Update on the Vlachs: A Visit to Uma

 It is twenty years since I published The Vlachs. When I did so Yugoslavia was still an entity, Albania a closed book, and the Iron Curtain still shrouded much of Eastern Europe. Vlach ha survived these difficult years quite well. There is oddly an increased interest in minority languages, and increased efforts to preserve them. Vlach villages are more accessible, although new roads and the trappings of modern life can bring dangers as well as advantages. I read recently that the largest Vlach town, Metsovo in the Pindus mountains, derives 60% of its income from tourism, and this is hardly an advertisement for a traditional way of life.

    I retain my interest in Vlach history, language and culture, although I have recently been occupied in writing the history of Albania and Macedonia. I am in spite of the following pages getting a little old for Vlach adventures, and am therefore delighted that younger scholars like Thede Kahl and Asterios Koukoudis are taking up the challenge of recording the past and preset state of the Vlachs, as this will help to preserve their future. Here is a brief if unscholarly effort from me.

 A visit to Uma

   I spent Orthodox Eater (April 27th) eating coloured boiled eggs, drinking brandy and speaking Meglen Vlach in the village of Uma. This is set in the extreme south of what the Greeks like to call the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, but which I shall call for the sake of simplicity Macedonia. Likewise I shall call the Slav language spoken by the majority of the citizens of this state Macedonian. I am less proud of these last two sentences than of my opening remark, as the following account will make clear.

    In 1964 and 1985 I had made visits to the Meglen Vlachs in Greece and what was then Yugoslavia, and I recorded my experiences in The Vlachs. Contrary to some reports I found in Greece the Meglen  Vlach villages flourishing and the Meglen Vlach language doing well. Like Weigand a hundred years before I found in an area of about ten square miles ten villages speaking Greek, Macedonian, ordinary Vlach and Meglen Vlach. The continuity of this diverse pattern is remarkable as the area had been through some hard times. Two Balkan wars, two World Wars and the Greek Civil War had taken their toll. There also had been some emigrations from the area.

   The inhabitants of one village Notia became Muslims and thus found themselves involved in the population exchanges following the war between Greece and Turkey in  1923. This exchange was conducted on religious rather than linguistic grounds, and thus we can still find villages speaking Meglen Vlach in Eastern Thrace near the Gallipoli peninsula. Kahl mentions in particular Kalamiş and Yösüzköy. The Meglen Vlachs were always vaguely pro-Romanian, and in between the wars some of them emigrated to the Dobrudja. Again Kahl is useful in naming one Meglen Vlach village Cerna. From the village of Livadhion there emigrated the family of Vasile Barba, author of several articles on the Vlachs. He moved to Germany where he organized a number of Vlach conferences and produced a periodical Zborlu Nostru, both with a vaguely pro-Romanian stance. There were other pockets of pro-Romanian Vlachs in Greece, notably near Veria, but the Meglen Vlachs being agriculturalists rather than herdsmen fund emigration easier, as the Romanian government did not allow emigrants to bring their flocks with them. Finally after the Greek Civil War many of those supporting the Communists were scattered all over the Soviet bloc. I met two girls living in Tashkent revisiting the homes of their parents.

    Over the border I was less successful in 1984 and 1985 in tracking down the three villages of Konsko, Sirmenin and Uma, the latter right on the Greek frontier. Mistakenly I tried walking up the valley of the Konsko river, and got lost in a landscape inhabited by giant tortoises. Other travellers had the same experience. In Greece I had asked about these villages and was told that Vlach was still spoken in Uma, although no longer by children. Romanian scholars working on the Meglen Vlach language were generally sceptical about the survival of these villages or their language. This is probably the reason why the normally meticulous Kahl both in his maps and tables makes it clear that Meglen Vlach in Uma is a thing of the past.

