Little Mosques on the Prairie

guest contribution by Michael Połczyński

[1] Kruszyniany’s 18th-century wooden mosque, with its characteristic square towers. 
Kruszyniany, Poland. Photograph by the author.
[2] Bohoniki’s mosque, built in the mid-19th century.
Bohoniki, Poland. Photo by author.

Tucked in among the bison-infested forests, rolling fields of wheat and neatly ordered bowers of North East Poland are two tidy, little wooden mosques. [Figs 1 & 2] While the expansive skyline of this region (known as Podlasie) is broken mainly by storks’ nests and the onion domes of churches, these unassuming mosques in the small villages of Bohoniki and Kruszyniany are nevertheless well known throughout Poland and continue to serve a Muslim population that has existed in the region since the 13th century—the so-called Lipka Tatars. The relative religious tolerance of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which joined under the same monarch in 1386, kept its large Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities from engaging in the religious wars that engulfed neighboring lands and led to the settlement of the largest Jewish population in early modern Europe. A lesser-known fact is that Poland and Lithuania was also home to one of the largest integrated, legally protected Muslim communities in Christian Europe following the “reconquista” of the Iberian Peninsula. Today, Bohoniki and Kruszyniany are host to the last surviving historical mosques in Poland, the rest of which were destroyed during the 19th and 20th centuries, or are now located in Belarus or Lithuania as a result of border changes following World War II. [Fig 3]

[3] Mosque in Novogrodek, Belarus. The lantern is a common feature
 in Lipka Tatar mosques. Photo by Holly Robertson.

[4] A Tatar. Part of a series on horsemen by
Flemish engraver Abraham de Bruyn, 1575.
The word “Lipka” appeared first in Arabic and Ottoman texts, and is thought to be derived from the name “Litva”, or Lithuania. Over time, the Muslims of Poland-Lithuania gradually ceased to speak their native Turkic dailect and adopted the local Slavic idiom. It is unclear why the Ottoman-Arabic term “Lipka” came into popular use during the 17th century, after this shift in language was largely complete. Alternatively, Ottoman documents also refer to the Muslims of Poland-Lithuania as Leh Tatarları, or Polish Tatars (“Leh” meant “Pole”, as “Lehistan” was the Ottoman and Persian name for all of Poland-Lithuania). [Fig 4] Muslim settlement in the lands of Poland and Lithuania began as early as the 13th century during events connected to the Mongol-led invasions of Rus’, Poland, and Hungary. Furthermore, internal strife within the neighboring lands of the Golden Horde, the Crimean Khanate, and the Ottoman Empire caused the flight and resettlement of Muslim exiles to Lithuania and Poland for centuries. Most were settled in contested borderlands as light cavalry and frontiersmen in the official service of the then-pagan Lithuanian Dukes. In the 15th century, Lithuanian patronage of Muslim refugees who fled the Golden Horde during wars of succession was instrumental to the rise of the Giray Khans of the Crimean Khanate. Hacı Giray Khan, the progenitor of the Chinggisid clan that ruled the Crimean Khanate until the end of the 18th century, was born in Trakai near the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, and may therefore be considered, in a sense, a Lipka Tatar. Units of Lipka Tatar soldiers were a constant presence in Polish armies until the Second World War.

 [5] Mosque from Slonim, Belarus, pre-WWII.
Its triple towers resemble those of
 local orthodox wooden churches.
Photo courtesy of Holly Robertson.
The result of centuries of settlement by notable Muslim renegades, exiles and prisoners of war was a sizable, legally protected Muslim population that resided mainly in the Lithuanian portion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the end of the 17th century. In 1679, King Jan III Sobieski (famous for defeating Kara Mustafa at the second siege of Vienna, in the process acquiring many Ottoman tents) awarded a number of his Muslim troops with land in Crown Polish territory, including the villages of Bohoniki and Kruszyniany. Today’s Lipka Tatar communities, whose roots can be found in the unique socio-political structure of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, are spread throughout Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. Most found themselves in Lithuania and Belarus following World War II, though thousands of families have since emigrated to Poland. Several other mosques like those in Bohoniki and Kruszyniany can therefore still be found in rural communities in Belarus and Lithuania. Like those in Poland, many were destroyed in the conflagrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. [Fig 5] Some of these have been rebuilt in brick and concrete, preserving only the lanterns that surmounted the roofs of the original structures. [Fig 6]

