Decani Monastery

by Alexander Fedorovich Gilferding

[NOTE: Alexander Fedorovich Gilferding (1831-1872), a Russian Slavist and travel writer of German origin, a member of St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, traveled in Metohija and Kosovo and visited Decani in the mid-19th century and wrote his impressions in his book: Bosnia, Hercegovina and Old Serbia, St. Petersburg 1959]

Some three hours from the Patriarchate lies Visoki Decani, the most beautiful and most famous Serbian monastery, the most significant monument of past Serbian fame and piety. Pec and Decani for the Serbian people are one indivisible whole. While the Pec church is massive and huge, the Decani edifice is unusually graceful and light. I wish that an artist would visit this church so he could confirm, as I am sure he would, my opinion that this shrine is one of the most perfect creations of Byzantine sacral literature. When you enter the church, you are overcome with a kind of sense of joyous rejoicing. Here you are carefree, tranquil and happy and this happiness is somehow exalted. This is truly a "imperial treasure" as the Serbian people generally call Decani.

First I will describe the edifice... (A lengthy description follows.)

. . . The land of which the Decani shrine of the Pantocrator? is exceptional. It is a smaller valley protected from the east by the high, dark and rugged Mt. Ples, an integral part of a mountain range stretching from Pec to Prizren and dividing Old Serbia from Albania. On its other sides the monastery is surrounded by tame rolling hills, covered by colorful greenery of tame chestnuts. Not far from the monastery walls flows the cold mountain stream Bistrica. The church is located a little to the side of the main road but it is nevertheless close to it.

Decani church - from an old photo album


Perhaps this very distance from the main road is one of the reasons why the monastery continues to exist today. However, despite this, it has been in continuous danger for more than 450 years, and one cannot help but say, together with the Serbian people, that God himself has miraculously preserved it. As early as the end of the 14th century, following the Battle of Kosovo, the monastery was looted by the Turks. When it was visited by the pious widow of St. Lazar, Milica - who at that time had already taken the vows of a nun and received the name of Eugenia, and who was educating and preparing her two young sons for rule over the tragic Serbian land - Eugenia restored the monastery which is why she is today spoken of as its second founder. What did the Turks actually "burn and raze" in Decani? The shrine stands untouched even today, almost exactly the same as it was created by the artist's hand of the Kotor Franciscan Vito. But the bell tower above the monastery doors, that is, the doors to the town, was probably destroyed at that time. (Today only its base can be seen.) Also destroyed were the monks' cells and the dining hall built, according to lore, alongside the monastery by the Holy King and his son, Dusan. How the church itself remained intact and how its treasures were preserved is unknown to us. According to Serbian lore, the looting and destruction of the monastery is blamed on the military leader named Tartar Khan, who intended to convert the Church of the Christ Pantocrator into a mosque. The Turks began the namaz-prayer. The imam spread his rug next to the church gates to pray. Suddenly, a stone lion which decorated the lateral part of the window above the gates fell and killed the Muslim on the spot. Tartar Khan became so frightened that he immediately withdrew from the monastery and since that time the Turks have been afraid to disturb the church.

But the danger for Decani did not end. Its monks are right when they say that the monastery is located in the wolf's jaws. The charters of Stefan Uros III and Eugenia list several dozen Christian villages in the monastery area from which the monastery collected revenue. That is why the entire region from Pec to the area of Prizren was called and is still called today, Metohija, that is, church estate or land. Almost all the villages surrounding Decani which are mentioned in those charters from the 14th century still exist today. They have kept their old names but now they are inhabited by Muslim Albanians. What is more, in the village of Decani itself there are only two Christian houses remaining. In the village of Ljubenic we have only three and in Locani six Christian families. At the same time, they say that there are over three thousand Muslim Albanian houses surrounding the monastery. These are the results of the great migration of the Serbs to Austria [the Austro-Hungarian Empire] in 1690. If the Albanians were fanatics, this exquisite monument of the Holy Serbian Emperor and Martyr would have become a mosque long ago, like the Cathedral in Prizren which was build by the Emperor Dusan.

Visit of a Russion officer to Decani Monastery, Turkish soldiers escort the guests

But if the Albanians are not fanatics, they are looters. While honoring the Decani shrine and praying frequently before the relics of the Holy King for the sake of their health, they subjugate and loot the monks as much as they can and live at their expense. Today they steal a cow or sheep owned by the monastery; tomorrow they will collect and take away a haystack gathered for the monastery by day laborers. Here is what happened while I was in Decani. I was witness to the hospitality which the monks are coerced to extend to these savages. 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...

. . . However, the revenues of Visoki Decani - the monastery previously had enormous estates - are very sparse. Just a few years ago, the monastery owned the nearby chestnut forest and some fields but now the Albanians have appropriated this as well and are threatening the monks with guns when they even mention their rights... (The text goes on to discuss different plots to seize the monastery from the Serbian monks.)

Translation by Snezana Lazovic

Visit to Gorioc Monastery, Alexander Gilferding