Short History of Visoki Decani Monastery

The history of Visoki Decani Monastery begins in the beginning of the 14th century and the reign of King Stephen III. Stephan Uros III of Decani (1321-1331) was born around 1285. His father was the Serbian King Milutin and his mother Queen Anna, a Bulgarian princess. As a boy, Stephan Uros spent some time as a hostage in the camp of the Tartars' Chan Nogay. From 1309-1314 he was governor of Zeta (today Montenegro). With his first wife Theodora, also a Bulgarian princess, he had two sons, Dusan and Dushman. In 1314 he came into conflict with his father who sent him off to Constantinople in exile. Six years later, King Milutin brought his son Stephan Uros to Serbia and appointed him administrator of a province. Following his father's death, Stephan Uros defeated various pretenders to the throne and became King of Serbia in 1321.

The construction of the Church of Monastery Decani devoted to Jesus Christ the Pantocrator (the Omnipotent) bagan in 1327. The founder Stefan Uros III known as Decanski (of Decani) commissioned for this work a group of master-builders headed by master Vitus of Kotor, while the supervision was taken over by the Serb Archbishop Daniel II. And already in 1330, Stefan Decanski granted his Charter to this pious endowment of his (foundation) together with his rich donations. During his ten year rule he led Serbia in several wars, the most significant of which was the conflict with the Bulgarians, whom he defeated in the battle of Velbuzd (Custendil today) in 1330. His son, the young Prince Dusan, was a prominent soldier in that battle. Soon after the victory, a dissatisfied nobility instigated a conflict between father and son. The old king was outmanoeuvred and imprisoned in the fortified town Zvecan (near Kosovska Mitrovica) where he died a violent death. Stephan Uros's remains have been preserved in the Decani church in a coffin at the head of the altar. The Serbian Orthodox Church celebrates his blessed memory on November 24th.

Reproduction of Decani Theotokos on a contemporary icon from Germany
photos down: throne of Decani Abbot, 14th century

After the death of King Stefan, who was buried in the church of Decani Monastery, his son Stefan Uros IV Dusan became the king of Serbia. Stephan Dusan, known as "Dusan the Mighty," was born in 1308. In 1322 he was crowned, along with his father Stephan Uros III, as the "young king". After overthrowing his father in 1331, he was crowned King of Serbia. With his wife, the Bulgarian princess Helen, he had a son, Uros IV, the last ruler of the Nemanich Dynasty. As a result of his many war victories, he extended the Serbian Kingdom to the south, as far as Thessalonika and Larissa. At the height of its power, the Serbian kingdom extended from the Adriatic to the Aegean and Ionian seas.

Dusan had the construction of the church continued, and this work came to an end in 1335. Likewise, he confirmed his father's Charter given to the monastery. During their work on this project, the builders had also constructed a monumental refectory and cells for the monks and had raised around the building tall defence walls with a pirg (tower) at the entrance; and in the vicinity of Monastery of Decani, a hospital had also been erected. This project was for the most part accomplished by the renowned Serb master-builders: the Protnmaster (the chief master-builder) George assisted by his brothers Dobrosav and Nikola; and for this work they were richly recompensed. The wall-painting project in the church began soon after the erection of the building and lasted right down to 1350. The names of the painters - of which there are a great number - are not known except for "Sergius the Sinful," who signed his name in red on the pillar of the church. Judging by the name, but much more by the stylistic characteristics of the Decani painting, we may conclude that King Dusan brought in fresco artists from the Serbian Coastline who belonged to the so-called "Greek School" (pictores graeci). An important part in the completion of all works in the temple was also played by George Ostrousha Pechpal, whose tomb is found in the narthex beside the sepulchres of his wife Vitosava and Ivanis Altomanovic, Prince Lazar's nephew.

Emperor Dusan died suddenly in 1355 and was buried in the church he built, the monastery of Holy Archangels near Prizren. The monastery is now in ruins.

