Nicknamed “the Chameleons of the Balkans”, the Cincari or Aromani are perhaps one of the smallest, yet most influential ethnic groups that has lived among the Serbs.
Today, most Aromani are linguistically assimilated or ‘Serbianized’ but still identify with their traditional culture. As sad as this may be, their ancestors came to Serbia already assimilated – culturally, identifying as Greek. The ability of these remarkable people to adapt quickly to the culture and society of whatever their surroundings, yet tenaciously cling to their own identity, shows why the chameleon is an apt comparison.
The Aromanians represent the remnants of a once widespread Latin-speaking presence in southern Europe. From Romanian Dacia, through the provinces of Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia, we find remnants of their ancestors’ cities and fortresses. These Aromanians were probably the Balkan’s first wave of refugees, as our own ancestors the Slavs began arriving in the fifth through to the seventh centuries A.D.
Little is known of the nature of the Slavs’ incursion into the Balkans, but it was certainly not entirely peaceful nor entirely violent. During the reign of eastern Roman Emperor Maurice, in the 6th century, Slavs crossed the Danube and took Sirmium (Sremska Mitrovica), Singidunum (Belgrade) and Viminacium in the 6th century. They continued with their allies the Avars and reached as far as Thessaloniki (Solun), and made inroads into the province of Dalmatia, pillaging Salona (Solin, near Split) in the early 7th century. Justiniana Prima (Caričin Grad, Leskovac) fell to the Slavs around that time also, and Thessaloniki, barely recovered from earlier raids, definitively fell then, too. We know that Slavs raided Constantinople twice, in the seventh and ninth century, as well. Under Emperor Phocas, Naissus (Niš) and Serdica (Sredec, Sofia) also became Slavic cities. Emperor Heraclitus resigned himself to the Slavic presence, allowing settlement of Serbs and Croats to settle within the provinces of his empire permanently.
Now, all of these cities were thoroughly Roman – centres of Roman culture, the Latin language, Roman law. But their Roman inhabitants did what the inhabitants of beseiged cities do: some fled, while others dug in their heels and tried to remain. The latter were quickly assimilated into Slavic culture, while the ones who fled survived high in the mountains, finding old abandoned fortifications in a few cases, but mainly surviving by transhumance, or nomadism, following their herds and carrying their few belongings with them. They’re still there, as the people we know as Vlasi and Cincari. Their languages, Vlah (Vlaški) in northeastern Serbia, and Aromani (Armanli, or variously called Južnovlaski, Megleno-Vlach, Thracian Vlach, or Cincarski) in the south, are very similar to, but distinct from, Romanian. They evolved from a common root, and just as Romanian acquired numerous Slavic borrowings, the Aromanians acquired Slavic, Greek, Albanian and even ancient Thracian words too. Sadly, there are many who have tried to assimilate them as Greek, claim them as Romanian or destroy them, as Albanians in service of the Ottoman Empire most aggressively did try. The end result of this is an ethnic complexity which is enough to make your head spin: Aromanians that do identify as Greek or Romanian, Aromanians that resent being called Greek or Romanian; Aromanians assimilated to another culture thoroughly, others retaining language or customs in their new home countries.
I would personally argue that they fared best among the Serbs, where they arrived quite late in the game, but became crucial to the political independence and cultural growth of the nascent Serbian state. Their presence among the Serbs grew particularly rapidly after the destruction of the major Aromanian cultural centre, the Epirote mountain city of Moskopolje
Moskopolje (Greek, Moshopolis; Albanian, Voskopoja), was a prosperous town in the mountains west of Korcha, in Epirus province – now, southern Albania. At one point this city of predominantly Aromanian – Cincar inhabitants housed upwards of 12,000 families. This was at the height of its development in the late 18th century (1796). The economy of Moskopolje and its surrounding villages depended on pastoralism, caravan routes, trade and particular trades such as metalwork, stone masonry, tailoring (terzije), leather work and others. Milenko FIlipovic noted that, because of their skill in copper- and tin-smithing, the Aromani language was known among Bosnian Serbs as kalajdžijski (Kalajdžija, tinsmith). Similarly, the ethnic designation goge for the Aromani was used in Raška, Kosovo, Metohija and eastern Macedonia, deriving from a local nickname for stonemasons.
