Who are the Gagauz? It’s a simple question without a simple answer. Their language is a variation of Turkish – closer to Anatolian Turkish than Azerbaijan Turkish – supposedly Anatolian Turkish’s closest relative.
Their religion is Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christian – very un-Turkish!
The vast majority of people calling themselves Gagauz live in Moldova [formerly Romania, formerly formerly Bessarabia (Russia) etc], annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, which broke away from Russia in 1991).
Historians find no mention of Gagauz until 1869, when people known as Bulgarians who had been invited to settle in Russian Bessarabia (now Moldova), came to be labled Gagauz.
The Gagauz themselves, or most of them, say they’re Bulgarian, while the Encyclopedia of World Cultures lists the ethnonym of the Gagauz as “Turkish” and “Turkish speaking Bulgars”. Astrid Menz writes this about the etymology: Older ethnographic works such as Pees (1894) and Jireček (1891)—both covering the Gagauz in Bulgaria—mention that only their neighbors used the ethnonym Gagauz, partly as an insult. The Gagauz themselves did not use this self-designation; indeed, they considered it offensive. Both Pees and Jireček mention that the Gagauz in Bulgaria tended to register either as Greek because of their religion (clearly an outcome of the Ottoman millet-system) or as Bulgarian because of the newly emerging concept of nationalism. According to Pees informants from Moldova, the Gagauz there called themselves Hıristiyan-Bulgar (Christian Bulgars), and Gagauz was used only as a nickname (Pees 1894, p. 90). The etymology of the ethnonym Gagauz is as unclear as their history. As noted above, they are not mentioned—at least not under that name—in any historical sources before their immigration into Bessarabia. Therefore, we have no older versions of this ethnonym. This, combined with the report that the Gagauz felt offended when called by this name, makes the etymology somewhat dubious.
It seems they’ve gotten over their offense at being called Gagauz, because when they pushed for (and partially won) independence from Moldova in 1991, they declared themselves the Gagauz Republic.
Wikipedia says: “The origin of the Gagauzes is obscure. In the beginning of the 20th century, Bulgarian historian M. Dimitrov counts 19 different theories about their origin. A few decades later the Gagauz ethnologist M. N. Guboglo increases the number to 21. In some of those theories the Gagauz people are presented as descendants of the Bulgars, the Cumans–Kipchaks (there is a modern Gagauz family name Qipcaqli) or a clan of Seljuk Turks or as linguistically Turkified Bulgarians. The fact that their confession is Eastern Orthodox Christianity may suggest that their ancestors already lived in the Balkans prior to the Ottoman conquest in the late 14th century.…Now many Gagauz in Moldova claim to be of Seljuk-Turkish descent. The Gagauz in Bulgaria do not support that view.“
Another indicator that Gagauz may have Turkish ancestry is their way of making a living. Wikipedia again: “The traditional economy centered on animal husbandry (particularly sheep raising) and agriculture that combined grain and market gardening with viticulture. Even in the recent past, despite the cultural similarity of the Gagauz to the Bulgarians of Bessarabia, there were important differences between them: the Bulgarians were peasant farmers; although the Gagauz also farmed, they were essentially pastoralist in outlook.” Need I mention Turks were traditionally pastoralists?
“The staple food is grain, in many varieties. A series of family holidays and rituals was connected with the baking of wheat bread, both leavened loaves (e.g., kalaches) and unleavened flatcakes. The favorite dish was a layered pie stuffed with sheep’s milk cheese and soaked with sour cream before baking. Other delicacies were pies with crumbled pumpkin and sweet pies made with the first milk of a cow that had just calved. The traditional ritual dish called kurban combined bulgar wheat porridge with a slaughtered (or sacrificed) ram and is further evidence of the origins of the Gagauz in both the Balkan world and the steppe–pastoral complex. Peppered meat sauces are especially important: one combines onion and finely granulated porridge, while another is tomato-based. A red house wine is served with dinner and supper. Head cheese is an indispensable component of holiday meals.“
One further complication: in 2015 geneticists concluded “According to a more detailed autosomal analysis of thousands of SNPs, not just of the sex chromosome, Gagauzes are most proximal to ethnic Macedonians, followed by Greek Macedonians apart from Thessaloniki, and others such as Bulgarians, Romanians and Montenegrins.“
From the evidence of currently available YouTubes, the Gagauz dance pretty much like the country they happen to be living in. Today, that means Romanian and Bulgarian with Greek and a touch of Turkish.
Gagauz in Moldova, Gagauzia
Gagauz in Greece
Gagauz in Bulgaria
Gagauz in Turkey
I couldn’t find YouTubes of Gagauz dancing in Turkey, but there are plenty of YouTubes showing Turkish interest in Gagauzia. In the YouTube below a Turkish interviewer converses with various Gagauzians in Turkish. At 25:00 she’s asking kids where in Turkey they’ve visited – I often hear Istanbul or Erdine. Watch their performance of a râcenica after the interview.
Of the 21 possible theories of the origins of the Gagauz, I’m inclined to believe this one [maybe it’s number 22!]: When the Ottoman Turks began conquering Europe, in 1358, they started with Bulgaria. All of Bulgaria fell by 1396. For more details, see: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/bulgarians/
Over the next 500 years, Turkish was the language of power. However the Turks were not as interested in converting people’s minds as they were in collecting taxes and keeping internal peace so they could expand their borders. People could keep their religion and culture (including language) so long as they paid taxes and didn’t revolt. The heads of the various ethnic and religious groups were made chief tax collectors – thus the subject peoples couldn’t hate them.
Over time, some Bulgarians learned a second language that could get them ahead – Turkish. Because they could keep their faith [Orthodox] and customs, marry among their people – they didn’t see learning Turkish a betrayal. Over more time, those who could speak Turkish (but otherwise maintained their Bulgarian identity and religion) began associating with each other more, intermarrying, making it easier for their children to learn Turkish. This system worked fine until the Ottoman Empire began disintegrating – the early 1800’s. As Romanians and Bulgarians became more nationalstic – gathering the strength to throw off the Ottoman yoke, those seen to be co-operating with the Turks came to be viewed less favourably. Gagauz, who were once up-and-comers, became second-class citizens. Beginning in 1820, Russia offered financial incentives to Gagauz to settle in Bassarabia (now Gagauzia), so they left Bulgaria. They called themselved Bulgarians because they found it safer that way than calling themselves a name that drew attention to their speaking Turkish. When, in 1923, the last of the ‘Turks’ were finally driven out of Macedonia and Thrace; those who were Orthodox were resettled in Orestiada, Greece.
The dances I’ve seen of the Gagauz are mostly those of Thrace, whose culture is mostly Bulgarian, intermixed with Greek and Turkish, [as it was in Thrace for centuries.] For more on Thrace, see https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/thrace/ The Gagauz dances that look Romanian can be explained by their living nearly 200 years in Moldova/Bessarabia.
As the YouTube above on the Gagauzian language states toward its end, schools and street signs in Gagauzia are still in Russian, a legacy of Soviet occupation. In the YouTube below Gagauzians (speaking Russian) say why they’re preferring association with the East (Russia) over the West (EU).
Gagauzia is the poorest region of one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe. Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Russians, and the EU are all sending aid to help win support for their causes. It looks like history may be in the process of repeating itself. Most Gagauz speak Russian as a second language, preferring it to Romanian. For some schoolchildren it’s becoming the first language.