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The Saga of Kosovo
The Saga of Kosovo

  

 

 

The Kosovo Battle


Of all Kosovo battles only one counts in the formation of the psyche of a Serb. It is the one that began in the early hours of Vidovdan (St. Vitus Day), June 15, 1389 (June 28 new calendar). The Turks had already been on the European continent for some time, seemingly unstopable and intoxicated by easy victories over the rival and disunited "infidels."

The battle of Kosovo took place on the part of the Kosovo plain that the Turks called Mazgit, where the rivulet Lab flows into the river Sitnica. Today's visitors learn where Sultan Murad's intestines were buried, where the Turkish standard bearer (Gazimestan) fell, where grateful Serbia erected a "Memorial to the fallen heroes of Kosovo," and where a marble column once stood (placed there on the order of, and authored by, Prince Lazar's son, Despot Stefan Lazarevich), which had the following inscription:

Oh man, stranger or hailing from this soil, when you enter this Serbian land, whoever you may be ... when you come to this field called Kosovo, you will see all over it plenty of bones of the dead, and with them myself in stone nature, standing upright in the middle of the field, representing both the cross and the flag. So as not to pass by and overlook me as something unworthy and hollow, approach me, I beg you, oh my dear, and study the words I bring to your attention, which will make you understand why I am standing here...At this place there once was a great autocrat, a world wonder and Serbian ruler by the name of Lazar, an unwavering tower of piety, a sea of reason and depth of wisdom ... who loved everything that Christ wanted... He accepted the sacrificial wreath of struggle and heavenly glory ... The daring fighter was captured and the wrath of martyrdom he himself accepted ... the great Prince Lazar... Everything said here took place in 1389... the fifteenth day of June, Tuesday, at the sixth or seventh hour, I do not know exactly, God knows.

Following World War II, a redesigned monument was erected, a 25 meter tall tower, together with about 25 acres of the surrounding land, where the famous Kosovo peonies supposedly sprout from the blood of the Kosovo heroes.

The Serbian army was encamped along the right bank of the Lab, an area suitable for both infantry and cavalry troops. The right wing of the Serbian army was under the command of Vojvoda Dimitrije Vojinovich. The left wing stood under the command of Vojvoda Vlatko Vukovich, sent by Bosnian King Tvrtko. Prince Lazar kept the command of the center for himself. The reserve was under the command of Prince Lazar's son-in-law, Vojvoda Vuk Brankovich.

Prince Lazar had many reasons to worry about the outcome of the forthcoming encounter. Murad gave him no time to rally his vassals and tributary lords, some of whom were conspicuously slow in marshaling their troops. Lazar's frantic efforts to obtain help from allies such as the king of Hungary, failed because it was difficult, if not impossible, to organize it on such short notice. Nevertheless, although ill-prepared, Lazar had no other choice but to face the enemy. Murad's advisers, a group of extremely skilled military veterans, insisted on immediate and fast action. Amassed in the area of today's Nish and Kumanovo, the Turkish generals were eager to meet the Serbs while still possessing the momentum of previously victorious campaigns.

Morale in the Serbian camp was not high. Lazar's commanders were torn apart by local rivalries, ominous jealousies, and distrust. Djuradj Stratimirovich-Balsha, prince of Zeta and son-in-law of Lazar, and some vojvodas of the northern regions were delayed by local "revolts" and opposition. Historians are still trying to ascertain whether the revolts were real or simply used as excuses. Two other of Lazar's sons-in-law, according to national tradition and accepted by some historians, were bitterly divided, under the influence of their wives. According to chroniclers, national bards, and traditional Kosovo saga, Vuk Brankovich of the old aristocracy, who married Mara, and Milosh Obilich, of lesser birth, who married Vukosava, fell prey to the ongoing feud between the two sisters. (Lazar's geneological history, as presented by the historian Aleksa Ivich, however, does not register Milosh Obilich among Lazar's sons-in-law.)

