Mary Edith DurhamMary Edith Durham travelled around Albanian highlands and left us impressions of Albanian mounain clans and their customs. Two chapters of her book High Albania (London: Edward Arnold, 1909) describe her short visit to the area of Kosovo and Metohija. Here is an extract from the Chapter IX - In the Debatable Lands - Djakova - Devich - in which Miss Durham describes her visit to Devic (Devich) Monastery. This passage gives us a picture how Orthodox Serbs lived in the period just before the Balkan wars, immediately after adoption of the Turkish Constitution which granted a few years of peace to the much suffering Christians of today's Kosovo and Metohija.

After she and her Albanian Catholic companion Marko met a Serb Orthodox family in Djakovica (Djakova) Mary joined her new friends in thier pilgrimage to Devic monastery in a hot summer day. They started their journey early at 3.00 A.M. The following passage continues with the description of the monastery celebration and ends with their leaving Devic two days after. (photos - selection by webmaster)

"Oh we're back in the Balkans again,
Back to the joy and the pain­
What if it burns or it blows or it snows?
We're back to the Balkans again.
Back, where to-morrow the quick may be dead,
With a hole in his heart or a ball in his head­
Back, where the passions are rapid and red­
Oh, we're back to the Balkans again! "
­ SONG OF THE BALKAN PENINSULA

Visit to Devich Monastery

The descent was awful; the driver lashed up his horses, and, once off, we had either to smash or come to the bottom whole, plunging at a break-neck pace down a narrow gully over loose boulders. The terrified horses kept their legs somehow, and landed trembling and drenched with sweat at the bottom. As for me, I was pitched violently across and across the strema. Giddy with concussion I alighted, joined the stream of pilgrims, and ascended on foot to the monastery in the oak forest above–a mass of irregular white buildings that scrambled at different heights haphazard round three yards.

We passed through the lower yard with a seething mass of pilgrims, and went straight into the church on one side of it. It was about 5 P.M. The tiny church was dark, and crammed with people. My appearance created the greatest excitement. As I passed the side where all flocked to light tapers, the glare fell on me, and I was at once surrounded, seized upon, and fingered all over by an eager crowd. My hat, my kodak, my bag all were examined; how much money was in it? from what vilayet was I? who was I? my name?–all regardless of the service which was in full swing. A man in European dress–the monastery secretary–hurried to the centre of hubbub, learnt that I was English, and dashed off to inform the officiating priests.

The heat was suffocating, and the fingering and pulling about more than I wanted after the twelve hours' jolting drive.

I left the church. Opposite it stood the house of the Archimandrite, or Hagi as they called him here. A steep flight of wooden steps led to a perfect rabbit-warren of pilgrims' rooms which were reached through a narrow door about four feet high. Beyond, a huge, white-washed, three-storeyed hospitium–with the usual big wooden balcony to each floor–surrounded two sides of a large yard. Below, on one side, was a smaller yard surrounded by stables. The whole was an indescribable confusion–a seething mass of pilgrims, babies, bundles, sacks, and rugs filled the entire space of the two yards, and each balcony and staircase, some seeking rooms, others camping where they were, all in search of some one or something–a deafening babel of voices. The third yard was a struggling tangle of packhorses, carts, draught-oxen, and buffaloes, and their owners. And no matter what any one was doing, they left off to come and examine me. The monastery servants, who preserved their wits wonderfully in the confusion, allotted a tiny room to our party, and I crowded into it with my Serb fellow-travellers, who proceeded to furnish it with their cushions and coverlets.

The Hagi himself visited me, so soon as he had concluded service in the church.

He was a tall, fair, handsome man, very friendly, and much relieved to find I understood Serb. Marko, who knows but little, asked him if he understood Albanian.

He laughed heartily, and replied, "I am an Albanian." Born of Albanian parents, he explained he had spoken Albanian only as a child. But having joined the Orthodox Church, he was now a Servian, and Servian was more familiar to him than his mother tongue.

