The main street in Gracanica, a village on the outskirts of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, is lined with bakeries and markets strung together in a jumble until the shop fronts give way to a high stone wall. Step to the other side and the hum of automobiles falls away almost entirely. At the centre of a wide lawn sits Gracanica Monastery, a masterpiece of late-Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture, its rosy domes like stepping stones that draw the eye and the spirit towards the sky.
Gracanica was the last monastery constructed, in the early 14th century, by the Serbian King Stefan Milutin, who had promised God that he would build a church for each of the 40-odd years of his reign. Inside the nave, scarcely an inch of the stone shows through the hundreds of frescoes that ascend the walls and pool in the arches of the cupolas. One need not count oneself among the faithful to be silenced by the suffusion of contemplation and colour — seabed blues, opulent scarlets and gold halos of the sainted patriarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church, their faces blackened remarkably little over seven centuries.
When I visited Gracanica, a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, Trojan Parlic, a caretaker with delicately graying curls and a corduroy blazer, led me to a rendering in the church’s nave of 16 branches of the medieval ruling dynasty. Christ the Pantocrator floated protectively at the summit. Parlic told me that the entire interior had been completed over three years, from 1318 to 1321, by two artists from Thessaloniki.
“So the painters were Greek?” I asked. Parlic shrugged. “I don’t know if they were Greeks or if they were Serbs. It doesn’t matter.”
Ah, but it does. Kosovo has long been called “Serbia’s Jerusalem” because of the important medieval monasteries, like Gracanica, within its borders. It is also where the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, a defining event in the creation myth of Serbian civilisation, took place. On the Kosovo plain, a valley that opens out to the northwest of Gracanica, the Christian Serbs were, according to the myth, defeated by the Muslim Turks and subsequently endured 500 years of domination under Ottoman rule.
In the years leading to the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbian epic poetry idealising the martyrdom of 1389 breathed life into the nationalist ideology that held Kosovo as the Serbian homeland “composed of heaven and earth.”
The myths can be and have been deconstructed, but that didn’t prevent them from being used as propaganda by the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in a campaign of systematic violence directed against Kosovo’s Albanians in the late 1990s. A NATO intervention in 1999 helped stop the violence and in 2008, with the backing of the United States, Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia as a new, Albanian-majority state.
At Gracanica, I stood next to Parlic before the figure of John the Baptist washing the darkness from Christ, while just above them the soldiers of a Roman army battalion advance into the frame, demanding to be baptised. This was the first instance, Parlic told me, of medieval iconography displaying pagans who sought to become Christians.
Parlic leaned in closer to me. “Are you very religious?” he said. I took that as my exit cue and made my way across the clean lawn. From there it was a seven-minute walk through town to my hotel. Hot pink stucco houses tumbled down a country road and a scattering of wire chicken coops backed up against freshly-laid brick sidewalks.
A 15-minute drive then took me to Pristina, a postwar boomtown of sorts, with luxury high-rises popping up in every other neighborhood and cranes in primary colours punctuating the skyline. Everyone seems to know but won’t say what’s driving the boom; Kosovo remains one of the poorest countries in Europe and corruption has helped keep it there.
The next morning, a drive across the Kosovo plain, through the early morning shadows, brought me to the Visoki Decani Monastery, reputedly one of the most beautiful places in the western Balkans.
The monasteries have been viewed as symbols of Serbian oppression during moments of tension and have been the target of protests. Outside the town we slalomed between brightly striated roadblocks that led to a checkpoint, where Italian marines, remnants of the NATO forces during the war, photographed our license plate before letting us inside the property.
The monastery grounds are carved into the slope of a chestnut forest. Except for the trill of a few blackbirds, a stunning silence encircles the church, its facade of alternating lavender marble and straw-coloured onyx fusing into a bright white in the sun.
Decani, which was completed around 1335, is a livelier monastery than Gracanica and the Decani monks have a reputation for their hospitality and affinity for social media — they constantly update their Facebook page with photos of the concerts and lunches they organise for visitors. They are also known for their magnificent chanting. On Sunday morning the church’s nave, cool and damp and smelling lightly of incense, fills with the clear harmonies of the monks’ voices during an hour-long liturgy, the textures expanding into diminished chords before resolving into the consensus of unison.
Among the hundreds of darkened frescoes, strips of light from a few high-placed windows irradiate the face of the Madonna, her mystical gaze inviting the worshipper to trust that what is unknowable to the human mind might be experienced through the ecstasy of the spirit.
Later, while visitors sipped raki, I spoke with Father Sava Janjic, the abbot of Decani. Father Sava is known for his humanist views — he has been criticised by Serb nationalists for helping Albanians during the war and by Albanian nationalists for his firm stance on protecting Decani and other Orthodox sites.
He is also known for emphatically expressing these views on Twitter, which has earned him the title of “cyber monk.”
He served me sweet apple juice from the monastery orchard.
“We happen to be something different, which doesn’t fit into someone’s political and historical narrative,” Father Sava told me, his face framed by a halo of frizzy blond hair, his expression soft except when he hit on a particularly urgent thought. The day before, the church had won a 16-year lawsuit over ownership of the property.
“Unfortunately there seem to be some people who believe that they have to change history and everything in the nation-building process,” he said. “But I always say the identity of these places has to be understood in layers.”
The drive back to my hotel took me past a construction lot promising “luxury living” at something called the Diamond Residence and a BMW dealership that had been erected next to a junkyard. The country seemed to be barreling ahead in its rush to cover up the old layers with new ones. Maybe, it occurred to me, that’s not the only way.