History in the Crossfire: Kosovo’s Endangered Monasteries

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We could see it coming up the road, a simple but radiant structure in pink and white stone that glowed in spite of the rain. The church of the ancient monastery nestled into the base of a mist-topped green mountain, its cultivated fields and vineyards, still producing sustenance after seven hundred years, spread around it down the slope of the hill like a lady’s skirt in variegated patterns. Decani Visoki looks the very picture you’d expect of an active monastery: tidy, quiet, and prosperous.

Until you come to the KFOR barrier gate, draped in camouflage and topped with barbed wire, where incoming vehicles must state their purpose, surrender their passports, and submit to a search if the guards armed with AK-47s think it’s necessary.

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Such is the protection required for Kosovo’s only UNESCO site, the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo (actually four separate sites spread across the country, but grouped under the same listing). The trouble is that the monasteries are tiny islands of medieval Serbian Orthodoxy nestled among a sea of Albanian Islam, and such beautiful and potent symbols of the resented old regime that they can’t help becoming targets – in this part of the world, memories don’t have to be long to remember violence and genocide. It seems that most Serbian sites require this kind of protection, even from the visiting public – Gizmestan Tower, the intensely Serbo-nationalistic monument to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, also required me to surrender my passport to an armed guard before entering the tower’s barricaded enclosure. And the protection is warranted – in 2004 some isolated tit-for-tat violence between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo escalated into a nationwide orgy of anti-Serb violence which, in addition to costing thousands of lives, also resulted in the deliberate burning and bombing of Serbian churches and heritage sites.

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Another medieval UNESCO church in Gjakova, southern Kosovo – closed to the public.

As recently as a year ago, Islamic extremists were arrested trying to pass a truck full of weapons through this very same barrier to the Decani Monastery that I passed through, and there have been incidents of ISIS and other extremist hate-graffiti appearing on the ancient stone walls. 

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The world is becoming a scary place, and the fact that heritage sites are at the epicentre of conflict just shows that history is anything but past. In Gjakova, the site of another of the UNESCO monasteries, Serbian worshippers were prevented from entering a church on Christmas Eve by Albanian protesters who stoned their bus. Not half a mile outside the Decani Monastery’s gates, the citizens of Decan are right now protesting a recent ruling that favored the monastery, in a conflict over some disputed land rights with the town. Kosovo’s recent bid to join UNESCO was an important effort to use heritage as a platform for increasing recognition of its statehood. But the rejection of Kosovo by the committee elicited relief from Serbs who feared for the fate of their monuments under a potentially hostile Albanian-dominated government.

But walking through the gates of the monastery, one can leave all the madness behind. It was quiet, we were the only group visiting and we had to wait for the monks to finished lunch before a lay brother could give us a guided tour of the church. Photos are disallowed, perhaps for copyright purposes or to protect the sense of seclusion, but photos would not have done justice to what we saw.

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The exterior is luminous, and the carvings as crisp as if they’d been executed yesterday. Other than a recent cleaning of the stone, our guide was uncertain what conservation had been done to the outside. It’s possible the carved decoration has been restored, but considering how little restoration (or even maintenance) we saw elsewhere in the region, I’d say it’s unlikely, which means that the beauty of the stone has been preserved magnificently unaltered for seven centuries.

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It was the interior that was truly breathtaking though, and pictures wouldn’t begin to do it justice. To modern eyes accustomed to bright colors and poppy graphics, medieval frescoes probably seem like a pretty lame medium, as their colors tend to be more muted than those of other medieval art. And the frescoes that entirely cover the walls of Decani monastery are at a particular disadvantage because they have not been cleaned or conserved, and so are dulled by the smoke and dirt of centuries. But photos, as usual, can’t convey the spirit of the place, which is what makes it so powerful. Delicate but strong stone columns frame the entryway, or narthex, footed with roaring beasts and depictions of sin and salvation.

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Trampling the enemies of medieval Serbia…

As soon as you walk in, you are struck with the weight of seven centuries that have had time to gather and mature here, between walls whose images of kings and saints – a visual chronicle of Serbian history – soar upward until they’re lost in the shadows of the ceiling.