In the time following the Battle of Kosovo (1389), Monastery Decani was in decay and, therefore, Princess Milica, the wife of the noble prince Lazar of Kosovo, having come with her sons to the Monastery, in 1397, issued a Charter by which the seized estates were returned to the brethren. She also gave rich gifts to the monastery. In the early 15th century, the Prior of the Monastery was Gregory Camblak, who will later write the biography of Stefan Decanski. After the Turkish final conquest of the country in the middle of the 15th century, Monasteiy Decani painfully but successfully survived in new circumstances. A great swing in the Monastery's life, particularly the artistic one, began in the second half of the I6th century, after the restoration of the Serbian Patriarchate in Pec. In the period of time between the 16th and the 17th century, the treasury of Decani was becoming ever richer in many objects of art and, among other things, in books - manuscripts which were copied there. In the time of the Great Migration, in the late 17th century, the Monastry was looted again by the Turks and the living quarters were burned. It experienced a similar fate in the middle of the 18th century. When Daniel Pastrovic-Kazanegra took administration of the monastery in 1764, he found Decani almost in ruins. The monastery did not have a fortress or a refectory, and only one monk was in residence. He undertook the difficult task of reconstruction of the monastery compound. Under his direction, he had a new iconostasis made, which is in the church to this day. Thanks to his efforts, the monastery once again reborn. As a result of his efforts, Abbot Daniel was recognized as second founder of the Decani monastery. In the first half of the 18th century a substantial support came at that time, and oven later, from the Serbian charitable contributors who lived in the southern Austro-Hungary. Those were the emigrants from Kosovo after the Great Migration of the Serbian people.

In the second half of the same century, the monastery buildings and the walls around them were restored. Decani monks and their benefactors continued rebuilding of the monastery in the beginning of the 19th century. Simeon Lazovic and his son Alexios, artists from Bijelo Polje, painted icons on the iconostascs in the chapels of St. Demetrius and St. Nicholas. With the consolidation of the Serbian State after the First and Second Serbian Uprisings, the Serbian rulers also began supporting the Monastery: in 1836, Prince Milos Obrenovic commissioned the building of the new residental quarters and Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic in 1857 presented a reliquary for the relics of St. Stefan Decanski. He also payed for the new roof on the church. The monks themselves managed to restore some old and construct some new buildings within the Monastery. In this time Decani monks travelled as far as St. Petersburg and Moscow bringing rich gifts from the Russian Church and powerful Moscow Tsars.

The end of the 19th century was a painful period of struggle of the Serb Orthodox people and our Church to survive in very difficult circumstances. The Ottoman rule was very weak and the local Albanians committed many crimes against the Christian population especially terrorizing Serbian monasteries. Due to increasing level of violence against Christian Serbs Turkish authorities brought additional troops - Nizams - to keep the order. A unit of Turkish soldiers was assigned to Decani Monastery too in order to protect it from threats of local Albanians. In 1878 Kosovo Albanians gathered in the Prizren League established their national ideology which had a goal to create an Albanian state on "ancestral territories" as soon as the Ottomans power declines. It was only thanks to the Berlin Congress decisions and the diplomatic activities of Serbia that Kosovo was soon found again within the Kingdom of Serbia, after the Balkan wars 1912-1913. In the beginning of the century the Russian brotherhood from Mount Athos came to live in the monastery on the invitation of the Serb Patriarchate. This was an attpempt to rejuvenate the brotherhood and increase the level of the spiritual life of the community. This brotherhood lived in Decani until 1916 when they were deported by Bulgarian police out of Serbia.

During the First World War the part of Kosovo in which Decani monastery is situated was first occupied by Bulgarians and then by Austrian Army. Bulgarian soldiers stole some valuables from the monastery and made an attempt to even take the relics of St. Stefan and transfer them to Bulgaria. This was prevented by a miracle of the Saint. The truck in which the relics had to be transported broke down and could not be repaired. In the meantime the Serbs called Austrian cavalry to take the control of the monastery. The monastery was under Austrian military control until the liberation in 1918. After the end of the war the brotherhoood of Decani could resume its regular monastic life in much more favourable conditions. The period between two wars was the period of spiritual flourishing of the monastery under the wise leadership of Abbot Leontije Ninkovic. The monastery was also financially suported by the Royal House of Karadjordjevic. In 1925 King Alexander of Yugoslavia and Queen Mary visited the Monastery and left their rich gifts to the brotherhood. In the thirties the Serbian Orthodox Church opened a Seminary in the monastery of Decani and many young candidates for priesthood were spiritually trained under the vaults of the ancient Decani church.

During the Second World War the monastery brotherhood passed through the difficult days of Albanian violence and persecution. Thousands of Serbs from the area of Decani were forced out of Kosovo in 1941 and many were killed or abducted. Kosovo Albanian militants organized by Balli Combetar organiaztion planned to destroy the monastery. It was only in the last moment that hieromonk Makarije secretly managed to reach Pec and call Italian Carabinieri to protect the monastery. From then on the Italian Army protected the monastery from Kosovo Albanians.

The interior of Decani ChurchAfter the Second World War the monastery property was confiscated by the new communist authorities who were very hostile towards the Serbian Orthodox Church. Even one of the monastery buildings - Prizren konak - was turned into a political school. After many misdeeds commited by the atheists - both Albanian and Serbs - this building was destroyed in a fire in 1948. After that the communists left the monastery which continued living in very humble conditions without support neither from the state nor from the Church which had been completely impoverished by the communist repressive laws.

