Veneta Yankova

The Tatars in Bulgaria and Their Oral History: The Migration from Crimea

Veneta Yankova

Abstract: This article looks at narratives from Tatar’s oral history of cultural contacts, some of which are unpopular. Its aim is to highlight their specificity: аs a historical source for the Tartar’s migrations to the Balkans after the Crimean War (1853-1856) and, on the other hand, as a repository and conductor of sustainable generalized ideas - stereotypes.

Keywords: Tatar; Tartar’s migrations; Crimean War (1853-1856); oral history

Tatars (Crimean Tatars) in northeastern Bulgaria are heirs of a historical diaspora, formed for more than a hundred and fifty years. The present-day Tatar community in Bulgaria has a heterogeneous character and until recently it has kept traces of its inter-ethnic and dialectical differentiation (Boev, 1971, 2000, 2016; Mihaylova-Mravkarova, 2013). According to some modern studies, Tatar ethnic identity is formed on the basis of the following factors: their language (Tatar language), religion (Islam) and an awareness of common origin and common historical destiny – “shared historical memory for heroes and events” (Smith А. In: Krasteva, 1998, p.15). An important constructive role in building and maintaining Tatar ethnicity is the image of the past.

The study is part of a monograph. The empirical material was collected in the period 2013 - 2015 in the region of Dobrich (Dobrich and the villages of Onogur, Yovkovo, Cherkovna), Shumen, etc. The following article is an attempt at a general reconstruction of fragments from the oral history of the Tatars in Bulgaria about their migration from Crimea to the Balkans. (“Oral history” is used here as an array of information about the past, carried out through oral speech and the genre of narratives and biographical stories. “Historical memory” is a socio-cultural phenomenon directed to the reflection of historical events and their representations.) Its story follows the trajectories of migration by crossing spaces and cultures and marking its counter points: the starting point from where migrants set off and the place of settlement in the new environment. It presents personal evidence about the processes of cultural interaction and the adaptation of the migrants; it registers images and mental pictures through which the reminiscences of migration are “settled” in the memory of the descendants; it outlines the symbols through which moral messages and patterns of behavior are transmitted, etc. According to the accepted research principles, the exposition based on objective historical facts will be of particular interest in the individual and group interpretation of the past and its symbolic images (Giordano, 2006, p. 66-69).

In the 60s of the 20th century, they still remember the specific places from which they migrated and where the immigrants settled. There are clear traces of their ethnic and linguistic inhomogeneity, reflected in their tribal and community names: “Tati, Nogaitsi, Karachaitsi, as well as Perekop Tatars, Shongar Tatars, Bakhchysarai Tatars, etc.” (Boev, 2016, p. 68-71). Families from Dobrich claim to be from Kazan; families from the village of Onogur know that they are Nogais / Nogai Tatars who came from the Volga and the Urals (Boev, 1971).

According to respondents, “the Tatars set off from Kerch,” “from Crimea, from Akmeshit/Akmescit” - today it is called Simferopol (Boev, 2000, p. 236). Tatars from Dobrich start from Eski Krym / Eski Qırım / Old Crimea - a city in the eastern part of the Crimean Peninsula, others from Bakhchysaray / Bagchasaray, as is the fate of Kerim’s family. However, in the memories due to the remoteness in time and the lack of memory for specific places and settlements, the migrants’ starting point is most often replaced by the generalized notion of Crimea. If in the 1960s the memory of the Crimea was present in the historical narratives and folklore of the Dobrudzha Tatars, today for the older generation of Tatars, the peninsula is conceived as an idealized homeland, ie the birthplace of the ancestors and “Heaven on Earth”. But for the younger people values ​​have a different orientation, stemming from the modern political realities and the opportunities for travel and employment.

There are almost no family memories of the life before the resettlement, or they are limited to the summary that once in the Crimea they have been engaged in cattle breeding and agriculture. For her ancestors, Ulvie Bekirova knows they were wealthy people and in the Crimea they had a lot of forests and herds of animals. Gülser Canay's mother’s grandfather was a young “subay” - an officer who had just graduated from a Russian military school (Canay, 2012, p.18).

The oral stories about the causes for the resettlement are different, most often these account for an escape from war and the violence of the “Russians / Cossacks” - in the minds of local people is a generalized name for a Russian. There are also more dramatic narratives that highlight the large-scale migration and colonization of Dobrudzha as a continuous and multi-stage process:

„The Tatars came from the Crimea ... They first landed in Constanța, came on ships with animals, horses ... They escaped from the Russo-Turkish war ... They left Kerch, Crimea. In Romania, where they landed, they headed for Dobrudzha. They tried to choose appropriate land - with water and pastures... And they made Tatar houses, huts and settled...” (Edip Noman, born 1939 in the village of Onogur).

