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Formative Early Events in Kosovo’s Serbian History, and the UN-Overseen Destruction of that Historical Legacy

November 15, 2006

By Carl Savich

When discussing the opposing claims of Serbs and Albanians over Kosovo, its history and its rightful future status, mass media reports often include the obligatory sentence about Kosovo being “Serbia’s historic and culture heartland.’ Usually, the unstated implication for including the phrase is that the Serbs are unfortunate and delusional nostalgics, living in a world of anachronistic fantasy.

The need to address this matter has been brought up again, after the Serbian people recently voted for a new constitution which reaffirms that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia. Pragmatic-minded outsiders impatiently ask: why don’t the Serbs, who now make up only ten percent of Kosovo’s population, just give up? Historian Carl Savich provides a concise account of the facts explaining why the don’t.


The Serbs, one of the Slavic tribes that settled the Balkans in the 6th-7th centuries AD, acquired the spiritual and cultural orientation they have retained to this day when they accepted Byzantine Orthodox Christianity in the 9th century. They remained within Constantinople’s cultural sphere of influence, while however becoming more independent, forging autonomous kingdoms based on the opportunities that this Christian orientation provided for the development of a coherent civilization and state.

While there were some predecessors, the first major Serbian power arose in 1166, when the Nemanjic dynasty emerged, headed first by Tihomir and then by his brother Stefan. The Serbian Nemanjic dynasty would base the Serbian empire in Kosovo and Metohija, making Kosovo the political, cultural, and religious center of the Serbia. Metohija, which refers more specifically to western Kosovo, is a Byzantine Greek word indicating possessions held by the Orthodox Church. The Nemanjic dynasty would endure until 1371 when it would end due to the invasion of the Ottoman Turks and defeat at the 1371 battle of Marica.

As the Serbian empire sought an outlet to the Adriatic coast, the administrative and religious center of the empire shifted to Shkoder, Prizren, and Decani. From 1180 to 1190, Stefan Nemanja or Nemanjic conquered the Kosovo and Metohija regions, northern Macedonia, Skopje, and the upper Vardar River valley of Macedonia. After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, Kosovo became the administrative and cultural center of the Serbian state.

In 1219 the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church was moved to Pec in Metohija after the church obtained autocephalous or independent status. In 1054, the Christian church had split into two branches, the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches, an event known as the Great Schism. Northern Albania became predominately Roman Catholic and was thus incorporated into a powerful anti-Serb coalition led by Europe’s Catholic monarchs, led by the Pope. This created for the first time a divisive and confrontational setting for Albanians and Serbs.

During the reign of Stefan Dusan, 1331-55, the area of Antivar or Bar, Prizren, Ohrid, and Vlora were added to the Serbian Empire. In 1346 the patriarchal throne was permanently established at the Pec Monastery. In 1346, after Epirus and Thessaly were added to the Serbian Empire, Dusan was crowned the emperor of the Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Albanians in the Macedonian city of Skopje. A legal code was promulgated and the bishopric of Pec was proclaimed a patriarchate which established the Serbian Orthodox Church as independent from Constantinople. Prizren became the political capital of the Serbian Empire and was the chief Serbian city of trade and commerce. After the death of Dusan in 1355, Kosovo was ruled by King Vukasin Mrnjavcevic, who was a co-ruler with Tsar Uros, the last of the Nemanjic rulers.

On September 26, 1371, the Ottoman Turks scored a major military victory at the Battle of Marica near Crnomen over the Serbian forces of the Nemanjic Empire. In 1386, the Turks invaded Serbia and captured the town of Nis. The Bosnian King Tvrtko Kotromanic sent a detachment of troops to bolster the Serbian army and a combined force of Serbs and Albanians defeated the Ottoman Turkish army in Montenegro. Ottoman Turkish Sultan Murad I, 1362-1389, then in Asia Minor, began preparing a massive army to invade and conquer Serbia. This set the stage for one of the greatest battles in history, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.

The Battle of Kosovo took place in Kosovo Polje (“field of blackbirds,” in Serbian) outside of Pristina on June 28, 1389, on St. Vitus Day, or Vidov Dan. Northern Kosovo was then ruled by Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic, while his brother-in-law, Vuk Brankovic, ruled Metohija. Bosnian King Tvrtko sent a large contingent of Bosnian troops under the command of Vlatko Vukovic, while Vuk Brankovic led his troops himself.

