Saturday, July 07, 2007

Serbian Early History, Communist Times, Kosovo

The priest at Žiča willingly shared more historical information about Serbia and the Church. Serbia was the center of education, literature, and religion, long before the rest of Europe. Many of these people then moved to other parts of Europe (likely fleeing the Turks) where they began to prosper, while Serbia fell backwards under Turkish rule. For 411 years, education was forbidden by the Turks – a way to subdue the population. Serbia was under Turkish rule for 523 years. Crusaders from the First Crusade went through Serbia. When one of these kings came to Serbia, he had to use his fingerprint as a signature, while the literate Serbian king could sign his name. During King Mulitin’s 41 ½ years of reign, 42 churches were built in Serbia (including several in Kosovo region), including the impressive Gracanica in Kosovo.

During Communist times, churches had their own rule and even were allotted a certain number lf hectares depending on the age of the church, with older ones getting more land. The land was tax-free. People during Communist times were allowed to go to church. No new churches could be built, but current ones could be used and were not harmed. The only church falling under state rule was Oplenac, as it was the burial place for the kings. The priest also described how St. Sava Cathedral in Belgrade was used as a garage for tanks and trucks. In 1985, construction finally began once again at this massive cathedral, the second largest Orthodox cathedral in the world – smaller only to one in Russia.

The priest expressed deep concern about the fate of the churches in Kosovo – the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church and home to many significant churches. Since the UN peacekeepers have come to Kosovo, 158 churches have been destroyed. What will happen, he feared, to those that are remaining if Kosovo becomes an independent Moslem state?

Žiča Monastery

Our last stop was Žiča, a monastery on the outskirts of Kraljevo. Also belonging to the School of Raška, Žiča was the joint endowment of King Stefan and St. Sava. A priest who served at the monastery for 48 years provided a wealth of knowledge and stories. According to a legend, St. Sava founded the first Patriarchate on his return from his long sojourn at Mt. Athos. A golden thread is said to have lead him to this site, hence giving the monastery its name, meaning cord or thread. In 1208, St. Stefan was crowned here as the first king of the Nemanjić dynasty (followed by the next 8 kings). Last year Žiča celebrated its 800th jubilee. In 1251 the archbishop seat was moved to Peć in Kosovo, but state councils continued to be held in Žiča and kings crowned here. For the first seven kings, each time a king was crowned, a new door was created and the king would walk through that door.

Žiča’s identifying feature is its red color, symbolizing (as ordered by St. Sava) that the Church is based on the blood of its martyrs. The architectural style of the church is copied by nearly all of the 13th century churches. The entryway passage into the monastery grounds contains frescoes from the 14th century, with a transcription of the founding charter of the monastery – a very important historical document. They were in much better preservation than those in the church.

Žiča was looted many times, first by a Bulgarian prince, renewed by King Milutin in 1309, then raided several times by the Turks. The lead of the roof was melted by the Turks, leaving the church without a roof for many years, causing extensive damage, particularly to the frescoes. It was again damaged in WWII, bombed 5-6 times. After the church still stood, the Germans poured petrol in the church and lit it on fire. According to our priest guide, 61 monks were killed (1 survived), along with others in the village. After this, the remaining frescoes were conserved, but not repaired or repainted. In 1928, all archives were taken to Belgrade for restoration and learning. Unfortunately in October 1941, the National Library where they were held was bombed and completely destroyed, along with it the precious documents.

Although the frescoes inside the church were badly damaged and many completely lost, the priest pointed out that much of Serbian history can be found in the frescoes. One fresco has three doctors (2 holding surgical tools and another with medicine) – a testament to the modern medicine of the time, still pictured in modern medicine books. The “Dormition of Our Lady” is another significant fresco. As in Studenica, photography was not permitted inside of the churches.

The monastery grounds also contains a baptistery reconstructed from found fragments and a smaller church built at the same time as the main church, with remnants of a few 14th century frescoes. Residential buildings were extensively restored between 1925 and 1935.


