Cultural Society was founded and an anthology of poetry and a prayer book were published in the Karaim language. In April 1992 the Karaim ethnic group was given special legal status as a religious minority having existed in Lithuania since the 14th century.

Trakai has now again become the centre for the spiritual life of the Karaim. They come here to see the place to which the King Vytautas Magnus, whose portrait is to be found in most Karaim homes, brought their ancestors, and to visit their "kenesa". This is a square building with a copper roof. There are oriental rugs on the floor and the men sit in the main nave while the women follow the divine service from a gallery separated from the nave by a wall from which only narrow slits provide a view of the altar.

In this "kenesa", representatives of the small Karaim communities dispersed over Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the Crimea had a meeting in 1989. Contacts have also been established with the small Karaim (Karait) communities in Israel, Istanbul, and the United States . There exists though a fundamental dividing-line among them. While the East European Karaim emphasise the independent nature of their communion, the others consider themselves to be Karaim Jews. They regard their religion as being based on Judaism in the same way as Christianity is a religion based on Judaism.

In addition to the religion, various old customs and traditions of the Turkic peoples in Caucasus and Central Asia have played a major role in preserving the Karaim identity. These include e.g. the wedding traditions with the bride's melodious and mournful farewell song "Muzhul Kielin" (The Sad Bride) and choosing the "ataman" (matrimonial agent) for the wedding, as well as the moral advice the community´s elders , "aksakals", give about future married life and the song sung when the couple enter the shrine.

In 1997 the six hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Karaim in Trakai was celebrated. A detailed census of the Karaim in Lithuania was carried out in this connection. At that time there were 257 Karaims in Lithuania, 132 men and 125 women. 32 of these were under 16. 139 lived in Vilnius, 65 in Trakai and 31 in the town Panevezys. Furthermore, there were 133 Karaim in Poland, living in Warsaw, Gdansk and Wroclaw, respectively.

82 per cent gave Karaim as their mother tongue but only 31 per cent could speak the language and only 13 per cent said they used it in both speech and writing. Over 60 per cent spoke Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish. Among young people under 16 only three spoke Karaim, a figure that must be seen in the light of the fact that the number of Karaim in Lithuania was 423 in 1959 and 352 in 1979.

The future may therefore seem gloomy but bearing in mind the high level of education and strong awareness of their distinctive identity, the Karaim have better chances of surviving than some of other remnants of peoples.

While 11 per cent of the Lithuanian population had undergone higher education, the figure for the Karaim was no less than 44 per cent. 66 per cent were in leading posts in the administration, 6 had PhDs and were employed in the new independent Lithuania's foreign service. Two of the most important posts, Ambassadors in Moscow and in Tallinn were both held by Karaim.

The latter, Halina Kobeckaité subsequently became the Lithuanian Ambassador to Turkey, a post which she left last year.

The Gagauz - a Christian Turkic people

Following the disintegration of the Soviet empire on 19 August 1990 a hitherto unknown Christian people suddenly emerged on the map of Europe. Wedged in between Romania and Ukraine in the south-western corner of the to 65% Romanian-speaking Moldavian Soviet Republic, the independent Republic of Gagauzia was namely proclaimed.

The foundation was thereby laid for yet another conflict in what was once the Soviet Union. Shortly after the proclamation of the Republic of Gagauzia, the Russians and Ukrainians in the area east of the Dnjestr proclaimed their own Soviet Republic led by former Communists, "the Socialist Soviet Moldavian Republic of Djnestr". This "Transnistria" confirmed its ambition to become independent in a referendum held on 1 December 1991.

Who were these Gagauz who were now demanding their place on the map of Europe?

Their origin is unclear. There are no less than 19 different theories about their origin. According to a Romanian theory they are an ancient Romanian tribe - the "Uzi" - who originally lived north of the Danube. According to other explanations they are Christian Turks, Turkic Slavic Bulgarians, Turkic Greeks, descendents of the Turkic Bulgarians, or a combination of these peoples.