In another narrative, the behavior of the refugees is described as heroic by pointing out to their smart actions in a survival situation:

“The Russians/ Cossacks came at night – they put the whole village on fire. The Tartars had lighted the lamps to make them think they were still in the houses and escaped with carts, oxen, horses. They boarded the ship and went to Constanța....” (Edip Noman, Onogur).

In another story, the migration from the Crimea is related to the legend about the sacrifice of the mythologized military commander Cingiz:

“During the Crimean War, Timur was at the head of the Crimean state, and his commander was Cingiz. When the Tartars began to flee the Russian invasion, the same general Cingiz, in order not to fall into the hands of the Russians, decided to commit suicide by jumping into the Black Sea. According to the belief, the sea opened and he walked safely along the open path and the Russians are still waiting for him to appear from the sea.” (Sacit Capar, the village of Yovkovo).

Here the memory of the past values ​​the qualities of the predecessors and turns them into a moral example.

In Ulvie Bekirova’s family story, there is no memory of a conflict, according to her, the resettlement is represented as a voluntary migration. It may be assumed that the case of Dzhamadin‘s family is a relatively rare testimony to the politics of the Ottoman authorities to attract rich immigrants regardless of their ethnicity. In 1857 a law on free migration (Muhacirin Kanunnamesi) was passed which allowed wealthy people to immigrate to the Ottoman Empire (Kiper, 2006, p. 37). Another informant is more categorical in the memory of the voluntary resettlement of his ancestors: “Their empire provides conditions - it gives them land, animals ... - and they resettle ... That’s why my ancestors came here. They were wealthy, rich ... They came with money and a lot of gold...” Vesilya Kadirova's father was called Zengin Zekeriya because he came from Crimea with money and gold. Mihaylova-Mravkarova recorded the memories of five “rich Tatar” brothers, immigrants from the Crimea (Mihaylova-Mravkarova, 1999, p. 452). But in these cases, we should not reject the mythologizing potential of the narrative, as well as the possibility of its composition in order to attract more prestige to the origin.

According to the oral history, the Tatar migrants leave in large numbers, whole families and clans: “... five or six brothers left together...” There are still some family names of migrants from the Crimea: Keshfi/ Keşfi, Tat, Charakchiolar/Çarakçıolar, Menakai, Adzhigazioglu/Adzıgazioğlu, etc.

The stories outline two routes – a land route and a sea route. The Tatars from the village of Bobovets, Dobrich district, know that “they came from the Crimea by sea, on a boat” (Boev, 1971, p. 24). In the family memories of Tatars from the village of Belogradets, their ancestors in Varna traveled from Crimea on foot for about a month (Shtereva, 2012, p. 254). According to other informants, some migrants travel by sea and others - by carts or on foot: “They traveled for two or three months, to Constanța by ship, and then on foot... The sheep were loaded on the ship and here they came. Most had come by sea.” (Sacit Capar). Memories of caravans transporting livestock are also stored in the village of Slivo pole, Rousse (Azizov, 2003, p.10-11). The narrative also reflects generalized information on the migration of people with different social status and property status.

The very process of moving from the Crimea to the Balkans in the oral stories is presented with elements of sympathy for the trials the immigrants are subjected to and the compassion for their meaningless sacrifice (Antonov, 2004, p.169). In other cases, the events of the journey are given a new meaning and create a heroic image of the ancestors.

In some family stories, there are memories of items the migrants took from their houses. These are items essential for the survival in the conditions of migration. A vague memory is kept of the “great Tatar Korans” passed on from generation to generation. (Penkov, 1963, p. 427, p. 101). A symbolic connection with the homeland builds the memory of a flint carried from the Crimea with which the Tatars in the village of Samuilovo light a fire (Canay, 2012, p.18). At the end of the 1960s, the Romanian ethnographer Marku recorded prominent evidence of arman stones brought from the Crimean and Nogayan steppes, which the Tartars kept as relics and used as tombstones, a sign of belonging to the land of the ancestors even after death (Marcu, 1967, p. 510). In other cases, it is specific holiday clothing or characteristic details of it, the so-called “bindallli”/ “bin dallı” - ‘with thousand branches’, it is the name of a richly embroidered female garment, “caucasian belt”, etc. (Canay, 2012, p. 52). Today they talk about such items to be of irretrievably lost value for the family. A symbolic sense also acquires the tradition of the fire/warmth that the migrants take from the Crimea and which, according to the ancestral covenant, they must guard as a sign of their Tatar nature. In the oral speeches of some respondents today, its explanation is completely pragmatic and may refer to ancient ritual practices (Marinov, 1894, p.142), and for others, it has symbolic and romantic connotations.

