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After the War: The Destruction and Preservation of Sacred Sites in Kosovo

Rita Gaber

Context for the religious aspects of the Kosovo Conflict. Although Paul Tillich's Theology of Culture (1959) pre-dates the recent crisis in Kosovo by four decades, it provides a useful framework for considering the ongoing political struggles between Kosovo's Orthodox Serbs and its mostly Muslim Albanian majority population. In order to provide a history of religions context for the Kosovo conflict, it is worth quoting at some length from the chapter entitled "The Struggle Between Time and Space," in which Tillich discusses the potential of sacred places to inspire both creation and destruction:

The power of space is great, and it is always active both for creation and destruction. It is the basis of the desire of any group of human beings to have a place of their own, a place which gives them a reality, presence, power of livingŠSpace means more than a piece of soil. It includes everything which has the character of "beside-each-otherness." Examples of spatial concepts are blood and race, clan, tribe, and familyŠNobody can deny the tremendous creativity of national community. Nobody would be willing to deprive himself of the physical and psychological space which is his nation. Nobody would do so or ever did so, without suffering and loss. But on the other hand, our generation has experienced again and again the most terrifying mutual destruction of the space-centered powers. The "beside-each-otherness" necessarily becomes an "against-each-otherness" in the moment in which a special space gets divine honor. And this is the case in all nationalism throughout the world...

All of the psychological, familial, and political abstractions that Tillich mentions have played a role in the destruction of Orthodox, Muslim, and natural sacred sites in Kosovo. Is it possible for those very same notions of space, time, culture - and even nationalism - to play a role in the post-war reconstruction and preservation of Kosovo's sacred sites?

Brief history of the region. Once a part of the Ottoman Empire, Kosovo was conquered by the Kingdom of Serbia in 1912. After World War II, Kosovo gained the status of an autonomous province of Serbia, one of the six republics in the newly-created Yugoslav federation. Before the conflict of 1998-99, approximately 90 percent of Kosovo's 2.2 million inhabitants were Albanian Muslims ("Kosovars," or "ethnic Albanians"). The remaining 10 percent of Kosovo's population were Orthodox Serbs; very small fractions of the population were, respectively, Roman Catholic Albanians, Muslim Slavs, and Gypsies (who identify themselves in various ways, including as Albanians, Turks, Serbs, and even Egyptians).

For at least seven centuries, the geographic region we know as post-1945 Kosovo was a trading cross-roads of southeastern Europe, characterized by varying levels of assimilation and acculturation between ethnic groups (Albanians and Serbs), and between religious groups (Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians). The most recent conflict in Kosovo is not exactly a conflict based on ethnic or religious hatred at a grassroots level, though such sentiments do play a role in the struggles. Rather, it is a conflict incited in large part by Serb politicians at the national level. While the Serbian Orthodox church has deep historical ties to Kosovo which stretch back to the 13th century, before the Ottoman Turks introduced Islam to the Balkan region in the 14th century, the institution in the late 20th century has been partial to the interests of Serbian nationalism. Indeed, the historian Noel Malcolm has noted that in the recent conflict, the Orthodox side "constantly employs religious rhetoric to justify the defence of Œsacred' Serbian interests."

Brief chronicle of the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict. Early in the conflict, Serbian forces under Slobodan Milosevic drove ethnic Albanians out of their villages, and then looted and burned their homes, public buildings, and mosques. When ethnic Albanians returned to their villages in the summer of 1999, they repaid the Serbs in kind by burning their homes and villages and blowing up their churches and monasteries. Now, much of Kosovo is in ruins, the damage inflicted locally and internally by Serb and ethnic Albanian inhabitants, and also, to a lesser extent, by NATO air strikes.

Since the end of the 1998-99 conflict, various international observers have worked to catalogue the destruction of sacred sites in Kosovo. For political reasons, much of the international attention has been slanted toward a focus on the destruction of Serbian Orthodox sites. Other sacred sites, including Muslim sites and natural sites have also suffered dramatically during and after the conflict. What follows is a general overview of the status of three categories of sacred sites.

