A Brief History of the Roma People (Gypsies)

Because recorded history of the Roma prior to their first documented appearances in Europe in the early 15th century is non-existent, there has been much debate as to their origins and early migration. Based on linguistic evidence (the similarity of the Romany language to Hindi, Panjabi, and related languages of Northern India) and anthropological evidence (body habitus and ABO blood group distributions closely approximating those of the warrior classes of northern India)(7), there is now a clear consensus of opinion that the modern day Roma of the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the Americas originated in Northwestern India. There is also a general consensus regarding the approximate timing of their emigration, or at least the bulk of it if you believe in more than one wave of emigration - ie in the 11th century.

The route(s) and even the number(s) of emigrations is less well agreed upon, although this too is becoming clearer. Some allude to at least several waves of emigration from northern India. There is a persistent believ that several migrations took place between the 10th and 13th centuries, with the first potential migration identified going back to the 5th century. Often quoted and perpetuated is the story of the receipt by Persian monarch, Behram Gour, of 12,000 musicians (called Zott, arabicized from Jatt - ancestors of the modern Persian Luris or Lulis) from an Indian king. This story is reported in both Pott's introduction quoting Firdousi (1), and confirmed by Arabian historian Hamsa of Isfahan. This story is attractive to many because even to this day the Roma are perhaps best known for their music and dance. Others point to a major wave of emigration taking place at the time of Muslim invasions of Northern India in the early 800's. Several further invasions during the 10th to 13th centuries resulted in subsequent emigrations (2,3,4).

The most recent evidence, some of which is not yet published, will suggest a mixed population (warriors and their "camps") leaving Northern India in the 11th century in retreat from the advance of Islam. In particular, Mahmud of Ghazni conducted a series of raids over the first 25 to 30 years of the century. Linguistic evidence points to a northerly exodus through the upper Indus Valley. After crossing the Himalayas, it is likely that they followed the Silk Road west to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, up along the west coast to the foothills of the Caucasus range, through Armenia and into the Byzantime Empire. This proposed route of migration is based on the numbers and types of words in Romani - Persion, Armenian, and Greek. This site will be updated with the appropriate reference(s) when available.

Many attempts to summarize their appearances in Europe are available, most of which report them in Southeastern Europe sometime in the early 1300's, Central/Eastern Europe in the 1400's and in Western and Northern Europe later in the 1400's into the early 1500's (3,5).

Since that time, their history is one of attempts at banishment, forced assimilation, persecution, deportation, slavery, and attempted extermination. As recently as the 1930's and 1940's the Nazis of the Third Reich imprisoned and murdered on the order of 500,000 Roma. They continue to be victims of persecution, especially in the eastern European countries of the former "soviet block".

1. August F. Pott: Die Zigeuner in Europe and Asien. Halle, Heymemann 1844-45
2. David MacRitchie Accounts of the Gypsies of India. 1886 New Society Publications. Delhi, India
3. S. S. Shashi Roma: The Gypsy World. 1990 Sundeep Prakashan Delhi, India
4. W.R. Rishi: Roma. 1976 Punjabi University, Patiala, India
5. A. Fraser: The Gypsies 1992 Blackwell Publications Oxford, England
6. Ian F. Hancock: A Handbook of Vlax Romani. 1995 Slavica Publishers, Inc
7. see the blood group chart included in Romane Chave and the Problems of their Intercontinental Communication by Dr. Vania de Gila - Kochanowski)

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Updated November 2013