Islamic Lithuania as old as Catholic Lithuania

  • 2000-11-16
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
If you happen to be wandering around the Vilnius Bus Station at 5 a.m., you might notice a strange destination among the others listed on the coach parked in bay 13. If your Lithuanian is working that early, the name Keturiasdesimt Totoriu - or "Forty Tartars" - will stand out from the others, if just for its length.

Although Vilnius In Your Pocket, the acclaimed city guide, mentions the place consistently, the village itself is far enough off the beaten path to make it terra incognita for Lithuanians and tourists alike. The adventurous will plunk down their two litas and travel for an unspecified period of time back in time, from the capital through a forgotten Soviet industrial landscape, across the small river Voke, finally moving onto a dirt track among fields and farmsteads.

Disembarking at the village's only bus-stop, the traveler's eyes are immediately struck by a rather strange sight - a wooden mosque. Or is it a barn? The minaret dispels any lingering doubts, as do the Arabic inscriptions in the Islamic cemetery on the grounds.

A large stone marker proclaims the site is to be commemorated for the 600th anniversary of the arrival of Lithuanian Tartars under the protection of Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas. But the mosque itself will invariably be locked and the Islamic cemetery on the hill overlooking the village, where gravestones are inscribed in at least four languages and three alphabets, can be quite easily missed by the day tripper.

And the casual traveler should be forgiven for feeling as if he had traveled to the Congo and found a McDonald's drive-in in the middle of an impenetrable rainforest. There's no reason he, or most Lithuanians for that matter, would know that Lithuania has been an Islamic country as long as it has been a Catholic one.

The mosque itself was built in 1815, when mosques figured in the rooflines of a number of Lithuanian towns and villages, including Vilnius.

Keturiasdesimt Totoriu has been a Muslim parish since 1558, and was one of the first settlements, called an "akalica," or boyar township, of Crimean and Volga Tartars in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It is a village with a street plan, which is uncharacteristic of traditional Lithuanian villages, leading scholars to believe the Tartars created it along the lines of earlier Tartar settlements in the Steppe.

Two versions of the arrival of Turkic-speaking Tartars, originally hailing from south of Lake Baikal in Asia and the Qipchak and Kirghiz Steppes but who relocated in Crimea and environs after serving in the various hordes of the Mongol empire's military, contest for academic credibility.

The official Lithuanian version is as follows: Grand Duke Vytautas took them prisoner in a campaign on the Volga and Don in 1397, and decided to take thousands of them home with him. Earlier, Grand Dukes Gediminas, Kestutis and others had enjoyed contacts with and aid from local Tartar leaders at certain times.

The Tartars themselves maintain they came of their own will. S. C. Rowell, the author of "Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire in Europe," expressed the opinion they may have come of their own will, stayed for a while, but found the way out of Lithuania blocked by military heavyweights.

Possibly Lithuanian Grand Ducal foreign policy aimed to make use of a split that had arisen after Tamerlane gave the khan of the White Horde, Tokhtamysh, the throne of the Golden Horde, and Tokhtamysh promptly united both hordes and rose against him. Tamerlane then regained the throne of the Golden Horde. Tokhtamysh sought and received asylum for him, his wife, sons, relatives and faithful warriors in Lithuania.

In fact Vytautas did resettle a large number of Karaites from the Crimea in the summer of 1398 to the old Lithuanian capital of Trakai, and a number of Tartars are thought to have arrived with them. Whatever the case, Tartars were given special rights by Vytautas: grants of land, charters for settlements, titles of nobility and the right to practice their traditions and religion, Islam.

The name "Forty Tartars" has been explained in a number of ways, but probably the most convincing is that the number "40" occurred in a number of Crimean Tartar place names in the Turkic Qipchak language, which Tartars originally spoke (Lithuanian Karaites maintain a slightly different dialect of Qipchak to this day). Kyrk Punar, "Forty Springs;" Kyrk Or, "Forty Ditches;" Kyrk Jer, "Forty Places." The number 40 is also prominent in the national origin legend of the Kyrghyz, whose ethnonym derives from, according to legend, the Kyrk Kyz -"forty daughters."