According to the archive sources, as newly settled citizens of the Ottoman Empire, the Tatars received land that they can cultivate, and in most cases this was done with the forced labor of the local population (Marinov, 1943, p. 141, 148-149, 161; Mihaylova-Mravkarova, 1999, p. 447-448; Muchinov, 2013, p. 162-164). In the 1960s the people in the villages of Gerlovo and Ludogorie still remember that their ancestors “built houses and barns for Circassians and Tatars” (Penkov, 1967, p. 147). This is evidenced by toponyms such as Tatar/Circassian “tarla” (Tatar/ Circassian ‘field’) in the region of Izbul, Shumen. It is also known that initially the foreigners were settled in distant areas in order to limit their unification, but later, they gathered, perhaps due to family or regional factors, to live together again (Mihaylova-Mravkarova, 1999, p. 448-449). Memories of such partings and gatherings are reflected in the local memory.

It is reported that the Tatars are established in places where they find natural conditions similar to those in the Crimea and suitable for agriculture and cattle breeding (Muchinov, 2013, p. 146). In order to select a place of settlement that repeats the natural environment of the homeland, the following narrative is particularly noteworthy:

“From my grandfather, I have heard: they came here with horses and horse carts. They had traveled for months with their luggage, they made tilts on their way. When he came here in a village with big streets there was a stone fountain - his horse drank a lot of water. And then my grandfather said, “The air and the water are like the Crimean.” And they settled here. In Lozenec / Kara baalar. When they came from the Crimea, they settled there. They said:”The animal liked the water and the air and everything. The Tatars settled and became people of Dobrudzha.” (Necdet Ahmed, Dobrich).

This folk legend is organized around two key features: the horse as emblematic for Tatar culture and water as a structural identifying topos in the construction of a settlement in the steppe ecological environment of Dobrudzha. It marks the turning point of the identity transformation of the community in the direction of its commensurability with the cultural context of the area.

According to the oral history, the newcomers settled close to water sources, in places suitable for farming and for breeding animals, in the outskirts and on waste land. Legends reflect the role of the water / water source / a well when establishing or founding a new settlement - this is particularly important for the specific natural conditions of dry Dobrudzha (Georgieva, 1999, p.127). It is said that the Tatars established by themselves their own villages and new neighborhoods. Such settlements are: Bobovets / Veis köy, called “after some Veis who was the first one to arrive there”; Sar / Sarı nebi yurtluk (Onogur). The village of Tatar Suyutchuk/ Tatar Suyutçuk (now Topola) was established by a Tartar who came from Mecca. He sought water for his camel, and since there was none, he built a fountain next to which he settled; other Tatars also settled there after him (cf. Erolova, 2010, p. 100). Tatars take part also in the history of the village of Momchil, Aydın Bey (Kapinovo), etc. (Mihaylova-Mravkarova, 2009, p. 61-63; Panayotov, 2005, p. 31; Erolova, 2010, p. 99-100). In the cities, the Tatars established the so-called Gychere mahalesi / Göçere mahalesi, Migrants’ neighborhoods - it is known that there were two in Dobrich. The “Tatar” toponymy of the region marks the traces of the common past of the local and the immigrants (Boev, 2016, p. 212). For example, such are Tatars, Tatarlar, Tatar kapia, Tatar mahalle - between Varna and Balchik, etc. (Miletich, 1902, p. 189, 147, 151, 153); Tatar Tarla / Tatar field near the village of Izbul (Shumen); Shan Kaya, an area east of the village of Onogur; Tatar Mesar near Sliven (Tabakov, 1911, p. 475-476). Thus, although visibly weakened, the memory of the Tatar language is kept alive and outlines the dimensions of its ethnic space.

It is well known that migrants follow the family models of a social organization established by their forefathers and seek to assert their ethnocultural specificity in the hardships of the new environment. According to the narrative, Tatar settlements are founded on the basis of family traits so that migrants “can protect their kin and children”. An informant from Dobrich says, “My ancestors established a neighborhood, a hundred houses, a hundred families. They lived separately from the Turks, they did not give and take anything from them”. For a long time, Tatars adhere to the principles of endogamy, synthesized in the proverb:

“The true Tatars, in order not to mix, do not give a maid to someone who does not know the names of seven grandfathers back in the history of the family.” (Boev, 2016, p. 71).

Oral stories reflect some memories of the first stages of settling. The first primitive dwellings were dug in the ground which provides initial shelter for the foreigners (Mihaylova-Mravkarova, 2009, p. 34; Boev, 2016, p. 214). The emblematic nature of today’s Tatars is the notion of a “typical Tatar house” built of hedges or adobe, without a roof and tiles (Mihaylova-Mravkarova, 2013; Panayotov, 2005, p. 33; АЕИМ, Arch. №298 – III, p. 152). People remember the way they were built and their functionality. Nedzhet, a Tatar from Dobrich, complements this description by linking it to the difficult living conditions of the migrants:

“They intertwined rods, put mud in order to dry. And that was from the beginning... Then they put adobe. Tatar houses have no ceiling. And the beams are visible. With mud, to make it faster and more economical.”

