From Metropolis, January 2005
As ethnic conflict persists in Kosovo, churches and other buildings have become disputed territory.
An Italian soldier is standing in front of a sign that reads “THIS IS THE LAST CONTROL POINT IN KOSOVO” stopping cars as they weave through large concrete blocks on the road outside of Peja, formerly known as Peć, a scenic city on Serbia’s southwestern border with Montenegro and Albania. To the left of the checkpoint, a metal barrier blocks the way to the Patriarchate of Peć, one of two medieval churches placed on the World Monuments Fund’s “100 most endangered sites” list after NATO took control of the territory in 1999. Since then, more than one hundred Serbian Orthodox churches in the province have been burned down, including thirty-four last March in a series of politically-motivated riots.
Architecture has a long history as a symbolic pawn in the Balkans, where the loss of the Hagia Sophia to the Ottoman Turks is still actively lamented in some quarters. During the two centuries before the Ottoman conquest—near the end of the Byzantine Empire’s reign as the center of Christian power in Europe—the Slavic ancestors of the Serbs built dozens of churches in Kosovo to mark their medieval kingdom’s ascendancy. Until recently the churches continued to be prized by Serbs and Albanians alike—the latter now vastly the majority population—but after a decade of acrimonious politics and antagonistic gestures, including attacks against Serbs by the Albanian-led Kosovo Liberation Army and a spate of nationalist church-building by a Serb businessman with ties to Slobodan Milosevic, religious monuments are again on the front line of battles for the contested territory.
“This place is like Jerusalem to the Serbian Orthodox church,” a nun (who wished to remain anonymous) tells me as we walk through the 13th century Peć monastery, filled with spectacular Byzantine icons, tombs, and frescoes. “We are walking on the bones of our ancestors—archbishops, saints, patriarchs, holy people, martyrs. This place is still spiritually the center of our church, although the administrative center is in Belgrade.” A few dozen nuns live behind the walls surrounding the church, protected by a handful of Italian troops, but the town of Peja is now otherwise empty of Serbs. In most of southwestern Kosovo, they were either chased out or left in fear when the Yugoslav army backed out of the territory, and traces of its Byzantine heritage are quickly disappearing in their absence.
Outside the cloistered walls of the monastery, the town of Peja has largely recovered from the devastation of the war, at least on the surface. As NATO dropped bombs on strategic targets throughout Serbia, Serb paramilitaries deported the entire Albanian population and burned down three-quarters of the town. “Deportation was something new, but otherwise it was the same technique of warfare as in other places,” says Erzen Shkolloli, an Albanian artist who opened the first contemporary art gallery in Peja last year. Almost immediately after the troops left, the Albanian refugees returned, and the city has been so completely reconstructed in the intervening five years that it has an almost modern character.
“I’m afraid that the character of Kosovo is changing,” says Ksenofon, a monk at the exceptionally well-preserved 14th century Dečani monastery, about seven miles south of Peć, also placed on the WMF’s most endangered list in 2002. “Albanians would say that the Byzantine heritage is actually located on Albanian territory occupied by Serbs since the 14th century, and they see a Serbian symbol here. Of course, we never wanted to use our church to propagandize the Serbian cause, although it was built by a Serbian king. It’s part of the Serb, European and world cultural heritage.”
Last June, UNESCO inscribed Dečani on its list of World Heritage sites, acknowledging its historical value as a monument to the medieval Serbian kingdom and its cultural value as representative of the last important phase of Byzantine-Romanesque architecture before the Ottomans conquered the region. “This is really a wonderful monument,” says Marie Paule Roudil, head of UNESCO’s southeastern Europe section. “The experts also made a recommendation to consider two other sites in Kosovo, the monastery of Peć and the monastery of Gračanica, which are also extraordinary sites. They need conservation work, which is not a consequence of the conflict but a result of the lack of conservation.”
Indeed, even as UNESCO recognized the Dečani monastery’s importance to Serbian culture and world heritage, dozens of other historic properties remained vulnerable to the changing demography of the region. Although it formally remains a province of Serbia, the territory is currently divided into four zones policed by Italian, German, American and multinational troops. A decision about its political future is expected later this year, but in the absence of a clear solution, it continues to be administered by the UN Mission in Kosovo.
“In the Balkans, cultural heritage was used for political purposes to show the power of the government,” says Baki Svirka, director of the Institute for Monuments Protection at the Ministry of Culture, a part of the Kosovar provincial government, which is lobbying for independence from Serbia. “In the middle ages, we didn’t have nationalities: we had Eastern churches and Western churches. We treat all cultural heritage in Kosovo as Kosovo’s cultural heritage, according to the rules of UNESCO, without having in our minds whether they are Orthodox churches or Catholic churches or Muslim mosques.”
But further south in Prizren, the charred shells of houses on a hill overlooking the city’s historic center cast doubts on the viability of an independent, multiethnic Kosovo. The worst destruction during the March riots happened here in the German zone, where failure to equip soldiers with tear gas resulted in the entire Serb quarter and three Orthodox churches being torched in two days, including the 14th century Bogorodica Ljeviska Cathedral, now in danger of collapse. In the same year that the World Monuments Fund placed the Peć and Dečani monasteries on its “100 most endangered” list, it also listed Prizren’s historic center because of the need to conserve the city’s Ottoman and Muslim heritage. But in a sad reflection of the current state of Kosovo, Albanian mobs presumed to be impatient with the pace of political change went on a rampage that left Prizren’s Byzantine monuments in ruins. An entire platoon is now securing the abandoned buildings. “It is obviously a very delicate situation,” says Roudil. “The situation is not so simple. It will take time, in any case.” --Stephen Zacks