So is it in the Debatable Lands. The Serbs have a converted Albanian as head of their monastery, and conversely, one of the most patriotic Albanian priests at Djakova was a Serb by birth–had spoken Serb only as a child, and now had almost forgotten it.

The Hagi at once said I was to be his guest. The Metropolitan of Prizren was there with some Servian schoolmistresses from Prishtina, and we should all be a party together. No foreigner, so far as he knew, had ever been to Devich with the exception of one Russian Consul–the good man was almost as excited over me as were the pilgrims. I came forth from the very temporary rest in the little room, and was introduced. To my amazement I found I was celebrated. Some one recognised me as having been in Dechani five years ago. "Ah, it is the Balkan Englishwoman, the friend of the Montenegrins!" The Metropolitan knew all about me–a schoolmistress, lately from Saloniki, retailed my Macedonian career. We had supper on the terrace under a pergola. Fast day–but an excellent meal of river-trout, tomato salad, balls of rice and herbs rolled in vine leaves (japrak ), and green paprikas stuffed with rice and frightfully hot. Plenty of kaimak (clotted cream), sheep-cheese, and fruit. It was the merriest party. You reached out and helped yourself to whatever was handy, and made the same plate do. And above, around, and beneath us was one vast picnic.

Rations were served out all hot from the kitchen, the air was heavy with the fumes of roast and baked, all food was gratis, and each had as much as he liked. People ran hither and thither with steaming bowls and trays. Save ourselves at the high table, every one fed off vessels of solid copper, tinned, of which the monastery had enough for the two thousand and more pilgrims.

It is characteristic of the Balkan man, be he Slav or Albanian, that he can enjoy himself thoroughly and wholeheartedly, without ever becoming rowdy or losing his self-respect. There was no one to keep order among this vast concourse of happy people, nor was any one required. It is to be hoped that what is called civilisation may never reduce them to the barbarous level of 'Arry and 'Arriet on Bank holiday. I was told off to sleep with the schoolmistresses, and we retired at 10.30, for which–having been on a pretty constant strain since 3 A.M., and having finished up with talking Servian all the evening, having had no practice for over a year–I was not sorry.

It was a small room, the floor entirely covered with mattresses. There were a great many of us. They kindly gave me the only bedstead. Unfortunately, however, one of the ladies was married, and her son and husband shared our room. So though I had a bedstead, it was impossible to go to bed in it properly. Fortunately, the only window was just above me, and I opened it surreptitiously.

The schoolmarms, declaring sleep was impossible, began to dance the kolo, but I was asleep from sheer exhaustion before they had done.

It was but a short sleep, for, suddenly, in plunged the djakon, telling us to get up and come to church. I wearily looked at my watch, It was 1 A.M. Only three ladies went. I slept again. In came the djakon again, this time to get medicine out of a drawer near my head. The floor being covered with sleepers, this made no end of commotion. At five, again the djakon –this time to do his hair! And then the Hagi for something or other. Further sleep was impossible.

My stable companions used a common comb. I was the proud possessor of a private one. I went out dirty, sticky, and staggering with sleep, and asked if it were possible to wash. When the Metropolitan was up, I could have his basin. Not before.

The great man having emerged, I was conducted to his washstand, and a serving-man poured two tablespoonfuls of water over my hands, which I rubbed on my face in the approved style–and my toilet was complete.

Outside, coffee was being served at the kitchen door (no food, of course). It waked me at once. I turned to the marvellous scene.

And it was truly marvellous–such costumes as I had never seen before and may never see again–many of them indeed museum pieces, all the best of every district.

A part of Serb women's costume with embroidery, Kosovo
(Serb rural costumes from Kosovo and Metohija)
Serbian Folk Attire

The finest of all were from Ipek Caza. Ipek itself is almost entirely Moslem Albanian, the Serbs and Catholics form but a small minority; the villages around, however, are very largely Serb, and form a Serb island in an otherwise Albanian land.