The UNESCO monasteries were built by monarchs so enshrined in epic and history that they were canonized in their own eras, each king of the Nemajic line entering sainthood upon his death. One of these king-saints, Stefan Decanski, the patron of the monastery, rests just next to the altar, where his tomb is opened every Thursday so that worshipers can view (and kiss!) his embalmed body, miraculously uncorrupted after seven centuries.

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The tombs of the Serbian saint-kings, their bodies displayed to worshippers once per week. The wall paintings are a genealogical record of the dynasty.

But I don’t think its the beauty of the frescoes that make the Decani monastery so special, but rather what they represent. The physical survival of the mural paintings alone is remarkable – the world has a very limited supply of frescoes that old and that intact. But this monastery in particular sits in a region that has seldom known peace since the medieval period. The monastery has stood like a rock while different tribes and empires and regimes have swept over the region, bringing their own religions, prejudices, and political agendas. Under the Yugoslav state, communists attempted to void traditional religious sites by chipping out the eyes of statues and painted figures, disfigurement that was still obvious at several sites we saw. The medieval heritage sites of Kosovo have had more than their share of volatility to contend with, and their very survival is humbling and awesome.

And all it would take is one factional, sectarian idiot with a bomb to blot it out forever. Building is the work of heroes, but destruction takes just a coward’s second.

‘This blessed plot, this earth:’ The UNESCO World Heritage Register

Survived Week 2! Turns out life isn’t so bad when you’ve not got a cold – this whole crazy commuting thing might turn out alright after all!

After our Week 1 crash course on history and theory, we have finally gotten to the fun bits: actually getting our hands dirty with the real work of conservation. My first attempt to survey the dimensions of a room using a ruler, a compass, and a technique called “triangulation” was pretty comical, but we’ll leave aside tales of me on my hands and knees crawling under antique furniture and poking my nose into really really dirty corners of staircases to examine their construction for another post, when I have a better sense of what I’m actually doing.

This week was also our first taster of elective courses, and mine – World Heritage – is totally awesome. By now pretty much everyone has heard of the UNESCO World Heritage sites – if you’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame de Paris, Westminster Abbey, visited Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, or set foot in the city of Edinburgh, congratulations! You’ve experienced a monument of “outstanding universal value” to the entire race of mankind. Really the list is quite extensive – now over a thousand entries – and growing every year. Here’s a version from the World Heritage Centre’s own website, grouped by country: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

But the rationale behind the list might be surprising. Okay, the sights I listed above – you might think the Statue of Liberty, how *yawn* very American (even though it’s French) – seem like an obvious “who’s who” of tourist destinations, almost to the point of being trite. But really the list (which you should totally spend a couple hours poking about and getting lost in), is a lot more complex in its composition. Even though lots of people turn it into a kind of to-do list, the “attraction” of the site, or the ability to take a selfie in front of it, takes a backburner to the significance of the site, which might not be that instagrammable, or even suitable to visitors. If the list were all just castles, cathedrals, and national parks, it would hardly be a comprehensive representation of globally valuable heritage. No, the scope is so much broader, and encompasses, for instance, sites that illustrate progress in human development. Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge is very impressive, but think of the power of a site that tells a story not just about one nation at one time in history, but actually links in with our evolution as a species. For example this site near Mount Carmel in Israel, contains an unbroken record of human habitation, stretching back over 500,000 years, leaving archaeological remains that actually trace our development from pre-human species, to hunter-gatherers, to settled cultivators of the land. But pictures won’t tell you that, and millions of tourist feet tramping over the site would only damage it. (This is one of the unfortunate consequences of the list. Inclusion on the list does not come with funding for maintenance, but it does usually come with hordes of tourists who use UNESCO as a sort of hit list)

Apart from including sites important to humanity, UNESCO also tries to include a diversity of types of sites, that can be representative or typical of some particular aspect of nature or culture. This includes sites of colonization or settlement, such as L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of pre-Colombian Viking settlement in Canada, as well as testaments to human technological and industrial achievements, such as the Wieliczka Salt Mines outside Kraków, Poland.

