The Book: There was a bird…there was a falcon…Kosovo February 2008…
Atop the Gazimenistan tower, a Czech KFOR soldier cradles a rifle as she watches the plain below.
In 1389, an army composed of Serbs, Albanians, Bosnians, Romanians, Hungarians, and mercenaries from Western Europe assembled on this boring grassy field, today called Kosovo Polje, and met an invading Ottoman army.
The army was led by a Serbian lord named Lazar Hrebeljanovic. From the town of Krusavac, Lazar had been elected the leader of a collection of lords that made up a crumbling, kingless Serbia.
Lazar’s goal was to stop the Ottoman advance. Instead his army was defeated by Ottoman forces led by the Sultan Murad.
Noel Malcom writes, “The few things that are known with real certainty about this battle can be stated in vary few words. The fighting was intense, and there were heavy losses on both sides. Both Lazar and Murad were killed. At the end of the battle the Turks were left in control of the field.”
For the first time, Serbia lost Kosovo.
A young nun in a black robe comes through church singing in a high, beautiful voice. She recites prayers in both of Gracanitsa’s small chapels. When she sees me, she looks away quickly.
The Serbian Kingdom was founded in the late 12th century in Raska, a town that still exists today inside Serbia just north of the Kosovo border as a small collection of red brick houses.
The kingdom quickly prospered and grew, spreading into Kosovo and beyond. When asked why Kosovo is particularily important, a Serb will inevitably refer to the monasteries built there, which are considered to be their greatest cultural acheivement and one reason why Serbs survived as a nation through the six hundred years of Ottoman occuption and fifty years of post World War II communism.
The monastery of Gracanitsa is just one of these monasteries in Kosovo. A short taxi ride from Pristina, the monastery lies in the Serb enclave of the same name. While the word “enclave” raises images of a sandbagged community patrolled by KFOR soldiers, Gracanitsa is hardly that. There is a Swiss KFOR base nearby, but the only soldier visible is outside the monastery, listening to music from an MP3 player as he stands guard.
The monastery is open for visitors. Inside the church a Serb woman lights candles. She works for the van system that transports Serbs around Kosovo, taking them from enclave to enclave on routes guarded by KFOR in case of an Albanian attack.
“It will be harder [after the Albanians declare independence],” she says. “But I will stay here. Kosovo will always be Serbia’s.”
The church’s dome is adorned with paintings of the saints. Their faces stare down from above, accusingly. The Serbian King Milutin built the church in 1321. Byzantine fresco painters were hired to adorn the walls with paintings that glorified the harsh donctrine of Orthodox Christianity with dramatically portrayed scenes from the bible and stern images of saints and angels.
I put my hands against the images and feel a connection to some deep past. The frescos are fading and the walls are chipped. Small symbols are also carved into the walls. Examining them, I have the desire to spend weeks going over each painting and symbol, reading the history that they express.
At Gracanitsa it is easy to see why Serbs do not want to give up Kosovo. The strength of the Serbian nation is illustrated by Gracanitsa’s ancient foundations.
History is a lambrynth; it is often built more on the interpretation of stories than facts…which are errnoneous and uncomfortable to one’s identity.
Passed through oral tradition until eventually being written down, Serbs built a myth to explain their defeat at Kosovo Polje in 1389.
According to the story, St. Elijah appeared to Lazar before the battle in the form of a falcon, carying a message from God…
Of what kind will you have your kingdom?
Do you want a heavenly kingdom?
Do you want an earthly kingdom?
Lazar (supposedly) said, “It is better to die in battle than live in shame…We have lived a long time in the world; in the end, we seek to accept the martyr’s struggle and to live forever in heaven.”
Lazar chooses a “heavenly kingdom” and the Serbian led forces are defeated by the Ottomans.
The repetition of the story through centuries of Ottoman occupation, often at schools run by the monasteries, helped Serbs survive as a nation and instilled in them the belief that they were a “heavenly people” unjustly treated and humiliated by foreign invaders.
The story is still taught in Serbian schools, an integral part of Serbian identity.
Like most stories meant to construct or sustain a national identity however, it is not very accurate.
After the Serbian defeat at Kosovo Polje in 1389, Lazar’s son, Stefan, accepted Ottoman vassalship and surrendered the already deteriorating Serbian kingdom. While the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans was at times brutal, they allowed the Serbs to maintain their religion and traditions and ruled through local leaders who paid taxes to the sultans and provided soldiers when requested to the Ottoman army. Economicly, the region did not suffer.
A further example of the distorting nature of national myths: Even though Serbian tradition highlights it as a major turning point, the battle of 1389 was not the key battle in the Ottoman take over of the Balkans.
The critical defeat had actually already happened, eighteen years earlier, in 1371 when a large Serbian army was destroyed along the river Marica. Parts of the Serbian Kingdom in modern day Macedonia were lost and the path opened for the conquest of Kosovo and the Serbian heartland.
Outside of the monastery, D says, “I’m a bit hungry.”
The first shop we come to has only packages of nuts and chips. Three teenagers are watching the shop while their parents are away. Like the woman inside Grachanitsa, they say that their family will stay in Kosovo after independence is declared. They express vehemence towards Albanians.
A restaurant further down the street has only a little food.
Dominic wants salad.
We continue on, passing a fast food restaurant that has only pleskavica, spiced Serbian hamburger, and come to another restaurant where the owner motions to plastic chairs.
The visible food appears unhealthy however and there is still no salad.
We continue to a nearby grocery store.
There is no electricity.
Gracanitsa is suffering one of Kosovo’s muliple daily power cuts. A mother and daughter sit in the dark. There are packages of chips and beer, but almost no fresh food.
We go back to the fast food restaurant.
D eats lettuce and tomatoes stuffed into a bun.
A man named Milosh confirms what we have surmised from our walk. All the residents except the most hardcore or those without families or connections in Serbia are already gone.
Dominic asks Milosh why he decided to stay in Kosovo.
“What can I do if I go?” Milosh says angrily. “I have a house here, a business. I never will accept Kosovo being independent from Serbia, but this is my home.”
All other Serbs we meet in Gracanitsa say the same. They do not believe in leaving or have nowhere else to go. They also say that they will never recgonize an Albanian government and complain about the cuts in water and electricity.
“What have the internationals being doing in the past ten years?” they say. “Kosovo will always be part of Serbia.”