The large-scale settlement of Gypsies (Roma)
in Bulgarian lands can be traced back approximately to the period of 13th-14th
c., some earlier contacts are also possible. Numerous historical sources
have records of Gypsy presence in Byzantium (e.g. Constantinople in 1054,
Crete in 1322, 1335, 1340, 1350, 1378, 1380, 1384, 1386, etc.) in that
period and their entry into Serbia (1322, 1348), Wallachia and Moldova
(1340, 1387, 1428). Considering the geographical situation of Bulgarian
lands, it is quite logical to suppose that the coming of Gypsies to Bulgaria
should be referred to that period.
There is a wealth of historical information about Gypsy presence in
Bulgarian lands during the times of the Ottoman Empire. A great number
of Gypsies came to the Balkans together with the Ottomans (14th c.) either
as participants (serving the army) or as accompanying population. Some
of them remained in Bulgaria as either nomads or settled Gypsies. References
to them as "chingene", "chingane", "chigan" or "kibti"
are found in many official documents from that period.
The first population tax register in the Rumelia
Villaette (the Balkans at that time) with references to Gypsies is
from the year 1475, another register of Christian Gypsies (probably settled
in these lands before the Ottoman conquest) is for the period 1487-1489.
The next comprehensive and detailed tax register of Gypsies in the Rumelia
Villaette is from the years 1522-1523. It gives the number of Gypsy households,
Gypsy religions, areas populated by Gypsies, their occupations and legal
status. There was a great variety of taxes which were almost the same for
Christian and Muslim Gypsies. A similar approach can be seen in the special
Law for Gypsies in the Rumelia Villaette issued by Sultan Suleiman the
Great in 1530, and The Law for the Supervisor of Gypsy Sandjak from 1541
(sandjak was not a territorial and administrative unit, but a definite
category of the Gypsy population occupied in serving the army).
Ottoman documents of that period attempted to include the Gypsy population
in the registers in order to ensure strict tax payment. Gypsies were described
in detail (age, occupation, marital status, etc.) and grouped in tax units
(djemaati) with respective supervisors. Djemaati was not always
connected to the territorial unit, it could also include nomadic Gypsies
Processes of sedentarization in towns and villages
were active among the Gypsy population in the Ottoman Empire. A new type
of semi-nomadic lifestyle emerged (Gypsies with a specific residence and
an active nomadic season within regional boundaries). Most certainly, these
processes did not include all Gypsies, nevertheless they were rather active.
Often Gypsies would break away from their traditional crafts and take up
farming (e.g. 15th c. the village of Dabizhiv populated only by Gypsy households
was registered in Sofia county) but usually they still practised some occupations
and crafts. The most popular occupations were village blacksmiths and town
musicians. Registers from the years 1522-1523 listed also tinsmiths, farriers,
goldsmiths, sword-makers, cutlers, shoe-makers, curriers, sieve-makers,
butchers, guards, servants, etc. It is hard to define which occupations
were traditional and which were newly acquired, but the traditional professional
specialisation of Gypsy groups seems to have been the case in most instances.
Demographic information about Gypsies in Bulgarian lands in 17th and 18th
c. is incomplete and quite unreliable. However, one thing is obvious -
the tendency of Gypsies to change their religion: while in the 15th and
16th c. Christian Gypsies were the majority, the ratio changed drastically
in the 19th c. in favour of Muslim Gypsies.
Another tendency was quite strong in the 19th c. - the lasting sedentarization
of many rural Gypsies who would take up farming. This tendency was expressed
in the so called "chifligar" villages (i.e. villages built around
new farms where Gypsies were hired as current or seasonal farm workers).
Foreign travellers to the Balkans often described these little villages
populated entirely with settled Gypsy farm workers.
The issue of the civil status of Gypsies in the
Ottoman Empire is a rather complicated one as Gypsies had a special place
in the overall social and administrative Organisation of the Empire. Despite
the population division into two main categories (the faithful vs. gentiles
or raya), Gypsies had their own, rather specific dual status outside
these two categories. Gypsies were differentiated according to the ethnic
principle (something quite unusual for the Ottoman Empire) with no sharp
distinction between Muslim and Christian Gypsies (for tax and social status
purposes). As a whole Gypsies were actually closer to the subordinated
local population, with the exception of some minor privileges for Muslim
Gypsies (Gypsies who worked for the army were more privileged). Nevertheless,
Gypsies were able to preserve a number of ethnocultural characteristics
such as nomadic lifestyle, some traditional occupations, etc. and their
civil status in the Ottoman Empire was definitely much better than the
one of Gypsies in Western Europe in the same historical period (the Middle
One good example of the civil status of Gypsies in the Ottoman Empire
were large groups of Gypsy slaves running from the vassal principalities
of Wallachia and Moldova to seek refuge in the Empire. This process grew
in the 17th and 18th c. when a great number of Gypsies used the wars between
Austria and the Ottoman Empire and the temporary Austrian occupation of
parts of northeastern Serbia, northwestern Bulgaria and Wallachia (1690-1718)
to enter the Ottoman Empire and settle there (the so called second Gypsy
migration wave in Bulgarian lands).
The so called "big Kelderara invasion" began after the abolition of
Gypsy slavery in Wallachia and Moldova in the wake of the Crimean war.
It led to new waves of Gypsy groups coming to Bulgaria in the second half
of the 19th c. (third Gypsy migration wave in Bulgarian lands).
The migration of Gypsies from neighbouring countries (mainly Rumania
and Greece) as a result of their nomadic lifestyle continued until the
20th c. and was usually related to the change of country borders in the
wars (the two Balkan wars, WW I and WW II).
Regular population censes were conducted after
the Russian-Turkish war and the re-establishment of the Bulgarian state
(1878). The majority of Gypsies in that period (more than 2/3 of their
total number) lived in the country, nomads with permanent winter settlements
were probably considered as belonging to that group as well. Processes
of sedentarization and orientation towards life in mahali (neighbourhoods)
developed in some nomadic Gypsy groups in the 20's and 30's of this century.
These processes continued after September 9, 1944 when Gypsies became
the targets of purposeful, though rather inconsistent or formal, state
policy. Following decrees of the Council of Ministers, compulsory sedentarization
and permanent residence were imposed on all nomads in the 50's. Many Gypsies
moved to the big cities as part of the overall processes of migration.
Many Gypsy groups were forced to abandon their traditional occupations
and lifestyle in the existing radical economic changes of the "socialist
A new situation emerged after the changes in 1989. Social and economic
hardships often led to a return to traditional occupations and a nomadic
way of life. Sometimes the traditional professional specialisations were
transformed or modified or transborder migrations took place.
Trying to establish the number of Gypsies in Bulgaria
is not easy. Problems arise from the complex hierarchical structure of
Gypsy ethnic self-consciousness, the popular phenomenon of "preferred ethnic
self-consciousness" (a public declaration of a non-Gypsy ethnic belonging)
and not least the failure of many statistical and sociological methods
to study the Gypsy ethnic community.
In the latest census of 1992, 313.000 people declared themselves as
Gypsies. Other information from confidential censes of the Ministry of
the Interior from 1989 and 1992 give different numbers - 576.927 and 553.466
(incomplete) respectively. Based on a comparison from these censes (taken
with due reservations) and other observations and considerations, the number
of people of Gypsy origin in Bulgaria can be defined approximately to 700-800.000.
This makes Bulgaria the country with one of the relatively highest shares
of Gypsy population. Another issue would be to determine the number of
people who would choose, for one reason or another, to declare themselves
Gypsies or be perceived as such.