The Lom people: a unique Armenian-Romani ethnic group
When one hears about the Romani people, the first things that come to mind is a history of oppression throughout Europe, the Middle East, and onwards, as well as, a traditionalist society that refuses outside assimilation. However, the history of Romani people in the Armenian Highlands reveals quite a different story. The Romani of the Armenian Highlands are called the Lom people. The Lom (plural: Lomavtik) are commonly known as Bosha or Posha by outsiders, however, that name is considered pejorative among the Lom themselves who prefer to be called by their native name. The words Lom, Rom, and Dom are considered to have the same origin, as well as, all three groups themselves. The divergence of the Lom from other Romani groups comes from their unique history of tolerance and assimilation in Armenia. Because of this history, the Lom of Armenia today are almost indistinguishable from their Armenian neighbors and many even identify as Armenian. This has caused many Armenians to be unaware of the existence of this unique Armenian Romani ethnic group that has lived alongside Armenians for centuries.
Origins and History
The Romani people migrated out of India in the 10th-11th centuries. Whether the Lom were part of a different migration from the European Rom or Middle Eastern Dom is still a subject of debate among historians. Numerous cultural and historical connections have been made between the Banjara people of India and the Lom indicating a possible shared origin. The presence of Iranian loanwords in the Lomavren language indicates a period of settlement in Iran before arriving to Armenia. The first Lom to arrive in historic Armenia arrived by at least the 12th century. Certain historians hypothesize that the Lom migrated into the Caucasus during the invasions of Timur across south and west Asia as refugees. The Armenization of the Lom happened early, probably occurring around the 14th-16th centuries. Historians have multiple speculations on why the Lom were so open to assimilation compared to other Romani tribes. The most common theory is the acceptance of the Armenian people towards the incoming Lom. In Armenia, unlike the situation of Romani elsewhere, the Lom were accepted and respected in Armenian society. They lived side by side with the local Armenians and are said to have felt at home in Armenia. Given their origin, the Lom were probably originally Hindu, as were the rest of the Romani people, however, upon their arrival into the Armenian highlands, the Lom quickly converted to the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenian word Gnchu, which now refers to all Romani people around the world, previously meaning "to stammer," was used to describe the Lom's uncertain original religious practices and quick conversion to the Armenian church, centuries later. The earliest certain historic reference to the Lom by an Armenian historian was through the accounts of Abraham Yerevantsi. Yerevantsi described how 2,000 Lom participated in the Armenian self-defense against the Ottoman army in 1724. The Lom had settled in the Yerevan neighborhood of Kond by the thousands and these Kond Lom were instrumental in the fight against the Ottomans. By the 17th-18th centuries, historians agree that the Lom were practically completely assimilated within Armenian society, although, still living within their own distinctive communities.
The Lom were traditionally a seminomadic group, living in villages during the winter but practicing a nomadic lifestyle during the summer. The principal occupation of the Lom was sieve-making, practiced by both men and women through the weaving of horsehairs and sold in the markets of the Armenian villages. The Lom have various folk legends recounting how they came to practice such an occupation. The most popular being that Jesus Christ gave a few of his hairs to a disciple and blessed them. Although initially, the disciple did not know what to do to them, because of Jesus' blessing he learned how to make sieves from those hairs. That disciple is regarded as the founder of the Lom sieve-making guild and is the reason why the Lom sometimes call themselves Makhagordz, Armenian for sieve-makers. Music was also a historic profession of Lom men. Records show that the Lom were famous for their male orchestras that played at various Armenian event such as weddings and feasts. Lom women were the main providers in Lom society. While the Lom men stayed at home to produce sieves and flour bolts, the women would act as merchants and sell the products to support their community. The Lom were well respected in their occupation by the Armenians and were considered law-abiding peaceful citizens, in direct contrast with the stereotypical views of Romani people around the world.
Because of their intensive assimilation into Armenian society, the Lom were considered Armenians by the Ottomans and incorporated within the Armenian millet. In the 19th century Ottoman empire, the Lom were scattered across Asia minor. Sivas, Kars, and Erzurum were the principal cities inhabited by the Lom during Ottoman times. While a few Lom converted to Islam, the majority of Ottoman Lom remained faithful to the Armenian church. During the Armenian resistance to Ottoman oppression, the Lom were loyal allies to the Armenians, aiding them in their fight for cultural autonomy in their native land. However, the assimilation into Armenian society would soon prove to be a detriment to the Lom. During the Armenian genocide, the Lom were targeted as Armenians and the ethnic group was almost driven to extinction by the Turks. The remaining Lom either migrated to Armenia and Georgia or converted to Islam and hid their identities.
