Yesterday was another long but incredibly productive day. From Caglavica, we drove southwest to Decani Monastery. This is another one of the most significant sites for Serbian Orthodoxy and one of the four listed on UNESCO’s significant cultural sites register in Kosovo (the other three being Gracanica, the Patriarchate of Pec, and the Ljeviska monastery in Prizen. It is also certainly the most stunning and emotionally moving landmark I have visited thus far.
Dečani is nestled in a valley between towering mountains that separate Kosovo from Montenegro and Albania and is surrounded on one side by dense forest and on the other by abundant farmland, most of which was at one time the exclusive property of the monastery. The drive from Caglavica takes about two hours and goes through Pristina and Peč. In the first 30 minutes of the drive, we passed by the exit to Pristina Airport, where there sits the Aviano Restaurant and Motel. It is named in honor of the NATO airbase from which bombers launched their attacks against Serbia in 1999. The logo itself is distinctly shaped like a jet fighter and is yet another tribute to the west that Kosovo Albanians display with almost embarrassing regularity.
It is also at about the airport where the highway gets exceptionally bad. The road has been entirely torn up and is in the very very slow process of being improved and renewed with international donor funds. It is unclear if this project was necessary in the first place or if it really should be the most pressing priority for Kosovo where the legitimate economy is weak, jobs are far from plentiful, and any significant manufacturing or commercial sector is lacking. But, my hosts pointed out, road building is a project both very visible that international can contribute to and from which mafia and corrupt government officials can easily profit through the substitution of shoddy paving material, etc. This is an extraordinary problem rarely recognized by the international press.
Driving further southwest, we stopped at the abandoned Serbian village of Dolać. The inhabitants of this town were driven out by the KLA during the 1999 war, their homes gutted and destroyed, and their church overlooking the town utterly decimated. Dilapidated frames of these houses still remain and can be seen from the ruins of the old church. One of the most striking spots in the ruins is a large mullbery tree in full fruity bloom left over from the days the church still stood. Other than a few remnants of chipped fresco and a badly mangled arm of a candelabra, there is very little to suggest that this space used to be home to a building of religious worship.
Other common sites along the road included numerous ruined Serbian homes, roadside monuments to “martyred” Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers, and billboards bearing the likeness of Adem Jashari, a chief commander of the KLA who was killed during the war. Below his image are the words “Bak, U Kry!” meaning “Uncle, it is over,” celebrating their victory. The billboards are proudly sponsored by the KLA, deemed a terrorist group by the United States and others before the war but now the effective political leaders of Kosovo. Another striking image was a much more recognizable ruined church outside of Petrič whose two bell towers lay broken and upside-down. The reasons for leaving such obvious evidence of ethnic cleansing for all to see is a mystery to me. My hosts believe it is to serve as either a reminder of the war or a warning to Serbs wishing to return. In any circumstance, these sights are disturbing.
One of the final cities we passed on the way to Dečani was Peć, home of the original seat of the Serbian Orthodox Partriarchate from 1346 until 1766. The city was also the capital of the regional diocese of the Orthodox Church prior to its achievement of autonomy from Constantinople in 1346 from the late 1200s after the earlier seat at Žiča (the site I visited several days prior north of Kosovo) was burned. Unfortunately we did not have time to visit the old patriarchal monastery which remains heavily guarded by KFOR like other significant Serbian religious sites in Kosovo.
The road to Dečani Monastery winds west of the town of Dečan through forest, around roadblocks and KFOR checkpoints. I was told that despite the seemingly heavy security, this is the main smuggling route for black market goods particularly drugs and weapons coming through Albania into Kosovo. Hopefully the added security helps somewhat. Once reaching the walls of the monastery, we had to surrender our passports to the KFOR guards and get permission from inside to enter. Fortunately my hosts know the monks there very well and they knew we were coming.
One of the first sights we saw after being cleared by the KFOR soldiers was a monk driving a forklift out of the compound. It was quite a sight. Like many other monasteries in the area, this one is renounced for its locally produced fruits and vegetables, but even more so for its homemade wines and rakija. Given that the monks themselves rarely drink except in strict moderation for sacramental purposes, it is amazing to me that the wine they make is so good. Later that evening my friends and I polished off two bottles before bed.
Once inside, we were greeted by the Bishop of the monastery and several monks and invited to look around the church. The architecture, I am told, is an interesting mix of eastern Byzantine and western religious traditions. Particularly striking are the two tones of marble used to construct the outside, mined from quarries outside of Gracanica and Peć respectively. Inside, the church contains a stunning array of medieval frescos documenting significant events in the Christian bible and Serbian history. The church began to be built under the reign of the King, St. Stefan Uroš III Dečanski who is interred next to the main altar. His sarcophagus is opened during special religious services and, according to the guidebook I was given, is believed to be endowed with powers of spiritual and physical healing. Construction of the church was later completed by his son, Dusan Dečanski, who also expanded the borders of medieval Serbia making it briefly one of Europe’s most significant medieval empires. One of the most artistically notable elements of the church is its fresco depicting Jesus brandishing a sword; one of the few examples of such an image in the entire Christian world.
After touring the church, we were invited to share coffee and tea with the bishop and later joined the monks for lunch. At this monastery, the members maintain a (lacto-ovo-ictho) vegetarian diet and so their are able to make excellent meals without relying on the heavy meat base so typical in Serbian cuisine. I was thrilled to at last be able to eat everything available at the table.🙂 After lunch I spent some time talking with one of the English-speaking monks and then with two young Serbs visiting from Republika Srpska and Novi Saad. I also did what I could to help my hosts set up their recording equipment for their interviews. Near the conclusion of our visit, I was fortunate to sit with one of the more notable Fathers who had an excellent command of English to discuss my research. Our conversation likely lasted over an hour and I took well over 5 pages of notes. Had I not visited anywhere else in Kosovo, this trip alone still would have been worthwhile.
By the time we finished, it was already quite late, so the two hour drive back to Caglavica was almost completely in the dark. In fine fashion, we did not go right to sleep after returning home, but instead stayed up for many more hours discussing the day’s events, our respective backgrounds and family histories, and, of course, politics. Today, fortunately, has been much more relaxing. We got a bit of a late start and I have been sitting in KIM Studios with my laptop catching up on all my journal entries for the last several days. Hopefully later today I will take a trip to Pristina to see the old Jewish and Serbian cemeteries heavily damaged in 1999 and looted and neglected since then. Also I hope to walk the main streets of the city and see Bill Clinton Boulevard. I have no idea yet what tomorrow will hold but I am sure it will be interesting.
Serbian words of the day: da = yes, ne = no