What is Hederlez? Who are these misterious Gagauz people living in Moldova?
Text: Maria Axenti
Photos: Tanya Obuh
Practical Information: Location: Ceadir-Lunga, 140 km South from Chisinau Hours to spend: 3-4 hours Hederlez Holiday: May, 6 Tip: Visit the stud farm, also located in Ceadir-Lunga
At the south of the country Gagauzian people live – an ethnic community inhabiting these lands since 19th century. The ethno genesis of this community is still discussed due to the lack of enough historical proves, however scientists agree upon their Turkic origin and arrival to the south of Moldova from the northern Bulgaria. Both researchers and neighbours of Gagauzian people are amazed by their mix of Turkic traditions and Orthodox religion.
The community counts about 150,000 people that makes around 4.5% of the total number of Moldova’s population. They live quite compact, at the south of the country and since 1994 have their own territorial autonomy (UTA Gagauzia/Gagauz Yeri) with a small parliament and a bașcan (head of autonomy) within the Moldovan state. Ethnic Gagauzians, less in number, live also in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia.
Gagauzian culture in Moldova preserved its peculiarities and colours. Moreover, some other ethnic communities leaving nearby, as Bulgarians, borrowed some traditions and holidays. Hederlez is one of them. Today Hederlez is the most important holiday for the entire south of Moldova. It is considered one of the most important in the Turkic world as well. The legend says the prophets Hızır (Al-Khdir) and İlyas (Elijah) met on this day on earth. That is how the name of the holiday appeared – Hızır-İlyas. Another common feature is the symbol of nature revival and beginning of a new (cattle-raising) year starting with this day – May 6 in some countries, and in March (at Novruz) in another.
In Moldova, the Gagauz calendar is split in two seasons marked by two holidays: Hederlez, celebrated on May 6, the Day of St. George and Kasim, celebrated on November 8, the Day of St. Dmitri. From Hederlez to Kasim – it’s summer and from Kasim to Hederlez – winter. On Hederlez, cattle and sheep are moved to summer meadows, men are checking the wheat fields and women are preparing traditional meals. An important element of the ceremony was the Kurban – slaughtering a lamb as a sacrifice. Parents would make a cross with lamb’s blood on the forehead of children for good health and on the house entrance for household prosperity. Also, young people would swing for a high harvest, and wash face, hands and feet for health and strength. This mixture of pagan, Turkic and Christian traditions is unique for Gagauz culture.
Along the years, Gagauz people managed to preserve their culture and traditions. As an ethnic Moldovan, I have to confess I didn’t know anything about Hederlez and much less about other traditions. I felt so sorry for being far away from Gagauz culture and missing so many interesting things happening in our small country. Fortunately, that was in the past.
Today, Hederlez is full of colours and guests from other countries. A delegation from Tatarstan participated in the ceremony, while a group from Poland came to watch the horse races and buy souvenirs. Some high-level officials were also present. For the villages of the autonomy, this is a true national holiday. They wear national cloths, exhibit products made in Gagauzia: sheep cheese, honey, ceramics, hand-made souvenirs, etc. “These are the best furs. I know everyone says like that but in our case it’s indeed so” – a proud seller told us. This is an opportunity to showcase goods not only to guests but also to fellow villagers.
This year, the main celebrations took part in Ceadir-Lunga, the second city in the Gagauz autonomy. Here, since a few years ago, horse races have been organised. On an improvised hippodrome, amateurs are competing for the grand prix in different categories: races with carriages, individual races. The public stands near the hump of soil that makes the border of hippodrome, watching the horses and raiders fighting for the first place.
The place chosen for celebration of Hederlez is exactly in the spirit of the day: fresh greenery, fields on the background and beautiful people proud of their culture on the fore.
Do you want to discover the unique culture and traditions of the Gagauz people? Contact us to have a trip to the hospitable Gagauzia!