Saturday, August 14, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #10: With the Serbian Saints

Serbia had to be the biggest surprise on my recent journey. I think many of us still have lingering misconceptions left over from the bad press received under the Milosevic regime. I was not exactly sure of my expectations of Serbia. I just know that they were certainly exceeded. My itinerary took me over a fair portion of southern Serbia. I traveled up the E75 from Skopje, passing Nis, and turning west at Cicevac, and then angling down through Aleksandrovac on another of my so-called short-cuts. At Baljevac, I turned south to Novi Pazar, where I spent two nights. From there, I was able to venture into Montenegro as far as Rosaje. Leaving Novi Pazar, I drove north to the pleasant city of Kraljevo, and then cut back east to Cicevac. There, I headed north and east until I reached the Bulgarian border. This criss-crossing provided for a fair cross-section of the southern third of the country.

Simply put, Serbia is a beautiful country. The landscape compared favorably with any you might see in southern Germany, for example. The drive from Aleksandrovac to Novi Pazar was particularly memorable. This is very mountainous terrain, dotted with Swiss-type chalets and neat farmsteads. The more open (and empty) landscape in the east, approaching the Bulgarian border, contained some incredible vistas as well. I got the distinct impression that Communism in the old Yugoslavia was imposed with a lighter touch than in some of its neighbors. At least in this part of the country, one just dioes not see overbuilt monuments to the glories of Communism, or the rusting factories and the other detritus that is so common just across the Bulgarian border. There are still plenty of sputtering old orange Ladas and Yugos on Serbian roads, but by and large, the country seems a going concern with average middle class housing, normal vehicles and bustling towns and cities.

Although I stayed two nights in Novi Pazar, the city was not a favorite of mine. I chose it for its proximity to several monasteries I wanted to visit. Not all the Muslims in old Yugoslavia ended up in Kosovo, for Novi Pazar is a Muslim city. Southern Serbia that adjoins Macedonia, and the pocket of the country wedged between Montenegro and Kosovo is predominately Muslim. Novi Pazar itself is 85% Muslim and 15% Christian, complete with Saudi-financed medrassa. The city was frustrating to navigate, with long spidery streets that rarely connected with others. I circled through downtown for quite some time looking for the hotel I had in mind, only to find that they had no vacancy. The one they recommended was simply unfindable. So finally I resorted to a truckers motel out on the highway--which was just fine with me. I was not particularly interested in spending time in Novi Pazar itself.

Even though this area of Serbia--as well as northern Montenegro--is predominately Muslim, it is also the home to a number of Orthodox monasteries. Novi Pazar itself is also site of the oldest surviving church in Serbia. The Church of St. Peter dominates a hill, high above the city. Parts of the rambling church date to the 8th century, though most of the structure was built in 1196. St. Peter's sits amid an ancient cemetery, along with a caretaker's cottage and a bell-tower within the stone-walled enclosure. I found the church locked, so I walked over to the caretaker's cottage. I did not see anyone at first, but there was washing laid out on the front porch, so I knew someone was at home. I was able to make my presence known, and an elderly woman came out dressed in only stretch pants and what looked for all the world like a large bra. She got the large key to the church and hobbled over to the church. She told me that her name was Jovanna, and I gave her mine.

I was pleased to see that this was no mere museum piece, but a real, functioning parish church. The altar was in place, though with no iconostasis. The oldest part of the church contained a walk-in baptismal pool on the right-hand side of the nave. A side room had been converted into a hall. I lit some candles, said the Trisaghion Prayer and left a little money on the icon stands, as is customary. After I left St. Peter's, I had to drive back down into Novi Pazar. In so doing, I passed by the Orthodox Church in the city. I was interested to note that the church was behind a compound wall, just as you would expect to see in Turkey.

