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.

The Rhythms of Life: Drenoc

As I write this I’m sitting in the communal living room of an 18th century kulla, a traditional Ottoman-Albanian tower-house, in the small historical village of Drenoc in the west of Kosovo. The “guest room,” as they call it, is a large elegant space in the top floor of the tower, with a perimeter of sheepskin cushions for sitting on. The floor is covered in red woven carpets, while the datk wooden beams of the ceiling add to the cozy atmosphere.


The shoes come off at the door, so we’ve all padded softly up here in socks and house slippers. Our hosts have explained that this room was the traditional cultural hub of village life – the place where disputes were settled, business deals struck, and marriages arranged – while Turkish coffee stimulated the mind and eased conversation.


This is where we’ve come to work for two weeks. The magnificent top floor was refurbished in 2006 by a USAid project, but the second floor, the less formal domain of women and children, still needs work.

Hey, those floorboards look pretty good for being almost 300 years old!

But a walk through the village yesterday afternoon showed that Drenoc’s traditions extend beyond the seven historic kullas that make the village a significant cultural site. I got a taste of how life operates in a historic village, in the foothills of the mountains, far from any public transit link, in a region still recovering from a war that touched every family less than a generation ago.

The village is wonderful. From a certain spot you can stand and see nothing in either direction that postdates the 18th century, giving you a chance to visualize, if you can, what the world looked like centuries ago when every village looked like this.

Dog: I could swear I left some sheep around here somewhere…

Our walk took us past a local mosque, which stands in the middle of the village cemetery. Overgrown with an abandoned air, the best-kept graves are of those who died in the recent wars and ethnic attacks of the late 90s. A boy of 19 stands dressed in his dugs holding his kalishnikov while an Albanian flag flutters brightly over his grave.


A husband and a wife lie next to each other, dead on the same day in 1998. The graves of the war victims generally have a more kempt appearance, local communities ways of commemorating their fallen and working through grief. As we wander quietly through the weeds, we notice that all the stones share the same half-dozen surnames. Nita, one of our hosts, stops at a worn unmarked stone to light a candle, which sits beside several others.

“She is a person who used to live in the village,” she explains. “She had no arms or legs, so she was very good.” Nita doesn’t know when she lived or died, but people from the village come regularly to light a candle and make a wish at her grave.

Once we leave that solemn place and shut the gate behind us, the village takes on more life than I’d previously noticed. Two men escort a line of five or six reluctantly obedient cows down the street and into a dirt lane.


Every spare patch of land is cultivated in its small way, with a few rows of potatoes or onions, and perhaps a few fruit trees. The courtyard of our Kulla has fig and plum trees, and stands selling fresh strawberries line the roads between the village and the capital.

We stick out – were as conspicuous as can be in our practical work clothes (everyone here seems impressively well-dressed all the time, even in the countryside), with our backpacks and our wallets (comparatively) heavy with euros, snapping photos of the most mundane sights with our iphones. But the locals seem pleasantly intrigued. They invite us into their homes for coffee even though we don’t speak a word of each other’s language, and don’t seem to mind us poking around their village taking pictures of their houses, their cows, or even them.



Everyone I see seems to be out-and-about doing something, from the woman out hoeing her garden with a tool straight from the 18th century to the man mowing his lawn with a sickle. Perhaps people with few possessions take care of them all the more diligently: boys out riding bikes stop at a roadside fountain to wash the dust off their bikes; men hand-buff the hubcaps of their ancient cars; and the living room of our host’s house – even though the entire family has been living and sleeping in this one room since we’ve put them out of their own bedrooms – is immaculately spotless.

So I’ve painted a picture of a pastoral paradise – and I hope these depictions don’t come off paternalistic or condescending: “Oh look at these charming poor people who live such simple but wholesome lives, aren’t they charming!” No, it’s obviously much more complex than that.

But there’s no doubt that a different attitude governs the speed of life here, and it’s refreshing. Because we’re here to complete a project – there is work that we must complete before we leave – it’s very tempting, particularly to some of us who are used to a more intense pace, to focus on the job – wanting the work to move efficiently, to begin on time and for breaks to be for strict lengths at specific times. But so often we show up at the time were told, to find that despite our supervisors being present and all of us being assembled, another 45 minutes might elapse before we head up to start working. Then in the middle of the day, the work might be suspended as by some unspoken agreement everyone drifts outside to spend a few minutes chatting and sitting in the sunshine. The workday ebbs and flows to a natural rhythm as people pay attention to their bodies and the weather instead to to the clock. In the evenings we all sit in the same room – Albanian-speaking family with hopelessly English-speaking guests – to pass the time however we please. Some play cards, some flick through faceook, some play around with face swap, and some try to expand their Albanian vocabulary through a combination of charades and pidgin German (which most people seem to have studied in school here).

Could the work get done more efficuently? Yes. But as someone has spent so long doing what I “ought” to do that I have trouble knowing what I actually want to do, this way of doing things is different… But nice 🙂