The women's shirts are a mass of the very finest cross-stitch embroidery in dull red, blue, and green, the colours all native dyes. Cross-stitch (very common in Russia) is Slavonic and does not occur on Albanian costume. It makes, of necessity, angular patterns. Albanian patterns are all of flowing lines adapted for braiding and gold thread. The flowing line is similarly found on old Albanian carved chests and ceilings.

Over the richly-embroidered shirt is a very short petticoat–a mere waist-frill some 12 inches deep–of striped material, the stripes being almost always all hand-work in the finest stitches. A very broad binder is bound round the lower part of the body like an abdominal support. Over this is a heavy, leathern belt, with brass plaques on it studded with red and green "jewels" of glass, the workmanship poor. On the shoulders is a zouave of various colours, usually black, with scarlet or yellow braid. The breast is quite covered with a mass of large silver coins–Maria Theresas–and numbers of glass bead and coral necklaces and crosses, and hearts of glass like those popular in Bosnia. Some wore triangular leather amulet-cases on a string slung over one shoulder.

The married women wear a peaked head-dress, similar to that of medi?val ladies, but smaller. It is of white linen, with a finely embroidered edge in various colours, the ends hang down to the shoulders; over the top of the head, and hanging either side to the ear, is a broad band of turquoise-blue beads ending in a triangular dingle-dangle.

The hair is parted in the middle, and again lower down. The top section is twisted round a solid foundation to make a huge curl, a great sausage of hair stiff with grease, which curves forward on each side of the face, framing it completely. The end of the curl is sewn with coins–it is a head-dress that is made to last–some-times as many as five Maria Theresas on each, and to make all firm both curls are sewn down to a leather band which goes under the chin, and is thickly covered with blue beads. Such of the hair as is not used for the curl is plaited and used as a support behind the curl to which it is fastened. The whole makes a solid block of hair–grotesque and extraordinary; at least so I thought till I came back to England and found every one's head swollen to double its size with stuffings, frizettes, and "transformations."

I had just started drawing, and was getting on well, when one of the schoolmarms espied me. With the best of intentions in the world she summoned everybody to see what I was doing, and all my chances were over. I was the centre of a mob all striving to see me do it again, and attention being turned on me, I was hunted all day. Every peasant wanted to speak to me, and most of them did; I was questioned till I was on the point of exhaustion, and all the time I had a ridiculous feeling that it was a case of the biter bit. For months I had been incessantly questioning about manners and customs, now I was myself the victim. I was asked about all that I did, and then "why?" The thing that bothered everybody was my straw hat; they had never seen one before; "Why do you wear wheat on your head?" Every one broke a little bit off the brim to make sure it really was "wheat."

"Do you wear it in the house ? Do you sleep in it?" "Do you wear it to show you are married?" "To show you are not married?" "Did you make it?" "Are all the women in your vilayet (province) obliged to wear wheat on their heads?" "Is there a law about it?" "Or do you wear it per chef (for pleasure) ?"

"I wear it because of the sun," said I desperately. "Why because of the sun?" "It is hot," said I. "No, it isn't," said they. They did not wear wheat because of the sun. Would I tell them the real reason? It occurred to me that if there was a Devich Anthropological Society it might report that it had found traces of sun-worship in the English, and mysterious rites connected with it that no questioning could elicit. I fell back on the answer that has so often tried me in others: "I wear it because I do. It is nash obichaj (our custom)."

This satisfied them wholly, for there is a proverb which says: "It is better that a village should fall than a custom." The brim of my hat looked as though it had been gnawed by rats all round, and I felt justified in pulling every one about mercilessly in return, and examining all their ornaments; but it was very fatiguing–on an empty stomach.