One of the most moving experiences of my entire journey occurred at my next destination, the Monastery of St. George in Ras, commonly known as the Pillars of St. George. The monastic complex crowns the highest hill overlooking Novi Pazar. I was unprepared for what I found there, as I had misunderstood that it was only the ruins of a church and monastery. In fact, the site did lay in ruins for over 300 years, but 1999 saw the beginning of a painstaking restoration. Much has been recovered and much remains to be done. The Serbian king Stefan Nemanja (later St. Simeon the Myrrhgusher,) the founder of Nemanjic dynasty, endowed the church and monastery in 1171. His great-grandson, the Saint King Dragutin (the monk Theoktist) is buried at St. George in Ras.

More important than the restoration of the structures itself is the revival of the monastic community there. The population of St. George in Ras consists of 10 brothers at the present time. I visited for some time with the hieromonk Nikon. He showed me around the grounds, including the small chapel of St. Nicholas, and then we visited in the gift shop. He spoke several languages, though English was not one of them. Our conversation consisted of him speaking in French and me pretending I understood. We were looking at the icons they had for sale, and he was telling me about one in particular. This particular saint had been beheaded. He made sure I understood by moving his hand quickly across his neck. I assumed this to have been one of those incidents that were all too common under the Ottoman yoke. I thought I heard something that I just could not believe, so I interrupted him. While my grasp of French is considerably less than I want people to believe, one thing I do know is my numbers in French. I said mil sept cent o mil huit cent? (1700 or 1800?) Fr. Nikon answered, Non! cinq ans o seis ans! (5 or 6 years!) I was shocked and quickly crossed myself. This was the monk Hariton of Prizren. As it turned out, a little more time had passed than Fr. Nikon thought. In 1999, the monk had been abducted in broad daylight by Albanian KLA extremists. His body was found a year later in a shallow grave. He had been beheaded and his body severely and grotesquely mutilated. Fr. Nikon showed some pictures taken as the monk Hariton was being abducted. Further information on the New Martyr Hariton can be found here. I purchased the icon and it now hangs in the narthex of our church. I walked down the hill, reminded that this was still the Church of the Martyrs. And in my mind, nothing confirms her claims more than the fact that there remain those who kill you for belonging to it.

Sopocani Monastery is a bit more remote than St. George in Ras. I headed southwest out of Novi Paz, through the mountainous countryside. The monastery is some ways out of the city, and I passed through several small Muslim villages before reaching the complex. The monastery is not on a hilltop, but on the side of a hill, surrounded by thick forests. A high chain-link fence surrounds the property. As I got out of my car, I noticed some local boys parked across the road. I could hear the Turkish music blaring from their car radio. I find it hard to explain, but I felt a certain oppressiveness in the air--as if this monastery were a beleaguered outpost, somewhat under siege. And I guess you might say it is. I saw about 4 monks there, but did not have the interaction I did at St. George in Ras. The language barrier was more pronounced, and they seemed more reserved, which is perfectly understandable.

The monastery boasted several new buildings, one of which I assumed to house the monks' cells. The church itself is simple yet impressive. I particularly wanted to see Sopocani as we are using it as a model for the church we hope to build in East Texas (at least the exterior.) While the outside view may give the impression that the church started out as a basilica, once inside it is clear that it never was. The structure is a small cross-in-square, with a large narthex added, and then a deep exo-narthex and bell-tower added to that. The monastery was founded by the Saint King Uros 1 (later the monk Simon) who ruled from 1242 to 1272. He was the grandson of King Stefan (St. Simeon the Myrrgusher), the son of Saint King Stefan the First Crowned (later the monk Simon) and the nephew of St. Sava. His tomb is in the southwest corner of the nave. The church lay in ruins for a couple of hundred years until King Aleksandar I Karadjordjevic initiated a restoration in 1926. Today, there are about 30 monks and novices at Sopocani. Architectural plans indicate considerable future construction that will result in an extensive monastic complex that will once more encircle the church.

