Are ‘Serb’ churches Serb? Critique of an unwise choice

Pristina, Kosovo; Photo: European Union

On 12 and 19 September Kosovo’s main newspaper, Koha Ditore, printed a two-part article by Dr Bedri Muhadri, a historian, on Kosovo’s medieval churches and monasteries (English versions are here and here, respectively). Publishing it was unwise, I think, and I would like to explain why.

Dr Muhadri makes several claims on the history of those buildings, which I have no competence to discuss, and draws two main conclusions from them. My criticism focuses on the latter, and shall require no confutation of those claims. My main concern, equally, is the projection of those conclusions onto the current situation, which is objectively invited by the title given to the article: Appropriation by Serbs of medieval Arberian monuments in Kosovo. So I begin with the context into which these words have set foot.

Kosovo’s independence is irreversible. Its citizens now have more reason to be anxious than a few years ago, however, because the country’s Western friends are more divided, many grew more demanding on the dialogue with Belgrade, and some support the land-swap idea. Indeed, in the first paragraph of his first article Dr Muhadri laments precisely that the idea of further ‘bitter concessions’, beyond the Ahtisaari plan, is again circulating.

Despite remaining largely segregated in its enclaves, Kosovo’s Serb minority is often the target of demonstrations of hostility, occasionally of attacks. Those anxieties might increase their numbers. This is what happened since 1999, at least, whenever concerns about Kosovo’s independence or international standing became acuter, and the target often were the religious building that Serbs attend.

Among them, the Decani monastery – a picture of whose church appears above that title, in the first article – appears to attract particular animosity. During the 2004 riots it narrowly escaped the fate of Prizren’s Levishka church, which was set on fire; it subsequently suffered several attacks, if much less serious ones; hostile graffiti are often written on its walls or nearby; a dispute about some land surrounding it is still on-going, despite repeated judicial decisions in favour of the monastery; and works to build a highway across its special protective zone were recently began, despite being plainly illegal, and were soon stopped for this reason. Its abbot was also fiercely and repeatedly criticized by Vučić’s regime, moreover, for his opposition to the land swap. These two dozen monks seem caught between two fires. Indeed, they remain under NATO’s direct protection.

I turn to Dr Muhadri’s article. It concerns ‘the main monuments of the Christian cult in Kosovo, which today are considered Serbian Orthodox’. Six are listed, including those protected by UNESCO (the Decani and Gracanica monasteries, the Patriarchate, the Levishka church).

In short, he claims (1) that ‘all’ these monuments were built, during the XIII and XIV centuries, on the foundations of earlier churches; (2) that the latter were ‘Illyrian-Arberian’ and ‘Catholic’; (3) that the Albanians of Kosovo were Catholics then; (4) that Serbs then ‘had no traditions in construction’; (5) that the monuments we see today were therefore built by non-Serbs; (6) that, in particular, a ‘Catholic Albanian priest’ from Kotor designed the church of Decani and supervised its construction; (7) that the Albanian clans that protected those monuments during the past few centuries probably did so because they had previously been their own churches.

From this Dr Muhadri draws two conclusions: that those monuments were ‘usurped’ by Serbs, and that they ‘are no evidence of Serbian culture’.

Let’s accept all his claims (1–7). Does it follow that one can speak of ‘usurpation’?

Historians’ worst mistake, anachronism, is to project our own categories and values onto the past. Wars of conquest and enslavement are now illegal, for example, and plundering cities is a war crime. But in the past these conducts were legitimate and frequent. Writing in the XVII century, for instance, the great jurist Grotuis explicitly recognised the right to sack a city that refuses to surrender. Constantinople resisted the Venice-led Christian soldiers and adventurers of the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, and was sacked; it resisted Mehmet II Fatih’s army, in 1453, and was sacked. It would be anachronistic – and therefore not just wrong, but also pointless – to say that this was criminal or even atrocious: contemporaries did not judge it as such.

This is one reason why nobody asks for the Venetians’ booty, now mostly in Saint Mark, to be returned to Hagia Sophia, which they meticulously looted. Nor does anyone argue that Hagia Sophia – built by Justinian as Christianity’s grandest church, converted into a mosque by Mehmet II, into a museum by Ataturk, and into a mosque again by Erdogan – should be a church again.

The Serb princes who took control of Kosovo are neither accused of having plundered it, as far as I know, nor of having enslaved or massacred its inhabitants, as Caesar proudly reports to have done in Gaul. The charge is that they ‘usurped’ its churches, turning them into places for their preferred style of worship. This happened to countless other religious buildings, when political power or its preferred creed changed. So either two millennia of history are an endless list of ‘usurpations’, or theirs was not one.

I turn to Dr Muhadri’s other conclusion. Let’s again accept claims 1 to 7 in their entirety: do they support his statement that the Decani, Gracanica, Patriarchate, Levishka churches ‘are no evidence of Serb culture’?

Nobody can seriously deny that for the past 700 or so years those monuments have been mainly ‘Serb’ ones. By this I mean that, Ottoman interventions aside, the religious rites held there were (mainly) those of the tradition that has evolved into what we now call the Serbian Orthodox Church.

