“They Steal History”

Pec, Kosovo – My driver pulled over about thirty meters from the military blockade and turned the engine off. There was a tank in the road. Turning to me, he politely explained that he wouldn’t be allowed any further. Awkwardly, I paid him and climbed out to continue on foot. At the checkpoint a soldier copied my passport info and waved me down an empty country road leading to the seven hundred year old monastery. I watched my driver as he pulled away and felt like an ass. Foreigners can enter Kosovo’s Christian monasteries, but Muslims—even Kosovo Muslims—can’t. I was just a visitor in his country, and yet I could enter and he couldn’t. I turned and walked down the dirt road…

It had been a short but tense car ride. Upon arriving in Pec (pesh), I had approached an idling cab to get a ride to this place, which sits just beyond the edge of town. “Patriarchate Pec,” I said, to which he nodded and waved me into has cab. On the way, my driver had asked why I wanted to see the monastery and I offered my usual bland response.

“I like history.”

“The Serbs do not have history,” he fired back. “They steal history!”

And he slapped the steering wheel. I really wasn’t sure how we got onto this subject. I said nothing.

“They used to say Alexander was Greek,” he continued. He was talking about Alexander the Great, who lived over two thousand years ago. “Today they say he is Macedonian. Tomorrow he will be Albanian.” He turned around to point at my face as he said this, and I stared nervously. “You will see, it will come out. Just wait.”

* * * *

Pec’s story begins in the 13th century, when a Christian Serbian Kingdom increasingly dominated this part of the Balkans. Serbian institutions and power were growing and the Archbishop of Pec stood as the kingdom’s religious center. The future looked bright.

But it wasn’t Serbia’s time.  Further east, an even greater power was rising and it would soon cut short Serbia’s rise. In 1324 Ottoman forces conquered western Turkey and by 1387 they had crossed the Bosporus and taken Thessaloniki from the Byzantines.  Shortly after, they were at the doorstep of the Balkans’ greatest power.  Far more important than the battle at Nis, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo was a watershed in Serbian history, when the Ottoman army broke the back of Serbian resistance. The loss dashed Serbian ambitions to become a regional power and eventually ushered in four hundred years of Ottoman rule.

The Battle of Kosovo was even more significant because at that time the region represented the spiritual seat of the Serbian Kingdom. In the 13th century the Serbian archbishopric was located in the town of Pec, and political and religious leaders had begun situating themselves in Kosovo. Monasteries like Pec and Gracanica (near Pristina) were being constructed across the region and Kosovo was growing into the heart of Serbian Christianity.

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Photo: The beautiful interior of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Pec.

But that was then. Fast-forward beyond the Battle of Kosovo and the Battle of Nis, past five hundred years of Ottoman rule, and numerous bizarre turns of fate, and Kosovo is today the home to 1.6 million Muslims who make up 88% of its population. Although Christian monasteries like Pec remain at the heart of Serbian identity, they now lie within a region that is densely Muslim, and most Serbs who revere these sacred sites reside hundreds and hundreds of kilometers away. This fact played no small part in the Serbian genocide against the ethnic Albanian Kosovars in 1999 and Serbia’s subsequent refusal to recognize Kosovo independence. The Serbs have not forgotten their history, and often when they speak of the “Battle of Kosovo” they are not talking about the events of 1999 but the events of 1389.

* * * *

I spent some time wandering around Pec monastery, which is home to the largest medieval church in the Balkans and the region’s best preserved frescos. Inside, tall dusty walls are adorned with paintings of saints floating through cool pale spaces. The eyes on their ghostly faces scratched out by history (it was believed that pigment from the eyes of saints could restore sight). I thought about my Kosovar taxi driver who could not see these beautiful images because he wasn’t allowed to enter, and I foolishly decided to take some photos. This is strictly forbidden, and an old nun lurking in a black corner quickly chased me out of the building, giving me the violent reprimanding I deserved.

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Photo: The remnants of a mural inside the monastery at Pec. Their faces have been scratched out, as it was once believed that paint from the eyes of saints could cure blindness.

Afterward I lingered in the shade of the courtyard where a young nun sat chewing on fat, red wild berries. A read for a while then headed back to the military checkpoint and hitched a ride to town.

I was in church-mode and feeling restless, so I decided to return to Pristina the same day to see Gracanica Monastery. This is another important religious site located in a Serb enclave five kilometers outside of town (I’d spent some time in Belgrade marveling at the awesome St. Marks Church modeled after Gracanica). I was on a roll, and after only forty minutes there I picked up the pace and decided to try catching the last bus for Sofia.

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Photo: Gracanica monastery near Pristina, Kosovo (there’s a replica in Chicago.)

As the sun set that evening I found myself back in Pristina, where a bus driver shooed me off on the side of a highway overpass. I was entirely lost. As I walked the hot dusty road a young boy in a suit asked me if I needed help. His name was Fidan and he was headed to the station, so I accepted his offered to walk me there.

Fidan was from northwest Kosovo, a troubled region where Serb-Muslim violence was not entirely a thing of the past. Mitrovice, the town where he lived, saw some of the worst unrest in 2004when Serbs were the victims of ethnic violence. It was a startling aftershock to the 1990s Kosovo War in which 13,000 ethnic Albanians were murdered and hundreds of thousands more driven from their homes.

Fidan in his sleek black suit was headed back to Mitrovice for his uncle’s wedding. I asked what brought him to Pristina and he said it was work. There was not much work in Mitrovice, so several months earlier he found an office job in Pristina and moved here.

“It’s easy to find work in Pristina now?” I asked.

“No. It’s better, but still hard.” Fidan’s English was good. In Pristina, he explained, Kosovars struggle to compete with better-educated Serbs.

“They can come and go from Serbia. I cannot.” The work in Serbia is better, he claimed, but if he wants to leave Kosovo he needs papers from his city government.

“If I ask for those papers they will wonder why, and that could mean trouble.” I didn’t understand. “Serbs come and Muslims go; but my city doesn’t want Muslims to go.”

There was no question that Fidan wanted to go. He said he had left Kosovo illegally once. In Croatia without papers, he said, he was returned to Kosovo. He didn’t sound bitter, just frank. I asked how he felt about the Serbs in Kosovo.

“When I see a Kosovar, I don’t see a Serb or Muslim,” Fidan said. “I see a man.”

I wrote this statement on the napkin in front of me. For the words of a boy, it had the authority of someone great. Possibly Alexander the Great, that most famous Albanian. It contrasted with the belligerent words of my taxi driver that morning.

* * * *

I ate some cevapi and bought Fidan a small Turkish coffee, which he politely accepted. As I boarded the bus he ran up to my window with some snacks that he’d bought to repay me. I thanked him: the way to an American’s heart is no secret.

Fidan waved as my bus pulled out and rumbled south under the heavy sun. An hour or so later we arrived at the Macedonian border—the border crossing discussed so movingly by Simon Winchester in The Fracture Zone—and soon we were in Skopje.

My departure from Serbia was technically illegal. By entering Serbia in the north and exiting via Kosovo, I was—in the eyes of the Serbian government—leaving Serbia illegitimately. This meant that if I wanted to re-enter Serbia at a later date, I could be turned away. But I wasn’t coming back, so it didn’t matter. Not the way it would have mattered for Fidan.

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