On our final day, we visited two monasteries – Studenica and Žiča. One of the most important monasteries in Serbia, Studenica is located 11 km from Ušće and 241 km from Belgrade, Studenica was founded by Stefan Namanja. His son Sava established the independence of the Serbian church, became the first prior, and wrote what became the cornerstone of the monastic rules for Serb monks. According to the monastery’s tour guide, there currently are 10 monks in Studenica, six of which are in practice to become priests.

The largest church, the Church of the Virgin Mary, was constructed in 1183-1191 in honor of St. Sava’s father. It was built in a new style termed the Raška style, consisting of a Byzantine church space and exterior in a Romanesque style. This new Raška style became the prototype for subsequent churches. A large ethnonarthex was added by Stefan Namanja’s son King Radoslav in 1233 – a very different look than the rest of the church. Inside was an older baptistery with marble columns and a newer ones with steps up into a large wooden tank. I was told that baptism by immersion was not practiced though. One can also see Stefan Nemanja’s marble tomb (his burned body was returned from Mt. Athos in Greece) and a 19th century walnut casket inlaid with designs of mother-of-pearl and ivory containing Stefan’s son, Stefan Prvovenčani.

The portal above the door entering the main part of the church depicted a carving of Jesus in Mary’s lap, with the archangels Michael and Gabriel on each side. In front was an altar built in 1837, a silver casket containing St. Sava’s mother, and chairs around the periphery of the room that were added just 4 years ago. Prior to then, people had to stand – very typical of Serbian Orthodox churches.

The most important parts though were the frescoes. The oldest ones date back to 1208 and represent a new chapter in medieval Serbia and all of Byzantium. They reflect a development in which there is an increased emphasis on the human form, its physical strength, and its definition of character. For the first time, inscriptions were written in Serbian and not Greek. Sadly, many of the frescoes now have white potmarks, remnants of an unsuccessful repainting job (1569) which were later removed. Attempts at filling in the holes and adding pigment has been unsuccessful, as restorers haven’t been able to get the correct formula of plaster (including a mixture of straw, boar hair, and other materials). Other frescoes, particularly those at lower levels, had the eyes gouged out by the Turks, who were afraid that the saints were watching them. Thankfully, the church’s masterpiece – The Crucifixion – was spared and is in an excellent state of preservation. It contains rich colors of gold, maroon, and Byzantine blue – which has not been duplicated.

White marble for the exterior was taken from the nearby Radočelo Montain. Many of the workers were Italian – hence the Romanesque influence as seen in the elaborately carved leaves, figures, mythological beasts decorating doorways and doors.

Studenica also contains two other churches, the King’s Church built in 1313 and a small St. Nicholas Church built in the 13th century. Although small, King’s Church contains frescoes that rank among the best achievements of the Byzantine world during that period. Frescoes such as “Birth of the Virgin” and “Entering to the Temple” go beyond more symbolism and demonstrate an increasing interest in portraying realism and technique. Portraits of King Milutin, his wife, St. Sava, and St. Simeon, are among the finest portraits of the middle ages. Unfortunately photography was strictly forbidden inside the churches.

Other buildings include a tower from the early 13th century, a nicely restored monastery residential quarters, and a refectory with plain white marble tables. In the hot weather, the refectory’s cool temperatures were welcome. Leaving the monastery grounds, we filled up our water bottles at the fountain known for its excellent water.

Maglić - medieval fortress

Our next destination was Maglić, a 13th century medieval castle high above the Ibar River about 25 km from Kraljevo. This castle post enabled easy control over the Ibar valley. Its name means “Foggy One” in Serbian. Indeed, there was a certain fog around the castle. We picked up a young man in front of the Bogutavać restaurant (the oldest restaurant in Serbia – nearly 200 years old) who had traversed up to Maglić countless numbers of times. We were told that there might be snakes along the path, so we wore pants and sneakers. It was about 100° (38°C) out, making the climb even more challenging.

Parking the van at the edge of the river, we saw several people embarking on white water rafting. A small suspension bridge crossing the Ibar River just had its wooden boards replaced after a woman fell through the week before. Shortly after beginning the ascent, we met an older woman heading back down. She said that she had turned back before reaching the top, due to the difficulty of the terrain and the heat. We decided to move onward, but decided to take water breaks and short rests.

