In 1903, researcher VA Moshkov noted that the dialect of a community called Gajals from the village Pamukchi near Yeni Pazar in Bulgaria "turned out to be identical to the language of the Bessarabian Gagauz from the village Beshalma of Comrat parish.”
It was this similarity in languages that first led researchers to identify these two communities as belonging to the same ethnicity.
The Gajals are a special Turkic language-speaking group who are the closest relative or subgroup of the Gagauz. The Gagauz are a unique community commonly known as “Christian Turks”, in reference to their being a Turkic people of primarily Orthodox Christian faith. Gajals, however, adhere to Islam.
The Gajals live in the eastern Balkans, in the border regions of Bulgaria, Türkiye and Greece. Due to their language and religion, many consider them to be from among the Rumelian Turks, although Gajals are a separate community.
They speak a special dialect of the Gagauz language called “Balkan-Gagauz". It is difficult to enumerate the speakers of Gajal language today, but at the beginning of the 20th century, it was spoken by only 4 thousand people in what is now Macedonia, 7 thousand in what is now Türkiye and an unknown number in what is now Bulgaria.
The Gajals are a Sunni community that traditionally follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. There are a few theories as to how this community adopted Islam.
It is widely believed that the Gajals are the Gagauz who were Islamised between the 14th and 19th centuries under the Ottomans, through the influence of Anatolian Turks and local Nogais in Dobruja.
A second approach theorises that the Gajals are Turks and Nogais who were assimilated by the Gagauz, but did not change their faith.
The third approach posits that the Gagauz always included communities of both Christian and Muslim faith. As mentioned in the previous installment about the Gagauz people, it is generally accepted that the Gagauz, including the Gajals, are descendants of the Pechenegs, Cumans and Uzes (Torks), who had settled in the Dobruja region between the 9th and 12th centuries, long before the arrival of the Anatolian Turkmen to the area.
According to the third theory, the Pechenegs, who adopted Islam in the second half of the 11th century in the Northern Black Sea coast, later converted a part of the Cumans of Dobruja.
In the 8th century in Dobruja’s regional of Deliorman, there were 600,000 Uzes, most of whom became Christians under the influence of Christian Cuman. Another part of the population of the Uzes converted to Islam, joining the Pechenegs and Cuman-Muslims. Some groups switched from Christianity to Islam and vice versa, thus strongly influencing each other.
Thus, it is known that the Gagauz, unlike the Orthodox peoples surrounding them, call God, "Allah." A lot of the foundational religious terminology they use also has Arabic roots, including, “aaret” to refer to the afterlife (akhirah in Arabic), Jahannam (meaning Hell), and haram (forbidden), among others.
At the same time, researchers note that Gagauz Christians also perform "qurban" (Islamic ritual sacrifice). There is also some other evidence showing the mutual influence of both religious groups.
‘Actual’ and ‘pseudo’ Gajals
The etymology of the ethnonym "gajal" has Romani origins and comes from the word "gajo", which is translated as "alien" and is an exonym used by the Orthodox Balkan peoples and the Roma. It is believed that it was their religion that made the Gajals "aliens" to the surrounding peoples.
Researcher VA Bushakov proposed another – less likely – etymology of this ethnonym. He derived "gajal" from the Arabic "hajir," which means "emigrant," as well as derivatives of this this word, like the Turkic "gajir" or "gajar," which means "gypsy".
A certain difficulty in the study of the Gajals is the fact that some other Slavic-Muslim and Turkic-Muslim ethnic groups in the Balkans, such as the Pomaks, the Chits, the Yoruk or the Tatars, are also called “Gajars”.
However, these groups are referred to as ‘pseudo’ Gajals (Sanal Gacallar) among scholars, whereas “Asıl Gacallar” are considered to be “true” Gajals, who are Muslim Gagauz.
Researchers also note that the Gagauz of Bessarabia use the term "Gajal" to mean "true Gagauz," without a religious component. Another meaning of the word "Gajal" in this community has the negative connotations of ‘hick’.
The Gajals now live in their homeland, the region of Ludogorie in Southern Dobruja, Bulgaria. Apart from the historical territory, some of these people live in the Greek province of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace and the Turkish provinces of Kirklareli, Edirne and Tekirdag.
Despite the similarities in language and religion, the Gajals in Türkiye have not been assimilated, and to this day retain their linguistic and cultural features, particularly in rural areas. The same can be said of the Gajals of Bulgaria and Greece.
It is difficult to imagine what it is like to be Gajal – a special group within a unique people. However, this small community demonstrates what unexpected and non-obvious historical processes can result in, especially in as diverse and complex a region as the Balkans.
Note: This is the second of a two-part article about the Gagauz people. The first part can be read here.
A version of this article originally appeared in TRT Russian.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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Alim Makhsutov is a journalist and historian specialising in the history and culture of the Nogais and Turkey.
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Copyright © 2022 TRT World.