Legend has it that King Jan III Sobieski was so delighted with a Tatar cavalry captain’s service that he gave him as much land in Poland as he could survey on horseback in one day. This is how Tatars ended up in Poland, in the eastern province of Podlasie.
The so-called Tatar Trail, comprising of a circle of cities – Białystok, Sokółka, Bohoniki, Krynki, Kruszyniany, Krynki and Supraśl – is only 150km long, but it allows visitors to experience the unique ambience of a place where four cultures and religions have co-existed for centuries. Although Poland has a long history of Catholic–Orthodox and Catholic–Judaic relations, Tatars were the only ones to bring and maintain strong links to Islam and oriental culture. A journey along the Tatar Trail guides tourists through their one-of-a-kind contribution to Polish culture.
Bogusław R. Zagórski, expert on the Islamic world, notes:
In the grand scheme of things, it is the only example of a lasting Muslim community in a non-Islamic European country... A community that has throughout the ages enjoyed the same rights and privileges until today... They felt it was their fatherland... It's a phenomenon that Poland can be proud of.
Where did the Polish Tatars come from?
The first Tatars came to Poland in the 14th century when Vytautas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, offered them asylum in appreciation for their military services during the war against the Teutonic Knights. Those who came were mostly political exiles, elders of the Golden Horde and Crimea who were forced to leave their communities. Their excellent combat skills were very much in demand in Poland and Lithuania during the turbulent 15th century and Tatars fought well, for instance, at the epic Battle of Grunwald in 1410 (one of the biggest battles in the history of medieval Europe).
The second wave of Tatar immigration is much closer to the legend we told you above. In subsequent centuries, Tatars were eagerly compensated with knighthoods, coats of arms and land in reward for fighting alongside the Polish army. As a matter of fact, it was Jan III Sobieski who gave a lot of Podlasie land to Tatars. It was his way of appeasing their rebellion in the late 17th century, which arose when the Polish gentry questioned the Tatar's right to nobility and their soldiers weren't paid frequently enough. Tatars established a region on the present-day border with Belarus as their enclave and by that means formed the biggest centre of Muslim culture in Poland. They are often referred to as Lipka Tatars (being inhabitants of the Lithuanian parts of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth), Polish Tatars, Lipkowie, or Muślimi.
Who are the Tatars today?
Ethnologists define three features that make them a distinctive minority. First of all, like no other specific group in Poland, Tatars are Muslims and it is mostly thanks to their religion that they have managed to preserve their separate culture and identity. However, the Tatar's version of Islam, derived from Sunni Islam, is a bit different than the one we know from the Middle East, due to the long-standing influence of Catholicism. For example: Tatars buy a Christmas Tree for Christmas; instead of going to Mecca, they usually go on pilgrimages to places where their saintly ancestors were buried; and they usually don’t speak Arabic (although they recently started teaching it to the youngest generation).
Secondly, a feature called “Tatarhood” has been identified. By this term, ethnologists are highlighting how Tatars have treated endogamy (keeping marriages within the community) as an important practice, have similar physical characteristics (slightly slanted eyes, solid cheekbones, thick stature and a swarthy complexion), and how they strongly believe in their shared descent from common ancestors.
The fourth and final component of the Lipka Tatar's identity is their Polishness. Because the Tatar community has lived in Poland for more than 600 years, Polish Tatars speak Polish as their native language, identify with Polish history and have built their own military mythology upon the participation of Tatar soldiers in the most important moments of Polish history. They refer to themselves as Polish Tatars or even Poles of Tatar origin.
According to the 2011 census, there are approximately 2,000 Tatars living in Poland nowadays (however, other data varies from 1,500 to over 5,000). The great majority of those who inhabit Poland in the present day are not in fact the descendants of 17th century immigrants but post-war Muslim repatriates from the Soviet Union, because the original Polish Tatar community suffered horrific casualties during World War II.
More than half of present-day Polish Tatars live in the area of Białystok, while the rest are spread out in many directions, such in Tricity, Mazury and even western Poland (Gorzów Wielkopolski). The only places where Tatar culture can be seen and celebrated in bigger groups are two small villages right beside the Polish-Belarusian border – Bohoniki and Kruszyniany. Even though they are very much depopulated these days, the places where the Tatar community gathers and is revived during the Muslim traditions of Qurban and Ramazan Bayrami still remain.
Festivals: Ramazan Bayrami and Qurban Bayrami
The former is a Muslim festival of thanksgiving which takes place when the period of fasting comes to an end and is celebrated with traditional sweets and the exchanging of gifts. The latter is the most important holiday of the Islamic year. The ritual sacrifice of a ram, a sheep, or a cow takes place to commemorate Abraham (or Ibrahim) who, according to the Old Testament and the Quran, was so faithful to God that he didn’t hesitate to sacrifice his own son when God asked him to do so. Eventually, God’s request turned out to be a trial for Abraham, and God asked him to sacrifice a lamb instead. What’s interesting is that because the laws concerning animal slaughter in Poland became more restrictive last year, Polish Tatars made newspaper headlines as their ritual slaughter did not meet the new standards of the ‘humanitarian’ killing of the animals.
Mosques in Poland?
Nowadays, of a total of five mosques operating in Poland, two are in the Tatar enclave of eastern Poland – in the tiny villages of Bohoniki and Kruszyniany. Both of these mosques were built by local people, probably Jews who were not experts on Muslim religious buildings, so the architecture resembles a lot of Catholic and Orthodox buildings which can be found in the neighbourhood.