Natural sites are fair game as well, and are selected for inscription based on their extreme aesthetic beauty or remarkability, for their perfect illustration of geologic phenomena, or by representing phases of the earth’s formation. The Grand Canyon seems a no-brainer judging by its listing description as “the most spectacular gorge in the world.” The Galápagos Islands were the very first site to be listed, based on their clear evidence of the volcanic processes that formed them, and on their status as a “living museum” of evolution.

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More recently, the focus has shifted to sites that span both the human and the natural worlds, under a category called “cultural landscapes,” that illustrate ways in which spectacular natural formations have interacted with outstanding human settlement or achievement. This encompasses sites such as Thingvellir National Park in Iceland, where the medieval Norse settlers used the dramatic rift between the North American and European tectonic plates as a titanic ceremonial stage for their sophisticated and participatory system of law.

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The spectacular and dramatic formations of South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains are littered with prehistoric human settlements and contain the largest concentration of cave paintings south of the Sahara. And the Tokay Wine Region in Hungary is remarkable for its centuries-old tradition of a very specific, highly regulated viticulture, making use of the landscape and traditional methods to make [really really delicious] wine. In an otherwise unremarkable region of Sweden, one large hillside is littered with the remains of an ancient people, who carved tens of thousands of images into the rocks of the landscape, over a period of several thousand years. The Tanum Rock Carvings depict an amazing variety of very human images, such as two lovers embracing, or a woman mourning a man, and they interact with other archaeological features in these hills, such as enormous chambered cairn tombs.

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Here are the 12 sites that comprised the very first list published in 1973, and from which the present list has grown: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/13/travel/unesco-first-12-world-heritage-sites/

Check it out, and prepare to be surprised – given what we think of as the world’s great tourist sites, the ones that made the list of the dozen most important sites in the world as of 1973 are probably not what you’re expecting… 🙂

The Allure of Castles: Dunscaith

The Western Isles of Scotland are a magical place. Although many were once heavily populated, famine, migration, and clearances have left them peopled mostly by ghosts, and the structural remains of past peoples.

For me, it is the archaeology of remote places that create that particular “magic of the desolate” that was so beloved of Romantic poets and painters. From undateable cairns to Iron-Age broch forts, all the way up to the roofless stone crofts of the past century, remote Scottish islands like Rum, Barra, Orkney, Shetland, and the world-famous St. Kilda are littered with evidence that for a long time these places were of great importance to a great number of people. Important enough to fight great sea-battles over, pitting Norwegian Vikings against fledgling Scottish kings; important enough to defend with castles and hill-forts and brochs, expensive and labour-intensive statements of dominance and power; important enough to erect cairns, stone circles, and massive burial mounds for figures whose long-forgotten names are commemorated only in the remains of structures that required an astonishing feat of labour, engineering, and social cooperation by the “primitive” peoples who build them.

For whatever they can tell us about history, to me such remains ask a question that thrums in the insistent western wind, and repeats with the waves that pound inexorably at the barren coast: Where did everyone go?

The Isle of Skye is hardly the remotest of the islands, and is by far the most visited by tourists (on account, I have always suspected, of its beautiful name), but its not difficult to find places on Skye that evoke that same feeling of poetic desolation, particularly if you can manage to turn off the well-traveled road that takes the ubiquitous coach tours from Kyle of Lochalsh to Portree.

At the very south of the island on the Sleat peninsula, a rough single-track with a constant obstacle course of sheep leads seven miles to a small cluster of houses called Tokavaig (in such places, a collection of three or four houses is enough to earn a name on a map), just past which, on an outcropping of rocky coastline, are the remains of a castle.

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You knew there had to be a castle involved eventually, didn’t you?

Dunscaith Castle (or Tokavaig Castle, in honor of the village) was originally a stronghold of Clan Donald (or MacDonald), but there is no definitive beginning date for the structure, the earliest terminus ante quem being sometime in the 14th century, when the castle is already referred to as changing hands (ergo, already built in some form) to the MacLeods.

But it’s not the history of the castle that continues to fascinate me – it’s how little we know of it. Other than its capture by James I in the 15th century, its abandonment in the 17th century, and its designation as a protected scheduled monument in 1934, almost nothing is known about it.

And the question that obsesses me is, How can that be? How can a place that has been continuously inhabited for at least the past millennium forget its own history?

