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The Saga of Kosovo
The Saga of Kosovo

  

 

Kosovo And medieval Serbia


Kosovo is many diverse things to different living Serbs, but they all have it in their blood. They are born with it. The variety of meanings is easily explained by the symbolism and emotions that the word "Kosovo" embodies, clearly above anything that the geographic concept might imply. The question of why it is in Serbian blood is never meant to be answered--it is a transcendental phenomenon.

Serbs with a visual memory of the Kosovo region see it as a somewhat sleepy valley, whose surrounding hills, in their descent, seem to have overstretched. Some 4,200 square miles in size (with an additional 2,000 square miles of adjacent Metohija), this cradle of the Serbian nation is carried by two broad-shouldered gentle giants, somber and dark Mount Kopaonik in the north and white-capped and fair Mount Shar in the south.

Kosovo, comparatively, is good pasture land as well as corn, wheat, and fruit land. Yet Kosovo peasants can barely scratch out a subsistence tilling the clayish soil that is exposed to winds that dry the ground. For these peasants Kosovo provides a lean and meager lot.

To others Kosovo is a breadbasket. To those who descended from the slopes of the mountains, or who came there from poorer regions as homesteaders, Kosovo seems a promised land. Kosovo is a bottomless ancient mining pit, rich in zinc, lead, and silver, but it is not a melting pot.

Kosovo is a plain where the Serbs bend over to work the soil, Albanians sweat in the mining shafts underground, Turks (largely spent and reminiscing about past fame) grow poppies and peppers, while the Gypsies fill the air with the sounds of life.

To the Serbs, that plain of suffering, of want, and of sacrifice is Holy Ground. They come there to clench their fists and shout at the earth where dead Turks lie. As Rebecca West has written: "Dead Christians are in Heaven, or ghosts, not scattered lifeless bones... only Turks perish thus utterly."

The Lord Almighty, some might say, must have predestined Kosovo as a battlefield, a rendezvous for hostile earthly encounters. It is a junction that led many a nation astray, if not to a dead end. Byzantines, Bulgars, Serbs, Magyars, Austrians, Albanians, and Turks--all marched through it at certain times, but in a sense got nowhere. Kosovo seems as nature's boxing ring where world ideologies--Christian, Bogumil, Moslem, and more recently Marxist--each won individual rounds, but not the fight. This plain seems to have attracted strategists of all faiths, who came as dragons sounding their bugles and shouting their battle cries. There must have been six major human slaughters in as many centuries on this peaceful stretch of land. The soil in this valley appears to have fed on human flesh and blood.

Kosovo is that heartbreaking medieval embroidery made in 1402, in the stillness of the Serbian monastery Ljubostinja, with the needle of the pious Serbian princess Euphemia. She sketched her Requiem in gold thread on a pall to cover the severed head of Prince Lazar: "In courage and piety did you go out to do battle against the snake Murad... your heart could not bear to see the hosts of Ismail rule Christian lands. You were determined that if you failed you would leave this crumbling fortress of earthly power and, red in your own blood, be one with the hosts of the heavenly King..."

Kosovo is a grave and a grave means death and dust, but it also means rebirth and a source of new life. Kosovo is thus transcendental.

What does the reader know of the nation (medieval Serbia) that was once laid in the Kosovo grave? The one that stares at us from monastery walls under heavy layers of soot? The one that watches from under those thick curved eyebrows? The one with eyes that, when occasionally visited by inquisitive sun rays, refuse to squint? The eyes of the nation that over the centuries withstood the Moslem stare, and perished without ever blinking, and once lifeless was left without anyone to pull the lids down?

Serbia as a nation came into its own sometime in the eleventh century, in the center of the Balkan peninsula, which at that time was within the vast realm of the mighty Byzantine Empire. A lighthouse between two continents, Constantinople in those days was a beacon light for all sorts of wayfarers: those in submission, those in power, those in revolt, those hungry for culture, those driven by greed. As any potentate, Constantinople at that time had no friends in the whole world.

Byzantium had very little reason to cherish the Slavs in the Balkan areas, Serbs or Bulgars, because they proved to be a nuisance from the time of their arrival, together with or before the marauding Avars. To Byzantium, incursions of barbarians were no big problem, for even when they ransacked the walled cities they soon left. Slavs, on the other hand, inherently were not nomadic types. Once having arrived they tended to settle, and by doing so they changed the ethnic character of the area.

