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The Origins of the Gypsy People: Identity and influence in Romani history

by Adrian Marsh


The debates and discussions surrounding the subject of the origin and histories of the Gypsy peoples of the world have been conducted amongst scholars, activists and governments, since their appearance in the historical record and almost certainly long before that. The answer to the question “Who are we?” inevitably includes ideas about “Who were we?” and importantly, “Where are we from?” Most critically, it asks the question “Who are we not?” Modern historiography functions as the history of nations, and frequently assumes that groups of people who may or may not have some shared characteristics have travelled through time and over sometimes enormous geographical distances as sealed units. Each group is conceived of as existing in a kind of container, acting as a barrier to keep the contents ‘intact’ (or ‘pure’, as nationalists wish to present it), until their historical trajectory or pre-destined “path” brings them into contact with history again, as a “nation”. Those that have lived through the experience of domination, especially by an “alien” culture and society (usually an Islamic one, as in medieval Spain, or the Ottoman Empire for example), are frequently seen as a “…for centuries a people without history” (Bosworth, 1993:190). They wait, in a pristine condition the establishment of nation-states based upon the particular identity of the group (Serbia, Albania, Greece, Sweden, Norway, etc.). Those ‘outside’ the territory of this group are expected to demonstrate an irredentist nationalism, militating to be united with their fellow nationals in a ‘greater…’ The importance of claiming particular external groups as one’s own is not lost upon politicians and ideologues; the Indian government’s ‘sponsorship’ of the Gypsies took place in the context of growing tension with Pakistan in the late twentieth-century.

The concept of “nationhood”, of belonging to a particular territory or geography in some innate, primal fashion is of course, central to the nation-state. Those who are not of this “land”, have no “relationship” with the soil, encompassed in the idea that one’s ancestors are buried in it or have died on it are deemed to be “other”, “alien” and “immigrant”. Essential to the idea of “blood and soil” is the concept of “sedentary”, being ‘fixed’ in some meaningful way (domicile, ancestor burial, defence against “immigrants”, a notion of a common experience with others in the same territory). At its opposite is deemed to be mobility, movement either in a regular perhaps seasonal pattern, or in a constant search for new resources, often pastoral. The meeting point between these two poles is the confrontation between sedentary and nomad, or the “steppe and the sown”, as Peake and Fleure have described it (1928). The suggestion that there is a progression from one to the other is an example of European “Orientalism” (Said, 1972), the view of the ‘Other’ as exotic, existing in another, non-Western time “…petty, barbarous and cruel”, as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia describes the Arabs (1962). In the context of Gypsy histories (the differing experiences of the Romani, Domari, Lom and others), this idea of a nomadic lifestyle giving way to a sedentary one is frequently associated with the agent of time; “…many Romani are again living a nomadic life and have returned to their earlier culture”, according to an Azeri Rom (Daniels, 2003). “Settlement” is identified as a movement from an older (primitive?) past into a more modern (civilised?) present, rather than a particular point along a continuum, a condition that groups and individuals may move in or out of at various times. The history of nomadic peoples demonstrates in general that the latter is the most frequent mode of existence, but the ideology of the nation-state would seek to deny this and promote the concept of sedentarism as part of “modernism”.

The discussions about who and who are not included in these nation-states are, of course of especial interest to us here; inevitably Gypsy peoples have been identified as ‘not belonging’ in most nation-states at some time. In this instance, the Gypsies are usually seen as “…a people without history…” eternally suffering persecution, discrimination, forced settlement or forced migration, though this perception itself is recent. Before this, Gypsies were rarely seen at all, except as inherently “criminal”, but again without a history. This recognition of the experience of Gypsy peoples, especially the Romani people is identified as happening in the moment; indeed a common stereotype amongst non-Gypsies is the notion that these are a people who live in the eternal present, incapable or unwilling to plan for the future or recall a more general past. Integral to the “scientific” racism that underpins the ideology of the nation-state, the “People” as a “nation” exist on a point along a continuum which stretches backwards and forwards in time (and often geographical space), punctuated by events that are recorded and ordered in the national historiography. Other “nations” or groups of nations may share a similar trajectory and are often perceived to further or less far along it, depending upon their level of “modernisation”, or what Huntington has unashamedly described as “civilisation” (2002), suggesting irreconcilable differences between them when identifying something called “Islam” and something called “the West”. These differences are most often presented in terms of “cultures”, and hidden amongst them are the ideas of “progress”, “development” and “democracy” with their concomitants, “backwardness”, “underdevelopment” and “tyranny”. Again, the idea of one “nation” or group of “nations” being more “developed” and “progressive” is contrasted with its opposite, to achieve the equation with “democratic” as opposed to “tyrannous”. The Gypsies, especially the Romanies have been consistently defined vis-à-vis this series of Eurocentric ideas, even to the extent of characterising as “anarchical” their political and social organisation, in the “democracy-tyranny” spectrum. In this sense, it is the concept of “origin” as a point of departure, which can be used as a “measure” against which to compare others that makes the establishment of such more or less “important”. The more temporally remote that point, the greater the claim to an “authentic” longevity as a “nation” or “people” and the more one’s own “nation” may have “influenced” or informed others (Hellenic Greece for example)”. Some or all of these considerations underlie the attempts to establish definitively, the origin of the Gypsies.