The status of selected natural sacred sites. András Riedlmayer of Harvard University, co-director of the Kosovo Cultural Heritage Project, has noted in an email to the author that "there is very little information about the fate of [natural sacred] sites during or since the war." One site, Gornje Nerodimlje in central Kosovo consists of "an ancient pine tree (Pinus heldreichii), supposedly planted in the 14th century by the medieval Serbian ruler Tsar Dushan next to a monastery chapel...The chapel was blown up and the famous pine tree cut down and burned in a revenge attack by local Albanian villagers returning from exile in June-July 1999."

Noel Malcolm has noted that a "cult of mountain-tops [is] evidently a pagan survival." Indeed, these sites are often revered by Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians in syncretic relationships that are difficult to square with the mutual and wholesale destruction during the recent conflict. One site, a mountaintop near Zym/Zjum west of Prizren, is an example of this syncretism. Since the 17th century, Albanian Catholics have made a pilgrimage on the Feast of the Assumption to this mountaintop. While this site is not in imminent danger, Riedlmayer notes that the pilgrimage in August 2000 was held "under the watchful eyes of KFOR troops on guard against possible incidents." (For a report and photos, see www.kforonline.com/news/reports/nr_01sep00.htm) Muslims celebrate Ali's day on 2 August at the grave of Sari Saltik (a legendary Muslim holy man), which is located on the same mountaintop. And, in the 19th century, Orthodox Christians in Prizren believed that St. Pantaleimon's grave was on the same summit, and held an annual all-night celebration there during the summer.

The status of selected Muslim sacred sites. András Riedlmayer and Andrew Herscher, also of Harvard University, carried out a post-war field survey of damage to cultural and religious heritage in Kosovo in October 1999. They found no sign that NATO airstrikes had caused damage to Muslim or Orthodox sacred sites. However, more than 200 mosques had been destroyed or damaged in "ethnic cleansing" operations by Serbian forces in 1998-99. Among the worst hit was the northwestern Kosovo municipality of Pec, where all 36 mosques had been burned out, blown up, or vandalized, including the 14th-century Mosque of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror (Bajrakli Xhamia) and the 18th-century Red Mosque (Xhamia e Kuqe).

In a recent article for the US/ICOMOS Newsletter, Riedlmayer and Herscher note that eyewitness accounts as well as the nature of the damage indicate that the damage to mosques and the vandalism of their contents was not a result of aerial bombardment. Rather, mosques had been burned from within, minarets blown up from inside, and Koran manuscripts torn from their bindings, all indications of deliberate destruction, not military activity. As of 1993, there were 607 mosques in Kosovo: 528 congregational mosques (djami) of which 498 were actively used; and 79 smaller mosques (masdjid) of which 70 were actively used. The majority of these mosques date from Ottoman period. According to Herscher and Riedlmayer one-third of the 607 mosques counted in 1993 were destroyed or damaged during the 1998-99 conflict. While rebuilding has begun, often funded by Islamic charities from outside of Kosovo, this is not as beneficial as it might sound, since those charities are often more concerned with their own "narrow, sectarian agendas" than they are with "historic preservation or indigenous traditions." VThe status of selected Serbian Orthodox sacred sites. As noted above, there were many expressions of concern about the fate of Kosovo's Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries in the international media early in the war. However, Riedlmayer and Herscher found no sign that Serbian Orthodox sites had been damaged during the war. The most famous medieval sites, including the Gracanica monastery near Pristina, the Decani monastery, the Pec Patriarchate complex, and the Church of the Virgin Ljeviska in Prizren survived intact and are protected by UN peacekeeping forces. After the war, however, the situation for many less well-known Orthodox sites in the countryside changed for the worse once ethnic Albanians began returning to their burned villages. At that time, many Serbian Orthodox sites began to suffer grave damage. The monastery chapel of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, near Dolac in northwestern Kosovo, which was founded in the 14th century, and restored in the 17th century under Ottoman rule is now rubble. Other selected Orthodox sites destroyed or damaged by ethnic Albanians include the 14th century monastery of the Holy Trinity which was built on the Rusinica hill above Musutiste; the 14th century church of the Holy Virgin Odigitriya, in Musutiste; the 14th century monastery of the Holy Archangels Gabriel and Michael at the village of Buzovik near Binac, located a few kilometer km south of Vitina, at the spring of the river Susica. According to the information available at www.kosovo.com, 76 Orthodox churches were destroyed or damaged in post-war attacks between June and October 1999.