Byzantine rulers, especially Emperor Basil II, tried to drive the Slavs out, especially the Bulgars, but in the long run arrogance gave way to political realism, which forced the ever more insecure Byzantine emperors to accept Serbs and Bulgars as permanent inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula. In time they learned to deal with the Slavs on equal or almost equal terms, partly because there were more serious problems confronting them. There were the Persians, Moslem Arabs, and Seljuk Turks, who kept the Byzantines occupied in the East for several centuries. In the West the Normans and the Venetians were sapping Byzantium's military strength. The Slavs, for their part, exploited these troubles to expand and solidify their positions. Even after Constantinople managed to restore much of its imperial prestige, it was challenged in the North by the invading Magyars, who waged four successive wars against Byzantium.

This presented the Serbian ruler of Rascia (Nemanja, 1168-1196) an opportunity not to be missed. He moved quickly toward Serbian recognition and independence. It was not an easy task, and he was not continually successful in the process. There was a time when his supporters, Hungary and Venice, could not help him. Facing the angry Manuel I alone, Nemanja was defeated and taken a prisoner to Constantinople, where he was led through the streets with a rope around his neck, to the wild enjoyment of the crowds. It must be remembered that protocol and symbolism meant a great deal in Byzantine culture, so that when Nemanja was brought to submission he had to present himself barefooted and bareheaded, offering his sword and prostrating himself on the ground.

Since Rascia was under the overlordship of Byzantium, Manuel thought that this humiliation of an unfaithful prince would be enough and let Nemanja return to his people. In addition, Nemanja was forced to pay tribute and to provide auxiliary (support) troops. What really may have saved Nemanja's life was the proximity of Rascii' (which by that time had already merged with Zeta, another Serbian principality) to the Western world. After all, at that time Christendom was seriously endangered by Islam, and the Emperor badly needed the support of the West, and even of those annoying Slavs in the Balkans.

It should also be noted that when the Westerners marched toward Jerusalem the natural route was through the Morava valley which was inhabited by the Slavs. As a matter of fact when one of the leaders of the Third Crusade (Barbarossa) came through there in 1189, Nemanja met him at the border of Rascia and proposed that he forget about Jerusalem and instead occupy Constantinople, but at that moment Barbarossa was not interested.

Byzantine rulers, for their part, did not know whom to trust. And in the confused evolution of developments, Nemanja sought to exploit the situation. He played the Latin world against the Greek, and in the process obtained from the West political recognition for Rascia and a crown for his son Stefan. A papal delegate delivered the crown in 1217. Soon thereafter Stefan the First-Crowned turned East, to the Patriarch of Nicea, and obtained ecclesiastical independence for Rascia. This was in fact the work of his brother Rastko (Monk Sava), who was ordained the first native Serbian archbishop. All Serbs know that Sava began the illustrious line of Serbian archbishops and patriarchs who led the Serbian church and people through subsequent dark times, when the Moslem curtain had fallen upon the Balkans.

Rascia (now Kingdom of Serbia) continued its rise. After spreading its wings, Rascia never ceased being the nucleus of the nation. The small river that supposedly gave the name to Rascia is part of the Ibar river basin, located a few miles north of Kosovo. The capital of Rascia was the city of Ras, which was in the vicinity of today's Novi Pazar. The precise location of Ras has never been positively established. Some believed it to be at the location of Eski (Old) Pazar, but no ruins were found. The historian Jirecek, who is considered the outstanding authority on medieval Balkan affairs, maintains that Ras was the same place as the one called "Trgovishte," an important commercial center and caravan station used by Dubrovnik merchants until 1445, when the Turks built Novi Pazar.

Another important Serbian town was Dezhevo, from the name of the rivulet Dezhevka (left tributary of the river Rashka). It was built around the Royal Court to replace the antiquated facility at Ras. This is the place where in 1282 King Stefan Dragutin, ruler of the northern regions of Serbia and Srem, abdicated in favor of his brother, King Stefan Milutin (1282-1321), who until then had ruled the southwestern parts of Serbia.

In the immediate vicinity of Ras and Dezhevo are the well-known old Serbian monasteries of Sopochani and Djurdjevi Stubovi.

It is interesting that Serbian medieval documents use the terms "Rascian Lands" and "Rascian King" only in a few instances. Serbs nearly always referred to their territories as Serbian lands, especially in the post-Nemanja period. Merchants and diplomats from the coast city republic of Dubrovnik, who maintained close links with Serbian authorities and courts, used Vatican nomenclature and called Serbia "Sclavonia," although subsequently they adopted the term "Serbia."