From Sopocani, I decided to cross over into Montenegro. The border crossing turned out to be more problematic that I would have thought, given the recent date of separation between the two countries. I drove about 30 miles into the country, and was not as favorably impressed as I was with Serbia--nothing particularly wrong with Montenegro, just personal preference. Admittedly, 30 miles is not enough to pass judgment on a country. In my initial itinerary, I had planned to drive on to the old royal capital of Cetijne, which I understand as a certain Prisoner of Zenda feel to it. But this Montenegro excursion fell victim to the practical realities of my traveling. The country was more rugged and less populated. Lumbering and ski resorts were more in evidence. This part of the country was Muslim as well (although I did see an Orthodox church in Rasaje.) Coming back into Serbia, I passed several mosques under construction. The one pictured will be a sure-fire winner if they ever hold an "Ugliest Mosque Contest."

I decided that the best place to discuss my visit to Gracanica Monastery was in the context of my Serbian travels rather than the post on Kosovo (#8 in this series.) Simply put, Gracanica breaks your heart. Gracanica is a dusty market town, choked with traffic. The extensive monastery grounds are located in the center of things, behind a high stone wall with barbed wire extensions on top. KFOR troops man the entryway into the grounds. Within the enclosure, there are several towers with floodlights. The lights are directed not at the church, but at the walls. For without these precautions and without these troops, the walls would soon be scaled and the most achingly beautiful and historically significant structure in Kosovo would soon be reduced to a pile of rubble. The goal of Albanian nationalist extremists is a historyless Kosovo, with the past wiped clean. I have seen this sort of thing before, in the former Armenian lands of eastern Turkey.

Saint King Milutin, one of the greatest Serbian kings, completed Gracanica in 1321. By this date, the Serbian kings were far richer than the emperors in Constantinople Milutin was the son of King Uros I, founder of Sopocani Monastery. This king outdid all his predecessors in the building churches and monasteries. Milutin intended Gracanica to also be the place of burial for his dynasty, and indeed, his remains lie within the church. The fourth wife of King Milutin was Simonis, daughter of the Emperor Andronicus II and their portraits grace columns within the church. The interior of the church is as striking as the exterior, and the iconography at Gracanica is truly incredible. I seem to recall a lot of warrior saints being depicted. An elderly nun operated the candle and icon booth in the narthex. She seemed weary and sighed heavily as she dropped into her chair. In all, I saw 3 or 4 nuns, in addition to the 4 or 5 soldiers, and the young Serbian lady operating the gift shop near the entrance. While outside, I noticed a group of soldiers entering the church, taking off their berets as they did. Within the compound, one does not see the town or the situation outside. But I imagine that the concern is never far from their minds. I wonder, and worry about the future of Gracanica. Before I visited the gift shop, I was approached on the grounds by a toothless old beggar lady. I soon figured out that she was mentally handicapped. All I had on me were some Macedonian notes and a 50 Euro note. I tried to give her the Macedonian money, but she would not take them--as I am sure they are not exchanged within Kosovo. If I had a smaller Euro note, I would have given her that--but I had to have some money for emergencies until I crossed the border back into Macedonia. And so, she walked off. I went into the gift store and bought a couple of English language books on Kosovo--from the Serbian perspective. This broke my 50 Euro note--allowing me to give the beggar lady some and still have a little in case of emergencies. When back outside, I saw her across the way and motioned to her. I gave her a note--I do not now remember how much--and started for my car. She started kissing my hand and actually followed me all the way there, still kissing my hand. I do not mention this to build myself up, for it is no credit to me as I only gave out of my excess, after first making sure there was enough for my needs. But I could not help but think about the verse in Hebrews about "entertaining angels unawares."