In examining the record of references to the origins of the Gypsies (rather than records of the appearance of Gypsies), inevitably one lights upon the most frequently cited example of both, the reference to the “Luri” in the Shahname or Book of Kings. The 60,000 verse Iranian epic was written by Abu l’Kasım Firdausi When completed, he presented it in 1010 to another important figure in the discussion of Gypsy origins, Sultan Mahmûd of Ghazna (997-1030). This ‘legend of the Luri and Bahram Ghur’ has become ubiquitous in Romani scholarship, featuring in almost every monograph, article and web-site devoted to the Gypsies and has been used to suggest their presence in fifth-century Sassanid Persia. Recently critically re-examined and challenged on a number of points (Marsh, 2003), the reference as first suggested by Col. John S. Harriott in 1830 attempted to draw attention to the Oriental Origins of the Romanichal, or English Romanies. Firdausi and indeed his earlier source Hamza al Isfahani’sChronology, never defined their use of the term “Luri” beyond explaining their presence in eleventh-century Persia by reference to a group of musicians from Sindh, or western India in the fifth-century. As there were many Hindus and Buddhists in Sassanid Persia and the ruler Bahram Ghur (420-438) gave poets, musicians and singers “the highest ranks at court” (Wiesehöfer, 2001:159), little conclusive evidence that these were Gypsies can be drawn. In the context of our current discussion, the suggestion that we might find the origins of the Romanies in Persia as a group of Indians from Sindh must be seen to be a consequence of earlier identifications coming, as it does in the nineteenth century.


Tenth-century Byzantine references to the Atsinganoi, originally a heretical Judeo-Christian group centred in northern Asia Minor may be our earliest extant record of to Romani people, although there are still questions about drawing equivalence between these references. The notion was present in these that the group referred to were “…a Sarmatian people…” (Fraser, 1992:46). The Sarmatians were a Central Asian, nomad people, speakers of an Indo-Iranian language. Herodotus in his Histories (Rawlinson, Rawlinson & Wilkinson, 1862) notes that they were a people who lived and travelled in wagons, that their warriors included women and their priestesses men and they could retreat endlessly into their steppe lands, thus defeating the Persian shahanshah, Darius I through despair and despond. Clearly, this reference is doubtful in its suggestion that it is concerned with Gypsies. Later, twelfth-century descriptions of Byzantine Gypsies are much more reliable, referring to bear-keepers, magicians, soothsayers and snake charmers as “Egyptians” in various religious commentaries and tracts (Soulis, 1961:146-147). Numbers of other references in late Byzantine sources indicate that there was no clear link made with the earlier Indians in defining the origins of these wandering acrobats, jugglers and animal-trainers. One other reference from this period suggests a connection with the Arabs, that of Simon Simeonis in 1323, when he notes a group in the island of Crete who asserted “…themselves to be of the family of Chaym… always wandering and fugitive…” and living in black tents similar to the Arabians’ he had seen elsewhere on his travels (Fraser, 1992:50). The biblical reference to “Chaym” or Ham, is frequent in the context of descriptions of the Gypsies in this period, especially in Western Europe after 1400 when the Gypsies were identified as “pilgrims”, atoning for apostasy and armed with patents royal. Various were the legends that attached to these bands of distinctive, dark-skinned travellers often led by ‘Counts’ or ‘Dukes’, but many of them made a connection with the fabled land of Hermes Trimegistus, the ‘author’ of a series of Gnostic and alchemical texts (actually Arabic in origin; Holmyard, 1929:525-6) believed to be ‘Egyptian’. Charters, such as the one granted to Johannus Cinganus by the Venetians in 1244 at Nauplion, contained the evidence for the later claims by Gypsy groups in Western Europe (Soulis, 1961:164-165). In response to the Ottoman incursions, Gypsy war-band leaders were awarded titles in charters such as ‘duke’ and ‘count’, with the concomitant responsibility for providing military service in the classic late feudal relationship.