The inhabitants of Dubrovnik, those that knew the language, felt very much at home in Serbia, but they had their good and bad days there. Because the two main caravan routes to Constantiniple passed through Serbian territories, custom bills were due to Serbian rulers, complaints were filed, requests for protection or bailing out of jail submitted, down payments made, and court cases litigated. Thanks to all the resulting documents, filed in the Dubrovnik archives, historians have been able to reconstruct the fabric of life in Medieval Serbia.

Serbian rulers, in a manner of speaking, were seeking to pursue a "non-aligned" policy. On the one hand, they fought Byzantium but could never rid themselves of its spell. Although Serbia was never governed directly by Byzantium, as the well-known Byzantologist, George Ostrogorski, says: "... it is impossible to separate its medieval history from Byzantium." This should not be understood, however, as cultural assimilation. After all, Constantinople was the cultural capital of the world at that time. No wonder that young emerging neighboring states should look to it as an example.

At times the Serbs were successful in their struggle against Byzantium. Tsar Dushan (1331-1355), whose formative years were spent in Constantinople during his father's exile there, conquered half of it (Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly), and made Serbia the strongest empire in the Balkans. Serbia's territory in Dushan's time covered the vast area from the Danube, the lower Adriatic, and the Aegean. He signed his edicts: "Emperor and Autocrat of the Serbs, Byzantines, Bulgars, and Albanians."

Dushan did not hide his claim to the throne of Byzantium. In 1345, he conquered Serres, the city in Greece on the road to Constantinople. He wanted the powerful Greek clergy in Byzantium to recognize him. When the patriarch at Constantinople hesitated to crown him, he summoned the Serbian and Bulgarian bishops for a council at Skoplje. The bishops raised the autocephalous Serbian archbishopric of Pech to the rank of Patriarchate (1346), and in less than a month the newly-elected Serbian Patriarch (Joanikije II) crowned Stefan Dushan emperor.

Dushan may have grown up in Constantinople, but he also sought approval in the West, notably from Venice and the Papacy, suggesting that he be regarded as "Captain of Christendom." To be sure, Dushan had subjugated the center of Byzantine Christianity, Mount Athos. Apart from Constantinople, this finger-shaped peninsula (south of Salonika) on which Mount Athos stands was the most active spiritual and cultural center of Byzantium. This oasis of poverty, chastity, and obedience--the three vows that every monk was required to take--was a beacon that attracted souls yearning for peace and education. Secular Balkan leaders at times found this a reservoir of skillful hands and brilliant minds from which they recruited.

Dushan travelled to visit the Serbian monastery (Hilandar) on Mount Athos, together with his wife Jelena, a feat in itself, because no female (human or animal) was ever permitted to set foot on the peninsula of Mount Athos. Today, as one visits Hilandar and walks the path leading from the small harbor to the monastery there is a stone cross-like monument where allegedly Empress Jelena heard the voice of the Blessed Mother, warning her not to enter the monastery but to stay put where she was. Even the monks who tell you this story today shake their heads in reverent awe and say: "I wonder who would have dared say that to Dushan the Mighty!"

The influence of the Romanized world, on the other hand, was far from negligible, and at times a source of great tension. In the entourage of Serbian kings, Roman Catholic courtiers, German guards, and foreign ladies wed to Serbian kings tried to interject tidbits of Latin style, fashion and mores. The best Serbian appreciation of Romanized culture is Stefan Dechanski's (1321-1331) beautiful monastery church of Dechani, built by a Franciscan friar and Dalmatian stone masons, with fresco works by the Kotor school artists. It is known, however, that both King Milutin and later Stefan Dechanski's son, Tsar Dushan, were occasionally annoyed by the Western influence but tolerated it.

Most of Dushan's imperial time was spent in the Hellenic area of his realm. Knowing Greek, he felt pretty much at home there, leaving central Serbia in the care of his son Urosh. Dushan replaced the Greek aristocracy with Serbian administrators, his comrades in arms, and gave them Byzantine titles. This could not have pleased the inhabitants, but Dushan was more interested in courting the Venetians, who could give him the ships necessary to take Constantinople. But to the Roman Catholic West Dushan was and remained an "Eastern Schismatic" who was not to be trusted. In a sense they were right, because Dushan was seeking to shape the culture of his realm through the use of the Serbian clergy and nobility, recruited from the Serbian peasantry, anti-Western as much as anti-Eastern.

* * * *

Serbia of the Nemanjich dynasty was without doubt a land of economic and cultural progress that surpassed the existing European average. Apart from the well-known monasteries and their impressive frescos there are smaller but masterly art objects from that era: golden cups and challices, candlesticks and silver plates, jeweled reliquaries, delicate embroideries, book bindings, and artistic illuminations--produced by talented people in a society which gave them an opportunity to express themselves. As for the Serbian rulers, unlike those in the West, they did not build enduring castles, but each one of them felt duty bound to build at least one monastery.

