Beyond Egypt: Gypsies and their origins

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Despite the popular belief that the Romani people (widely known as gypsies) received their name when they were expelled from Egypt, the truth is much more nuanced than what we might imagine.

The origins of gypsies is clouded with various theories that attempt to position the nomadic ethnic group throughout history. The reality is that, due to the limited records kept of them, no one really has a clue of where they come from.

Spanish Romani people (painting: Yevgraf Sorokin, 1853)

The most widely circulated theory of the Romani people is that they originated in India where they were originally called domba, which were members of the lower caste who made a living through music and dance.

Another theory suggests that they were part of a military in northern India which was eventually disbanded following the conquests of prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid empire Mahmoud of Ghazni.

One of the most replicated theories concerning their origins is that gypsies were originally from Egypt and were thus driven out for not accommodating to societal structures as they allegedly practiced palm reading and fortune telling.

However, some researchers suggest that they did reach Egypt as they travelled westward towards Europe.

A band of Gypsy children play instruments in Belgrade, Serbia (photo: Reuters)

According to legal records between 1200 and 1400 AD in continental Europe, the Romani people were typically called Little Egyptians through which the diminutive ‘gypsies’ was thus popularised.

Nevertheless, genetic research suggests that the Romani people share a similar genetic makeup of peoples who traveled from South Asia to Central Asia between 1000 and 1300 AD.

Currently, the Romani diaspora has a strong presence in eastern Europe and Spain with smaller communities spanning across the majority of continental Europe.

Roma people gather in front of their shelter on St. George’s Day or Djurdjevdan in the Roma settlement in Sarajevo’s suburb of Butmir (photo: Reuters)