Finally we reached the single entrance, passing through 2 meter thick walls and into the ruins of the fortress. Inside were the ruins of a 2-storey palace with high gables, a large reservoir for water, and a well. Protected by the Ibar River on three sides, the fortress has a rectangular shape, 7 towers, and a large dungeon. Climbing up wooden ladders, we reached the upper level and the fortress walls. We had to be careful, as some of the wooden plans were rotten and there were no guardrails. From here, the curved shape of the Gothic-style single nave St. George Church was more visible. From the towers, we had an excellent view of the Ibar River and valley – definitely a strategic vantage point. The surrounding mountains were heavily forested. The towers had the typical narrow arrow slits and other fortification measures. Some openings were larger and were likely used to pour hot oil on invaders.

Inquiring about a newer-looking structure, we were told that it was built to temporarily house the bones found here. Monks and nuns from Žiča fled to Maglić for protection – which worked for a while. Despite its fortification and height, Maglić fell into Turkish hands in 1438 and then finally in 1459, becoming a center of a large Turkish district. The bones have since been returned back to Žiča. The fortress of Maglić also was of some military importance for the last time during the Second Serbian Uprising (1815).

Koštunići and Ravna Gora


Our next destination was the village of Koštunići, located on the southern slopes of the Suvobor Mountain. We had come to see the ethno village opened in 1996, but were disappointed to hear that the entire thing was closed down now due to bankruptcy (other businesses) by the owners. It would have been great to have seen local villagers demonstrate regional crafts. Hopefully in a few years the place will be bought by someone else and reopened. We were met at the intersection of a road by Mr. Damljanović, a preppy-dressed man who identified himself as our host. Once at their farm, we were warmly greeted by the entire family – his wife, mother and father, and 4-year old daughter. After carrying up our luggage to the upper level of the house, we went outside for some drinks under a grapevine-covered veranda. For lunch we were served kaymak, (a creamy dairy product) pršuta (smoked dried meat slices), chicken, tomatoes, cheese, and more.

After our hike in the heat around Ravna Gora and a visit to Mr. Damljanović's aunt and uncle (see below in Ravna Gora section), we all were tired. Despite this, Mr. Damljanović immediately put on his farm clothes, helped the grandmother milk the two cows (using a small pulsator machine recently purchased), and then left to move some beehives several hours away. What a hard worker! We took a small tour of the farm, the grandmother and 4-year old Ljubica leading us around. We tasted some of their plump raspberries also tied up like vines. Ljubica helped the grandmother move the sheep from the pasture into the barn.

After another large meal, we settled down for the evening, chatting with the family. The following morning we were treated to another hearty meal. We bought some of their honey and they packed up some raspberries for us. It was a pleasure getting to know this close-knit extended family.

Ljubica and her mother drove down with us to the small museum in Koštunići, showing us the small St. George Church and a museum honoring Vojvoda Zivojin Misić (1855-1921), general of the Serbian First Army during critical times in battle. This man was an uncle to grandpa Damljanović. The museum included some of his weapons, clothing, personal items, writings, portraits of him, topographical map of the Serbian and German army locations. Thanking them once again for their hospitality, we exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch.

Ravna Gora
In the afternoon of our stay in Koštunići, Mr. Damljanović took us to Ravna Gora, the site where Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović, commander of the royal resistance movement gathered and pronounced the beginning of the uprising against the Germans on May 13, 1941. The site is now a mecca for Serb nationalists celebrating “Uncle Draža”, with tens of thousands coming on the 13th of May to sing songs, wave the Serbian flag, and drink rakija (brandy, typically made from plums). Recently, a monument to the general, St. George Church (1998) and a conference hall has been built on the historical mountain plateau, mainly with funds from Canadian Serbs. One man had a small stand and was selling t-shirts of “Uncle Draža”, hats, and other memorabilia. Traditional nationalist music played loudly.