To make things worse, several well-known and gallant Serbian and Bulgarian princes were at that time already in the service of the Turkish conqueror, burdened by the obligations of vassalage. Among them, Dragash and Konstantin ruled in the area between Serres and Kustendil, while the sons of the late King Vukashin, Marko and Andrias, ruled as vassals in the regions of today's western Macedonia. One should keep in mind that at that time feudal mores required the vassal to serve his lord and not his people.

Prince Lazar could have taken some moral comfort from the fact that he and his people were defenders of Christian civilization, and that the forthcoming battle would probably be the last chance for Balkan Christians to repulse the Moslems. Some historians will dispute it, but there are others who maintain that quite a few among the leaders in the neighboring states--from Bulgaria, the Danubian lands, and even from the area of today's Croatia--took part in the battle. It is indisuptable, however, that among those who joined the Serbs were some Albanian princes. Even though no Albanian state had yet existed, Albanian tribes were close allies of the Serbs, and friendly relations between Serbian and Albanian chieftains were the natural result of their common desire to get rid of, first the Byzantine and then the Turkish oppressors. John Castriota (of Serbian origin), the father of the most prominent Albanian, Skanderbeg, came to Kosovo at the head of a combined Serbian-Albanian force mobilized in the area of Debar. Among auxiliary troops were the volunteers led by Palatine Nicolas Gara (Gorjanski), another one of Lazar's sons-in-law.

From the time that the Serbian notables and church dignitaries met in the city of Skopia (Skoplje), after the fatal battle in which King Vukashin and his army perished (Maritsa, 1371), and chose Lazar Hrebeljanovich as their leader, he enjoyed great popularity and respect. In addition to his personal qualities, he was also the husband of Militsa, the great granddaughter of Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjich dynasty. He therefore had some hereditary right to the throne of Serbia. Wise, charitable, well-cultured, and skillful soldier, he defeated the Turks in encounters that took place in 1381 and 1386, but it was becoming ever more evident that Lazar was winning battles but losing the war.

Lazar's Bosnian ally, Tvrtko I, defeated the Turks when they probed Bosnian territory (1386 and 1388). All this, however, made the Turks only more resolute, and as the year 1389 came, they were ready. The Eastern Christians in the Balkans were now faced, not by scattered Turkish forces, but by a great army. Sultan Murad led his army straight toward Lazar's capital (Krushevats). There was a bloody Turkish assault on the fortress at Nish, which the Serbs defended heroically for twenty-five days. This is where Murad himself had an opportunity to evaluate the morale and effectiveness of the enemy. When Murad's scouts reported the concentration of a large Serbian army at Kosovo, he marched immediately to meet it. Thus the Balkan Christians and the Moslems were locked in a decisive battle, a battle that the Moslems saw as an opportunity to break the backbone of Serbian resistance.

According to Serbian bards and tradition, Murad sent the following message to Lazar: "Oh Lazar, thou head of the Serbians: There was not and never can be one land in the hands of two masters...No more can two sultans rule here... Come straight to meet me at Kosovo! The sword will decide for us."

The famous painting by Uros Predic - The Kosovo Maiden

Modern historians have had understandable difficulties in trying to decipher the realities of the battle of Kosovo. They have had to sift through a myriad of often rhapsodic and idealized, mostly apologetical, renditions of relevant decisions and events. Contemporary chroniclers, and later a whole lot of biographers and "history writers," as a rule had to keep in mind the interests of their protectors and sponsors, with objectivity not always their trademark. The casual author, for instance, thought nothing of reviving King Vukashin (eighteen years after his death) and to bring him to Kosovo as a participant, with "his thirty thousand troops." Groping through all this poetic license was unavoidable. But to the credit of epic writers, many of them provided data that were later corroborated by more reliable sources.

It is quite certain that Prince Lazar must have held some kind of war council with his vojvodas on the eve of the battle. Some among those present must have had apprehensions about Serbian prospects, especially in the light of the hestitancy, lukewarm enthusiasm, and even disloyalty among some Serbian warriors. Prince Lazar could easily have agreed with the evaluation which a national bard put into the mouth of Vuk Brankovich: "Fight we may, but conquer we cannot... " Lazar could also have believed that some of his vojvodas were seriously thinking of passing over to the camp of the Sultan, among them Milosh Obilich, who was seen conferring with two other commanders and inquiring about Turkish battle deployment.

