The Salahor has arrived

A classic of the Macedonian and Bulgarian poetry, Grigor Prlichev's In the Year 1762 (В 1762-ро лето) tells the (fictionalized) story of the abolition of the Archbishopric of Ohrid (which, according to most sources, actually, happened in 1767). Written in 1872, the poen has practically become a folk song in Macedonia, at least judging by the number and variety of its renditions available on Youtube.

The language of the poem, although obviously archaized for the effect, is, generally, quite easy to understand based on the modern Macedonian plus some knowledge of Church Slavonic. There is, however, one unusual word in it. In the first sentence of the poem, "a salaor arrived to Ohrid from Constantinople" (В Охрида од Цариграда дошел Салаор). The salaor then stood in front of the Patrik of Orhid (literally, "Patriarch", but in the Macedonian context, the Archbishop of Orhid - the spiritual leader of the Balkan Slavs), and delivered to him the Sultan's order, dismissing the Patrik and abolishing his office.

Now, who is a salaor? The word salaor (салаор) does not look like a typical Slavic word, so, considering the context, it can be a Turkish loanword. However, it does not appear in standard Bulgarian or Macedonian dictionaries or texts (other than Prlichev's poem). Now, one of characteristic features of Macedonian (in fact, one of its main differences from standard Bulgarian) is that Macedonian often drops the consonant h or, in intervocalic position, v, where it appears in Bulgarian. So one also needs to check salahor (салахор) and salavor (салавор) - which, however, don't appear in Bulgarian or Macedonian (or even Turkish) dictionaries or texts either. It does appear as a surname, however - Salahor in Canada and the US, Salavor in Ukraine... and Salahor is apparently attested as a Romanian word. But what does (did) it mean in Bulgarian?

The Bulgarian etymological dictionary to the rescue! (Macedonian, from the Bulgarian scholar's point of view - rarely shared by anyone outside of Bulgaria - is merely a dialect of Bulgarian, so any Bulgarian dictionary striving to comprehensively cover dialect words should include most of Macedonian words as well). The BER volumes have been appearing at the average rate of two per decade since 1971; presently, its authors have reached letter T (volume 7, 2010). And yes, volume 6 (published 2002) has a detailed article (page 443) on salahor (салахор), with spelling varieties salaor and salavor. This, indeed, is an obsolete word; its main meaning being given as "people driven ''en masse'' to do unpaid labor" (хора, карани вкупом на безплатна работа), i.e. corvée workers. Additional meanings attested in certain dialect are "laborers" (трудоваци) and "a wanderer" (скитник). The indicated etymology, however, indicates a rather different original meaning: Turkish salahor, from Turkish Turkish silâhşor, "an armed fighter; a musketeer", which itself is a loanword from Persian (selāḥšūr, which in its turn is constructed from Arabic roots.

According to the same dictionary, the same Turkish word, besides Bulgarian, entered other Balkan languages as well. Indeed, a Romanian dictionary explains salahór as an "unskilled day laborer, esp. on road or building construction projects", or (historically) "a peasant who, instead of paying taxes, would have to work on fortress repair, road maintenance and other heavy work". In Serbo-Croatian, where the word could be variously spelled as salahor, sarahor, saraor, seraor, the purported meaning would be that of a soldier whose duties involve guarding a fortress (rather than, say, going on field campaigns); it also exists there as more authentically Turkish silahšor, and refers to a member of the palace guard of the Ottoman Sultan.

A slight variation on the duties of a Salahor at the Sultan's court appears in a 19th century source, Travels in Albania and Other Provinces of Turkey in 1809 & 1810 by Rt. Hon. Lord Broughton (page 239), where "Squires of the Stable" (Salahor) are listed among the officials handling Sultan's horses.

To conclude, after reading all these definitions, we still don't know whom exactly Prlichev had in mind when he was writing about a salaor. Simply a "traveler" (скитник) would not make to much sense to refer to a person who has brought the official Sultan's order, and presumably was a person in a position of some responsibility. But a "day laborer" would make even less sense. A fortress guard, or even a "squire of the stable", is not the same as an imperial courier either; perhaps there was another shift in meaning somewhere... We do, however, now have a better idea of where and how the surname Salahor (or Salavor / Salaor) originated.

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