Prior to visiting the monument, we took a several mile walk through forested areas and some open prairie lands to see a cave. Between steep inclines and the heat, the walk was a bit challenging. A small stream ran with cool, clear water. A bit farther on, was a cave. We were only able to go into the entrance, as it was dark and filled with water. Mr. Damljanović explained that this was the site where the chetniks successfully hid and sought refuge from the Germans. He also noted that the forest in the area had been burned by the Germans as a way to more easily find the Serbs. Refreshed from the coolness of the cave and a drink from the stream, we headed back to the t-shirt stand and then up to the monument area.

After our visit to the church and monument to “Uncle Draža”, our gracious host took us to his aunt and uncle who lived nearby on a farm only accessible on foot. Carefully ducking under an electric cow fence (must have been battery-operated), we were greeted by the 73 year old aunt who was working in the garden. Pleased to see her nephew, she welcomed us and asked us to sit down. Once again we were offered some honey and water. A bit later the 87 year old uncle joined us. Now living on a farm without electricity or phone, the uncle was at one time a judge. Chickens and small chicks wandered around the yard. After showing us the house interior, we thanked the couple and walked back up the hill to the van.

Rural Serbia

Traveling through rural Serbia is a rather slow process. Roads are narrow and windy, and you often encounter slow-moving tractors on the road, which are either driving to get to their fields or are hauling recently harvested crops. In late June, hay wagons (either loose or baled) and combines were a common sight. Perhaps it is a good thing that one can’t cruise through the area quickly, as the landscape is beautiful and its inhabitants are rich with hospitality.

Moving onward from Garasi, we saw some horses and cows grazing in a picturesque area. Pulling over to take some photos, we saw an older woman with a child. Noticing the raspberries planted on the other side of the road in rows like vineyards, we asked her if we could buy some. Instead, she told us just to help ourselves – her neighbor who owned the field wouldn’t mind. Shortly thereafter, we saw a John Deere combine in action. A younger man took a long wooden pole with a forked end, lifting up the telephone lines so the combine could navigate more easily. Another farmer in at the entrance of the field offered my dad a drink of his 2 liter bottle of cold beer – which tasted good in the early heat. Within minutes, another farmer came, one who had lived in Chicago for a number of years.

Signage was limited or confusing at times, necessitating the occasional pause at a café for directions. Even the locals couldn’t always agree on which fork of the road to take. On one rural road, we stopped at a small farm. A man emerged from his elderly mother’s house. He was using his vacation time and returned to the farm to take care of his ailing mother. In true Serbian fashion, he wanted to offer us something sweet to eat (such as honey or slatko – a type of jam made from wild berries), but all he had was some sugar cubes. Although we weren’t too keen on sucking on a cube of sugar, we knew that it was important to honor his offer of hospitality. The man also offered us some fresh water, which he drew up from an old-fashioned crank well. Thanking him for the directions and hospitality, we moved onward.

On the right side of a wooded road was a small dirt road curving downward. Our guide thought that this might be a good place to meet a typical farmer and his farm. Little did we know that the old man would touch all of our hearts. Hearing our greeting, an 88 year old man emerged from his summer kitchen, greeting us with either a handshake or traditional 3-cheek kiss. With tears of gratitude in his eyes, he asked what fortune had brought him that he should be blessed with so many visitors. He explained that his wife had passed away on Christmas from pneumonia since they weren’t able to afford the medication. His daughter came about once a week to bring groceries and check on him. With the removal of a type of pension, he was left to subsist on less than 100 euros a month. He wore the traditional shajkaca hat, a knitted vest (even though it was hot out), simple trousers, long woolen socks and rubber slip-on boots. A layer of white stubble framed his thin face and grey eyes. Apologizing for being a bad host as he didn’t have anything to offer us, we repeatedly said that meeting him was a gift enough for us. Touring the farm, he invited us into the barn, which held two cows. He showed how he shoveled out the manure by hand with a shovel. Also on the farm were a few pigs and some chickens that roamed freely. Inside his house, the shakjaca-clad man showed us the black and white photographs of him and his wife, as well as some wedding photos of his parents. In the living room he proudly showed us a certificate recognizing his contributions as a soldier during WWII. Like most others of the region, he fought as a chetnik, a loyalist to the Serbian monarchy and opposed to the Communist movement. After giving him a baseball cap sporting a cow and outline of Wisconsin, we thanked him, gave us our goodbyes, and moved onward. Later that evening we received a phone call from his daughter clarifying the purpose of the visit and emphasizing how happy we had made him.