    So, how about my opening sentence? Since 1985 I have had two hip operations and can now walk about as fast as the tortoises. For my seventieth birthday my family had paid for me to take a rail pass to go anywhere in the Balkans. It was something of a Greek gift, as Balkan rail travel,  even first class, is not exactly comfortable or convenient. The pass did not extend to Albania, but I had taken a bus and saw in the early morning the village of Lower Pliassa looking rather more prosperous than when last visited. The pass did extend to Turkey and I got as far as Tarsus, home town of Saint Paul. Then like Saint Paul I went to Macedonia.

   In Macedonia the rail service was fairly decrepit, but on Good Friday I dutifully went to the very handsome Vlach church in Bitola. Notices about services were written in Vlach and Macedonian, but rather disappointingly I could not stay for a service because of the times of trains, and more disappointingly those entering the church spoke more Macedonian than Vlach. I did not like to interrupt their or my devotions by asking the reason for this phenomenon, and my piety was rewarded on Easter Sunday.

   By that time I had moved to Gevgelja, the last Macedonian station on the line from Belgrade to Salonica. Again virtuously I visited a Macedonian church where a kind priest gave me three beautiful Easter eggs. Retiring to a cafe to consume them I was accosted by a complete stranger who wanted me to have a beer. We don’t in England normally wash down our Easter eggs at breakfast with beer, but I accepted. It turned out that he had once worked in Stratford upon Avon, near where I live. Even more remarkably it turned out that he came from Uma although he lived in Gevgelja, and he offered to drive me there.

   My driver was a very nice man who earned four hundred dollars a month. He told me this after I had made a successful offer to pay for the petrol. He was not himself Vlach speaking, but both in the cafe and in the village he introduced me to middle aged men who did speak Meglen Vlach. He maintained that children still spoke it, although I was unable to verify this. In the Balkans people tend to tell the traveller what he or  she likes to hear. I inquired of one thirty year old and one ten year old what languages they spoke, and they said Macedonian, Greek and English. Their grandfather and father ( I think) spoke excellent English, having worked in England for some years, their grandmother sang a little Vlach song for me rather shyly, and confessed to not having taught her children the language. The presence of Greek is not surprising. Uma is only three hundred yards from the border, people from Gevgelja go to work in Greece, and Greeks come to Gevgelja oddly enough to gamble in casinos.

   The road to Uma was good until the last four miles, but even then passable in an ordinary car. Apparently the citizens of Uma had built the road themselves adapting a previous goat path. Those of Konsko had not done this, and had opted instead to move to a village called New Kronsko through which we passed. In the process they had lost whatever Vlach they once may have had, as had the inhabitants of the now deserted Sirmenin further north. But Uma seemed to be prospering. New houses were being built, old houses renovated. Some of these were clearly weekend cottages. I was told that fifty people lived all the year round in Uma, as many as two hundred came at weekends, and that the previous night three hundred people had processed round the church. Though the brandy bottle was passed round frequently I think my hosts had probably been celebrating for rather longer than I had .

Tom Winnifrith at Oxford, early 2008

   I was taken round the church, a building of some size and antiquity, although in some disrepair. The gravestones in a beautiful cemetery covered in bluebells had inscriptions in Cyrillic script. I felt rather ashamed about trying to raise money for our village church in Warwickshire, less old, less beautiful and less well attended. A cheerful man speaking Vlach handed me a pamphlet which I enclose, written in Vlach and Macedonian, and I said in return I would give him a copy of my book. I have done so. All over the Balkans there are beautiful Vlach churches neglected by Communism, robbed by looters after Communism, and even when repaired suffering from philistine restoration. I would not want Uma’s church to suffer the same fate or Uma’s Vlach community to vanish. What would really be best would be for some young scholar, not some old tortoise, to spend about five days in the village, recording the songs and stories before this tiny, but beautiful, part of the Vlach mosaic vanishes for ever.