On the eve preceding the day of the battle, Prince Lazar, according to the Chronicles of Pech and Tronosha, and later the Chronicle of Monk Pahomie, asked for a golden goblet of wine to be brought to him. In his toast he mentioned three brave and dashing vojvodas as possible traitors, who were "thinking of deserting me and going over to the Turkish side." These three were Ivan Kosanchich, Milan of Toplitsa, and Milosh Obilich. Prince Lazar appealed to Milosh not to betray him, and drank a toast to him: "Do not be faithless, and take this golden cup from me as a souvenir." Milosh responded with a few words of noble indignation: "Oh Tsar, treachery now sits alongside your knee," an allusion that Vuk Brankovich was responsible for this lack of confidence. This scene on the eve of the battle reminds one very much of the Christian saga of the Last Supper, where Lazar emerges as a person similar to Christ, knows very well the inevitability of treachery among humans as well as knowing his own fate. Lazar behaved as a good Christian should, and had no rancor even toward those who failed him. As for Milosh, he too behaved as a gallant Christian: "For thy goblet I thank you. For thy speech, Tsar Lazar, I thank you not... Tomorrow, in the battle of Kosovo, I will perish fighting for the Christian faith."

It is indeed interesting that the Romanized West never saw Lazar and Milosh, and their likes of Serbian Orthodoxy, as fighters for Christianity. It is well to recall, however, that before going into battle, Lazar left the Serbian people the famous statement, which they have eternally treasured and which is the essence of the Gospel Message: "The earthly kingdom is short-lived, but the Heavenly One is forever."

As for the Kosovo Battle, all available information seems to confirm that Murad succeeded in surprising the Serbian army, as he had done at Maritsa in 1371. In accordance with the advice of his commander Evrenos Bey (of Greek origin), he launched his attack early in the morning while Lazar and his comrades were at prayers in the nearby Samodrezha Church. It was there that news reached him that the enemy was already attacking his front lines. It was there, also, that he was informed that Milosh and his two Godbrothers, Ivan and Milan, had been seen riding out in the early dawn toward the Turkish lines. This must have strengthened his belief that the three Vojvodas were indeed traitors, and that Vuk Brankovich was right when he expressed doubts about Milosh. He must have thought of the summons he had sent to all Serbs before the battle, which according to national tradition reads: "Whoever born of Serbian blood or kin comes not to fight the Turks at Kosovo, to him never son or daughter born, no child to heir his land or bear his name. For him no grape grow red, no corn grow white, in his hand nothing prosper. May he live alone, unloved, and die unmourned, alone!"

As Lazar blessed his soldiers, he led them into battle, the clash that was to decide the fate of Balkan Eastern Orthodox nations for a long period to come. The Turkish historian Neshri describes the first phase of the battle in the following words:

The archers of the faithful shot their arrows from both sides. Numerous Serbians stood as if they were mountains of iron. When the rain of arrows was a little too sharp for them, they began to move, and it seemed as if the waves of the Black Sea were making noise ... Suddenly the infidels stormed against the archers of the left wing, attacked them in the front, and, having divided their ranks, pushed them back. The infidels destroyed also the regiment... that stood behind the left wing... Thus the Serbians pushed back the whole left wing, and when the confounding news of this disaster was spread among the Turks they became very low-spirited... Bayazet, with the right wing, was as little moved as the mountain on the right of his position (Kopaonik). But he saw that very little was wanting to lose the Sultan's whole army.