The idea becomes more convincing when one discovers the Tartars in Keturiasdesimt Totoriu were from the Uishun tribe, made up entirely of Kyrghyz tribes. In the past, Christian residents of Trakai and environs used to refer to the resident Karaites there as Kyrgyzis, perhaps making the same mix-up Lithuanians still make, equating Lithuania's Jewish Karaites with Muslim Tartars.

Historical sources show the early Tartar residents claim they were installed near Vilnius in order to carry out the task of repairing bridges along routes that the grand duke had to travel.

The Tartars in Keturiasdesimt Totoriu were given the job of repairing and building bridges from Rudininkai to Voke. Some sources mention they had to go to the forests armed with muskets and spears to supply game for the royal table. Tartar privileges were paid for in service to the grand duke, although they were later granted forgiveness from most duties by later grand dukes.

Tartar prowess was greatly valued in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania's military campaigns. Tartar soldiers and officers fought for the Poland-Lithuania in Kosciusko's uprising, in the Napoleonic Tartar Squadron and later in 1863.

During the wars with Sweden and after the third partition of Poland-Lithuania, Tartars became the object of persecution by enemy armies and many were forced to relocate in Russia and the hinter-regions of the LDK. After serving Poland-Lithuania in the uprising of 1863, Tartars were repressed in much the same way as Lithuanian and Polish nobility were - they were denied the right to acquire estates, forced to pay tribute, disarmed, forced to carry passports, forced to pay for the construction of Orthodox churches and prohibited from marking graves in Polish and Lithuanian.

A number of Tartars decided to try their luck in Turkey. Most found the culture there too foreign and the language impossible. Although they had historically spoken Qipchak, a language close to Turkish, most had little or no knowledge of their forefathers' language, and carried on their lives in Belarusian, Polish and, to some extent, Lithuanian.

After a Tartar petition to tsarist authorities in 1865, the Russian state decided, in the spirit of divide and conquer, to restore to them their former rights, including the right to own real estate, although technically they still enjoyed their traditional rights under the constitution Tsarina Catherine gave to Lithuania-Poland. Tartars were allowed to enter school, their nobility was universally recognized, they were allowed to enter state service and relieved from the tax burdens Catholics were still forced to pay on land holdings. A relatively large number of Lithuanian Tartars became high-ranking officials in the tsarist military, including serving as generals.

Tamara Bairasauskaite of the Lithuanian History Institute, who teaches Tartar Studies at Vilnius University, describes the Russian censuses and revisions of nobility as one of the main sources scholars have to work with.

Russia, in its "new lands" acquired after the third partition of Poland-Lithuania and elsewhere, demanded that all pretenders to hereditary titles document their nobility. Somewhere after the required birth certificates, military service documents, coats of arms, tax receipts and ancient titles stamped by the hand of Lithuanian officials and royalty, Bairasauskaite, herself a Lithuania's Tartar, found an interesting provision - a section for recording family legends and origin stories, where Lithuania's Tartars, and only Tartars, described how their families arrived in the Grand Duchy, the people and figures who stood guard over their families, family stories passed down by word of mouth and other data that didn't really fit in anywhere else.

Asked whether Lithuania's Tartars claimed to descend from mythical ancestors or even deities, Dr. Bairasauskaite answered categorically.

"No, that's not characteristic of Tartars," she said. "They didn't even claim to descend from the Prophet Mohammed. If we are speaking about very deep roots, some of them claim to be the descendants of Ghengis Khan. They look for their roots very concretely, I would say, from concrete people and concrete events," she told The Baltic Times. "Mostly they recorded how old their family was, from where they arrived, how they served Lithuania, what decorations they received from Lithuanian rulers for military service. One or another family recorded that their ancestors came from beyond the Volga, or from the Crimea. They almost failed to mention specific places within the Crimea or beyond the Volga, only once or twice. In the nineteenth century they wouldn't be expected to record detailed geographical names."