Thus, the Ottoman army was confronted by a Serbian army which included Hungarian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, and certain Albanian nobles led by Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebljanovic. These Albanian princes were close allies of the Serbs at that time and there were close political and economic ties between the two groups. Both Murad and Lazar were killed in the battle which involved approximately 30,000 troops on each side. As the battle ended, the two Serbian contingents and the one Bosnian contingent withdrew, while the Turkish troops held the field. The Turkish troops also had to withdraw. But the death of Murad created a crisis in Ottoman leadership, so his successor, Bayezid, also had to withdraw his troops, lacking the manpower to continue the offensive. Thus it can be argued that the battle was inconclusive.

In 1448, the Second Battle of Kosovo occurred when the forces of the Hungarian noble Janos Hunyadi were defeated by an Ottoman Turkish army under the command of Murad II. By 1455, all of Kosovo fell to the advancing Ottoman Turks, who two years earlier had captured Byzantine Constantinople. By 1459, with the surrender of Smederevo, all of Serbia was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, and a new period of vassalage to a Muslim theocracy began.

Nevertheless, the center of Serbian religious life — the patriarchate at Pec — continued to operate, and the Serbian Orthodox Church’s ownership of its lands was not questioned, and the Serbs continued to live in Kosovo. Only in 1689, as an aftershock of the Ottoman-Austrian wars then going on, were Serbs forced to migrate en masse to the north and east. Nevertheless, the Serbian traditions, life and religion continued unbroken until very recently. And no occupier, neither the Ottomans, nor the Austro-Hungarians nor Nazis, could change this.

So despite the occasional wars and other turbulent events throughout the centuries, the cultural and historical continuity of the Serb’s in Kosovo was generally recognized and affirmed until 1999, when NATO invaded Serbia and the process of the final destruction of the age-old Serbian human and religious presence in Kosovo began in earnest, carried out by the descendents of those Albanian princes who had in ancient times fought side by side with the Serbs against the Ottoman Turks.

There are numerous examples of Serbian cultural heritage that were damaged or destroyed by Albanian extremists, following the NATO intervention, after which time the military alliance and UN police had promised to protect these sites. Roughly half of the total attacks (so far) happened in one four-month spree of violence.

Between June 13 and October 30, 1999, after NATO and UN troops occupied Kosovo, some 74 Serbian Orthodox Churches in Kosovo were damaged, destroyed or vandalized, many dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. The Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Musutiste, built in 1465, was “leveled with explosives,” while the Monastery of the Archangel of Vitina, built in the 14th century, was burned down. The Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God, also in Musutiste, which contained valuable painted frescoes and was built in 1315, was burned and later demolished. The Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Djurakovac, another 14th century structure, was also destroyed in 1999.

Near Korisa in the southwestern area of Prizren, St. Mark’s Orthodox Monastery, built in 1467, was looted, burned, and completely destroyed by explosives. The 14th-century Monastery of St. Archangel Gabriel in Binac, near Vitina, was also looted and burned down. The Monastery of St. Joannicius of Devic, near Srbica, built in the 15th century, was demolished and looted. The Monastery of Dormition-St. Uros in Gornja Nerodimlja, originally built in the 14th century, was dynamited and demolished too by Kosovo Albanians.
St. Stephen’s Church, built in the 14th century in Donje Nerodimlje, was mined and blown up. The Presentation of the Virgin Orthodox Church in Dolac, near Klina, built in 1620, was mined and torn down. The Presentation of the Virgin Church in Belo Polje near Pec, dating from the 16th century was burned. The 14th-century Monastery of St. Cosma and St. Damian, in Zociste, which contained priceless medieval frescoes, was looted and demolished.

These are just a few examples of the disgraceful events that have been allowed to go on under an international administration supposedly dedicated to upholding human rights and cultural diversity. During the past seven years, a UN administration manned mostly by international employees hired for six-month or one-year contracts, and who generally have shown little interest in or knowledge of Kosovo’s history and society, have allowed an entire culture and legacy to be all but wiped off the face of the earth. The United Nations, supposedly the world body that promotes peace and tolerance while celebrating history and culture, has in Kosovo violated its founding principles, guided by a handful of mere mortals eager to re-write history by destroying it, and to secure for themselves a place in it. It will be left to future generations to assess exactly what that place should be.

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