Two gypsy bands played incessantly, both at once. One instrument was a cylinder of earthenware with a piece of hide strained on the top, and slapped with the hand; another was a big drum. The sun was nearly at full strength, the air was thick with the dust of many dancing feet; the perpetual pom-pom-pom, rhythmical, insistent, throbbed like a fever pulse in the sizzling heat. Only for one half-hour, when a service was held in the yard outside the church (it was far too small to hold the congregation), did the band stop, and then there was singing.


A Serb Orthodox Bishop (end of XIX century)

Midday brought the much-needed dinner in the Metropolitan's room. I sat next to him, and was excellently well fed. But even the meal was a long and stiff viva voce examination in Servian. His Grace was pleased to express his admiration for the physical strength of the English. He himself, for example, though he had not had such a long and exhausting journey as I had, and accustomed to the country, was quite tired out!

After dinner all went to rest. I had two hours' heavy sleep in the crowded room of the night before. Then we were all poked up. Tumblers of water were passed round; Serbs are always water-thirsty. I amused every one highly by pouring mine over my head and neck.

Thus roused I went out again, and, as the first excitement about me had somewhat subsided, managed to get some photographs and drawings made.

Then a long strip of mats and carpets was laid right across the yard. The Hagi, his secretary, and some monks sat on cushions at one end, and I was invited to join them. A number of heads of families then sat in a long row, cross-legged, on either side the carpet. Rakia and the usual snacks were served all round. Each man in turn came up, kissed the Hagi's hand, and made an offering to the church–from a few piastres to a pound Turk, and the secretary inscribed each in a book. They were nearly all townsfolk from Prizren, Prishtina, Ipek, and Mitrovitza. The peasants had already left or were leaving. It was a very long job; about a hundred and fifty napoleons were collected.

Then came gifts in kind, brought for the most part by women–shirts, drawers, towels, and sheets, and handkerchiefs, many finely embroidered in colours and gold.

Almost all these town women were dressed alla Turka, had their hair dyed black, and their eyebrows joined by paint in the middle. One in particular wore a magnificent white satin overcoat (koret ) brocaded with silver and stiff with raised silver embroidery–another, an equally fine one, of crimson velvet and gold. The apron, usually worn over the large bloomers, was of wonderfully fine silk tissue, embroidered in colour and gold. Native eye for colour, when let alone, rarely goes wrong, but alas, "civilisation" is working sad havoc, and hideous parrots and bunches of flowers in Berlin wool-work (as taught in the schools) were among the most admired of the offerings to the Church. The curse of "made in Germany" is already withering the land. The bad beginning, may be, of a bad end.

Supper was late. I was dog-tired, nor was there any corner where I could sit at peace. By this time two women from Andrijevitza, in Montenegro, two from Berani, a man from Ipek, and a young monk from the monastery of Miloshevo, in the sanjak of Novi-bazar, had all recognised and claimed acquaintance with me, and I sent greetings to all friends in each place.

It was strange, in the heart of the wilderness, to find so many that knew me.

The djakon took me to see the monastery library of old Slavonic church-books, both in print, from early presses, and in manuscript. They had been shockingly neglected, and, unluckily, no perfect copies remained of books that, even in their battered state, are of considerable value. It is possible that among the litter missing pages might be found. I begged that all that remained should be carefully preserved.

When it got quite dark, I sat on a stone by the wall, and got a rest for a few minutes. Then I was poked up to drink cognac with the Metropolitan. I would, by that time, gladly have drunk a quart. It kept me up till supper. Then we turned out again to see the kolo danced round bonfires, and sing national songs. We turned in at 11.30, I with orders to be ready to start at 3.30 A.M.

I seemed scarcely to have fallen asleep when the head of the Serb party I had come with knocked at the door. The carts were ready.

I collected my coat, belt, and boots, and crawled out over the sleeping schoolmarms into the chilly night air, reeling with sleep.

We swallowed our ration of coffee, and were soon off.


Religious feastdays were a time of gathering of Orthodox Serbs from all parts
of Old Serbia. Here on a photo from Decani monastery we can see women in traditional
dressess which Edith Durham must have seen in Devich too