Bulgarian Gypsies

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Bulgarian Gypsies

ETHNONYMS: Horahane, Roma, Tsigani


Identification. Bulgarian Gypsies are an ethnic group with strong historical ties to other European Gypsy groups. They have played significant economic and cultural roles in Bulgarian society since their arrival at least 600 years ago. In the 1970s, as part of the socialist government's assimilation campaign, the ethnic category "Gypsy" was abolished, and the word has begun to disappear from print. Despite the official denial of the existence of Gypsies, they are a growing population with a complex relationship to the socialist government. With the current retreat from one-party domination and the demand for democracy, it will be interesting to follow the fate of the Gypsies. Long-standing discrimination is not likely to disappear.

Location. Bulgarian Gypsies live throughout the country in both rural and urban areas. Their population is centered in cities with the largest concentrations in Sliven (over 30,000 Gypsies), Sofia, and Pazardzik. A number of Gypsy groups have been sedentary in Bulgaria for centuries, while others have been forced to settle more recently. The abolition of nomadism has been a goal of virtually every European government: an 1886 Bulgarian decree prohibited nomadism and the entry of Gypsies from abroad. Gypsies prefer to live in their own neighborhoods, but since the 1950s the socialist government has implemented a policy of integrated resettlement of Sofia Gypsies, tearing down many old neighborhoods and assigning housing in new apartment complexes. Many mourn the passing of the old neighborhood and extended family life, while others eagerly claim their right to live interspersed among Bulgarians. Although the entire extended family rarely lives together in a new apartment, they still gather frequently.

Demography. Reliable population figures for Bulgarian Gypsies are impossible to assemble because no census data on ethnic groups has been published since World War II. Foreign scholars estimate that there are 260,000 to 450,000 Gypsies among a total population of 9 million Bulgarians, representing 2 to 5 percent of the population. The Gypsy birthrate is significantly higher than the Bulgarian birthrate; families of 4-6 children are common among Gypsies, whereas the Bulgarian average is 1.5 children.

linguistic Affiliation. A large majority of Bulgarian Gypsies speak Romani, a member of the Indic Branch of the Indo-Aryan Language Group, and many also speak Turkish. The Kopanari, a subgroup living mainly in northern Bulgaria, speak Romanian. All Gypsies speak (and most read and write) Bulgarian, since education up to the eighth grade is compulsory. Romani has a rich oral tradition of songs, tales, and expressions, but it is not taught in the schools.

History and Cultural Retenons

Gypsies entered the Balkans in approximately the eleventh century from their homeland in India. They were well established in large numbers throughout the Balkans by the fourteenth century, some settling and others remaining nomadic. Initial curiosity about Gypsies by Balkan peoples and governments eventually gave way to hatred and discrimination. In the Romanian kingdom they were serfs until the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century sources document a distinct economic niche for Gypsies while underscoring their separateness, their exoticism as a culture, and the persecution they suffered. In the twentieth century, approximately half a million European Gypsies perished at the hands of the Nazis. Bulgarian scholars emphasize that Gypsies lived in misery during the Ottoman period due to the oppressive "Turkish yoke" and the Muslim religion. They claim that since the 1944 socialist revolution, Gypsies have become "cultured, advanced, and educated," that they are equal citizens of Bulgaria, and that prejudice is gone and assimilation is occurring (Marinov 1962, 267-270; Georgieva 1966, 43-44). Western scholars, however, claim that Gypsy ethnicity is thriving and adapting in creative ways to the pressures of assimilation (Silverman 1986).