   Since writing this impassioned plea I have discovered that other people are interested in the Meglen Vlachs. Nicholas Ostler, the author of two very good books on world languages and the history of Latin, is President of the Society for Endangered Languages. Oddly he had the same teachers of Latin and Greek at school and university as I had, but then our paths diverged, and his interests now seem more focused on dying indigenous languages in Latin America, Canada and Africa. Nevertheless he knows of my affection for the Vlachs, and therefore sent me details of a conference organized by someone in Trondheim, Norway, dealing with tiny linguistic fragments in Southern Europe. Norway, though in Northern Europe and not particularly fragmented, has a good record in this area, and I was pleased to hear of a conference that took in hand the Istrian Vlachs, the Meglen Vlachs, the Greek speakers of Southern Italy, and various Slav fragments in Albania. The first two groups are of obvious interest to the Society Farsarotul, Greek speakers in Italy are the mirror image of Latin speakers in Greece, and the Slav speakers of Albania, unless they happen to speak a dialect akin to the language of a nation state, are relegated like the Vlachs and the gypsies to an inferior second division of minorities without national states. Unfortunately the conference seemed a linguistic rather than a historical one, and more unfortunately, though there were plenty of funds for countries like Norway and Britain to participate in the conference, there were no funds for countries like Greece, Albania and Macedonia. However there were prospects of a wider project involving participants from these countries and with a more historical approach.

   Finding myself in London with three hours to spare I looked up references to Uma and Meglen Vlachs in the British Library. Just before I published The Vlachs a brave effort was made from Germany to resume the work of Weigand in publishing a series entitled Balkan Archiv, and there are two volumes in this series by B.Wild and P.Atanasov, published in 1985 and 1990 ,which put the Meglen Vlachs on the map while paradoxically taking Uma off it. Wild produces a linguistic atlas of Vlach villages in the Meglen, including Uma in Macedonia and Livadhion, an ordinary Vlach village. Confusingly, as Kahl points out, the Meglen Vlachs call themselves Vlach while what I call ordinary Vlachs call themselves Aroumanians. Rather surprisingly there do not seem to be many differences between the language of Uma and the language of the Meglen villages in Greece in spite of the political frontier in existence for nearly a century.   But in the case of Livadhion there are differences, and at the risk of being a linguistic bore I can name some of them. Livadhion uses the Greek word for a doctor, iatru, the other villages including Uma the Turkish word ikum. For time Livadhion uses a word derived from ancient Greek kairos, the other villages a word derived from Latin tempus. For fox Livadhion has the Latin vulpe, the other villages the Slavonic lisita. For it is raining Livadhion has da ploi, the other villages merdze, both Latin derivations. Latin scholars will know about Jupiter Pluvius and that the English word immerse derives from the Latin word mergo. Unfortunately I am unable to derive much historical information from this linguistic data.

   Wild derived her information about the language of Uma by interviewing people from this village who had settled in Gevgelja. Atanasov is much more informative about this move. He tells us that during the First World War the inhabitants of Uma had been move to Aleksinac In Serbia, but had then returned. At the beginning of the Second World War in the Balkans (1941) Uma had 741 inhabitants, almost as many as it had had in Weigand’s day (850.) But as Atanasov says, and I have said, the next thirty years were fairly ghastly for the Meglen, and the people from there moved all over the world. Indeed he provides rather suspiciously precise figures for Meglen figures in Uma (1), Tashkent (40), Skopje (273), Salonica (450), Gevgelja (1450). Budapest, Prague and Warsaw are also mentioned.

   I do not wish to cast too much doubt on these figures or on the thesis of Wild and Atanasov that at some stage in the last sixty years Uma was virtually abandoned to be repopulated during the last ten years after the building of the road. Clearly Wild and Atanasov are much more methodical scholars than I am, and indeed have done wonderful work in supplying the vocabulary and grammar of Meglen Vlach, curiously corresponding almost exactly with words, verbs and nouns supplied by Weigand a hundred years before. Wild gives us some folk sayings, Atanasov some stories which I found without translation  almost impossible to read. Disappointingly there were no songs. Atanasov mentions the Meglen Vlach community in Cerna, Romania, but says that the Vlachs who left for Turkey from Notia had lost their language. He says this on the authority of a Vlach in Notia who had been left behind, and his figures for Meglen Vlachs in other parts of the Balkans drive from a similar solitary source. There are dangers in this approach, although I myself am often guilty of using anecdotal evidence.