[6] The mosque of Slonim today. The original structure was burned down during WWII. Photo by Holly Robertson.
There are over 30,000 Muslims living in Poland today. Many, however, are the descendants of recent non-Tatar émigrés. Lipka Tatars in Poland tend to self-identify as being ethnically Tatar, Polish nationals, and confessionally Muslim. Over the centuries, numerous Lipka Tatar families converted to Christianity (both Orthodox and Catholic) and some of these now-Christian families maintain a sense of their ethnic Tatar past. Establishing reliable population figures for Lipka Tatars is therefore difficult. Famous non-Muslims that have claimed Lipka ancestry include 19th century Polish novelist Henryk Siekiewicz, Poland’s current president Bronisław Komorowski, and American actor Charles Bronson. Today the villages of Bohoniki and Kruszyniany each have only a handful of Lipka Tatar families left. The mosque in Kruszyniany functions as a museum as well as a prayer space and lacks an imam, though the mosque and its grounds are often put to use by local Muslims. The imam of Bohoniki, Aleksander “Ali” Bazarewicz serves some 600 Lipka Tatars that are spread throughout the rural areas of North East Poland.

[7] The mosque at Kruszyniany as it appeared
in the interwar period (1929).
The unique historical religious practices of the Lipka Tatar community are reflected in the design of both of these mosques, which, though originally built in the 18th and 19th centuries, preserve characteristics of 16th- and 17th-century mosque construction in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Like the ubiquitous wooden churches that have served the rural Christian population of Podlasie for centuries, both mosques are of a modest, all-wooden construction. If it were not for the crescents surmounting the onion domes, the mosque's lanterns and steeple-like towers may otherwise cause them to be easily confused with local Christian religious structures. Recent renovations have replaced the wooden siding of their exteriors and altered some of the framing and woodwork. [Compare Fig 1 and Fig 7] However, the 18th- and 19th-century aesthetics of the structures have seemingly been preserved. By the early 20th century, both structures were painted a lurid green common to Lipka Tatar mosques throughout the region, though Bohoniki’s mosque has recently been stripped of its paint to reveal the natural wood of its construction. [See Fig 2]

[8] Kruszyniany mosque's mihrab and minbar. The decorations and fixtures are mostly modern, though original woodwork and panels of 19th century decoration are preserved.
Photo by the author.

The interiors of both mosques continue to display original mortise and tenon joint construction and a few wooden panels decorated with symbolic designs that are partly rooted in the shamanistic traditions that the local community brought with them from the Crimean Khanate and the Hordes. Each structure has two rooms with high ceilings and a gallery in the main prayer space facing the mihrab, which takes the form of a low wooden niche protruding from the main structure. [Fig 8] A solid wall with a high bank of windows separates the men’s and women’s prayer rooms. A single entrance with a hall running down one side of Bohoniki’s mosque gives access to both men’s and women’s prayer spaces. Kruszyniany has two separate external entrances separating the sexes. The minbars of both mosques are of an austere design and resemble cathedrae that appear in local Catholic sacral structures. Polish-Lithuanian cadastral records (lustracjas) document the presence of a mosque in Bohoniki as early as 1717, though the current structure, with its square footprint and high copula, dates to the 19th century. Kruszyniany’s mosque, which was likely built at the end of the 18th century and was refurbished in 1846, is rectangular in shape with two towers on the north end that resemble the bell towers of baroque Catholic churches. Both buildings lack minarets, as Lipka Tatars traditionally did not perform the ezan from high structures, most likely due to legal constraints dictated by the majority Christian Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 

[9] Title page of the Risâle-i Tatar-i Leh,
 reprinted by Polish orientalist Antoni
Muchlinski in 1858.
A unique Ottoman document called the Risâle-i Tatar-i Leh (“Polish Tatar Account”) [Fig 9], composed in 1558 in the court of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent by three Muslims on hajj from Poland-Lithuania gives some insight into the form of these structures:

For one who has had the good fortune to see the magnificent temples of the Sublime Porte, it is a sad task to describe our sanctuaries of prayer… Instead of those magnificent mosques, whose vaults reach the heavens, minarets lost in the azure heavenly spheres, whose pillars, like burnished mirrors, reflect the most beautiful objects, whose cloisters and courtyards are orchards, their lawns painted with the most sumptuous patterns— Here our mosques are poor and lowly, built of wood, similar in form to some mosques in the villages of Rumelia, without minarets or imarets, though in every large city (in our land) there are mosques… Ezan is called in front of the mosque. In some places, strange in this regard, one of our community walks through the streets calling out that it is time for prayer… In these mosques there is a special place in the form of a chamber [reserved] for women, which is separated from the men, and where [the men] are not allowed to enter, so as not to violate the law that prohibits [men] from praying together with women… The creation of grander mosques is quite difficult here, for it is illegal to build new [mosques] without the approval of the government.

[10] An older section of the cemetery in Kruszyniany. The graves are simple, local unshaped granite with deeply carved inscriptions in various scripts. Photo by the author.
An expansive cemetery can be found behind the mosque in Kruszyniany, indicating that a prayer space likely existed in the village long before the current 19th-century mosque. [Fig 10] The oldest grave dates to 1699, and belongs to Samuel Mirza Krzeczowski, a commander of the Lipka Tatar cavalry unit that was originally settled there by Jan III Sobieski in 1679. The 16th-century authors of the Risâle-i Tatar-i Leh tell us that,
We have our graves before our mosques, just as it is in Istanbul, though our headstones do not boast such beautiful writing recalling the dead and attesting to the transience of this world. However, in these cemeteries wives and their relatives who are of different faiths are not buried together with Muslims, in accordance with our laws.
As time passed, the headstones of this community did become more ornate. The mixture of scripts and languages points to the complex political history of the region. Just as in the historical literature of the Lipka Tatars, many early inscriptions are written in Polish and Belorussian using Arabic script. Later periods saw the introduction of Russian following the partitioning and dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century, alongside more defiant grave markers from the same period that continued to display Polish and Belorussian, which were forbidden at the time. Today the historical cemeteries of both mosques continue to grow, as Lipka Tatars throughout Poland seek burial in their ancestral land.

[11] This Brooklyn mosque was, until recently, the site
of the “The Islamic Center of Polish Tatars”.
Photo by Caitlin Kalinoski.
Despite a rocky period during the 17th century that saw the large-scale defection of Muslim soldiers from Poland-Lithuania to the Ottoman Empire, Lipka Tatars participated in nearly every major conflict against external forces since the turn of the 14th century, most recently against Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. The continued existence of the Lipka Tatar community has therefore become an important element within Polish national consciousness. As a result, the mosques of Bohoniki and Kruszyniany have both been awarded the official status of “pomnik historii” (historical monument) and are legally protected by the Polish government. A detailed study of the historical relationship between Polish-Lithuanian Muslim communities and the Ottoman Empire has yet to be undertaken. During periods of intense emigration of Poles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lipka Tatars resettled with their countrymen all over the world, founding in one instance what in 1937 Time Magazine lauded as the “only full-fledged Moslem Mosque in the U.S… Its swart, thick-accented Imam, Sam Rafilowich, son of an Imam in a Polish village, is a Polish Tartar, who arrived in the U. S. 29 years ago. Most of his habitual worshippers are also Tartars, descendants of Tamerlane's hordes…” The mosque can still be found in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and boasts a lovely lantern on the peak of its roof reminiscent of those found in Bohoniki and Kruszyniany. [Fig 11]

The influence of Ottoman religious practice, especially through the mediation of the Crimean Khanate no doubt had influence on the religious practice of Lipka Tatars, as well as in the construction and decoration of their mosques. Polish scholars have been aware of the tantalizing historical relationship between the Polish-Lithuanian Muslim community with the most proximate and powerful Muslim polity, the Ottoman Empire, since the 19th century. Evident architectural connections between Lipka Tatar mosques and those constructed in Crimea and by Balkan Muslim populations have yet to be explored. The close resemblance that these Lipka Tatar mosques to local Christian churches indicates a unity of sacral architectural traditions that make the mosques of the former Polish-Lithuanian lands a stylistically cohesive and fascinating group of structures.

MICHAEL POLCZYNSKI is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University.

“ALLAH Akbar… God is Great…” Time Magazine 30/20 (Monday, Nov. 15, 1937).
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SZAPSZAL, Hadżi Saraja. “O zatraceniu języka ojczystego przez Tatarów w Polsce” in Rocznik Tatarski : czasopismo naukowe, literackie i społeczne, poświęcone historii, kulturze i życiu Tatarów w Polsce. Vilnius: 1932: Volume 1, 34-48.

Citation: "Little Mosques on the Prairie," Michael Połczyński, Stambouline (July 27, 2014).
Bohoniki Mosque: 53°23'26.22"N 23°35'29.40"E
Kruszyniany Mosque: 53°10'40.03"N 23°48'49.56"E
Brooklyn Lipka Tatar Mosque: 40°42'42.83"N 73°56'47.86"W

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  1. Great article! I am part of the Tatar community in New York, and have roots in Poland and Belarus. It's great to see how far back our history goes! Thank you.


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