The Lom Today: Distribution and Identity
The Lom of Armenia live in various towns and villages throughout the northern and western provinces of the republic. In Yerevan, the Lom live in the old Armenian neighborhood of Kond where they have lived for centuries, as well as, in the Sari-Tagh, Kanaker, and Nor-Marash neighborhoods. Outside Yerevan, the Lom live in Gyumri, Akhtala, Nor Hachen, Vanadzor, and Artashat, as well as, in the Jraber village of Kotyak which was previously known as "Bosha village." The identity of the Armenian Lom is complex, Lom generally consider themselves to be Armenians while also being aware of their unique ethnic identity. Lom live within their own communities and have their own cultural customs in addition to those borrowed from Armenians. According to a field study by Elena Marushiakova and Veselin Popov, Lom will usually identify solely as Armenians to outsiders unless prompted by the Lomavren saying "Lom es?" (Are you Lom?) to which they will then reveal their identity. Because of this. it is difficult to know how many Lom actually live in Armenia; estimates place usually place the number in the thousands. Some 200 families of Lom were recorded in Yerevan in 2011. The Lom neighborhoods do not differ from the Armenians although some old houses are preserved. The principal occupation of the Lom now is trading. They speak Armenian and the Lomavren language which is a mixture of Armenian and Indian languages. They practice Armenian customs and traditions and often times are more srtict in upholding them than Armenians themselves. A level of unity is recognized among the Lom and Armenians. However, the people of Armenia still remain largely unaware of the Lom. The response of the Armenian government to the Lom has ranged from ignorance to denying the existence of such a community. Regardless, the Lom continue to serve as an important ethnic group in the cultural landscape of Armenia. In Artsakh, the Lom lived in the disputed Shahumyan Province until it was taken over and ethnically cleansed by Azerbaijan.
The Lom of Georgia live mainly in the cities of Akhalkalaki and Akaltsikhe, as well as, the Armenian neighborhoods of Tblisi. The Georgian Lom tend to live mostly in Armenian populated Areas. The Georgians view the Lom as being Armenians and see no difference between them and other Armenians. The city of Akhalkalaki still preserves a traditional Lom neighborhood called "Bosha Maylla." The majority of permanent employees in Akhalkalaki are Lom and are often called the "lords of the market." A large number of Georgian Lom have been recently involved in cross border trade between Armenia and Georgia.
The Lom of Turkey, commonly known as poshlar, live scattered all over Turkey. They speak the Turkish and Lomavren lanaguegs. Because of discrimination, they no longer identify as Armenian. The Lom of the Black Sea region attest that they are Meshketian Turks and that their Armenian influenced language comes from contact with the Hemshin people. All Lom in Turkey are now converted to Islam and many of the younger generation has began to forget their identity. The Turkish people are largely unaware of the existence of the Lom people. It is estimated that around one thousand Lom still live in Turkey.
Sources: 1. Marushiakova, Elena and Vesselin Popov. 2016. Gypsies of Central Asia and Caucasus. London: Palgrave Macmillan pp. 70-71. 2. Balyan, Varduhi. 2017. Lom or Bosha people from past to present. Turkey: Agos Newspaper 3. Vesselin Popov. The Gypsies (Dom – Lom – Rom) in Georgia January 2014. Conference: Annual Meeting of the Gypsy Lore Society and Conference on Romani Studies-University of St. Andrews 4. Scala, Andrea. 2014. The mixed language of the Armenian Bosha (Lomavren) and its inflectional morphology. University of Milan. 5. Kendrick, Donald. 2004. Gypsies: from the Ganges to the Thames. Univ of Hertfordshire Press. pp 75-87 6. Samson Hovhannisyan. How Indians turned into Armenian Gypsies, PanArmenian.net 7. Marushiakova, Elena and Vesselin Popov. 2020 The Gypsies in Southern Caucasus. UK: University of St. Andrews pp. 13-34