“We are Muslims and we have been here more than 600 years”, says 70-year-old Lithuanian, Fatima Stantrukova.
I am in a tiny little village called Keturiasdesimt Totoriu, about twenty minutes drive south-west of Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius, surrounded by woodland. Beneath some of the trees, domesticated chickens peck away, hemmed in by a wire fence. A dog barks somewhere, but otherwise, the only sound is the rustling of the wind in the tall silver birches. The route into this little clearing is along a dusty road flanked with small evergreens, where every so often a tired concrete bench serving as a bus stop appears.The village is home to one of Europe’s oldest surviving Muslim communities, the Baltic Tatars.
“We lost our language and so much of our identity a long time ago. The mosque is very important. It is all that we have left,” says Fatima, who volunteers as a caretaker at the village mecete (mosque).
The square, dark brown wooden hut is covered in neat vertical timber slats. There are a few small windows and a tin roof forms an apex above crowned by an ornate little turret with a small onion dome – like those on orthodox churches all over the former Soviet lands. But instead of a cross, there is a crescent on top of this one – the only clue that this is, in fact, a Muslim building.
Keturiasdesimt Totoriu’s mecete is unlike any mosque you will see in the Muslim world. There are no arabesque designs or calligraphy anywhere, nor does it have a minaret by its side. This is a mosque born in the Baltic, and like the humble little square houses in the village, it looks as if it came from these very surroundings. There has been a mosque on this spot since at least 1558. Fatima’s ancestors’ story though, goes back even further.
To the 14th century in fact, when this region of the Baltic was known as The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and found itself lodged between emerging religious powers. In western and southern Europe were zealous Crusade-induced Christian fundamentalists and in the east, there was the growing power of the Turkic Muslim tribes. The Grand Duchy, like the village mosque, stood as a tolerant serenity in the middle.
I do not forbid the Christians to worship God according to the manner of their faith, the Russians according to theirs, the Poles according to theirs, whilst we ourselves will worship God according to our customs.”Grand Duke Gediminas (1275 -1341)
Officially pagan, the Duchy was being eyed by several takers, in particular, the Germanic Christian Orders of the west who had a different view of religious freedom – they didn’t believe in it. As far as they were concerned, everyone had to convert to Christianity, including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Enter the Muslims.
“When the Crusaders came to enforce Christianity, the Lithuanians said ‘we don’t like it you know’. He (Vytautas) gathered a big army and then invited Muslim fighters to kick out the Crusaders,” explains Ramadan Yaqoob, a direct descendant of that very first Muslim community. Today, Mr Yaqoob is the Grand Mufti of Lithuania and leader of the country’s 3,000 Muslims, half of whom are Tatar.
In 1398, whilst campaigning near the Black Sea, the Grand Duke Vytautas invited back to Lithuania a large group of Muslim Crimean Tatars, whose Mongol ancestry gave them a fierce fighting reputation. Vytautas was anticipating an attack from the Teutonic Knights at any moment and so he settled the Muslims close to his capital Trakai. One of the villages the Tatars founded came to be known as ‘Forty Tatars’ village because it is said forty Tatar families settled there first. In the Lithuanian language, forty Tatars translates to Keturiasdesimt Totoriu. Now seven centuries old, Keturiasdesimt Totoriu’s street layout still reflects that of a medieval Tatar encampment.
The original residents of Fatima’s village fought in the decisive Battle of Grunwald in 1410, when the Christian Knights were defeated for good, never to bother the Grand Duchy again.
“After fighting Christi crusaders, he (Vytautas) said, ‘Ok, you helped us, you can stay here, you can practise your religion.’ He gave lands as a gift for them.” explains Mufti Yaqoob.
The land Vytautas gave to the Muslim Tatars stretches roughly from the south of Trakai in Lithuania to the Polish city of Bialystok in the west, and the Belarusian capital Minsk in the east. This is where the Tatars have remained for over 600 years. Many of those that fought in that famous battle are buried in the cemeteries of Keturiasdesimt Totoriu.
Most of the tombstones are now unmarked rocks, weathered and sunken. But if you look hard enough you will find one that can be dated to 1621. It is the grave of ‘Allahberdi’. Things have changed much since Allahberdi’s day. The combination of being isolated from other Tatar and Muslim communities and the cruel religious oppression of the communist period has left most Muslim Tatars in Lithuania with only a basic understanding of their faith.
“We have evidence that 250 years ago, the community was using the Arabic alphabet to write Slavic words. They had lost the Qipchaq language by this time,” says Mufti Yaqoob.
Worse was to come in the 20th century when Lithuania became part of the USSR.
“It was the worst time. All the people of religion and knowledge were either killed or sent into exile. Archives were burnt. Communities were closed. Islam was forbidden”.
Somehow though, the people survived and so has the mosque in Keturiasdesimt Totoriu.
Inside the mosque, the wood effect continues. The main hall has floor to ceiling pine coloured cladding and is split into two – for men and women. There is a small opening in the segregating wall, covered by green netting. Both rooms have wooden balconies at the back and several benches for the elderly who have trouble kneeling and bending. There is a decorative blue carpet throughout with arabesque arches pointing towards the qibla. Inside the larger men’s room a brightly coloured wooden minbar (pulpit), hints at the community’s Turkic roots.
“Most of the people don’t even know how to pray anymore, so the mosque is only open for important ceremonies like funerals and religious festivals”, explains Evginenia Jakubauskiene, a 65-year-old Tatar woman whose husband is from Keturiasdesimt Totoriu.
That may well be the case, but the mosque and the village of Forty Tatars stands defiantly as a reminder to Europe that Muslims once came here to fight religious intolerance and in the process saved an entire nation.
Where in the world: The village of Keturiasdesimt Totoriu is 20 kilometres south-west of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius along the Eisiskiu Pl to the 202 road and then the tiny 523.
In and out: The best way to get to Keturiasdesimt Totoriu is to fly into Vilnius airport and either self-drive or use a local bus from the south of the city
Top tips: If you are planning to visit, get in touch with the amazing Tatar Muslim organisation at en.islamasvisiems.lt who can tell you more about the village and the other three Tatar mosques still standing. They may even be able to arrange for you to meet one or two of the villagers. Please respect the fact that this is very much a residential village that has almost no tourist traffic and is not used to having large groups turn up en masse.
Tharik Hussain spends much of his time travelling across Europe in search of the continent’s fourteen centuries of Muslim history. You can follow his work at www.tharikhussain.co.uk”