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Serb Monks Maintain 700-Year-Old Kosovo Monastery


One of the most important cultural treasures in Kosovo is the Decani Monastery, the largest of all surviving medieval Balkan churches. The 14th century Orthodox church was recently added to UNESCO's world heritage list.

On a forested hillside in western Kosovo, it is a simple stone church with graceful arches and a small dome. It was completed in 1335 during the time of Serbia's King Dusan who is depicted in five of its wall paintings or frescoes.

Art historians call Decani the most significant medieval structure in this part of Europe.

UNESCO says the Decani Monastery represents an exceptional synthesis of Byzantine and Western medieval traditions. It says the monastery and its paintings exercised an important influence on the development of art and architecture during the Ottoman period.

Decani today is in a zone of conflict. The people outside its low walls are ethnic Albanians. The 30 Serbian monks who live inside are guarded by Italian troops from the NATO peacekeeping force that came to Kosovo five years ago.

Father Nektar, a youngish man with whiskers, wears the traditional black hat and robe of the orthodox clergy.

"We are living in this monastery like in a prison," said Father Nektar. "We can not go to the village and shop for ourselves as we used to do. We can not go to the village to help someone like we used to do in the past."

The few Serbs who used to live nearby fled with the Serbian army in 1999.

During the anti-Serb riots of last March some ethnic Albanians marched out from the village towards the monastery. The Albanian mayor of the village successfully turned them back. There was no damage to Decani.

Ilber Hysa, an ethnic Albanian who heads the Kosovo Action Civic Initiative, was appalled at the March violence. He says Kosovar Albanians' long tradition of tolerance was eroded by the Milosevic-era ethnic cleansing that included the destruction of several Islamic mosques.

"Because [of this] trust has been lost," said IIber Hysa. "And for this you do not need [to look] just at Kosovar Albanians to try to understand the importance of this. Also [you should] look very much at the Serbian Orthodox Church, who in the past was very much linked with politics."

During the Milosevic era the Serbian church was strongly associated with Serbian nationalism.

Father Sava, the monastery's deputy abbott, believes Decani can become a symbol of ethnic reconciliation, after surviving more than 600 years of conquest and battle.

"These places where the beauty and the history and something which is noble is enshrined so deeply in these stones and these frescoes is bringing people together around the values which have eternal meaning, around something which is not temporary, around something which is not only material but also spiritual and beautiful," he said.

Ilber Hysa agrees. He foresees a time when Serbs and Albanians live together in harmony and that over time Kosovar Albanians will take pride in Decani as a cultural treasure. This place, he says, can become an important tourist attraction in Kosovo's future.