At an elevation of 1400 m above sea level, the isolation of Moskopolje high in the Pindos mountains protected it very well. This suited the Aromanian population just fine – they had little interest in warfare, and instead preferred trade. Primary trade routes led to Ohrid, Bitolj, Florina (Lerin), Kastoria (Kostur), Thessaloniki (Solun), Ioannina (Janjina), Metsovo, and through them as far afield as Venice and Constantinople. Some Aromanians, like the wildly successful Tositsa (Tošić) and Averov families, had mansions and took on political positions after the liberation of Greece. The Aromanians, devoutly Orthodox, were very active in supporting and funding the earliest Greek rebellions against the Ottoman empire. Sadly, this led to reprisals from muslim Albanians, who began raiding and pillaging Moskopolje in the mid 18th Century, until its final destruction in 1821. Even from the first of these raids, some Aromanians began to migrate northward into Serbia. What was a slow trickle of Aromanians over the last century of Moskopolje’s existence became an exodus towards Athens, Thessaloniki, Kruševo, Prizren, Sarajevo, Zvornik, Doboj, Banja Luka, Vranje, Niš, Kragujevac, Beograd and other towns and cities where Aromanian tradespeople and communities had gradually established themselves.
In the struggle for the liberation of Serbia, and in the establishment of the first modern Serbian state, many Cincari became particularly prominent. Janko Popović, better known as Cincar Janko, took part in the first Serbian Insurrection, and distinguished himself in the liberation of Belgrade. He is buried in Ravanica Monastery. Naum Krnar, also known as Naum Moskopoljac (Naum of Moskopolje) was one of the personal advisors to rebel leader Karadjordje Petrović. He kept close communication with the Greek insurgence, the Heteria, and when this was discovered by the Turks, was captured and beheaded.
The Aromani who came to Serbia and Macedonia could be divided into two communities. One part remained nomadic, pastoral – living high in the mountains, tending truly vast herds of sheep and goats, from which textile fibre and milk were their greatest asset. The well known cheese feta traces its roots to the Aromani – the word itself means ‘young girl’ in their language. This name either came from the fact that the production of this cheese was often reserved for women, or from the fact that the cheese is not aged or ripened; it is fresh, white, pure and young. All in all, these nomadic pastoralists were known by several different ethnic names: in Kosovo region, Raška, south Morava and Pcinja valleys, they were called Goge, Kucovlasi, or Karavlasi. This last name derives from the turkish suffix for black, kara, and refers to the black cloth and embroidery of women’s costumes. In Epirus, they were called Vlahoi, Karagounes (the ones who wear black vests) in Greek. In Thrace, they were known as Sarakatsani in Greek or Karakachani in Bulgarian.
A second community of Aromani arose in cities throughout the Balkans, the result of their knack for trade. The culture of the newly liberated Principality of Serbia relied on these Aromani greatly. They became active in the life of the Church, publishing liturgical books bilingually in Greek and Serbian (Aromani became relegated to a household language, sadly). They founded Greek Schools in Belgrade, as well as in the then Austro-Hungarian cities of Novi Sad, Vršac, and Zagreb. They provided scholarships to their own and to Serbian children, and founded a Mercantile School in Belgrade, as well. They were adept tradesmen (including some smugglers!), and their thrift led them to amass great wealth quickly. This led to many becoming money-lenders, and unfortunately for them, their impeccable record-keeping and solid ability to keep business separate from emotional attachments meant that they also got an unfair reputation as being stingy or money-grubbing, over time, in many urban centres. Further north, in Croatia, the word “Cincar” sadly became a pejorative, an insult.
