At the heart of the Podlasie region of north eastern Poland, a small yet firmly established Sunni Muslim community has been settled for over 300 years. These are the Polish Tatars, also known as Lipka Tatars, an ethnic minority of fewer than 3000 people.
Their ancestors were nobility warriors from Khanate of Golden Horde seeking political refugee, and prisoners of war deciding not to return home. Attracted by religious tolerance and promises of land estates they put down roots in Grand Duchy of Lithuania in late 14th century. Historical records vary on actual community numbers but some estimate that by the middle of the 16th century at least 5,000 Tatars practiced their religion in 25 mosques spread through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath: a territory now divided between Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. The first Tatar settlements in Podlasie were established in 1679, and to this day the majority of Polish Tatars live in this region.
While there was a slow assimilation over the centuries, Lipka Tatars kept their distinctive identity. Although the ability to speak their original Kipchak language disappeared sometime during the 17th century, the tightly knit community was galvanized through religion, passionate Polish patriotism, a strong emphasis on endogamy, and preserving the names and cuisine of their culture.
In 1918, the newly independent Second Polish Republic that arose from the ashes of World War One established religious freedom to all faiths in the constitution. The Polish Tatar minority flourished, with over 6000 Tatars living in Poland and 17 active mosques. In 1925 Muslim Religious Association was formed, and a year later the Mufti of Poland Jakub Szynkiewicz was voted into office. In Nowa Wilejka, near today’s Vilnius, Tatar officers staffed the 1st Tatar Squadron of 13th Cavalry Regiment. Most young Polish Muslims conscripted into the army would serve in the Nowa Wilejka barracks.
The aftermath of the World War Two fragmented both the region and the communities. Due to border changes almost all pre-war territories inhabited by Tatars became part of the Soviet Union. Lipka Tatars unexpectedly became Belarusian, Lithuanian or Polish Tatars. Border changes were followed by forced and semi–voluntary repatriations that tore many Tatars away from their ancestral land to newly acquired Polish territories in the west and the north of the country.
Today when less than 5% of the population of Poland consider themselves to be a member of an ethnic minority, and over 85% Poles declares themselves to be Roman Catholic, Lipka Tatars are a striking reminder that Poland was once a hugely multicultural and multi-religious country.
Photographed in August and Setember 2017.