06 July 2012

The Minarets and Steeples of Blackbird Field

We walked up the valley from Decan, heading for a cleft in the mountains.  After a while, we came to a military checkpoint - sandbags, concrete-roadblocks, a Humvee, an armed guard.  He waved us on, but ten minutes later we came to another checkpoint.  Here, they took our passports and gave us a visitor's tag.  We were there to see Decani Monastery, one of the most beautiful and heavily guarded sites in Kosovo.
To reduce any conflict to a battle between religions is reductionist and silly.  In Kosovo, it's just as silly.  The conflict here isn't between Islam and Christianity, or between the Orthodox church and the Sunni faith.  But, of course, it can certainly feel that way.  Decani is one of the few important christian sites in Kosovo that Albanian muslims are even allowed to visit.  
Everyone in Kosovo will tell you that religion isn't a problem.  "We all get along," is a common phrase, repeated to us many times.  "Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox."  If the Kosovar wants to elaborate, he or she will probably mention Mitrovica, a divided city in the north that has the most inter-ethnic tension.  "Maybe there," they will say, with a sad look.  "Maybe there there are problems.  Because of Serbia."
Kosovo is over ninety percent Muslim now, after most of the Serbian residents fled in the wake of the 1999 conflict.  In the beautiful city of Prizren, there are 26 mosques and the call to prayer echoes across the river valley in half a dozen voices.  The central Sinan Pasha Mosque is a fixture of the skyline, sitting serenely beside the banks of the Bistrica.
The thing is, Kosovo isn't a very religious place.  The government is staunchly secular, most people don't attend a mosque regularly, the call to prayer which is blasted over every town goes almost unheeded.  While there are some women in headscarves, many more wear short skirts and high heels.  Fundamentalism is very rare.  One can see plenty of people drinking alcohol in cafes.
But still, there are scores of destroyed churches here, as well as burnt-down Islamic schools and libraries.  Why, in a war between such unreligious countries, did these religious things get destroyed?  Serb Kosovars will tell you that it's because of Islamic extremism, Muslims trying to wipe out christianity in Europe.  Albanian Kosovars see it differently, as washing away what was wrongly forced on them.
The name Kosovo comes from the word for blackbird - in 1389, a conflict between Serbs and Ottomans essentially uprooted the Slavic people of the region and pushed them north.  It was a monumental battle, and it shaped the history of the Balkans more than almost any other medieval event. It occurred at a place called "Blackbird's Field," and the name has stuck ever since.  To simplify several centuries, the region became predominantly Albanian and was generally under Albanian control until the second world war.  The new Yugoslavia broke off the territory from its southern neighbor, however, and Albania isolated itself to a huge degree.  When Yugoslavia broke up, Serbia claimed Kosovo, which pleased almost nobody here.
The 1999 conflict wasn't fought on religious grounds - it just happened that nearly all of the combatants on one side were Muslim and almost all those on the other were Orthodox Christian.  Ethnic Serbs here were fighting to retain what they considered their historic homeland. Ethnic Albanians were fighting to hold onto their homeland too, the place they had lived for six hundred years.  Neither one wanted to leave a trace of the other.
Brother Damascan, an Orthodox monk at Decani monastery, pointed out the image of Christ holding a sword.  "The only painting of Christ with a sword in the world," he said.  It was fitting, in this walled off, UN protected place - a tiny enclave in a recent warzone.
Visoki Dečani, as the Serbs call it, is a marvel.  There are over a thousand portraits in fresco, all completed between 1335 and 1350, just before the area was taken by the Ottomans.  Every inch is painted, the images are as fresh and vibrant as one can imagine.  A lot of the icons are done in "Byzantium blue" dye, which was literally more valuable, by weight, than gold. The artwork is extremely well done, painted and carved by masters. Decani is famous as one of the best preserved examples of Byzantine fresco, and there was a lot of worry that it wouldn't survive the conflict.
The monastery has been protected by Italian troops since just after the conflict began, and is now being spruced up with UNESCO funds.  Visiting is an interesting experience, much more serene than one would think.  Beyond the checkpoints, inside the walls, it's very quiet.  A few bearded monks gave Rebecca a laughing admonishment for wearing a short skirt, but said she should go in anyway.  "Next time," brother Damascan said jovially, "you can come with your legs covered."  He was more than welcoming, and even gave us a book about Decani for free, though it was supposed to be ten euros.  He delighted in talking about the building and the frescoes, but also about the woodworking, distilling, cheesemaking and painting, snowball fights and gardening that the monks did.  They live a very small life, hemmed in there, but it seemed very pleasant.  In fact, some say that the monastery survived Albanian reprisals not because of the troop presence, but because everyone liked the brotherhood so much.  A woman we met in nearby Dranoc said she loved going to take the water at Decani, even though she had lost all her brothers when the Serbs attacked.
Nearby the main, 15th century mosque in Rahovec is a destroyed, almost empty neighborhood of Serbian houses.  There are 23 mosques in town and no working churches.  This is, sadly, typical of Kosovo.
In the 1990's, the Serbian government encouraged ethnic Serbs to settle in Kosovo, and created a system of marginalizing Kosovar Albanians and muslim culture.  For example, Serbia listed "over forty churches built between the 1930s and the 1990s" among 210 Serbian Orthodox churches protected as historical monuments.  On the other hand, of 600 mosques in the country, only 15 were given the same protection.  When fighting commenced, the Serbs targeted buildings that were seen as "Albanian," including 207 mosques (ten were destroyed in tiny Rahovec alone), Albanian language libraries, Muslim schools and over 500 kullas.  These cultural buildings weren't incidentally harmed - the Serbs targeted them specifically, even when no other buildings around were damaged.  Why libraries?  Today, there are almost no Albanian-language books left in public institutions in Kosovo.  No Serbian-language libraries were bombed.  When Albanian refugees returned after the conflict, Kosovo's Serbian communities had seen very little damage.  That changed quickly.
Prizren is one of the most evocatively Kosovar cities, and has a number of beautiful mosques.  High up in a prominent spot on the hillside above town is a relatively new Saint Savior church.  From below, it looks impressive.  Up close, one finds it roofless and derelict, wrapped in protective concertina wire.  Around it on the hillside are broken and destroyed Serbian houses - all of them survived the war, but were attacked by grieving and furious Albanians afterwards.
In essence, the conflict and its aftermath sought to wipe away traces of the other people - Serbs wanted to return Kosovo to its 14th century, slavic self, while Albanians wanted to clear away the legacy of an unjust, more recent rule.  In the way, becoming symbols not of religion but of culture, were hundreds of mosques and churches and monasteries.  It's a wonder any of them survived at all.
If, today, there are more well-preserved mosques in Kosovo, it's not because more churches were destroyed.  It's just that the Serbs haven't come back to rebuild their houses and temples. Albanians are here.  They've rebuilt.  The whole situation is sad and complicated, no one is happy.
In Kosovo, we hear the call to prayer several times a day, projected out over the rooftops.  It competes with the music at cafes and with church bells, where they ring.  It's become a very familiar sound to us, as it has before in Azerbaijan, Turkey, North Cyprus and parts of Albania.  We took a few videos of it, so that you can hear what it sounds like to be in Kosovo.

3 comments:

  1. How were you allowed to take pictures? Wherever I went, photography was explicitly banned. At only one church was I allowed to take a picture, and it was of an interior architectural detail, not of a fresco.

    ReplyDelete
  2. How were you allowed to take pictures? Wherever I went, photography was explicitly banned. At only one church was I allowed to take a picture, and it was of an interior architectural detail, not of a fresco.

    ReplyDelete
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