Preserving Kosovo’s Monasteries

When Kosovo unilaterally seceded from Serbia, one question on many minds was what to do with the dozen or so Serbian Orthodox monasteries scattered across the country. In contrast to the mass exodus of Serbs from Kosovo over the past decade, the monasteries are very actively consolidating their presence. For religious Serbs, they are among the most valued symbols of their cultural heritage. Kosovo is considered the cradle of the Serbian nation and of the Orthodox Christianity Serbs embrace.

Many of these sites are also on UNESCO’s heritage list. One of the few things that all in Kosovo agree on is the immeasurable value of the ancient buildings, often adorned with medieval frescoes and icons. But the question of their ownership goes right to the heart of the intangible political problem that is Kosovo, dominated by predominantly Muslim Albanian Kosovars with painful memories of Serb rule.

Some take a purely conservational stance. “We need to convince the Serbs they are part of Kosovo’s heritage, and convince Albanian Kosovars that part of Kosovo’s heritage is Serbian,” says Nol Binakaj of Cultural Heritage without Borders, a non-governmental organization promoting interest in heritage without prejudice to ethnicity. He dreams of a day when tourists will pour in to visit the monasteries, now still heavily guarded for fear of attacks by Albanian Kosovars.

In the presently tense atmosphere, mass tourism is unlikely. Both the church and the Serbian state jealously guard the monasteries. The government in Belgrade will have nothing to do with the Kosovar state it does not recognize, and continues to fund and regulate the convents it considers on its own territory.

Financial imperatives may go some way towards bridging the divide. While politically sensitive, nobody in Kosovo seems much bothered by Serbia’s funding of the monasteries — which, after all, helps to preserve the buildings. “Serbian funding is not a problem per se for us,” says Haki Rugova, the mayor of the municipality in which Gorioc is located, as well as a leading national politician. “We can’t stop it anyway.”

At the same time, the clergy are happy to work with outsiders and even the Kosovo state when it can help them. The steps forward are tiny, but it is clear nobody wishes the monasteries to go to waste. Mr. Rugova is adamant he would maintain them, should Serbian funds dry up. “We have the money. We would do whatever is needed to preserve these buildings.”

Pack a bit of optimism, should you ever wish to visit some of the most amazing structures in the region.

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