One of the earliest attempts to closely define the origins of the “Egyptians” in Western Europe was by Andrew Borde (or Boorde) in 1547, when he published his examples collected in 1542, of “Egipt speche”. Survival of early works is often more by chance than by design, but some inference can be drawn from the fact that original manuscripts are extant. Sebastian Münster’s Chronographia Universalis of 1550 also suggested an Egyptian origin, but in this case, Lesser Egypt located as Münster himself suggested, in the Gangetic or Indus regions (Bartlett, 1952:85). Earlier, the municipal authorities responsible for Hildesheim in Hesse recorded a visit from a party of ‘Tartars’ again from Egypt (Fraser, 1992:66-67). ‘Little Egypt’ was frequently cited as the place of origin in various records of towns and cities in the fifteenth century, possibly gleaned from Gypsies themselves. This was connected by commentators with the region of Modon, in the Venetian territories, but as Fraser suggests it derived from the original notion of an ‘Egyptian’ origin, as the community there in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries themselves claimed (1992:53-54). One interesting reference to the Gypsies of Modon at this time comes from Lionardo di Niccolo Friscobaldi in 1384, when he notes that these apparent penitents without the city walls as Romiti (1818:72). Other travellers to the city suggested that it was the original home of this group, but this reflects the growing antagonism and suspicion shown to Gypsies in Western Europe from the late fifteenth-century, illustrating the shift from pilgrims and penitents to ‘spies’ and ‘vagabonds’.

Their arrival in Western Europe, prompted by the chaos of the interregnum in the Ottoman lands during the first decades of the fifteenth century and a worsening of conditions for the Gypsies there, focused attention upon the ‘discovery’ of the origins of this hitherto unrecorded group. The choice by many annalists, commentators and writers of Egypt as the ‘home’ of the Gypsies reflected the concern with magic, conjuring and especially alchemy, following the thirteenth-century translations of the ‘works’ ofHermes Trimegistus and their dissemination (Holmyard, 1923:525). The appearance of these dark-skinned, unusually dressed strangers also reinforced the ideas about the ‘East’ as the home of wandering tribes, heathens and infidels, the enemies of Christendom. The shift to the biblical lands of Egypt may reflect the limited extent of the knowledge of those who first encountered these groups in the Modon region and their assumption that these were people connected with that land. It may also be the case that, in order to allay further suspicion, the Romiti chose to present themselves not as quondam residents in the Byzantine and then Ottoman lands (one a schismatic state and the other an infidel one), but as people from a place that Europeans had some associations of, the biblical lands. The flight to Egypt of the Holy Family even provided some basis for claims to penitence; the Gypsies had refused succour to the fleeing Christ-child and so were doomed to wander as a result. It is also possible that those who gave Egypt as their origin, initially at least were indeed from that country. Their presence in Modon, an important entrepôt for pilgrims to the Holy Land and other ports with traffic to the Latin Crusader states like Ragusa (Dubrovnik), is compatible with such a suggestion. There is a supposition that only Romanies were present in the Balkans, by most modern scholars. An older community, absorbed into the more numerous later identity and earlier instances of Dom being found in these regions may be supported by the reference from the Kingdom of Cyprus to the community of Gypsies there under the Lusignan King Jacques II (1460-1473) (Marsh & Strand, 2003:4). It is conceivable then, that the earliest “Egyptians” spoke the truth.

Until the later eighteenth-century, the ‘Egyptian’ origin remained the dominant explanation, recorded in tracts and treatises with little variation. The changing situation of persecution and oppression in Western Europe required only that they be vilified by commentators as Ottoman spies, thieves, idlers and con men and women. Ideological justification for the appalling treatment meted out to Romanies in Europe was to be found in these works, and the earlier suspicions and prejudices took on a lethal character when the writers of standing and influence took up their pens to do so. Even the notion that Gypsies were indeed from Egypt came under scrutiny, and English encyclopaedias referred to “…counterfeit kind of rogues, who being English, or Welsh people, disguise themselves in uncouth habits…” according to Ephraim Chamber (1728). This terminology merely reflected the earlier legislative descriptions of “counterfeit Egyptians” in a variety of punitive laws in the mid-sixteenth century (Fraser, 131-137). Such an approach dominated the discussion of Gypsy origins, and can be seen to manifest the beginnings of the racist paradigm of the “true Egyptian”, as opposed to the vagabonds and thieves claiming to be Gypsies (Fraser, 1992:92).