The most accepted theory claims that the Gagauz are descendents of the Turkic O?uz tribes who in the 7th century, together with the Huns, the Khazars, the Avars, the Petchenegs, and the Kumans left the Altai mountains, today the borderland between the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Across the steppes of central Asia and the areas around the Caspian Sea they finally reached the plains south of the outflow of the river Danube where they settled. According to this theory when the Bulgarians under Boris I converted to Christianity in 864, the Gagauz followed their example.

Fleeing from the Mongols, they are said to have received from the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologous in Constantinople in 1261 an area of land along the Black Sea coast in the borderland between what is now Bulgaria and Romania. Under their sultan Izz al-Din Kay-Kaus they established an independent state there with the present day city of Kavarna as it's capital. The new state, the population of which is believed to have got its name through a derivation from this Kay Kaus, built up its own army and navy. It lasted until 1398 when the last Gagauz ruler was forced to recognise the supremacy of the Ottoman sultan in worldly matters. The Gagauz retained their religion however and only adopted the language of their conquerors. The Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople remained the head of the church and Church Slavonic and Greek were kept as liturgical languages.

In the mid-18th century, a Gagauz emigration across the Danube into Russia began and when the Russians withdrew, after having occupied large parts of present day Bulgaria in their war with the Turks, practically all of the remaining Gagauz population followed along and settled in the areas of present day Moldova which now constitutes their centre.

A Russian observer described them as "Turkic-Bulgarian bastards". In a Russian census from 1897 they are not included as a particular group but are lumped together with Moldovans, Vlachs, Ruthenians, Romany, and other minority peoples in this area. They are included among the approximately 55 000 "Ottoman Turks" and 100 000 Bulgarians who were then registered.

At the beginning of the 20th century, close to 90 per cent of Gagauz men and practically all the women were illiterate.

During the inter-war period, when the Gagauz areas in what was known as Bessarabia belonged to Romania, no efforts were made to improve the living conditions of this small minority. A kind of Gagauz mini renaissance occurred, however, in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the efforts of a priest. He compiled a first Gagauz dictionary and wrote a grammar of the Gagauz language. He translated various religious documents and wrote also a short Gagauz history but he did not discuss any theories about the origin of this people.

As a result of the so-called Hitler-Stalin Pact signed before the Second World War, Bessarabia was allotted to the Soviet Union. The situation did not improve after the Second World War as "Gagauzia" became part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The language had traditionally been written using Greek letters. A Cyrillic Gagauz alphabet was construed in 1957. The following year, under Chruschev's "thaw", schools were opened with teaching in Gagauz and text books were written for this purpose in the language but these schools were short-lived. They were closed in the early 1960s and Gagauz subsequently disappeared entirely from the educational system and cultural life in general and it was not even a subject of academic linguistic studies any more.

An anthology of Gagauz poetry was though published in 1964 but very few other works. A magazine in Gagauz was issued twice a month in Chisinau as a supplement to the party organ Moldova Socialista. Beside several ethnographic studies were published, a grammar was published in 1990 but it was in Russian with very few translations into Gagauz. During the entire post-war period between 1945-1990 only some thirty books, including translations, were published in the language.

The Gagauz were traditionally engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry and wine-growing. During the Soviet period, the Gagauz population lived mainly in kolchoses in rural areas and became russified to a high degree. In connection with the independence of Moldova, 75 per cent gave Russian as their second language while only four per cent claimed to be fluent in Moldovan, the official language of the new state, closely related to Romanian. 91 per cent gave Gagauz as their mother tongue.

Towards the end of the perestroika, a Gagauz cultural club was established in the main town of Komrat and it gained gradually importance and finally became an umbrella organisation Gagauz Halki (the Gagauz people). A representative of this organisation later took part in establishing the Moldovan "Popular Front" in the capital Chisinau in May 1989. The general underdevelopment in the Gagauz areas made the small Gagauz intellectual elite set their hopes to the Popular Front's reform programme.

A Gagauz university, half private, half state-financed, was opened in the main town of Komrat in 1991 with about thousand students divided among three faculties of agriculture, economics and "national culture". The major Moldovan daily newspaper began to issue a weekly supplement in Gagauz, Ana Sözü (mother tongue), and a writer's union was founded. The Moldovan TV and radio began sending monthly broadcasts in Gagauz, and a local TV station was established in Komrat as well as a small film academy.