Bulgarian Gypsies have not until recently been involved in growing their own food; they were not allowed to own land and instead developed service occupations such as fortune-telling, music, horse dealing, bear keeping, entertainment, animal training, acrobatics, blacksmithing, coppersmithing, tinsmithing, woodworking, sieve making, comb making, basket weaving, shoemaking, and seasonal agricultural work. Many of these occupations continue today, in addition to middleman peddling, black market peddling, and the almost ubiquitous wage labor. In wage labor, Gypsies occupy a lowstatus economic niche: unskilled factory jobs are common, as are agricultural jobs on cooperative farms, street cleaning, and railroad cleaning. With universal education, Gypsies are beginning to assume professional roles as teachers, clerks, lawyers, journalists, and government officials. Music has continuously provided Gypsies with a viable economic niche in Bulgaria, both in the private and government realms. Gypsies have a virtual monopoly of some instruments, namely zurna (oboe) and tupan (two-headed drum). Whatever instrument they play, Gypsies learn the repertoire of the local peasants in order to be indispensable at weddings, baptisms, housewarmings, saints' day festivals, etc. The past twenty years have witnessed a grossly inflated market for modern folk music in Bulgaria. Gypsies have played a central role in creating this contemporary "wedding music," which boasts star performers. Adaptability is the key to Gypsy occupations, whether in the private or in the state-sponsored sphere. When working a government job, Gypsies often mold the job to their own Family's needs. Some see this adaptation of jobs as a subversion of the Bulgarian work ethic, which stresses pride and devotion to the nation. Gypsies often change and recombine occupations, so a typical person may have 3-4 sources of income. Gypsies are economically flexible within the centralized Socialist economy. They manage to keep the benefits of socialism without giving up the independence of the free market.


Kinship is reckoned bilaterally with more attachment to the patrilineal side due to patrilocal residence after marriage. Personal names depict kin relations for one or two generations. Muslim names were forcibly changed to Slavic names in the 1970s as part of the government assimilation program. Official Slavic names, however, are rarely, if ever, used.

Marriage and Family

Family life is the basis of social interaction. Marrying and even socializing with non-Gypsies is avoided. Marriages are sometimes arranged by the parents, with the involvement of the bride and groom. Marital age is typically young, between 16 and 21. Elopements often occur. Divorce used to be rare but in the last twenty years it has become increasingly Common. Marriage and divorce are sanctioned through ritual, and official documents are often avoided. Extended patrilineal patrilocal families were common until the 1960s, but they have been supplemented by nuclear or vertically extended families (three generations).

Sociopolitical Organization

Leadership within the group comes from powerful elders, Usually men but sometimes women. These elders may refer to themselves as "kings" or "queens" (to non-Gypsies) but their power is not hereditary. Rather, it is determined by their reputations. Social control is enforced by public opinion, for example, through the threat of withdrawing sociability. Conflict between Gypsies is settled within the group through mediation or through a council of elders. Gypsies rarely seek help from the Bulgarian government because they generally do not receive fair treatment. Recently, political awareness has grown among intellectual Gypsies who are starting to lobby for ethnic rights.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The large majority of Bulgarian Gypsies are Muslims (Horahane), and a smaller percentage are Eastern Orthodox Christians. Gypsies do not tend to be devout followers of any one institutional religion but rather practice an eclectic folk Religion that combines Muslim, Christian, and pre-Christian customs. Since the 1970s the socialist government has clamped down on Islamic worship, closing mosques and prohibiting circumcision, the speaking of Turkish, and the wearing of Muslim ethnic dress. Many of these practices continue in private realms. Gypsies are known for their musical ability, especially their talent for improvisation and their huge repertoire of in-group music and music for outsiders. Gypsy Weddings and soldier send-off celebrations are community-wide events where the culture's music, food, and family values are displayed.


Crowe, David, and John Kolsti (1991). The Gypsies of Eastern Europe. Arkmonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe.

Georgieva, Ivanichka (1966). "Izsledvanija vurhu bita i kultura na Bulgarskite Tsigani v Sliven." Izvestija na Etnografskija Institut i Muzej 9:25-47.

Marinov, Vasil (1962). "Nabljudenija vurhu bita na Tsigani v Bulgaria." Izvestija na Etnografskija Institut i Muzej 5: 227-275.

Silverman, Carol (1986). "Bulgarian Gypsies: Adaptation in a Socialist Context." Nomadic Peoples 21-22 (special issue):51-62.

Soulis, George C. (1961). The Gypsies in the Byzantine Empire and the Balkans in the Late Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, no. 15. Washington, D.C.