On the north shore of the Black Sea, in Eastern Europe – presently comprising the easternmost part of Moldova (formerly part of the Ukraine, Soviet Union, Romania, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Moldavia, and Walachia, in reverse order).
The name apparently derives from a Walachian dynasty called Basarab, which held the southern part of the territory in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the later 15th century all of Bessarabia and the principality of Walachia became the principality of Moldavia; in 1484 the southern part was taken over by the Ottoman Turks, who finally acquired the rest of it in the 16th century. In 1812, Russia acquired Bessarabia and part of Moldova, calling all of that Bessarabia. In 1918, the population declared independence and voted to become part of Romania, which lasted until the Soviet Union said otherwise in 1940.
You can see the Bessarabian territory in this 1835 map on DavidRumsey.com (the pink outline on the east side), and also in this 1883 map from the same site. It’s demarcated primarily by the Dniestr River on the east and the Pruth River on the west (which apparently was once known as the Hierasus).
I’m fascinated by the notation on both maps, toward the center and again toward the south end of the territory, of lines marked “Antient Rampart” and “Remains of Antient Rampart” (on the earlier one). Whose ramparts, one wonders? According to a fairly competent-looking Wikipedia article, they are probably Roman, from several different eras.
This history pretty much requires that the ethnic makeup of the region is ethnically “mixed.” Those maps also mark off a region labeled “Colonies of Poles and Germans” (probably moved there by Russia); in the 7th century BCE there were Greek colonies along the Black Sea Coast. Slavs started arriving in the 6th century CE, but repeated invasions from the east (up to the Mongols) complicated things further. During the Russian period a significant number of Jews were added (Rowland 1986), most of whom were deported or murdered outright during the Holocaust (Iaonid 1993).
The region was also part of the Roman territory of Dacia (2nd century CE), and the various foreign invaders between then and the 13th century included Goths, Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, Magyars, Cumans, and Mongols (Messing 1985). As a result, and because of its lack of territorial integrity over the centuries, there doesn’t appear to be a distinct Bessarabian ethnicity, although (as the events of 1918 show) there have been feelings of nationalism there all the same. Overall, it’s one of those complicated places.
“Bessarabia.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 15 Dec. 2010 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/63021/Bessarabia>.
Iaonid, Radu. “The Holocaust in Romania: The Iasi Pogrom of June 1941.” Contemporary European History Vol. 2, No. 2 (Jul., 1993), pp. 119-148.
Messing, Gordon M. “Moldavian: Language or Pseudo-Language?” Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications No. 20, For Gordon H. Fairbanks (1985), pp. 285-295.
Rowland, Richard H. “Geographical Patterns of the Jewish Population in the Pale of Settlement of Late Nineteenth Century Russia.” Jewish Social Studies Vol. 48, No. 3/4 (Summer – Autumn, 1986), pp. 207-234.