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Muslims in the Baltic Sea region since the Middle Ages

2018-01-03

Wooden mosques in the Baltic States, Finland, Belarus and Poland testify to the long Muslim heritage surrounding the Baltic Sea. This mosque is located in the village of Keturiasdešimt Totorių in Lith

Since the Late Middle Ages, Muslim Tatars have been settling in the Baltic region and continuing to practice their religion. Wooden mosques, such as those in Finland and the Baltic States, provide clear testimony to the long Muslim heritage in the Baltic Sea region.

Tatars began settling around the Baltic Sea as far back as the 14th century and have remained in the area, continuing to practice their religion.

“The first wave of Tatars, or Turkic peoples, in the 14th century was followed in the 16th century by a new wave of Tatars, who received asylum in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania,” says Ingvar Svanberg, ethnologist and researcher at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies. “They were military troops whose elite were raised to the nobility. They were integrated into the community but kept their religion.”

Tatars are a Turkic people from Russia. Most are Sunni Muslims, but there are also Tatars who are Orthodox Christians.

Able to keep their religion

Ingvar Svanberg, ethnologist and researcher at the
Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

“They were allowed to continue practising their religion and marry Christians, which was remarkably uncommon in the 17th century,” says Svanberg. “As an example, a few Muslims and Jews came to Sweden in the 1600s, but they were forced to convert.”

There have been several cycles of Tatar immigration to the Baltic region. In the early 1800s, for example, Russian Tatar troops manned the Sveaborg fortress outside Helsinki.

“Russian Tatar troops also defended Åland, Russia’s outermost outpost in the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War,” says Svanberg. “There is a Muslim burial site out in the forest outside the Bomarsund fortress on Åland.”

A wave of Tatars came to Finland, Estonia and Latvia at the end of the 19th century as businessmen and fur traders.

The first Tatar in Sweden

“Some Tatars came to Sweden for the Stockholm Exhibition in 1897, including a furrier from Finland,” says Svanberg. “He settled in Sweden and married a Swedish woman, but continued to practise his religion. A clear sign of this is that he was buried in Helsinki, because at that time Sweden didn’t have any Muslim cemeteries.”

Descendants of the first Tatars still remain, and continue to run businesses in Stockholm and Helsinki. Today, there are nearly a thousand descendants of the first immigrating Tatars in Finland and Estonia. In Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, there are about 2000-3000 per country. It is difficult to determine how many descendants there are in Sweden, as Sweden no longer keeps records of ethnicity.

“The last time Sweden registered ethnicity in a census was in 1930,” says Svanberg, “and at that time, there were 15 people who identified as Muslims or other non-Christians. Most were presumably descendants of the furriers who arrived in 1897.”

Wooden mosques

Wooden mosques in the Baltics, Finland, Belarus and Poland provide clear evidence of the long Muslim heritage around the Baltic Sea. The wooden mosques have been used continuously since this time.

“The wooden mosques are an example of architectural adaptation to local conditions,” says Svanberg. “They were constructed of wood because that was the material that was available. The style and colours are quite similar to other places of worship.”

Current conflicts

The present-day immigration of new Muslim groups has led to tensions between old and new groups of Muslims and with the majority population in, for example, Poland and Lithuania.

“The original groups and the surrounding community have adapted to each other in different ways,” says Svanberg. “For example, some Muslims have moved their day of worship to Sundays instead of Fridays and religious slaughter methods have not previously been considered a problem. But the new groups of Muslims want the original groups to “return” to the old ways. Ritual slaughter is also sometimes seen as a problem today by the majority population and has been prohibited in some countries.”

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Facts

Tatar

Tatars include a number of related groups of Turkic-speaking people in the Russian Federation and Siberia. The majority of Tatars in the Russian Federation are Sunni Muslims, but there are also a group of Tatars who belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. It should be noted that the term “Tatar” has historically been used rather ambiguously to refer to different groups of people. The term has also been spelled “Tartar”, but this is now an archaic spelling.

Stockholm Exhibition of 1897

The General Art and Industrial Exposition of Stockholm of 1897 is also known as the Stockholm Exhibition or the Stockholm World’s Fair. It was the fourth in a series of Scandinavian art and industrial exhibitions held during the latter half of the 19th century. The 1897 exhibition was arranged to commemorate the 25th anniversary of King Oscar II’s accession to the throne. After the 1897 exhibition, two more Stockholm Exhibitions were held, in 1909 and 1930.

Find out more

If you’d like to know more about the Tatars in the Baltic region, you may be interested in reading Muslim Tatar Minorities in the Baltic Sea Region. Ingvar Svanberg, Uppsala University, and David Westerlund, Södertorn University, edited the book, which was published by Brill in 2016.

Current research projects at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies