The amazing survival of the Baltic Muslims

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Source: BBC

It may not be the kind of place you would expect to stumble upon a mosque, but Muslims have lived among the forests and lakes of Lithuania for more than 600 years – showing that tolerance reigned here in the Middle Ages, even when religious strife was rampant in other parts of Europe.

At first glance, the square, wooden building looks like thousands seen in villages all over the Baltic. Neat timber slats, wood-framed windows, a tin roof.

But at the apex of the roof, instead of a point there is a small glass turret, topped with an onion dome of the kind you might see on a local church. Then, on top of the onion, stands a small crescent.

This is the most European-looking mosque you will ever come across.

If it looks completely at home in this northern European setting, that’s because a mosque has stood here, roughly 20 minutes’ drive south-west of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, since 1558.

There is a clue in the name of the village, Keturiasdesimt Totoriu. It means Forty Tatars, and legend has it that this is the number of Tatar families that settled here more than 600 years ago, at the invitation of the Lithuanian Grand Duke, Vytautas.

The Grand Duchy, with its deep pagan roots, faced a constant threat from its aggressive Christian neighbours to the west, the Teutonic Knights.

So in 1398, returning from a military campaign near the Black Sea, Vytautas brought with him a large number of Muslim Crimean Tatars and a small group of Karaite Jews to help defend Lithuanian territory.

Sure enough, 12 years later the Teutonic Knights went to war with Poland and Lithuania and the Tatars and Karaites fought alongside Vytautas at the Battle of Grunwald (between Warsaw and Gdansk) in which the crusaders were resoundingly defeated.

As a reward for their support, Vytautas gave the Muslims land and complete religious freedom – and this was at a time when both the Sephardic Jews, and Europe’s oldest Muslim community, the Moors, were being driven out of Spain.

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