Dżemil Gembicki, caretaker of Kruszyniany mosque, prepares to open the temple on an early autumn morning. The village of Kruszyniany was one of the places where Lipka Tatars first settled in 1679 following a royal decree granting several privileges to loyal soldiers.
The Gembicki family at home. Kasia (Dżemil's wife) serves lunch to their children Lilia and Selim. Dżemil is a Muslim and Kasia is a Catholic. The conundrum that many mixed religion families face when choosing a faith for their children was easily solved: Lilia is brought up as Catholic and Selim as Muslim.
The 13th Cavalry Regiment of Polish Army was formed in 1930 and from the very start its 1st Squadron was partly staffed by Muslims (Polish Tatars as well as escapees from Bolshevik Russia). The word 'Tatar' was officially added to the squadron name in 1936 and any Polish Tatar called up for military service was most likely to be serving in the 1st Squadron. Pictured is an archival image of the 1st Tatar Squadron at the 13th Cavalry Regiment's barracks in Nowa Wilejka photographed in July 1937.
Adam Iljasiewicz at his home in Kruszyniany holding the seminal 1928 volume 'The Armorial of Tatar Families in Poland'. The Iljasiewicz family, just as many other Polish Tatar families, held nobility titles. This heritage is often cherished to this day. The Iljasiewicz family identifies by the Leliwa coat of arms.
A 1930s postcard of the mosque in Niekraszuńce in today's Belarus. The village of Niekraszuńce was one of the fist places where Lipka Tatars settled in the 14th century. The existence of a mosque there was first mentioned in 15th century. Over the centuries few mosques were built, the last one was erected in the 1920s and demolished by the Soviets in the 1950s. Many Polish Tatars' roots connect them with Niekraszuńce.
Moments of anxiety before a live performance. Emilia and Selim Mucharscy are part of Buńczuk - a Tatar dance and song band. Buńczuk has been active for nearly two decades and the band's repertoire links the Lipkas' Eastern European culture with their Asian roots. The band performs dances based on Crimean, Bashkir and Tatarstan traditions, alongside Islamic religious songs and Polish poetry. Over the years more than 70 young people were involved with Buńczuk.
Land near the villages of Drahle and Bohoniki received in 1679 by Muslim Lipka soldiers by royal decree from king Jan III Sobieski. Throughout the 17th century, the Kingdom of Poland was engaged in a series of wars with the expanding Ottoman Empire. During the reign of Jan III Sobieski, Poland achieved some major victories, one of which was the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The irony is that in the highly xenophobic and anti-Islamic climate of today’s Poland, the Battle of Vienna is often portrayed as the clash between Europe and Islam, and ultimate historical proof that Poland was always anti-Islam. Unsurprisingly the fact that Polish Muslim soldiers fought on the Polish side is rarely mentioned.
Decorative crescent moon ornament on the window ledge at the Muftiate office in Białystok.
'Witaj Szkoło!' Welcome to school! Every child in Poland is greeted by this sentence in early September when school commences after the summer holidays. Although religious education is not compulsory in Poland, a vast majority of school children attend classes of religion, usually run by a Catholic priest/nun (sometimes, if enough parents/students request it, lessons of ethics are taught). Muslim pupils usually aren't as lucky as the kids in Białystok, where the local Muslim Religious Association in co-operation with Białystok's education board and the Muftiate office organises Islam classes. The children who attend are a mix of Polish and Crimean Tatars and Chechen refugees. Pictured is Mirza, a local imam, who is leading a prayer class to a mixed group of boys and girls.
Mufti of Poland Tomasz Miśkiewicz in the prayer room of the Muslim Religious Association in Białystok. The title of Mufti is given to an educated Muslim who is qualified to give advice on applications of religious law in all aspects of everyday life. Miśkiewicz, a Polish Tatar from Podlasie, is the second Mufti in the history of Poland holding his office since 2004. The first Polish Mufti Jakub Szynkiewicz (also a Lipka Tatar) took the title in 1925. Szynkiewicz lived in exile from 1945 and died in the USA in 1966.
At the heart of Podlasie region of north-eastern Poland, a small yet firmly established Sunni Muslim community has been settled for over 300 years: the Polish Tatars, also known as Lipka Tatars, an ethnic minority of fewer than 3000 people.
Their ancestors put down roots in the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth in the early 14th century, and by the middle of the 16th century as many as twenty thousand Tatars practiced their religion in more than a hundred mosques strewn across the territory now divided into Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. Tatar settlements in Podlasie were first established in the 1670s, and to this day the region is where the majority of Polish Tatars live.
Lipkas are a striking reminder that Poland was once a hugely multicultural and multi-religious country. The community has largely assimilated over the centuries but retains its unique character, which is rooted in ancestral and historical legacy and religion.