The mosque in Kruszyniany village is the older one. It is not sure when it was built, but the first documents that register its existence date from the early 18th century. From the outside, it looks a bit like a Catholic church – it has a rectangular shape (10 x 13m) and two towers on its front and a smaller one on top. It is covered with wood painted green (the colour of Islam) and has two prayer rooms inside – one for men and the other for women. It is open for visitors and the guide will tell you a lot of interesting stories about the Tatar community (in Polish, so a Polish-speaking friend is needed for translation).
The mosque in Bohoniki is the smaller of two but it more resembles traditional mosques. Instead of two towers it has a single tower with an onion-shaped top finished with a crescent. The local community built it in 1873, but during World War II it was devastated by the German army, which turned it into a field hospital. After the war, the Tatar community managed to painstakingly recreate the building in its original form.
Mizars: Islamic graves
‘Mizar’ is a word that describes an Islamic grave. There are two Muslim graveyards on the Tatar Trail – one in Bohoniki and the other one in Kruszyniany. Just like mosques, they blend the rules of the Quran with the influence of Catholic practices. Each grave is composed of two stones – the bigger one indicating the head of the deceased and the smaller marking the direction of the feet. They all point to Mecca, so that the souls of the deceased knew where to go once freed of their bodies. What is surprising, however, is that newer ones are sometimes closer to the Christian variety, with a big gravestone on top, a crescent positioned just like a cross on the top of the ‘head’ part, and even illustrations depicting the deceased! This is not only unusual but also against rules set by the hadith – the additional writings that complement the Quran. Both cemeteries are really worth visiting for these unique qualities and charm.
Everybody's favourite part of the trail: the Tatar Yurt
Visiting the Tatar Trail and not popping into the Tatarska Jutra is a sin. It is run by Dżenetta Bogdanowicz and her family, who do everything to popularise Tatar history, culture and cuisine. While having a rest after a long walk, a visitor can taste many delicious dishes prepared according to traditional methods and watch films and photographs from the latest Tatar holidays and festivals. A few times a month, they hold cooking workshops where you can learn how to make the most exquisite Tatar delights. The atmosphere inside reminds of a real Yurt – open and straightforward, all with a warm atmosphere (both literally and figuratively).
What is Tatar cuisine like?
A proper introduction to Tatar Cuisine would need a separate article, so let’s just go through the most spectacular delights which you cannot leave the Tatar Trail without tasting.
This is a must-try of the Tatar trail, and is one of the mandatory dishes of Ramazan Bayrami. It is made of thin pieces of pastry dough coated with butter or goose fat interweaved with stuffing. The stuffing may be sweet (cottage cheese, raisins, dried plums) or savoury (lamb, veal, goose meat, turkey). Once the pieces are stuffed with the filling, they are rolled in the shape of snail shell and then baked in a round copper pot for 2 hours. It is very heavy but absolutely delightful!
Potato Cake (Baba ziemniaczana) and Trybuszok
Potato cake is one of the simplest things on Earth to make but Tatars have brought it to the level of art. Their secret? ‘God is in the details!’ – Tatars know what to put inside and what kinds of meat to blend with the potato cake to make an exquisite dish out of it.
Trybuszok is a somewhat similar dish. It is a sheep’s stomach stuffed with chopped potatoes and pieces of lamb, veal and beef. In other parts of Poland, you can find it filled with pork but because this kind of meat is banned by the Quran, Tatar Trybuszok will always be served ‘porkless’.
Kołduny is a sort of dumpling typical for Lithuania and north-east Poland. The Tartar version is indecently delightful! What makes it so good is that the inside of the dumpling is not only stuffed with lamb’s meat but there is also a bit of broth inside. Each time you bite into a dumpling, a hot and salty liquid burst accompanies the taste of finest meat. To make you feel even more tempted – there are 8 more types of dumplings served on the Tatar Trail: Kibiny, Pieremiacze, Cebulniki, Jeczpoczmaki, Samsa, Kartoflaniki, Czebureki, and Manty. It's more than enough to last a full week eating only dumplings, never having to repeat the same type!
Czak Czak and Halva
For dessert, czak czak is a sweet cookie that reminds us that Tatar culture is deeply rooted in the east. Just like Middle-Eastern sweets, it is a sort of cookie with lots of nuts and raisins, soaked in honey and oil. Very delicious but very caloric, just like the wonderful Tatar Halva that is also easily available on the trail.
Non-Tatar things not to be missed on the Tatar Trail
Krynki is one of the Polish cities that barely avoided total annihilation. 90% of its pre-war inhabitants were Jewish and they were all murdered in the Treblinka Nazi Death Camp. What we can see today is only a mere trace of this prosperous and unique town. It is built on the plan of a star with a huge square in the centre (nowadays, a park). There are not many monuments left but it's really worth taking a stroll along its cobbled roads and looking for remnants of a better past. The synagogues that were left were turned into a cinema and a warehouse because there was nobody here who could have taken care of them in their original form.
Supraśl is a centre for Orthodox Christians with the huge Supraśl Orthodox Monastery, an inviting and up-to-date museum of Orthodox icons, and secession palaces which were home to Supraśl's affluent factory owners.
Famous people you didn't realise were Tatars
Quite a few celebrities of past and present times have Tatar roots:
Charles Bronson – original name Karol Buczynski, the famous actor starred in Once Upon a Time in the West, The Great Escape and other Hollywood hits. His cheekbones and eyes were often mistaken for Mexican or Native American but were in fact Lipka Tatar from Lithuania.
Henryk Sienkiewicz – Polish author and Nobel Prize winner. His father was a descendant of Lipka Tatars.
Magdalena Abakanowicz – One of Poland's most internationally acclaimed artists, known for works that transcend the conventional sphere of sculpture production. She comes from a noble family of Tatar provenance.