Now of course I speak from a particular place: the severing effect of warfare and emigration means that I only have four generations to keep track of since my ancestors came to America from Poland and Austria-Hungary, and any knowledge of or ties with family who still live in the Old Country are mere luck. The astonishment I felt when I found out that my Polish relatives have equally little idea of our ancestry beyond a few generations – despite living in the same village for centuries – was enormous.

I am a historian (if only a fledgling one), and so I understand the forces that lead people to lose their own history: lack of documentation, indeed of literacy means that for most people in most places, preservation of history must be oral – how many families do you know that maintain a formal oral memory, like the King Lists of Ancient Ireland? Even today the surest way to preserve family history is orally. Sure, if you wanted to know the name and birthplace of your great-grandfather, there are many resources to hand that can give you the answer, with a little digging. But even this requires a kind of “re-discovery” of genealogy, not to mention requiring an interest in the first place. Whereas if you were told from a young age that your great-grandfather’s name was Stefan and he was born in Detroit… The knowledge is that much more able to play a part in your cultural consciousness and self-identification. It is known, rather than learned or studied.

Dunscaith Castle has a manifold allure. Its situation on an almost-island connected to the mainland by a particularly treacherous bridge makes it exciting – you can vividly imagine the castle defending itself under siege, rival clansmen trying desperately to take that bridge.

And the setting is spectacular – surrounded by sea on three sides, with majestic views of the sun setting behind the mountains of Rum.

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But even though it’s a scheduled monument under the care of Historic Environment Scotland, it has this overwhelming air of forgotten-ness. Through warfare and clearances, the people of Tokavaig have survived in an unbroken line from the people who built and lived in this castle. Where is their self-history? How did Dunscaith Castle go from the fiercely contested regional stronghold, to “That old run-down thing? The clan hardly uses it any more,” to “Wow, what an amazing old pile of stones. I wonder who built it, and why?”

And that, in a nutshell, is my castle quandary. How do we come to forget what’s been right in front of us all along?

The Allure of Castles

If I really go back to the very beginning, my love affair with Scotland began with a castle. I was volunteering on an organic farm in Fife, and one afternoon I was taking a walk in the surrounding countryside, when I saw this in the distance:

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Really it was much farther away, only just recognizable as “a great big cool-looking thing.”

So obviously, I had to tramp through every farmer’s field and cow pasture in outer Kirkcaldy until I reached the bloody thing! I never did manage to get inside it – I could say I was deterred by the enormous “Danger – Unstable Ruins” sign, but let’s be honest, it was really the impenetrable thicket of nettles that kept me out.

Pitteadie Castle. Run of the mill 15th/17th century tower keep with a fairly intact but unremarkable structure and few remaining decorative features. That’s how I understand it now, after I’ve spent a year intensely studying castles. But then, in that adventurous summer of 2011… It was awe-some.

I might chock it up to having never seen a castle before. Now, I’d recently spent two days in Edinburgh and, yes, visited the castle, but I feel it doesn’t count. It may sound rich to say that Scotland’s most famous castle is not really a castle at all, but honestly I don’t consider Edinburgh Castle a castle. In look, in atmosphere, in historic material – it’s more of an 18th century fortress turned into a tourist attraction by the lure of the crown jewels and a few key restorations. But I digress.

So I stand by my guns, that I was a castle virgin until I came across Pitteadie, and that that unmarked, neglected, shabby ruin of a building was the starting point for my castle addiction, although it took me several years and several more trips to Scotland to recognize it.

I had been staying in Fife for a week already. I had been briefed on “things to do and see” in the area quite thoroughly, I was assured, by several people, including my host family, yet somehow no one had mentioned that marvelous old Pitteadie Castle was only a fifteen minute walk northward.

And so I think it boils down to this: What kind of magic must there be in a place where marvels like this are so commonplace, so frequent, as to not be worth the mentioning? If this country, this Scotland, could hide a treasure like that beautiful bloody ruin out of sheer blasé-ness, what other heart-stopping secrets must be out there, hidden behind watchful forests, lurking in the deep glens, waiting for discovery down winding single-track roads?image1(2)