   A detailed examination of Uma might establish its history over the past hundred years. We have seen how in the First World War the inhabitants of Uma were evacuated to Serbia. Almost all the people interviewed by Anastasov were educated in Serbian schools, and it is odd that there is not a greater difference between the language of Uma and that of Meglen Vlach villages in Greece. I have met similar patterns of temporary emigration in the villages near Bitola with some going to Bulgaria and others to Greece. In the Second World War and the Greek Civil War which followed it movements of population were more complicated and more permanent. After the German invasion of 1941 Yugoslav Macedonia was divided between Bulgaria and Albania, then under Italian control, and Greek Macedonia between Bulgaria and an area of direct German control. Thus Uma, temporarily under Bulgarian rule, once again found itself on the different side of the border from the rest of Meglen ruled by the Germans.

   Resistance led by the Communists was strong on both sides of the border. The position on the Greek side was complicated by Slav speaking fighters on the German side and Slav speaking regiments fighting against them. After the German defeat things became even more complex with the poor Meglen Vlachs caught up in a tug of war between Slav and Greek, Communists and non-Communists, and after 1948 between Tito and Stalin. Tactful enquiries might establish where Uma stood in these struggles. Probably confused like the struggles.

   In 1949 Tito settled the Greek Civil War by refusing to allow any part of his nation to be used as a base for retrenchment by the Greek communist forces. The break with Stalin and the fact that some of the Communist forces had hoped for an independent Macedonia pleased neither him nor some of the patriotic Greek Communists. Some of the Greek army with their families, or sometimes with families seized against their will, retreated via Albania, and perhaps Meglen Vlachs in Tashkent and Warsaw derive their existence from this retreat. Moves of Uma inhabitants to other parts of Macedonia took place at a later date, presumably as part of a general move from isolated villages to superficially more comfortable but actually more bleak high rise flats in towns. This phenomenon is apparent all over the Balkans. In the Vlach villages near Bitola the population is now about a tenth of what it was in Weigand’s day with Gopes virtually deserted.

   I do not know what happened in Uma and wish I had asked. It is possible that Atanasov, Wild and Kahl are all wrong in assuming that the village was totally deserted for some time. It did not look as if it had been. Its presence on the border might have made it vulnerable to state interference, although at the suggested time of the evacuation in the 1950s relations between Tito’s Yugoslavia and Greece were not all that bad. The collapse of Yugoslavia coincided with the collapse of Communism and this might have encouraged the old inhabitants of Uma to reclaim their ancestral homes, as private property became more fashionable. On the other hand relations between the new Macedonia and Greece were for a time rather prickly, and Uma would seem an odd place to resettle. But it has either been resettled or never abandoned, and it is now time to put it back on the map.


   Writing the history of Uma would not be an uncomfortable experience. The village has running water, there are plenty of empty houses, and the Vlachs have a reputation for hospitality. For those anxious for more luxury there is a grand but not expensive hotel in Gevgelja. Oddly when I was there the restaurant seemed full of elderly Dutch folk dancers involved in stately waltzes and handsome Macedonians performing more athletic feats on the dance floor. I spoke to both parties in English. Gevgelja might be quite a good base for historical research, and the area has plenty of history. It might be possible to learn why the bishop located in Notia turned Turk, taking part of his flock with him on a route that was eventually to lead to Gallipoli. In the late nineteenth century churches in all parts of Macedonia were divided between Exarchists supporting the Bulgarian cause and Patriarchists supporting the Greek. One ha a certain admiration for the bishop  of Meglen, a long established see, inhabited by Vlachs, taking a third option.