Preservation and reconstruction of Orthodox sites. Orthodox sites in Kosovo typically fall into one of two categories: (1.) most of the damaged church buildings in Kosovo are in areas from which the local Serb minority population has fled, or (2.) churches in the remaining Serb enclaves have generally remained intact under the protection of UN peacekeeping forces. As a result, there has been little effort to repair or conserve damaged Orthodox sites. The Serbian Orthodox church authorities have made some effort to rescue icons and other movable objects from the destroyed churches, while NATO troops stand guard at most such sites to prevent further damage. However, it is clear that more work will be needed to consolidate damaged buildings and to prevent the deterioration of the damaged features (such as murals) that could still be salvaged. Political disputes about jurisdiction and security concerns continue to stand in the way of such efforts.

In sum, casting the destruction of Kosovo's Muslim and Orthodox sites in terms of a simple quid pro quo is misleading, and will only further impede reconstruction and preservation efforts. So while it is true that the Kosovo conflict was not a religious war waged from a grassroots level, many sacred sites and religious and cultural institutions associated with ethnic populations were willfully destroyed during the conflict, solely on the basis of their identification with the hated other. Paul Tillich is again helpful on the subject of nationalism and sacred places:

The gods of space necessarily destroy justice. The unlimited claim of every spatial god unavoidably clashes with the unlimited claim of any other spatial god. The will to power of the one group cannot give justice to another group. This holds true of the powerful groups within a nation and of the nations themselves. Polytheism, the religion of space, is necessarily unjust. The unlimited claim of any god of space destroys the universalism implied in the idea of justice.

Although realizing justice in Kosovo is likely to be a long-term process hindered by political disputes, it is clear that many of the sites damaged or destroyed in the conflict will continue to suffer without focused and immediate efforts at conservation and preservation.


Many thanks to András Riedlmayer of the Kosovo Cultural Heritage Survey at Harvard University, for kindly sharing photographs and information, and for reviewing and editing a draft of this article.

Works Cited and Consulted

Duijzings, Ger. Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Herscher, Andrew and András Riedlmayer. "Architectural Heritage in Kosovo: An Assessment of Wartime Destruction and Post-War Reconstruction." US/ICOMOS Newsletter 4 (July-August 2000): 3-7.

Herscher, Andrew and András Riedlmayer. "Kosovo: The Destruction of Cultural and Religious Heritage," Reports on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia. September 2000. www.haverford.edu/relg/sells/reports.html#HerscherRiedlmayer (19 January 2001).

Kusovac, Zoran. "The Symbolism of Destruction." Mojo Wire. 4 August 1999. www.motherjones.com/total_coverage/kosovo/kusovac.html (19 January 2001).

Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Mertens, Richard. "In Kosovo, an Eye for an Eye ‹ a Church for a Church." San Francisco Chronicle, 7 September 1999: A12 & A16.

Sells, Michael. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Tillich, Paul. Theology of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Useful Websites

1. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is an NGO comprised of professionals who are dedicated to conserving the world's historic monuments and sites. http://www.international.icomos.org/risk/yugos_2000.htm

2. The Media and Publishing Center of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizren. http://www.kosovo.com

3. András Riedlmayer noted that the U.S. Defense Department has "an amazing satellite surveillance photo, dated March 30, 1999, showing the historic center of Gjakova, including the Hadum mosque complex, being set ablaze by Serbian troops and paramilitaries. The Hadum Mosque is quite unmistakable in the middle of the photo, with a big plume of smoke rising from the buildings just above it in the image and a smaller plume from the structures just below it. The row of shops along the street to the left of the Hadum Mosque is already burned out, as is the library." Compare the photos at the link below to Riedlmayer's photo of the Hadum Mosque, "showing the same street at ground level, six months later." (email correspondence with the author, December 2000.) http://www.defenselink.mil/photos/Mar1999/990330-O-0000M-002.jpg

ssif / preservation / Kosovo