In the legal-governmental sphere, Tsar Dushan's Code of Laws (Zakonik), studiously prepared over a period of about six years (1349-1354), is recognized to be among the leading law systems of the world.

Moreover, Medieval Serbia was also a part of the international community, relating on a state to state basis in matters of political, military, and cultural importance. Serbian royal courts communicated on levels of respect and honor with Venetian Doges, Hungarian Kings, Bulgarian Tsars, and Byzantine Emperors. Moreover, they were connected through marital arrangements with most of them. The first wife of Stefan the First-Crowned was Eudocia, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexis III. King Stefan Urosh I married the French princess Helene (House of Anjou), and Stefan Dragutin married Katherine, daughter of Hungarian King Stephen V, just to name a few.

It is only natural that a society with its own alphabet, language, state, and autocephalous church, should have the urge to create its own literature and culture. A large body of Western medieval literature, such as the Old and New Testaments, liturgical books, theological treatises, dogmatic and apochryphal works, chronicles and life stories of the saints, was there either in the original or in translation. And major medieval novels, such as the tales about Alexander the Great, Tristan and Isolda, were also known. But this was not enough. The need to have their own literature was strongly felt by Serbian rulers and their associates.

Among the Serbian medieval literati were ecclesiastics and lay people. Two of them were of royal blood, although technically not because Nemanja was not crowned (Nemanja's two sons, Stefan and Rastko-Sava--a rare case in the world's history), and one was of noble princely heritage (Prince Lazar's son Despot Stefan). Others were of peasant stock, educated as monks or priests. Still others were foreign born, highly educated, who found cultural refuge in Serbian courts or monasteries. The very proximity to the great Hellenic culture, almost guaranteed that many cultured men would be roaming the Balkan spaces.

Monastics, courtiers, and a maze of Slavic-speaking subjects of Venice, Byzantium, Hungary, and Bulgaria swarmed around Serbian literary centers. Knowing the Serbian language was an asset in other than literary activities. Venice and Byzantium, and later the Turks, quickly discovered that interstate and other correspondence was likely to be most efficient if carried out in Serbian.

One of those yearning for peace and education was the Serbian Prince Rastko (Sava), Nemanja's youngest son, mentioned above. Clandestinely he left the court. One stormy night he banged on the heavy wooden gates of a Mount Athos monastery (Panteleimon), pleading with the monks to let him in, and save him from the inclement weather and a posse. He was admitted, and began to study theology, languages, and history. His aging father subsequently joined him, and purchased an old ruin where the building of the Serbian monastery Hilandar was begun a short time before he fell ill and died.

The respectful son later wrote a biography of his beloved father, the founder of the dynasty and Serbian statehood. He titled it, The Life of Master Simeun, a work dealing with with the secular Nemanja but with the spiritual Simeon the monk of noble heritage. In addition to a profusion of translated church manuals, canonic and instructive texts for use by Serbian monks and priests back home, Sava also tried his hand at verse writing. Being the most traveled Serb of his time, Sava visited and personally knew several Byzantine emperors (Alexis III, Theodor Lasker, John Vatatzes, Theodor Angelicus), and the patriarchs of Constantinople (Athanasius) and of Nicea (Manuel). Sava knew the frailty of men, the mighty and the weak. In a poem, entitled "Word about Torment," he writes:

Dead am I even before my death,
I sentence myself even before the judge does.
Even before the ceaseless pain sets in,
I am already tortured by my own agony.

Sava's brother, King Stefan the First-Crowned (11961228) also wrote a biography of his father. But being occupied with matters of state, he had little time for spiritual preoccupations, and hence his biography is written from the point of view of a dynast, national ruler, protector of the faith, and statesman. While Sava had been of invaluable help to his brother in consulting about national affairs, he did not write about it. Stefan began writing the biography after Nemanja's body had been brought to Serbia (Studenitsa Monastery) in 1208 and finished it in 1216. Other Serbian writers later wrote about Nemanja, but none with such a wealth of detail and so informatively.