The peculiarities of this primitive house are explained by a narrative like a parable that reflects the migrant’s life strategy for survival in the difficult conditions of migration: “When the Tatar came from Crimea he said: “To bend down and enter my house, to sit on one side, to have food in front of me - that's what I dream of.” (Necdet Ahmed, Dobrich)

According to the narrative, the Tatar house is “brought from Crimea”, and perhaps because of this, in the memories, it is valued and turned into a symbol of the Tatar. The explanation of this specific architectural type is significant, supported by “historical” arguments and elements of providentialism, which reflects the unstable living conditions in the area:

“When the Tatars came from the Crimea, they arrived in Romania. They felt that the Ottoman Empire would fall... This land is not their own land. We should not build houses with foundations of stone because sooner or later the Ottoman Empire will fall, there will be a Christian land... Here everywhere... the Tatar houses are low and not stable. They are made of adobe... they have no foundation... Those who have moved to the Ottoman Empire found a stable land. There are stable houses there, and in Dobrudzha – there are not...” (Ilhan Ömer, Dobrich).

In the stories about migrants, the “typical Tatar” house is presented in general, today it has almost disappeared as an architectural feature and is transformed into a sacral center and a symbol of the Tatar nature.

After their settlement, the Tatars exhibited cultural differences with the host environment. For the side observer, clothing and especially that of women, which is quite different from the traditional clothing of the local Turks, is distinct. According to the oral stories: “...they were typical Russian women - with a skirt and a blouse, ... without the shalwars and the veil... A typical Tatar, they say, was with boots, with a cap - no fez!” An important sign of cultural diversity is culinary and eating habits. According to the local legend, the disappearance of entire Tatar neighborhoods after the settlement is explained by the death of migrants due to their inability to adapt to the dietary habits of the local population (Antonov, 2004, p. 165). In the contemporary idea of the Tatar nature, it is obligatory to mention the generalization that the Tatars cannot do without meat, it is said that “Nogais eat horsemeat and drink mare’s milk, “kamas” in Tartarian” (Panayotov, 2005, p. 34). There is a popular scornful nickname: “Ishi/işi Tatar (sour Tatars) the Turks called them because they ate horsemeat.” Today Tatar cuisine is perceived as ethnically representative and differentiating the Tatar community from the others (Boev, 1971, p. 180-181; Canay, 2010, p. 23-24). The specific Tatar dishes are part of everyday practice and festive tradition, anecdotes are told about it, and the names of Tatar dishes keep the language in the memory.

By setting them up in the new cultural environment, the conflict situation began gradually to fade away and complex processes of adaptation and integration started for the Tatars. In some oral stories, there is a memory of seeking and restoring broken family ties. In many places, the Tatars built their settlements, neighborhoods and lived together with local Muslims and Christians. (Marinov, 1943, p. 133, 138). A persistent motif in the oral stories with direct impressions of the Tatars’ behavior is the “good neighbourly relations” with them, unlike with the Circassian: “The Tatars were good people, they did not steal like the Circassians” (Marinov, 1943, p. 131); “The Tatars were hard working people and they were friendly to the Bulgarians.”; “With our Tatars, we had good neighborly relations.”; “Tatars were in Kirilovo, near Preslav. They behaved well in their contacts with the Bulgarians. The worst were the Circassians. ” (АЕИМ, Arch. №298 – III, p. 150, 151, 152, 155). However, in some stories due to remoteness in time and lack of more specific life experiences, the ideas of Tatars and Circassians mingle and appear in stereotypical images (Drosneva, 2012, p. 396).


The oral history of Tatar migration in the Balkans is shaped as a distant fragmentary narrative told in an integrated historical diaspora community that seeks to preserve its ethnocultural specifics. In the family memories, the facts and events of the history of resettlement are summarized in dramatic stories of escape from violence and war. The migratory past of the community has been reduced to many pieces of family stories that reflect a generation’s survival and adaptation experience complemented by evaluative connotations. And since the memory of the descendants reconstructs the debris of what has happened, heroic and legendary notions in the images of the migrant ancestors mark the mythographic potential of the family oral stories. They are supported by the sacred values of family relics and the emblematic imagery of the Tatar nature - the Crimean homeland and the Tatar house.

The narratives related today about the resettlement in the Balkans are part of the great story of Tatars’ integration in the host environment and of its own contribution to its cultural and historical heritage. It is clear that today the lack of historical knowledge and the disconnectedness of the Tatar tribal memory are compensated by the auto-reflection of contemporary scientific and scholarly publications on Tatar issues. The Tatars themselves are interested in reading, commenting, distributing them and interpreting them, thus endeavoring to fill in the missing information about the community’s past. Such a critical and “imagined” view of the past carries the message of another story - a peculiar alternative and corrective of the official historiography.


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