The Lipka Tatars of Eastern Europe
While Muslims in Western Europe still represent a very recent phenomenon, Muslims have been settling in Eastern Europe for several centuries – in Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania, for example. Here, they are an integral part of the population. At the beginning of the 14th century a group of Tatars settled on territory encompassing the former Arch Duchy of Lithuania who were, in a name derived from the old Crimean Tatar word "Lipka" for Lithuania, called "Lipka Tatars". Today, several thousand descendants of this people live in the region. Photos: Ahmed Krausen, texts: Annett Hellwig
The origins of the Lipka Tatars can be traced back to the successor kingdoms of the Mongolian empire. According to their own legends they are the descendants of the Nogayer and the Crimean Tatars, settled en masse in 1397 as prisoners in the region around Vilnius as well as the Grodno region (today's Belarus). The picture shows Ismail-Hajji M. Alexandrovich, Chairman and Mufti of the "Muslim Religious Union in the Republic of Belarus".
Mosque in the Lithuanian town of Kaunas: The Lipka Tatars were loyal to their Christian homeland of Poland-Lithuania and often provided troops in the event of war. But they retained their Muslim faith, although this also incorporates Christian and Mongolian-nomadic customs.
Over time, the Turk-Tatar immigrants lost their original Tatar language. As early as the 17th century, they were linguistically adapted to their Slavic environment. Today's descendants of these Tatars speak Polish, Lithuanian, or a Belarusian dialect.
Prayer hall of the mosque in the Belarusian town of Novogrudok: The defining cultural characteristic of Lipka Tatars is that they were able to evolve through the centuries in relative isolation, and remained astonishingly resistant to pressures to convert exerted by both Catholic and Russian-orthodox Christianity.
Most of the mosques, such as this one in Novogrudok, are built out of wood, owing to a regulation only allowing churches to be built out of stone, as a demonstration of Christian superiority over Islam. The wooden mosques have however evolved into a symbol and identifying attribute of the Tatars.
The Lipka Tatars have gradually assimilated into Lithuanian majority society. Most of them have migrated to the cities in search of work. An old Tatar couple in Ivye, Belarus
Folk traditions such as dances, costumes and music are not widely respected these days. Now, Tatar communities primarily identify themselves through their Muslim faith. The picture shows a grave at the Muslim cemetery in Ivye, Belarus.
More than a third of Lithuanian Tatars have emigrated since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, primarily for economic reasons. Primary destinations were Britain, Ireland and the US. Now, their numbers have however stabilised again at between five and six thousand.
Many manifestations of Tatar culture were destroyed under Soviet rule. But in many places with a traditionally Muslim population, the characteristic wooden Mosques still exist, such as this one in the Belarusian town of Ivye.
The Islamic community currently finds itself undergoing a period of upheaval. Modern networks are being created and efforts are underway to secure EU funding. Meanwhile substantial funds are still required for the restoration and maintenance of the Islamic cemeteries and mosques, such as here in the Polish town of Bohoniki.