DRC Reprint Series


Gypsies in Cyprus

Donald Kenrick and Gillian Taylor
(originally in Roma, January (1986), 24:36-38)


Historical Introduction:

Although there are no official records confirming the arrival of Gypsies in Cyprus, it has been estimated by historical calculation that the first immigrants came between 1322 and 1400, when Cyprus was under the rule of the Lusignan (Crusader) kings./1/ These Gypsies were part of a general movement from Asia Minor to Europe. Those who landed on Cyprus probably came across from the Crusader colonies on the eastern Mediterranean coast (present day Lebanon and Israel).

There is no evidence to suggest that any one cause motivated the Gypsies to leave Asia, yet there are historical events which would have caused widespread upheaval and prompted a move to the nearby island. In 1347 the contagious Black Death had reached Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, in 1390 the Turks had successfully defeated the Greek kingdom in Asia and ten years later the Battle of Aleppo marked the advance of the Mongols under Tamerlane.

Only in 1468 is there any written record of Gypsies in Cyprus. In the Chronicle of Cyprus compiled by Florio Bustron, the 'Cingani' are said to have paid tax to the royal treasury, at that time King James II./2/ Later, in 1549, the French traveler Andre Theret found 'les Egyptiens ou Bohemiens' in Cyprus and other Mediterranean islands. He observed their simple way of life, supported by the production of nails by the men and belts by the women, which were sold to the local population./3/

It is likely that a second immigration took place some time after the Turks occupied the island in 1571 and that some Kalderash came in the 19th century. During the Middle Ages Cyprus was on a regular shipping route from Bari in Italy to the Holy Land.

The situation today:

Altogether there are between 500 and 1,000 Gypsies who permanently live on Cyprus and the majority nomadise./4/

A number of names are used by the host population:

Tsignos. The official term used in Greek documents and written material. It comes from the term 'Cingani' (used already in the text of 1468) which in turn comes from the archaic word 'Adsincan' used in mediaeval Byzantium.
Yleftos. The Cypriot dialect form of mainland Greek 'Giftos'. This is common in speech and comes from earlier 'Aigiptos', a reference to the earlier belief that the Gypsies came from Egypt.
Kouloufos. From the root koul.-This is a pejorative term with the meaning 'untidy, not settled.'
Kilinghros (also, Kollingogy). This may be connected with the term Kaliguri (plus 'ghir', turning) and just means 'nomad'.
Cingane. The Turkish version of 'Adsincan'. The word has no pejorative meaning in Cypriot Turkish.

Some non-Gypsies have divided the Cypriot Gypsies into two classes, one responsible for all the petty crime, and the other romantic and good-a common phenomenon elsewhere./4/ However, no detailed analysis has been made. Our own feeling is that there are three main elements, a long-established Greek Orthodox community, a more recent Muslim group and a few Kalderash families. (It should be pointed out, however, that the Gypsies are classed outside the religious groups in the census.) The early Domari (Syrian Romani) speaking immigrants have been absorbed by later immigration of Romani speakers.

The typical Gypsy was of life on Cyprus is characterized by a general communal philosophy. The normal social unit is the extended family where one 'company' contains some twenty persons. Most of these companies moved around the island stopping in villages and the outskirts of towns for an average of a month. This patter has been interrupted since the partition of the island in 1974 since when the majority of the Gypsies have been living in the Turkish sector.

Traditionally the Gypsies survive by selling donkeys and mules, making jewellery and kebab skewers to sell and fortune telling (the latter always for food, never for money). A few families had the custom of going to the harvest fields during the grape and carob nut seasons and begging. There is no tradition of casual agricultural labour.

They share with the rest of the population the blessing of a healthy climate which alleviates the problem of accommodation. The minimum temperature in the plains is 6.0 centigrade. Tents are used to keep out the wind and in stormy weather the Gypsies use derelict houses. An offer of housing in Larnaka was refused by some families who preferred to remain in their tents. This particular group near Limassol hardly travel at all.

As each village allocates a section of land for the visiting nomads, often in the olive orchards, there is no problem over 'stopping places'. Apart from Romani, most Gypsies speak Greek or Turkish or both. The men socialize in the taverns with the Cypriot men.

The general public also accept the Gypsies as a part of the daily life, though a different culture to their own. Gypsies are only asked to leave a village if there has been some fighting or petty crime such as theft of a chicken.

Although there are no professional musicians there are many songs which have been handed down and passed on to the Gajo population. The following was recorded from a Greek Cypriot lady now resident in London.

'I will make magic
in the trough where she is kneading bread,
so that she will stop kneading
and come to make my bed'.

The overall impression from a series of interviews with Cypriots in London indicated that most Gypsies lead a relaxed and unrestricted way of life. The stand of living is low but adequate and there is no evidence of poverty. The small population of Gypsies live fortunately in harmony with the majority populations.


This article is based for the most part on a series of interviews conducted with Greek and Turkish Cypriots now living in London.

/1/ This surmise is based on the records for others parts of the eastern Mediterranean. 1322-Crete 1371 (or earlier)-Corfu 1384-Modon 1397 (or earlier)-Nauplie. (Back to the text)

/2/ Cited from Foletier. Mille ans d'histoire tsigane. p., 39. (Back to the text)

/3/ Based on the census figures for 'alloi' (others). See also Kloss and McConnell, Linguistic Composition of the Nations of the World (Quebec) who give 530 Romani speakers for Cyprus. We have also considered the implications of the figures given by interviewees. (Back to the text)

/4/ See Action. Gypsy politics and social change. p., 83. (Back to the text)

Article reprinted on DRC web site with the permission of the author.

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