Mosaic Marvel - Oplenac's St. George Church

Continuing onward in the heat, our next destination was Oplenac. The area known as Topola served as Karađorđe’s campaign headquarters during the first National Uprising. After a brief visit of the small museum housed in what was King Peter’s house (built 1910), we walked up the hill to the entryway of the St. George’s Church, treating ourselves to an ice cream. The white marble edifice (with local marble) glistened against the deep blue sky, commanding a presence on top of the hill. Despite its relatively young age (consecrated in 1912 and founded by King Peter I), this 5-domed church didn’t escape damage from wars either. Damaged and desecrated in WWI by the Austro-Hungarians, it was partly rebuilt in the 1920’s. It was during this time that the mosaics were created. Over 40 million mosaic tiles cover the walls of the church and mausoleum (lower level) – the 2nd largest number of tiles in the world. Brilliantly colored, over 15 million shades of color can be found. Motifs are copied from frescoes in over 60 Serbian monasteries. Some of the columns depict the life of St. Sava, one of the founders of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Following the stairs below the main part of the church is a crypt mausoleum built for the dynasty Karađorđe family. Although rather dark, the bright tiles glistened. The tomb of King Alexander (murdered in Marseilles in 1934), his mother, and other family rulers are here. Most of the tombs are vacant. The arched walls depicting the life of St. Peter. The angels reminded me of those described in the Book of Revelations.

Although some might find the mosaics of St. George’s Church a bit much, I found it to be visually stunning, full of details everywhere I looked. Only 80 km from Belgrade, perhaps I’ll have the chance.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Manasija Monastery

The first of two main stops on our second day was the heavily fortified monastery of Menasija. Located just outside of Despotovac, Menasija was built between 1407 and 1418. Built in the Moravian School style, its “Resava School” became a cultural center for writers and artists from provinces that had already fallen to Turkish rule. Translations and writings that occurred here (even during the 15th and 16th centuries) changed the history of South Slavic literature and language, spreading its influence over all of the orthodox Balkans. Had the Turks not interrupted these artistic endeavors, the Resava School may have become the focal point for the Serbian equivalent of the Italian Renaissance.

The interior is protected by massive walls, 11 towers, and trenches, the structure’s construction definitely depicts the dangers of the times when Turkish raids were increasingly common. Despite the attempts at protection, Menasija also fell to the Turks, first in 1439, then 1456 (at which time it was looted and burned), robbed multiple times and then renewed several times between 1735 and 1854. During the Austrian occupation, the gunpowder kept in the church blew up most of the narthex, necessitating a large amount of rebuilding. Nearly half of the frescoes were ruined from roof leaks after the lead roof of the church was taken away by the Turks for munitions creation. What remains are some of the most beautiful frescoes of the Serbian middle ages and pinnacle of the Morava school of painting. Among the notable frescoes are what is considered the best portrait of Depot Stefan and the Holy Warriors, complete with realistic depictions of weapons of the time. Due to work on the 15th century marble tiled floor, the workers weren’t too keen have tourists inside, so I only had a few minutes to enjoy the view before I had to exit the church via a plank. Instead, we were left to admire the simply styled marble outside built during the Nemanajić dynasty. Standing 25.6 meters tall, the cathedral of Menasija is second only in height to the church of the “High” Dečani in Kosovo. The elongated domes were especially elegant.

To the south of the church are the remains of a stone refectory stood, hopefully being restored. Currently, bright red flowers lined the curved tops of the ruins.