Some of our notable cultural contributors were either of full or partial Cincar origin: playwright & comediograph Jovan Sterija Popovic, author, lawyer and consul Branislav Nušić (the original family surname was Nuša), statesman Nikola Pašić (original family name was Pasku), benefactor Miša Anastasijević (founder of Captain Miša’s Foundation, Kapetan Mišino Zdanje, now the faculty of Philology in Belgrade), and even scientist Mihailo Pupin (his mother, Olimpijada, was a very devout Greek Cincarka). It could be argued, as Dr. D.J. Popović did, that after centuries of stalled cultural development under Ottoman rule, Serbia’s rapid recovery and growth was made possible mainly through the influence and agility of the Cincari in Serbian society.
As they were of the same religion and customs, Aromani became readily assimilated among Serbs. Some remnant of this can be traced through their surnames. They tended to be short surnames, originally, often with a final vowel. For example, in Sarajevo, the families Guši, Sina, Boga are all of Cincar origin; in Prizren, families Goga, Dada; in Belgrade, Fila, Jorgo, Koda, Manu, Gata all were. Another indicator is that the surnames are often of Greek origin; either from a traditionally Greek name, but Serbian in form (eg., Kostadinović, Sterijević, Trandafilović, Ćirijaković, Fotić, Dimić) or simply Serbianized Greek names (eg., Papaćiro – from Papkiriakou; Sterijadis – from Stergiadis; Atanacko – from Athanasou; Logofet – from Logothetis; Aspri – Greek for ‘white’, etc). The names based on trade included Kalajdžić (tinsmith), Bakračlija (coppersmith), Bakalarić (salt-cod merchant), Ećimović (doctor), Merdžan (mother of pearl, artisan). Often, names hypenated with Hadži were Cincari, but not exclusively: Hadži-Dimitrić, Hadži-Prodanović, Hadži-Laskar, Hadži-Dimo. Hadži was an honorific given to those who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem or to Mount Athos. Naturally, contact with the Albanian language created surnames influenced by it: Fruša, Čoča, Roš, Ljota, Dž’hane. And of course, Cincar, Cincarević, Grk, Grek, Grčić all stood as Serbian surnames of ethnic designation, too.
The customs of the Cincari were not too far off from their Serbian or Greek Orthodox neighbours, focusing on the major Orthodox holidays. Cincar families adopted the krsna slava custom of the Serbs. The first generation often selected their slava saint based on the name of their family patriarch, so when you encounter a Serb whose slava is St. Athanasius, St. Minas, St. Stylianos, St. Haralambos, or other very Hellenic saints, odds are good that they might be of Cincar origin. Some saints or feasts or particular devotion were St. Petka – Paraskeva, St. Demetrius, St. George, St. Nicholas, St. Michael and the Feast of the Dormition (Velika Gospojina). During the reign of Prince Miloš Obrenović, he imposed a fine on any of the Belgrade Cincar merchants who did not attend church on the day of St. Sava, patron saint of Serbia. It seems that a number of them had not deemed our saint important (read, Greek!) enough to merit veneration, and the Prince did not take kindly to that at all. To be fair, Miloš did admire the Aromani’s work ethic; the expression “radi kao Goga” (“he works like a Goga/Aromani”) was a compliment in Serbia. So, when Miloš noticed Greek and Bulgarian envoys and merchants treating them poorly, or cajoling them into declaring themselves as one or the other nationality, he issued another decree in 1827 which stated:
“Let no citizen of Belgrade be forced to declare himself Greek, nor should a Bulgar or Cincar be tallied among the number of Greeks; Each should love his people and heritage and each should cherish and preserve the name of his people!”
“Da se nijedan od žitelja Beograda silom ne grči, niti se Bugarin ili Cincarin pod Grke poturuje; svaki svoj rod da ljubi i svaki ime svoga roda da čuva!”
For the often rash, jealous and hot-headed Miloš, this was a big gesture, and a reflection of his own zeal for freedom and his own identity. For the record, he ended up with both sons-in-law being Cincari.
New Year and Christmas were celebrated with carollers which they called kalinda, like the Roman calends. The carols were very much like Greek kalanda or Serbian kolede, with songs wishing good fortune to the household in the new year, accompanied by the ringing of bells and clanging of triangles. The Aromani greeting, “Ti mults an!” (To Many Years!) is equivalent to Slavonic “Na mnogaja ljeta!” or Greek “Hronia polla!”.