But the quick thinking and decisiveness of the Sultan's son turned the flow of the battle. Among the Turks he was known as "Ildarin" (Lightning). He attacked the flank of the advancing Serbian force, and succeeded in repulsing and throwing into considerable disarray the hitherto victorious Christians. At that critical moment, a Serbian corps of some 12,000 cuirassiers was withdrawn from the battle by their commander, Vuk Brankovich. He apparently either lost his nerve or thought it inadvisable to lose all of his men in a futile battle. But Lazar was of a different disposition. He was resolute to fight to the end, and the end soon came. He tried to rally his disheartened troops around him, and led them into a new attack, which failed. Inevitably, the morale of the Serbs plummeted. Wounded, Lazar was taken prisoner, and his army, rapidly falling apart, was beaten and dispersed on the early afternoon of that very day.

Serbian chroniclers maintain that, as he was led to Murad's tent, Lazar saw the wounded Vojvoda Milosh there, and only then realized what a heroic deed he had done. Deeply touched, Lazar gave Milosh his blessing, as he realized that Milosh had mortally wounded the Sultan, striking him in the abdomen with a concealed dagger. Milosh got access to Murad's tent by pretending he had come to surrender and wanted to kiss the Sultan's foot.

There they were, in that tent all the featured actors of the Kosovo drama, ready for the final Shakesperian resolution of the plot. One of Murad's close advisers (All Pasha) lay dead already; he too a victim of Milosh's dagger. Prince Bayazet ordered Lazar and his nobles executed by the sword, in the presence of the dying Sultan. The Serbian nobles asked to be beheaded first. Bayazet turned down their plea. But when one of Lazar's vojvodas, Krajimir of Toplista, asked for permission to hold his own robe so that Lazar's head would not fall to the bare ground, Bayazet, impressed by such loyalty, granted the request. Milosh Obilich was beheaded first. As Lazar started to say a few last words to his nobles, he was abruptly stopped by the Turks. Kneeling, he could only utter: "My God, receive my soul."

Murad lived long enough to see his enemies beheaded. As he died, his younger son Bayazet made sure immediately to eliminate his brother Jacub, who had also taken part in the battle, and thus assure his ascendance to the highest position as head of the victorious Turks. Moreover, he took Lazar's daughter Olivera into his harem, and led the Turks in other battles. The Serbian princess must have meant a lot to the Turk called Lightning, because when thirteen years later he was taken prisoner by the leader of the Tartars (Tamerlane), Bayazet chose poison rather than watch the jewel of his harem, Olivera, serve her new master.

As Vidovdan 1389 came to a close, and the sun went down behind the mountains of Zeta (Montenegro) in thc west the night that would last five centuries began. Two tsars, both in their sixties, lay dead on the plain of Kosovo surrounded by their slain brave warriors. Murad's body was carried by his warriors all the way to Asia Minor, to thc city of Broussa. Present at the burial ceremony were two Serbian Vojvodas, the ones that were ordered by Bayazct to escort the body of their enemy. Today, the visiting tourist is told that the two sarcophaguses, next to Murad's contain the "bodies of unknown decapitated Serbian nobles."

By the grace of the new Turkish Sultan, the Serbs were allowed to pick up the severed head of their leader, and carry it together with the body to the Church of Vaznesenje Hristovo in Prishtina. Later the remains were moved to the Monastery Ravanitsa, which Lazar had built. The Serbian Church proclaimed Prince Lazar a saint and holy martyr. The mutilated body of the Saint Prince could not however, rest long in his native land. As the Turks moved to the north, his remains were carried to Frushka Gora (Vrdnik Monastery) in Srem, at that time in Hungary. The wandering bones had to be moved a fourth time, when in 1941 the Croatian Ustashi began pillaging Serbian holy places in the newly created Axis satellite, Independent State of Croatia. Tsar Lazar's relics were taken to Belgrade and now rest in front of the altar of the main Orthodox Cathedral. New generations can view and honor Lazar's shrunken body in the robe of faded red and gold brocade, a dark cloth hiding his head and the gap between it and his shoulders.

For the Serbs, Kosovo became a symbol of steadfast courage and sacrifice for honor, much as the Alamo for Americans--only Kosovo was the Alamo writ large, where Serbs lost their whole nation, but in the words of Sam Houston, it would be "remembered" and avenged.

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