However, conflicts within the Gagauz group were a major obstacle to the efforts to revitalise the language and the national culture. Some of the leading personalities tried to link up with the Turkish background while others stressed the Russian roots of the Gagauz culture and tried to strengthen the ties between the Gagauz community and the Russian Federation. For obvious political reasons the Popular Front in the capital Chisinau supported the first wing and, in 1993, a Latin alphabet for the language was adopted which had been drawn up in collaboration with Turkish language maintenance authorities.

When the Popular Front acquired an increasingly pronounced Romania-friendly focus in its activities, the Gagauz lost interest in it. From the Gagauz viewpoint it had primarily been seen as an instrument for obtaining economic and political concessions from the central government in the capital. Most Gagauz had no desire to leave the Soviet Union and therefore strongly opposed the Popular Front's pan-Romanian tendencies.

In reaction to these, an autonomous Gagauz Republic was proclaimed in September 1989. Tension increased between the Gagauz and the central government which culminated in August 1990 when, as mentioned above, the "Gagauz Soviet Socialist Republic" was proclaimed.

The organisation Gagauz Halki was outlawed. Troops made up of Moldovan "volunteers" and strengthened by vodka set off for the Gagauz areas using stolen public transport buses. The Gagauz for their part organised a self-defence force and at the same time "worker brigades" were assembled from Transnistria, the other separatist republic in Moldova, to assist the Gagauz. In late October 1990, some 40 000 Moldovans stood against as many Gagauz and Russian and Ukrainian-speaking Transnistrians. The small Moldovan militia could not keep the situation under control and clashes led to fatalities. A state of emergency was declared and peace and order could only be restored by the intervention of Soviet special forces stationed in Ukraine.

When on 1 December 1991 the Republic of Moldova held its first presidential election following independence, the Gagauz again expressed their wish for sovereignty - this time through a clear majority in a referendum. A constitution was adopted and a presidency established with Stepan Topal, a constructional engineer, as first head of state. The capital city became the largest town in the Gagauz area, Komrat.

This decision was not accepted by the Moldovan government in the capital Chisinau. The Moldovan declaration of independence in 1991 further widened the rift since the Gagauz leaders welcomed the coup in Moscow as an attempt to stop the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Like many other small peoples in the former Soviet empire, the Gagauz considered reawakened nationalism a greater threat to their future than Soviet "internationalism". It gradually became clear that the main purpose of the declaration of this republic had not been real independence, this action had primarily aimed at obtaining a greater freedom from the central government.

After the parliamentary elections in Moldova in 1994 these demands received a better hearing and both the new Prime Minister, Sangheli, and the President of the Republic, Snegur, stated that they were in favour of Gagauz independence.

In December 1994, the Moldovan parliament adopted a law concerning Gagauz autonomy. In the preamble, the Gagauz are designated a people ("popor") and the need to preserve and develop their national identity is underscored. By this law an "autonomous territorial unit with a special legal position in the form of self-determination for the Gagauz which is a constituent part of the Republic of Moldova" was created. As a special concession to the Gagauz, the agreement also contains a clause to counter their fears of a future Moldovan union with Romania according to which should the status of Moldova as an independent state be changed, the people of Gagauzia have a somewhat obscure right to "external self-determination".

Under the agreement on autonomy a Popular Assembly, Halk Toplusu, shall be elected directly for a period of four years with the authority to legislate in matters concerning culture and education, the local economy, building construction, health care, environmental issues, local budget and social security. Foreign and defence policy are entirely in the hands of the central government and it is further stated in the agreement that all laws that may contravene with Moldova's Constitution are invalid. Furthermore, one of the two deputy speakers in the Assembly must come from an ethnic group other than the Gagauz.

The highest person in authority is the governor, "bashkan", who must be at least 35 years of age, speak Gagauz and may not be elected for more than two four-year periods. The governor is also an ex officio member of the Moldovan government and may be removed from office by a two third's majority in the Popular Assembly. To his assistance the governor has a local government in the form of an executive committee (Bakannik Komitesi).