Like the Serbs, St. George’s day marked the departure of the flocks to highland pastures. Karavlasi and Kucovlasi, the Aromani in the mountains of eastern Serbia and Macedonia moved their entire families with them, living in huts made of reed and straw for the duration of the season. They returned to their village homes on St. Demetrius’ day, six months later.
A custom that many consider typically Greek is actually of Aromani origin: the habit of wishing people a good month, on the first day of a new month. My late kuma Smiljana (Kovačina) Aleksandrov described such an encounter in an essay she wrote after travelling the Pindos mountains of Thessaly and Epirus:
“[On the way to Metsovo] we had stopped on a mountain plateau, surrounded by pastures, with flocks of sheep and goats grazing together. Their bells rang from all directions, all around us… We spotted an elderly shepherd. I eagerly called out “buna zua” (good evening) and he replied. He seemed surprised that I knew Aromani. …After a long and lively conversation, we parted ways, and he wished us “bun mes” (a good month), for a prosperous new month, since it was the first of June”
The language of the Cincari, as mentioned earlier, became something personal and private. To this day, people of Aromani origin are known for their excellent innate ability to learn many languages over a lifetime. This certainly helped them throughout their history, both as nomadic shepherds and later as cosmopolitan merchants. The Aromani language itself was spoken at home, often with a lot of Greek intermixed. Kuma Smiljana recalled her mother chastising the children to stay quiet and not to fidget in church, with a glance and a sharply hissed “Isychia! Skase!” (Silence! Be quiet!). In public, the Cincari of Serbia chose to speak Serbian, although the first wave of immigrants after the fall of Moskopolje was known to have never quite gained fluency. Popović describes one communication with an acquaintance in Uroševac, who said of the local Cincari “they speak their mother tongue at home, and this is why some of them speak Serbian so poorly. Still, none of them will stand for being called anything but a Serb”. Greek was considered worldlier and more useful to business and a classical education, so the preference for Greek language schools became strong in their communities.
Some Aromani words crept into spoken Serbian. For example, Milenko Filipović recorded among Cincari living in Modriča, Bosnia, the following terms: uno, duo, tre (one, two, three); sare (salt), molare or mojare (woman); aro (water) začare (sugar) and lingura (spoon). The speakers knew only these words, having completely adopted Serbian as their mother tongue. In fact, the Serbian name for the Aromani, Cincar, means “those who say cinc”. The Aromani word for the number five, činč or çinç (tchintch), was often mispronounced by these partially Hellenized Aromani as cinc (tsints), which, frankly, Serbs found unusual and amusing. Children, hearing Cincar mothers speak to their own children in Aromani, would often imitate the sound of the language in nonsense rhymes, such as these two razbrajalice or counting rhymes (ie. like “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” rhymes in English):
En den dinu, saraka tinu, saraka tika taka elem belem buf, trif traf truf!
This rhyme is used by Serbian children, but is based almost entirely on Aromani and Greek words.
En = GK in (or from enna, GK one), den = GK none, don’t, Saraka from GK saranda = forty or from AR saraka = poor Elem = turkism, meaning then or so; belem = nonsense rhyme word buf = AR fool, lit. owl
Angle, bangle, vitko bes! Skase, klase, kumpares! Klin, klan, cukuran! Ajde rogovan!
This rhyme has a bigger mix of Aromani, Greek, and Serbian words:
Angele = GK angel, bes = AR, ‘get that’, skase = GK ‘be quiet’, klase = SR for an ear or blade of grain kumpares AR → GK koubaros = kum, godfather klin = SR, AR nail, cukuran = AR cukur, sugar + an for rhyming; Rogovan = ‘the one with horns’, a Serbian pejorative.