   Again we have records of Greek schools in Uma and neighbouring Konsko. There wee Bulgarian schools in some Meglen villages in Greece, but no Serbian schools in the vicinity until after the First World War when Uma, Konsko and Sirmenin became part of Yugoslavia. No Romanian schools at any time, and yet Meglen Vlach survives, possibly aided by the fact that these Vlachs are not nomads, live in a compact area, and are not battered into submitting their language to the rule of a master race, because so many races have tried to be the master.

   In the Second World War the Germans tried to master the Balkans. To their credit they attempted to include in their masterplan the sensitivities of minorities, and drew the frontiers accordingly, but these sensitivities did not include the Meglen Vlachs. They did succeed in recruiting some refugees from Asia Minor to their cause as well as some Slav speakers. For this reason it would be extremely difficult to investigate the history of any part of the Meglen during the Second World War, and indeed there is a warning for researchers into Macedonian minorities in the person of Anastasia Karakasidou.

   Professor Karakasidou, now at Wellesley College, wrote Fields of Wheat: Hills of Blood in 1997. This book was published by the University of Chicago Press after Cambridge University Press had turned it down for fear of offending Greek opinion. Death threats had been made against the author. It is hard to see why. The book showed by scrupulous research that the area around Assiros about thirty miles east of the Meglen Vlachs had not always been inhabited by Greeks. There had been Turks, many of the Greeks had been like Professor Karakasidou’s father refugees from Asia Minor, there were a few Vlachs, and most controversially many Greek speakers had Slavonic ancestry. The carefulness of Karakasidou’s approach is shown by her interviewing the same person on four occasions to establish with difficulty a Bulgarian ancestry. This is a welcome contrast to the anecdotal method I have mentioned beforehand, but it was also an unpopular one.

   Like the Meglen the area of Assiros was divided in the Second World War between the Germans and Bulgarians. In this war there were all kinds of complications between those who thought of Slav speakers as Bulgarians and those who thought of them as Macedonians. In addition the refugees from Turkey were not integrated fully with the Greek population, and the Germans had some success in recruiting armed bands from these refugees, particularly those from Pontus who speak a dialect very different from standard Greek It would be interesting, albeit difficult, to find our what happened in the Meglen.

   In the  area of Greece near Florina the war years are fairly well covered by Professor Hammond, the famous English historian of Macedonia, who fought the Germans and has left a rather dispiriting account of difficulties with pro-Communist bands, Bulgarian and Pontic groups. Karakasidou has also worked in this area and written an accurate account of the present situation in Greek Minorities: Aspects of a Plural Society edited by Richard Clogg. No death threats this time, at least I hope not, as I wrote the article on Vlachs in this volume. Again Karakasidou is controversial, as she maintains that there is still a Slav-speaking minority in this district as well as the usual mixture of Vlachs, Greeks from Asia Minor and more long standing Greeks. In the past there were Albanians and there are certainly some now. In the Second World War the Bulgarians occupied Florina, although after the war relations between Bitola and Florina were fairly good with people taking an incredibly slow train in both directions. The train no longer exists.

   An investigation in the Meglen might arouse controversy. There are Slav speaking villages there  Official Greek sources maintain that all Slav speakers left after the Second World War, and one still finds this reported in authoritative English books such as Norman Davies’s Europe. Other English sources wildly exaggerate the number of Slavs in Greece. All this shows the danger of trusting one source and not doing laborious research. It also shows the difficulties of working in a sensitive area. But oddly Uma is not sensitive. Macedonia, faced with a difficult problem over its minorities, especially the large Albanian one, has adopted a policy very different from the Greeks. It openly recognizes the rainbow nature of its population. It allows the small Vlach minority its own television programme. The Manaki brothers, photographers of Vlach origin from Avdhella in Greece, are acknowledged in Bitola as historians of the Balkans, not of any particular nation. So photographs and an unbiased history of Uma would be welcome in some quarters.


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