In contrast to the situation in the separatist republic Transnistria, the problem of irregular military forces got solved by integrating the Gagauz free troops with the Moldovan domestic troops which even received remuneration for their solidarity with the central government.

All three languages, Gagauz, Russian, and Moldovan were made official in the area.

On 5 March 1995, referendums were held in 36 municipalities in southern Moldova, 30 of which joined the autonomous area. In the five districts which today make up the Gagauz area, Gagauz Yeri, the Gagauz constitute the majority of the population in only two. In both cases, including the main town Komrat, they are not more than about 65 per cent of the population and in all there is a Gagauz majority in only 28 villages and small towns in the entire area.

Gagauzia now covers 1 800 square kilometres or slightly more than five per cent of Moldova's surface area and has approximately 170 000 inhabitants. However, there are no official maps of Gagauzia, probably mainly in order to avoid overtly demonstrating the geographic split-up. The autonomous area may be described as an archipelago with four large and a number of lesser islands in the landscape of southern Moldova.

In the Gagauz case, no news may be said to be good news and since autonomy was introduced in 1995, the Gagauz issue has not been a troubling element leading to headlines in the international media. What originally appeared to be a regional conflict that might threaten the unity of the state of Moldova has been reduced to a question of local self-government.

It has, however, entailed one problem. When the conflict was most acute, the number of visitors from the OSCE, Council of Europe, EU, and other international institutions and organisations was so extensive that a restaurant of relatively high quality could be run in Komrat. It became the first victim of the peaceful settlement.

Gagauzia has again become a forgotten area on the fringes of Europe's poorest country with the difference that the region now has its own flag, pale blue with three white stars in the left corner and red and white stripes at the bottom.

As mentioned above, the Gagauz language is closely related to Turkish. Approximately 80% of the vocabulary is about the same but the language has been affected by the fact that the Gagauz are Christians. Via church language, Slavic elements have been introduced and Gagauz has also been influenced by its Romanian-speaking environment. One problem is that Gagauz has stagnated as a language and, so to speak, remained at an everyday level without words and expressions for modern phenomena. However, through its close relationship with Turkish, this problem can be remedied and Turkey has recently made teachers available for Gagauz schools.

Furthermore, Gagauz students are welcome at Turkish universities and, through a special exchange programme, Turkish teachers and students play an active role at the university of Komrat. A Gagauz library has been financed with Turkish money as well as the shift from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet. Also, the Turkish Ministry of Culture has published a series of books on Gagauz history and culture.

There are also Gagauz settlements in the regions around Odessa in Ukraine and Rostov in Russia. Furthermore, small groups live in the vicinity of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan and in the areas around the capitals of Kyrgyzistan and Uzbekistan, Bishkek and Tashkent.

In connection with the last ethnic census in Bulgaria in 1905, 6 983 people stated they were Gagauz. The number is probably no greater today. They continue to live in the regions around their original centre, the town Kavarna on the Black Sea coast. However, contacts between them and the Moldovan Gagauz were broken long ago. During the Communist period the Bulgarian authorities usually refused to grant them travel visas and if such a visa was obtained, a new struggle had to be faced with the Romanian bureaucracy for a transit visa.

In Bulgaria the language is spoken only by elderly people and Gagauz culture is dying out. All that remains are folk songs and folk costumes, some special dishes and distinctly Gagauz superstitions. A black cat that washes itself means bad luck, horses are said to bear devils within them, and before the wedding a bridegroom must climb to the top of a tree and there drink wine if he is to be happy in his married life.

There are also smaller groups of Gagauz around Alexandroupolis in north-eastern Greece.

The former Gagauz ethnic group in Romania appears to be completely Romanized now. The Gagauz have been well aware of this danger and this has certainly been a strong additional factor for their strive for autonomy and distrust of all schemes of a Moldovan association with Romania.

There are probably also many Gagauz living in Turkey to-day. However, unlike the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, the Turkic minorities on the Balkans, and the Muslims in Bosnia, the Gagauz cannot count on Turkish citizenship should they move to Turkey. The Act on Turkish Citizenship, based on jus sanguinis, clearly has a religious component. Blood ties are not enough and the religious factor thus plays a part even though Turkey is a secular state.

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