Sadly, parents themselves, as well as teachers in Serbian schools, often discouraged or forbade Cincar children from speaking Aromani in public. This rapidly led to the language’s decline, but thankfully not its death. After more than a century of neglect, the language and culture of this ancient but small ethnic group are experiencing a revival, in no small part due to organizations such as Serbian-Aromani Friendship Societies, and to performers such as the late Toše Proeski, himself of Cincar origin. To hear the sound or Aromani as sung by Toše, click the link to this video of The Sorrowful Bride (Nažalena Nevesta, N’veasta Jilosa)
Musically, the pastoral Karavlasi played some of the common folk instruments as other peoples of the balkans: bagpipe (gajde, tsimpi), flutes (duduk, kaval, floghera, flujera), small drums (taraban, darbuka, def). The urban Cincari preferred stringed instruments such as the baglamas and violin, and of reed instruments, clarinet was king. They brought with them songs and epics, and enjoyed dances that were their own versions of particular Greek folk dances: Čamiko (a variant of the Greek Tsamiko, with men’s and women’s styles), Karagouna (could almost serve as the Aromani anthem – a stately, and slow dance, named after Cincar women, who wore black vests, “kara+sigounia”), the Syrto, which came to be know by Slavic neighbours as Karavlaško oro.
The costume of the Aromani was as diverse as the different groups, found in Thrace, Epirus, or Macedonia. Coming to Serbia, the pastoral Karavlasi and Kucovlasi retained their old costume, while the urban Cincari wore clothing that was typically Epirote, very Greek in style. The men especially stood out with their dark vests, close-fitting trousers, and pleated fistani (Sb) or fustanella (Gk). They generally adapted to Serbian styles of dress over time. It is also important to note that the utter lack of any resemblance to Timok Vlah, or even Romanian costume, stands to show that the Aromani do have their own distinct identity.
The men’s costume in its oldest form resemble Greek or Albanian Epirote dress. The trousers and certain outer garments like the anterija (long coat), dolama (a long open vest) and tozluci (leg coverings) were made of white rolled wool cloth, sparsely decorated with black braid. Folding vests, presamitači, and long sleeved jackets, ćurče, were of black rolled wool cloth. Long, broad sashes wound around their waists, woolen for daily wear and silken for festive dress, Headgear was either a shallow black cap or a fez with a woolen or silk tassel, and an inescapable part of male costume were brojanice or komboli, ‘worry beads’ or prayer beads, often of semiprecious stones or amber.
Women’s dress varied much more between regions. Urban Cincar women wore the exact same Levantine influenced woman’s costume as Serbian women did in the nineteenth century. Karavlajne or Kucovlajne, as the women were called, generally wore dresses woven from hemp fibre. For daily wear, the dress was unadorned, but in the festival costume this varied. The Karakachan women of Bulgaria and Greece embroidered their dresses with elaborate black and blue embroidery, while in Serbia and Macedonia the embroidery was multicoloured and more restrained. For festive wear, silk or satin skirts were worn over the hemp cloth dresses, with embroidered aprons. Headscarfs were generally of purchased industrial cloth, and were sometimes worn over tall caps decorated with red braid and gold srma. And for all Aromani women, regardless of geography, the long black vest (AR guna, SB zubun, GK sigouni, anteri) with sparse red decoration was the hallmark that identified them.
This article is dedicated to the memory of a wonderful woman, my kuma Smiljana Aleksandrov, and is posted on the birthday of her equally wonderful daughter, my kuma Jelena Aleksandrov! It will hopefully one of a series that I intend to present about the various ethnic minorities that have lived or still live among the Serbs. Much more to come!
For further reading:
Aleksandrov, Smiljana (1995) U susret našim mestima. Manuscript prepared for publication by the Serbo-Aromani Friendship Society of Belgrade.
Filipović, Milenko S. (1982) “Cincari in Bosnia.” Among the People, Native Yugoslav Ethnography: Selected Writing of Milenko S. Filipović. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures. 213-27.
Popović, D.J.P (1937) O Cincarima. Beograd, izdanje pisca.
Trifunoski, Jovan F. (1990) Moskopolje, Unistena Hriscanska Varos u Albaniji. in Stanovnistvo Slovenskog Porijekla u Albaniji, Istorijski Institut Crne Gore,