By Elsie Ivancich Dunin
Following the Notes for Romani (Gypsy) gravestones in Los Angeles, November 2011 as one of my extensions of dance research, six months later I am reporting upon Romani gravestones in Skopje, May 2012. This year’s revisit to a cemetery in Macedonia is related to a long-term dance research project that tracks continuities and changes of a spring holiday, Djurdjevden (in Slavic Macedonian as St. George’s Day), also referred to as Erdelezi (in Turkish as Coming of Summer). Many years ago I learned about Roms tending family gravesites on May 5 or May 6 as part of their most important annual holiday recorded in Skopje in the 1960s–1970s with communal dancing. Macedonia was part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) until its secession in 1991. The Republic of Macedonia has an overall population of about two million, and Skopje, its capital and largest city is estimated at about a third of this total in 2002.
The third largest population in Skopje are the Roms. They follow the Slavic Macedonians who tend to profess Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Albanian population who tend to follow Islam. After the Roms, the fourth largest numbers are those ethnically identified as Turks. All four populations were under Ottoman Turkish administration from the 14th into the 20th centuries. After the devastating 1963 earthquake in Skopje, the reestablished municipal cemetery in Butel at the outer edge of the capital, is mixed with respective grave markers: the Yugoslav communist period (1944 until 1991) non-religious markers are identified with the five-pointed star. These burial markers are found next to gravesites shown with Christian crosses). The Islamic gravesites are identified with a crescent and star.
A minority of Roms in Skopje profess Eastern Orthodoxy, while the majority profess to be Moslems; the holiday itself was celebrated as a Romani holiday by both Christian and Moslem Roms with the same customs (collecting curative spring waters and green branches to hang from their roofs for good health on May 5; tending to grave sites on May 5 or 6; sacrificing a lamb on May 5 or 6 with feasting on May 9; dancing communally to tapan (drum) and zurla (reed) music after sunrise on May 5 at the site of spring waters; dancing late afternoons in open areas of May 6, 7, 8; and feasting/picnicking/dancing in an open green vegetation area on May 9 until sunset as the finish of the five-day holiday cycle.
Gravesites (Christian or Moslem) tend to be grouped in the large cemetery by their ethnic identity rather than religious following. In a broad sense, the Macedonian gravesites are grouped separately from the Moslem gravesites, separated only by walkways. The Macedonian gravemarkers can be identified by the Slavic surnames that tend to end in “ski” such as Višinski, Dimoski, Spasovski, and so on. In addition, they have Christian crosses or Partisan five-point stars as symbols, as well as photos of the deceased. (See Figure 2.)
The gravestones with Moslem names show the crescent and star symbol, and these grave markers tend not to have photos of the deceased. Within the Moslem burial areas of the cemetery, the graves tend to be grouped by their ethnic identities, so that the Romani graves (Christian or Moslem) are in their own grouping. Although the Moslem Romani names are the same as for Turks or Albanians, the Romani gravestones more often have photos, and their gravestones are similar to the Christian style instead of undecorated Moslem style grave markers.
Why these Notes in the Field? After my report on Romani gravestones in Los Angeles in 2011, I was sensitized to the family gravesite visitations by Roms during their annual spring holiday in Skopje. I learned about their gravesite cleaning of weeds during the 1990s (see Figure 4 with a photo from 1997).
Marking a 45th year of recording this holiday related to the dancing component, I revisited the large municipal cemetery (in Butel) this year (2012) on May 6, to see if there were continuities of the grave tending I recorded fifteen years earlier – there was not. The Romani gravesites were not cleared of weeds. However, during this 2012 visit I paid more attention to the photos on the Romani gravestones, which is more in keeping with the Christian and past Partisan Communist style grave markers, rather than the absence of photos on the traditional Moslem grave markers. (See Figure 4 of another Romani site.)
I also came across photos related to the Djurdjevden / Erdelezi holiday. This is significant since Islamic religious pressures after the 2000s have diminished this holiday with its public communal dancing or any other public expression of the holiday. The gravesite markers made with expensive marble with photos of the deceased, by those who can afford the cost, defy this restriction. (See Figure 6 with a lamb.)
One Romani couple with a large double-sided marble grave marker show themselves observing the holiday. On one side of the marble slab they show a photo where they are holding green branches (Figure 7). On the opposite side of the marble, there are three photos with two that are clearly related to the holiday — one with dancing and another with picnicking feasting. (See Figure 8.)
This report shows that most Romani graves in Skopje’s municipal cemetery can be located within the Moslem burial areas, but that the Romani deceased tend to be identified with photos (as are the Macedonian Christian and Macedonian Partisans on their grave markers). Later that day, in discussing the gravesites with a Rom, he indicated that the Romani names are so similar with other [Moslem] names, that a photo gives a sense of identity of who that person was in life.
Furthermore, photos show musicians (tapan drummers or accordion players), Romani female attire, or sacrificial lambs depicted on the stones, and even at least one photo posed in a dancing position clearly for the Djurdjevden / Erdelezi holiday.