Russia's attempt to document the nobles within its jurisdiction was met with a good deal of fraud and falsified documents, something Adam Mickewicz makes an impoverished boyar decry as "paper nobility" in Pan Tadeusz. Consequently, a second revision was made with stricter rules - all pretenders were forced to reapply, and the section for legends was dropped.

Bairauskaite said there are only two scholars, including her, presently involved in researching Lithuanian Tartars. Tartars receive more academic attention in Poland, Belarus and Russia, where Tartar minorities remain.

"Belarusians have begun investigating the Tartar community there, the largest remaining Lithuanian Tartar community. They are publishing books, doing research, publishing journals, their own journals," Bairasauskaite said. "They know they are Grand Duchy of Lithuania Tartars, that they are related to Lithuanian Tartars because they have the same family tree. But since the state borders have divided this Tartar Diaspora, they call themselves Belarusian Tartars."

Although the call to Friday prayer no longer rings out from the minarets of forgotten mosques, Tartar motifs have left a deep imprint in the national lore and symbolism of Poland, Lithuania and all the lands of the former Grand Duchy.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the family crests and seals of Lithuania's and Poland's nobles. While many Tartars converted to Christianity of one form or another (often adopting their wives' surnames in the process), most nobles would never have dared even toy with the idea of converting to the religion of "the Turk," sometimes associated with Satanism in Christian Europe. So how can the clearly Islamic symbols in the coats of arms of such famous families as the Tiskeviciai (Tyszkiewiczi) and Sapiegos (Sapiegi), a crescent moon with a star, be explained?

Of course, the wealthy had time for intellectual endeavors, and Lithuanian and Polish archeologists, travelers and explorers made pilgrimages to the Middle and Near East, and made important discoveries there. The Philomaths of Vilnius University began the first translation of the Koran into Polish.

But something deeper than fashion and spiritual window dressing seems to be at work in some of the earliest crests of Polish nobles, crests which were later adopted by Lithuanian families. Specifically Tartar elements - horseshoes, arrows, stars and crescent moons, specific geometric formulae - make an appearance in hundreds of traditional coats of arms, which could belong to several clans at one time in Polish heraldry.

It was the right of Polish nobles to "bestow" their crests on deserving souls. (Further, Polish nobility has long traced its spiritual descent from Sarmatians, considered Asians of some sort, whoever they might have been in fact.)

In the tangled web of Polish and Lithuanian heraldry and nobility, the Tartar tamga stands out clearly. Tamgos are thought to have originated among Central Asian herding tribes as simple brands for marking ownership of animals. Chinese chroniclers mention their use on the livestock of Turkic tribes in the second century A.D. They developed along with the husbandry of camels, horses, cows and sheep, with each family employing its own, and were necessarily simple geometric shapes, easily fashioned in iron.

The brands were handed down from generation to generation, with new families adding slight innovations to older shapes. More settled tribes used them on coins, graves, in the home and elsewhere. Eventually, they came to be used as European family crests when the Tartars settled in the Grand Duchy, although exactly how or when they were adopted by Polish nobility is unknown, and seems to predate their generally accepted date of arrival. Nonetheless, their existence is undeniable in Central European heraldry. The similarity of some of the tamgos to the Lithuanian seal of state, known as the post of Gediminas, which was also used in the minting of coins, is striking.

Bairasauskaite is philosophical about it. "We can't say the exchange was all one way. Tartars borrowed from Poles, Poles borrowed from Tartars. It shows there was communication between the peoples of Eastern Europe and Asia. That's to be expected."

She said Lithuanian Tartars, although small in number, are an important part of the cultural history of Eastern Europe both because of the great influence they brought to bear, and as an essential part of the great mosaic that is this region's legacy.