In 1992 the new brotherhood led by Fr. Teodosije replaced the older brethren who retired to coastal monasteries of Montenegro. The monastic brotherhood has also developed various monastic activities: woodcarving, painting of icons, translating and publishing books. Although completely surrounded by Muslim Albanians, the monastery of Visoki Decani thus became an important spiritual centre not only for Orthodox Christians of Kosovo and Metohija, but for our entire country and Orthodox followers worldwide. In September of 1992, over 2,000 people were christened in the Bistrica river. That was probably the first time - since the mass conversion of Slavs to Christianity in the 7th century - that so many people accepted the Christian Orthodox faith of their forefathers.

During the Kosovo conflict 1998-1999 the Monastery brotherhood openly stood against the violence as a way of resolving the conflict. Both Milosevic repressive policy and Kosovo Albanian rebellion were sharply criticized. The monastery sheltered refugees of different ethnicities and distributed food parcels in the area all the time during the conflict.

Today, the monastery is a thriving brotherhood with 30 young monks from all parts of our country who continue living under the constant protection of the Italian peacekeepers - KFOR. Despite isolation and everyday threat of Albanian extremists, without basic freedom of movement Decani monks continue with their everyday spiritual activities with firm hope that God will protect this monastery as many times in its turbulent history.

(photos above: icon of Archangel Gabriel 14th century, the narthex of the monastery church)

The present Abbot of Visoki Decani Monastery
iguman TEODOSIJE (Sibalic)

Decani Monastery Old Photo Album Photos from the beginning of the 20th century

A detail from the Decani Monastery church, tombs of King Stefan and his sister Helen, XIV cent.
photo up: Archangel Gabriel, icon 14th century

St. King Stefan of Decani: The Life of St. King Stefan of Decani

Testimonies of foreign travelers

Alexander Fedorovich Gilferding
Visit to Visoki Decani Monastery in 1859

In the evening I was quietly sitting in the monastery and conversing with the hosts when I suddenly heard a loud boom! boom! at the door. "It's nothing," the monks replied to my question what was the noise. "The Albanians have come to spend the night here. They have worked in the fields all day and they don't want to go home or it seems too far to them. That is why they stopped here to see us instead. They will lodge downstairs with your servants? They will eat supper and drink brandy, of course, free of charge." "How many of them have arrived?" "Now there are only 20 but in the past mobs of a hundred or more have come." "And why do you let them in?" "What else can we do? They would kill the first one they saw on the other side of the monastery fence." After these words they showed the traces of the bullets me on the ceiling of the Abbot's room - a sign of the Albanians' displeasure when he failed to please them. When there is a wedding in one of the neighboring villages, the Albanians came to the monastery and take riding horses, destroying the animals in their haste. They take spoons and dishes, and frequently also ask for the brocaded vestments, interlaced with gold threads, to decorate the bride during the festivities... (excrept from the text by A.F. Gilferding)

A Story of an Englishwoman Mary Durham who visited Decani in the first years of XX century and left us her impressions on Old Serbia

Through the Land of the Serbs - travelogue by Mary Durham who travelle around Serbia and Montenegro in the beginning of the XXth century. We are presenting two extracts covering her visit to "Old Serbia" - Pec and Decani, with picturesque impressions from the monasteries and contacts with the people.

Decani Monks in front of the monastery
Decani Monks in front of the Monastery

Abbot Teodosije of Decani
The spiritual son of Bishop Antonije Hrapovicky from Russia
Abbot Teodosije led the monastery during the difficult period of the Second World War

Archdeacon Gavrilo of Decani
suffered for his Christian faith in the hands of ungodly
communist authorities 1946

Archdeacon Gabriel
Archdeacon Gavrilo (Gabriel).

Fr. Gavrilo, the monk of Decani Monastery was born in Mostar Hercegovina in a rich family of wine merchants. He joined Decani brotherhood before the Second World War and was ordinated an archdeacon. Fr. Gavrilo was exceptionally talented for foreign languages and fluently spoke Italian which was of great help for the monastery during the Italian occupation of Kosovo during the war. After the war he was arrested by communist authorities and was tortured in a prison in Pec. Finally the communist court sentenced him as a traitor and sent to infamous Sremska Mitrovica prison, near Belgrade where he died in most humiliating conditions in 1946.

Bishop Serafim in front of the Monastery
Bishop Serafim in front of Decani Monastery
photo taken before the Second world war during which Bishop Serafim was deported
by Albanian Nazis to Albani where he died in 1945 a martyr's death

Bishop Sava Decanac (19 c) - the great struggler for Serb liberation of Kosovo and Metohija
and one of the most notable Decani monks in its history