Lepinski Vir and Djerdap Gorge

Stefanović Family Pension
As this was an ethno tour, we stayed at the homes of people. This was a great way to meet local people, eat authentic food, and find lodging in areas not often served by hotels. This family had been doing this for several years already. Their property was on a high hill overlooking the Danube. Across the river one could see Romania. A cool breeze provided welcome relief from the heat that would increase over the days. Fat chickens roamed free and goats were in pens. Fruit trees including cherries, plums, pears, and apples dotted the landscape, including the steep slope. After a mandatory shot glass of home-made rakija with honey and tall glass of elderberry juice (also domestic) we toured through the lawn full of imaginative sculptures created by the always barefoot husband from driftwood, stumps, and branches. Lunch, attractively presented including rose petals scattered on the outdoor table, included corn bread, local cheeses including goat cheese with herbs, breaded vegetables, wild mushrooms delicately seasoned, soup, and meat.

Later that afternoon, we went for a walk within Đerdap National Park nicknamed the “Roof of the World”. Emerging from the wooded area was a high meadow from which one had an excellent view of the four gorges in the area. Dotting the hill of low-growing plants were plants from which St. John’s Wort and another plant locally known for its kidney medicinal value. On the walk, we also visited an old lady tending her goats and sheep. After learning (she only spoke Romanian) that we wanted to take some photos, she desperately tried to get her goats to cooperate for some poses with her. We learned that she lived in a cottage without water or electricity and that her daughter, who left 30 years earlier, has yet to return. We also encountered an old man nearing 90 years of age (although he didn’t look nearly that old) tending a couple of cows.

Back at the pension after the walk and Lepinski Vir, we met a trio of bikers – a father, teenage son, and younger niece. They were traveling along the Danube, documenting its beauty and diversity. This was the first time I saw people in Serbia camping out in a tent. Just as we sat down for supper, the lights went out. It might have been a good thing we couldn’t see too well, as the main dish was sarmica – prepared from boiled lamb liver and lungs. In addition to the Kačamak made from corn paste, the meal was once again tasty. Stars were plentiful and only a few lights from distant tiny villages dotted the landscape.

Lepinski Vir

A short distance away from the Stefanović farm was the archaeological site of Lepinski Vir. This site was discovered during archaeological explorations (1965-70) that proceeded the building of two dams on the Danube. At this time they found traces of a Neolithic culture dating between 8000 and 4500 BC, a complex culture perhaps one of the most advanced in all of prehistoric Europe. About a dozen settlements of the same culture have since been found, with evidence of trapezoidal huts, small sanctuaries and fireplaces in homes, and elaborate cemeteries. Stone figures of humans with large eyes and fish-like mouths (likely idols of hunters and fishermen who depended on the Danube) were found, along with jewelry, tools made of bone and stone, and tablets carved with letter-like symbols. The small museum contained some replicas of the most valuable artifacts, which are now in Belgrade’s National Museum. The site was located under a tiled weathered roof with fiberglass sides. Besides being hot, the structure made it too dark to see much, particularly since the roped areas were very limited. The poorly funded structure did this important site a great disservice.

Golubac Fortress

At the entrance to Đerdap Gorge/National Park is the fortress Golubac. We had just seen the widest part of the Danube, which looked more like a lake than a river. Now the river narrowed into what is known as the Iron Gates, which is Serbian for Đerdap. This is the largest river gorge in Europe. It was here that a fortress was built in the 14th century, becoming the most valuable fort on the Danube. Although one could see the fortress consisting of nine towers arranged above each other with an irregular base hugging the steep terrain, the view would have been even more spectacular from a boat on the Danube. Also seen were the remains of a palace near the river and a low, polygonal tower built by the Turks to strengthen the town against firearms. This part jutted into the river, perhaps because of the dams.

Like nearly all of Serbia’s important monuments, Golubac also fell to the Turks. The first time was after the battle of Kosovo in 1389, followed by 25 years back in Serbian hands, and then reverted back to the Turks in 1458. The fort was used for military purposes, but lost much of its defensive strength in the 19th century due to the rise of fire power. After taking some photos, we drove through the rather narrow gate and out to the other side of the fort.