The Indian origin of the Gypsies might be said to have been ‘discovered’ by Münster in 1550, although the claim that he was told this by Gypsies is not entirely correct (Hancock, 2002:2) as referred to above. Others did not take up his suggestion however, and presumably, the Gypsies questioned by Western Europeans maintained the idea of an Egyptian origin, as it fitted well with preconceived notions. The forty articles in the Vienna Gazette (Weiner Anzeigen) of 1775-1776, written by an anonymous Hungarian author (Fraser, 1992: 190), seem to have been based upon the suggestion from Istvan Vali in the 1760’s. Pastor Vali had allegedly attended Leiden University to study religion (there is no record of him there), and came across a group of Indian or Sinhalese students, from whom he collected about 1,000 words. Comparing these with the language of the Gypsy labourers on the family estate in Raab, he ‘discovered’ their similarity (Hancock, 2002:2; Fraser, 1992:193; Hancock, 1991). Jacob Bryant also collected material, apparently at a Windsor fair in 1776, which he published later (1785:387-394). The German scholar, Jacob Rüdiger also collected examples of Romani from a Gypsy woman in Halle and compared it with a variety of Indian languages, noting the similarities especially with a dialect of Lahnda called “Multani” (Fraser 1992:194).

The most important work of the late eighteenth century was H.M.G.Grellman’s Dissertation on the Gipsies (1787, English edition), originally published in Leipzig in 1783. In addition to the usual material describing the Gypsies in terms of stereotypes and prejudices, Grellman synthesised the earlier Weiner Anzeigen articles and the work of other scholars, arguing for a clear relationship between Romani and Indo-Aryan languages that was most closely related to Gujurat. He also posited a date of departure from the Indian subcontinent at the time of the incursions by Timurlenk (Tamerlane) into the Delhi sultanate in 1398 (2nd edition, 1807). The new science of comparative philology guaranteed the interest of scholars in Romani and the origins of the Gypsies as an example of change and development in an Indo-Aryan related language. Augustus F. Pott, in his monumental The Gypsies in Europe and Asia (Die Zigeuner in Europa und Asien, 1844) and his work on the Gypsies of Turkey (1844:321-335), drew on the material that had by then proliferated about the Gypsies and their language to write the primary scientific works on Romani. Another scholar, Franz X. Miklosich in Vienna (1872-1881) wrote two volumes of history of the migrations of the Gypsies, based upon the philological evidence, and can be said to be the first to re-construct (or construct?) the ‘long march West’ of the Romani peoples.

Subsequent works investigating the origins of the Gypsies, and especially the Romani people have all followed Grellman, Pott and Miklosich to a greater or lesser extent, apart from a few who have sought to redefine the debates in ways that have reflected the concerns with the “social construction” of ethnic identities. Okely’s challenging The Traveller-Gypsies, sought to deconstruct the ‘myth’ of the Indian origin in regard of English Gypsies and demonstrate that the ‘link’ to India was a product of European Orientalism (following Said’s thesis), an attempt to exoticise a socially excluded and marginalised group (1983). More controversially, Willems, Lucassen and Cottaar (1998), have developed a critique of the ‘traditional’ perspective of Romani Studies and brought their own “socio-historical approach” to bear, arguing that the Gypsy identity is a product of Grellman, Pott and others since who have taken a widely disparate series of groups, who may or may not share a number of characteristics and constructed a composite called “Gypsies”. Taking the notion of the “imaginary Gypsy” even further, Mattijs van de Port has argued that “Gypsy-ness” is an “instance of the Wild”, an aspect of societal discontent expressed in a cultural form and a concomitant to “civilization” (1998), in Serbia especially. The ‘Dutch’ school can be said to include the important work of Ger Duijzings (1997), about the “making of Egyptians” in the context of the Balkan conflicts in the last decade. His notion that identities can be reconstructed as necessity and extreme circumstance demands, is the kind of psycho-historical analysis that Justin McCarthy suggested in his catalogue of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Ottoman Muslims from the region, 1821-1922 (1995), when individuals traumatised by war and loss sought refuge in the ‘safety’ of a marginal identity. Without being too reductive, the underlying thesis shared by these and other works is that, like Americans and many other modern ‘ethnic’ identities, “Gypsies” can be made and are not necessarily “born”.