The next morning, I prepared to leave Novi Pazar. This was the only place that I stayed where the breakfast was not included in the price of the room. After being served a more than generous breakfast, I received my bill from the waiter. I did the mental conversion from denars to dollars and determined that my breakfast cost the equivalent of 1 dollar. This is ridiculous, I thought. I paid the bill and left the waiter the equivalent of a 1 dollar tip. He thanked me profusely, and I thought he was going to kiss my hand as well. I feel very strongly about this sort of thing. In terms of our foreign policy, we have much to atone for. And first and last, we have inflicted a good bit of damage on this part of the world. This is a tiny thing, but maybe it will help others realize that we are not our government. And we should understand that of others as well.

A few miles drive north out of Novi Pazar and one was into a purely Serbian landscape once more. Studenica Monastery, perhaps Serbia's most famous, was my first destination. This church and monastery was founded by Saint King Stefan (St. Simeon the Myrrgusher) in the late 12th century. The bodies and relics of he, his son Saint King Stefan the First Crowned, and Saint Anastasia (the mother of Saint Sava) are in the main church on the monastery grounds. The monastery is situated on the edge of a small village, above the Studenica River. The monastic buildings are well-preserved and quite extensive. A gangly monk led me to the church and unlocked the door. By this time, I had seen quite a few Orthodox churches, but Studenica really stood out. I could easily see why it has remained so dear to the Serbian people. In our church, we have a framed icon of the Crucifixion. I knew it was a Serbian print. At Studenica I was able to view the original, over the west wall of the nave. I lit some candles, said my prayers and venerated the icons and the relics of the royal saints. I made my way back outside, and walked around the grouds a bit. By this time, some villagers had arrived. One thing I observed here and elsewhere was the significant presence of young men coming to pray. This is a good sign, I think.

As I was walking around the grounds, I began to hear the most amazing sound. I strained to hear it better. The chanting sounded like Heaven itself as it wafted throughout the courtyard. I thought that perhaps the choir had come into the church from a side entrance and were practicing. I made my way back to the church and went inside to listen. There was no choir. Only the solitary monk who had unlocked the church for me. He was walking around the church, singing alone. The acoustics were that good.

I worked my way back to the main road, and continued north to Kraljevo. There, I stopped at the Xica Monastery, a large monastic complex, with much additional construction underway. Being closer to a city, Xica received more traffic than the others I had visited--even Studenica. I continued to be impressed with the solemnity and devotion of those coming to pray and venerate the icons. Kraljevo itself is a nice city. I stopped briefly to look over a recently-completed church on the east side of the city.

Leaving Kraljevo, I pushed east towards Bulgaria. The countryside beyond the E75 highway is more rolling than mountainous. This region of the country was thinly populated and little visited, it seems. But this southeastern corner of Serbia was as picturesque as any I saw there. I stopped at a very nice roadside restaurant and rested and recouperated a bit. I walked over to a church under construction right across the road. In this part of the world, people build as they have the funds to do so. It seemed as is they had got the church "in the dry" so to speak, and would now complete it when they raised the needed funds. In light of our own economic woes, this does not seem such a bad way to go. The remote Serbian-Bulgaria border crossing was something of a hassle, but this was all on the Bulgarian side of things. I left Serbia behind, glad for the opportunity to experience a small slice of its culture.


elizabeth said...

Thank you for this. It is good for us to read of these monasteries. I know others who have visited this area as Orthodox Christians and it made a good and lasting impact... in our church we have prayed during the great entrance, for the suffering Orthodox Christians in these areas... Lord have mercy.

Mimi said...

I came to Orthodoxy through college studies, a semester or two which I focused on Serbia.

Thank you for these photos, visiting is definitely on my "someday" list.

Milton T. Burton said...

Magnificent photos.

Ian Climacus said...

Thank you, as always, for allowing me to travel with you: and I feel as though I've been there with your wonderful descriptions, history and experiences -- and the great photos. Thank you.

Bill M said...

Hi John, I don't know if I've ever commented here or not, but wanted to jump in and say how beautiful and thought-provoking your travel series is. I love the little glimpses of quirky humanity you write about, and of the deep history you are visiting.

John said...

Thanks, all. And Bill M, please do comment again.