Subsequently, a new generation of Serbian authors wrote about Sava and King Stefan, particularly the monks Domentian and Theodosius (second half of the 13th century), both of the Hilandar school. There were authors who attained high ecclesiastical posts, such as Archbishop Danilo II (1324-1338), who personally knew three Serbian kings (Dragutin, Milutin, and Stefan Dechanski). He wrote a historical essay on the "Lives of Serbian Kings and Bishops." His poem, "The Lament of Bulgarian Soldiers for Tsar Mihail," is a part of every Serbian anthology (Mihail was Stefan's father-in-law, killed in the battle of Velbuzhd, 1330, the battle that ended Bulgarian primacy among Slavs in Byzantium). Among Serbian medieval patriarchs, the best of the literati was Danilo III (elected at the council of Zhicha, 1390), who together with Lazar's widow Militsa and her children, transported the body of the beheaded Prince from Prishtina to the Ravanitsa Monastery and canonized Lazar to Sainthood.

As for Lazar's son, Despot Stefan (1389-1427), he was an exceptional man indeed. A dashing man of war, letters, and politics, he was the hero of the Battle of Angora (Asia Minor, 1402), where he fought as a Turkish vassal for Bayazet, the killer of his father. Of the three Serbian vassals in Turkish ranks at the earlier battle of Rovine (in Wallachia in 1395 against Prince Mircea), Stefan was the only one who survived. The popular King Marko of Prilep and Konstantin Dejanovich of Eastern Macedonia perished. Despot Stefan was a great benefactor, protector of refugees, writers, and artists. A humanist of wide culture, he was also an author in his own right. One of his poetic scripts is entitled: "Love Surpasses Everything, and No Wonder Because God Is Love." Another was the "Ode to Prince Lazar," a beautiful text chiseled in the marble column which was placed at the spot of the Kosovo battle. A third, "An Ode to Love," was dedicated to his brother Vuk, whom he once fought at that very field of Kosovo. In Stefan's monastery, Resava, generations of monks, scribes and artists have worked tediously to preserve the Serbian heritage (the famous Morava school).

A great patriot and Serbian nationalist, Stefan Lazarevich had the misfortune of presiding over the declining days of his beloved country. Had he been Dushan's successor instead of Lazar's, the history of the Serbian people might have been different. At a crucial time when Serbia had a chance to outmatch Byzantium, Dushan's son Urosh ruled (13551371). He was a weakling, lacking the necessary firmness and general leadership qualities. The respect and awe that Stefan commanded among the Turks and Tartars at Angora, when he rode at the head of three gallant charges against Tamerlane, in an effort to save his surrounded suzerain, speaks of the effect his presence might have had if he had inherited the throne in 1355, when Dushan died.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see it clearly, but could King Vukashin and Despot Uglesha even have anticipated Kosovo? Could the Hungarian kings have foreseen Mohacs? Could John VI Cantacuzenus have known what he was doing to himself, to Byzantium, and to the Christian world, by leaning on the support of his powerful but dangerous Moslem ally? And the countries of the West, could they have known what their insistence on ecclesiastical submission to Rome, as a price of aid, would lead to?

When in desperation, Byzantine Emperor Manuel II begged for assistance from the Pope, the Doge, the kings of France, England, and Aragon, his plea for help in fighting against the "infidels" went unanswered. The Emperor spent several years on this tragic mission to Venice, Paris, London, and other cities. The trip was full of pageantry and had a certain cultural importance in terms of the early renaissance education, but from a political point of view it meant only vague promises that remained unfulfilled. Reconciliation between East and West, the Greek and Latin worlds, Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, were out of the question. The two sides would not attempt to do together what they were unable to achieve alone, i.e., to stop the Turks. One wonders, would there have been two sieges of Vienna (1529 and 1683), if Roman Catholic Europe had come to the aid of the Eastern Orthodox Emperor (Dushan) in the 1350s.

Even the defeats at Nicopolis (town in Bulgaria on the Danube, 1396), and Varna (1444), which wiped out all hopes for Christendom to clear the Balkans of Islam, could not bring unity. After Nicopolis, Hungarian King Sigismund and a motely crew of French and German knights barely saved their lives, in an escape that took them all the way through the Dardanelles. As they sailed through the narrows, the Christian captives were lined up along the banks, on the order of the Sultan, and made to shout at their humiliated leaders. And at Varna, the Christian leaders did not have an opportunity to flee: King Vladislav of Hungary and Poland, and the Pope's delegate, Cardinal Julian Cesarini, fell on the field. Djurdje Brankovich, the last of the Serbian despots and a weak member of the Christian coalition, realized even before Varna that the coalition's chance for success were poor, and withdrew. This did not help, however, the Despotate, which succumbed in 1459, six years after Constantinople fell to the Turks (1453). The black two-headed eagle of Byzantium moved to Moscow to become the symbol of the "Third Rome," nourishing the fancy of Balkan Slavs for centuries to come.

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