Recent scholarship has sought to address both the implicit racism of the earlier ‘folklore’ studies, intrinsic to many of the contributions to the early Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (1881-) and the challenges of post-modern ideas about ‘ethnicity’ and ‘identity’ as a socially negotiated phenomenon. Attempts to establish the history of the Gypsy peoples on a complementary basis to the existing linguistic evidence in the formative lands of the Ottoman Empire, rather than to construct it as Miklosich and others have done has demonstrated the extent to which the Romanies (and consequently other Gypsy groups) are a composite people, from a variety of origins and the product of complex social, economic and political factors (Hancock, 2003 & 2002; Mischek, 2003; Altinöz, 2003; Marushiakova & Popov, 2000; Marsh, 1999). The argument that they were ‘forged’ in the borderlands of Anatolia between the hammer of the Seljuk Turks and the anvil of the Byzantine Empire in the twelfth century is becoming more widely accepted, though not uncontested. The attempts to define more accurately the point of departure to specific raids by the Sultan Mahmûd of Ghazna in 1018 (Courtiade, 2003), demonstrates the extent to which there is a ‘Romani historiography’, seeking to refine and expand the knowledge about Gypsy origins and history and confront some of the more extreme and ultimately untenable ‘myth-making’ that has passed for scholarship until now.

The key factor to the existence of the Gypsy peoples (Rom, Dom and Lom, Irish Travellers, Yenische, Resande and others), has been the ability to exploit particular economic niches in sedentary society, whether as commercial nomads, horse-dealers, farmers, metal-workers, miners, gun-powder makers, canon-founders and carpenters or a host of other occupations that Gypsies have undertaken to provide themselves and their families with a living. The musicians and metalworkers of the Dom peoples (Ghagar, Nawar and Halebi) of Egypt, Syria and the Middle East have adapted to their environment as it has changed to meet the challenges they have faced in a way that other groups have not been able to so successfully. The Roma of South-Eastern Europe have attempted the same, when faced with the horrors of ‘ethnic-cleansing’ and persecution as a product of the assertion of ethno-nationalist identities in much of the Balkans in the last decades, fleeing when possible and adapting to new environments in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany and France amongst other states. The ‘resident’ Gypsies (Romanichals, Resande, Irish Travellers, Sinti, etc.) of these nation-states have sought to maintain their distinctiveness vis-à-vis these newer groups of Roma, whilst building essential relationships through political and cultural organisations to challenge the common problems of discrimination, poor resources and marginalisation of all Gypsy communities wherever they may be. The position of those groups adopting an exclusivist and separatist identity, which is premised upon the notion of a more definite ‘Indian origin’ and therefore of being ‘more Romani’ (Hancock, 2003:2), is mirrored by those who seek a to re-affirm a ‘Swedish’ or ‘English’ Gypsy identity as ‘more’ legitimate in the context of the nation-state. The search for the ‘true Gypsy’ begun in sixteenth-century Western Europe ultimately provided the ideological justification for the genocidal policies of emergent nation-states over the next two centuries, as it did in the period of Nazi Germany, 1936-1945. Such notions remain part-and-parcel of the discrimination towards Gypsies in most nation-states of Europe.

The scholarship seeking to establish the origins of the Gypsy peoples must, it seems to this author refrain from ‘buying into’ such racist paradigms by following the patterns of nationalist myth-making and nation-building adopted after the advent of Romanticism in late eighteenth-century Western Europe and exported with such lethal results elsewhere today. The widely diverse and complex origins of Gypsies in all their variation should be positively acknowledged, held up as an example to challenge the absurdly reductive notions of the ‘Swedish’, the ‘Norwegian’, ‘Danish’ or the ‘English’ and other nations. The “liberation” that Said identified is in the “un-housed, decentred, exilic energies… whose incarnation is the migrant…” (1992). The particular genius for adaptation and flexibility that has been essential to the survival of the Gypsies stands against the rigidity of the notions of the nation-state, which appear archaic and much closer to the fearful, exclusivist ‘civilised’ Athenians contemplating the ‘barbarian’ Scythians in fourth-century BC Hellas, than the trans-national, multi-cultural, diverse community of Gypsies in the early twenty-first century European context examining their opportunities. To seek to separate out, to identify with ‘archaic’ notions of ethnicity and territoriality, through tracing particular origins for their own sake, seems a dangerous irrelevance, ultimately denying Gypsies their history rather than explaining it.


A version of this paper was originally commissioned for the Malmö Museer exhibition “Romani people and Travellers - beyond Romantic ideas and prejudices”, 9 November 2003 – 7 November 2004. For more information, or permission to use extracts: E-mail: or see Web

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