These monuments belong to humanity, of course, and to the whole Kosovo population. But in a narrower sense they belong to the Serb tradition. And these different readings, wider and narrower, are each valid and mutually compatible, for they view those churches from three different perspectives: their aesthetic and historical value belongs to humanity; they stand in Kosovo, and interacted with its history; their frescoes depict Serb saints and princes, and their inscriptions are in the language used (mainly) by people that we now identify as Serbs.

To say that they ‘are no evidence of Serb culture’ is visibly, tangibly wrong. If something describable as ‘Serb culture’ exists, this is the culture that those monuments predominantly reflect. Not exclusively, of course, as no culture is self-contained; and as those churches rise in a territory that has had a complex political and demographic history, it is only natural that they would also bear traces of Albanian people and culture. But the dominant hue, manifestly, is Serb.

Both of Dr Muhadri’s main conclusions are untenable, therefore. Publishing his article without challenging them, and printing it under that title and that picture, was unwise. For in the context I summarised, lending to those conclusions the credibility of that newspaper is likely to encourage those who feel hostility towards Decani, the Serb Church, or the Serb community.

This is what I wanted to say, and I said it without challenging any of Dr Muhadri’s claims (1–7). For the sake of completeness, however, I would like to cast some doubt on them.

Claim 1 seems too broad. I found no indication that the Decani and Patriarchate churches were built on earlier ones, as Dr Muhadri asserts. My research was brief and amateurish, of course, but his article indirectly confirms my findings. Because it discusses at length the edifices on whose foundations the Gracanica and Levishka churches were built, but offers no details in the case of Decani and the Patriarchate: an omission that is especially striking in respect of Decani, as Dr Muhadri stresses that that church was ‘reconstruct[ed] (not construct[ed])’ by the Serbian prince who endowed it.

But even in the case of the Gracanica and Levishka churches, for which the evidence of earlier foundations exists, Dr Muhadri’s equation older building=Catholic-Albanian building (claims 2–3) seems weak, in the absence of further evidence. For in that period the schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy had not really happened yet; identities such as ‘Serb’ and ‘Albanian’ were far less clear-cut than they became with the rise of nationalism, in the XIX century; and allegiances were more fluctuating (as we know, each of the two armies that fought the 1389 battle employed both ‘Serbs’ and ‘Albanians’).

Claim 4 is contradicted by Dr Muhadri’s own mentioning the churches built by Serb princes in Rashka during the early XIII century, such as Studenica’s or Sopocani’s. Claim 5 also falls, therefore. And as to Claim 6, can we really project the ancestry, language, ethnicity or religion of the architect who designed the Decani church onto to that building? Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace and parts of the Kremlin were designed by Italian architects, for example, but are no less Russian for that.

Claim 7 is merely a hypothesis, finally, and not the only one that could be conjectured. It is not implausible, of course, but the behaviour of those Kosovo Albanians who attacked those monuments in 2004, and still occasionally show hostility towards them, hardly supports it. Dr Muhadri might have wished to discuss this apparent contradiction.


On 26 September Koha Ditore published the article that you have just read. Next to it they published a long and fairly polemic response (unsigned and therefore attributable to the editor). Here is my reply.

My article is in three parts: context; main arguments; doubts. Koha Ditore engages only with the latter, and only with one of them. They respond neither to my confutation of Dr Muhadri’s conclusions, nor to my criticism of their choice to publish it. So my reply could end here. But I prefer to answer also their one objection.

Against my criticism of Dr Muhadri’s claim 1, Koha Ditore cites literature stating that the Patriarchate churches were built on the foundations of older ‘buildings’ (note this word). This does not contradict what I wrote, namely that ‘I found no indication that the Decani and Patriarchate churches were built on earlier ones’ (emphasis added). My understanding, in fact, is that while the buildings lying below the Gracanica and Levishka have been identified as temples, basilicas, or churches, those lying below the Patriarchate have not (yet) been identified: they are buildings, therefore, not churches.

But let’s imagine that they were churches. Then my criticism would be wrong. But would this support Dr Muhadri’s conclusions? Of course not.

That’s all. The rest of Koha Ditore’s response deals either with issues that neither Dr Muhadri nor I discussed, such as the plundering of Kosovo’s museums in 1998–99, or with points that we all agree with, such as that below Levishka church lie earlier ones.

Theirs is less a response than a lamentation, in fact, which suggests that the merits of the question are of lesser interest to them than the defence of Dr Muhadri’s (untenable) conclusions. This is not a good sign.

Indeed, at the end of their response they discuss my ‘fears’ (I wrote ‘concerns’ instead, but they chose to exaggerate them) that Dr Muhadri’s conclusions might encourage those who have hostility towards the Serb community. But they neither say that my ‘fears’ are overblown, nor that everything is under control: they merely say that I should rather have worried about the hate speech that came from Serb media on this story. This only increases my concerns.

I neither read Serb media publishing hate speech, nor see any point in telling them that their anti-Kosovo propaganda is scientifically unsound. I addressed myself to Koha Ditore because it is a credible newspaper. But their response disappointed me.