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Roma and Sinti

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The Roma (or Romany) and Sinti (also called Kalé) are nomadic peoples found throughout Europe. Often both groups are referred to as Roma, but it is a mistake to call the Sinti this. The Sinti are believed to be mainly descendents of nomadic groups roaming Europe in the middle ages such as the vagantes[?]. The Tzigane are a sub-group of the Roma.

Collectively, they are popularly referred to as Gypsies. It is derived from "Egypt", for it is believed that when the Roma first arrived in Europe their (relatively) dark skins caused many Europeans to believe that they were natives of Egypt - the only hot foreign country most had heard of. (In fact, they trace back to India.) The term was never used by the Roma or Sinti to describe themselves but was imposed by outsiders. The term, Gypsy, has long been associated with persecution and fails to recognize that the Roma and Sinti form distinct (although socio-economically related) groups.

They have their own language, called Calé, but better known as Romany. Analysis of the Romany language has shown that it is related to those spoken in northern India, such as Hindi and Punjabi, which is believed to indicate their true geographical origin. Loanwords in Roma make it possible to trace the pattern of their migration west. Body habitus and ABO blood group distribution is also consistent with northern Indian warrior classes.

The Roma are believed to have left India about 1000 A.D. and to have passed through what is now Afghanistan, Persia, Armenia, and Turkey. People recognizable by other Roma as Roma still live as far east as Iran, including some who made the migration to Europe and returned. It is virtually impossible to identify Roma still living in India. By the 14th century, Roma had reached the Balkans and by the 16th century, Scotland and Sweden. Some Roma migrated south through Syria to North Africa.

The reason for the diaspora of the Roma is one of the great mysteries of history. It has been proposed by some scholars that the Roma were originally low caste Hindus recruited into an army of mercenaries, whereupon they were granted warrior caste status, and sent westwards to resist Islamic military expansion. Why the Roma failed to return to India, and chose instead to travel ever-further west into the strange and sometimes hostile lands of Europe is an enigma.

Their principal occupations over the centuries have been as itinerant peddlers, metal workers and horse dealers.

Roma and Sinti were widely believed to have psychic powers (see the popular stereotype of the Gypsy fortune-teller), and some romantics attribute the invention of the Tarot cards to them. This may reflect the belief that the Rom and Sinti, being of Egyptian origin, had knowledge of lost arts and sciences of the ancient Egyptians.

Because of their nomadic life-style, there has always been a great deal of mutual distrust between the Roma and Sinti and their less mobile neighbours. They were, and frequently still are, popularly believed to be thieves, resulting in a great deal of persecution. This belief is the etymological source of the term gyp, meaning "cheat", as in "I got gypped by a con man."

This distrust reached a peak in World War II when the Nazis murdered large numbers of Roma and Sinti. They were one of the major groups (along with Jews, communists, homosexuals, prostitutes, etc.) to be automatically sentenced to imprisonment in a concentration camp or killed on sight. It is believed that between 600,000 and 2 million (about 70% of Rom population) were killed. (see Porajmos)

Roma are notable for their colorful attire and active demeanor. Where possible, they continue their nomadic lifestyle traveling in caravans (small trailer homes), but in many situations in Eastern Europe live in depressed squatter communities with very high unemployment. In some cases, notably the Kalderash clan in Romania - traditional coppersmiths, they have prospered.


  • Gypsies, Wanderers of the World, Bart McDowell, Photographs by Bruce Dale, National Geographic Society, 1970, hardback illustrated by photographs, 215 pages. ISBN 0870440888
  • National Geographic, April, 2001, "Gypsies, The World's Outsiders," pp. 72-101.

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