17 December 2006

A visit to Visoki Decani

BBC Serbian, Tuesday, November 7, 2006 01:30 GMT
By Tanja Vujisic, BBC correspondent in Kosovska Mitrovica

Visoki Decani Monastery dates back to the fourteenth century and is one of the best preserved and biggest Orthodox Christian monasteries.

Three years ago it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List but nevertheless, like all other Orthodox holy shrines in Kosovo, it is confronted with threats, usurpation of its property and poor security conditions.

All this has not taken away from its importance and humanitarian activity, directed primarily toward Serb returnees, although the brotherhood reminds that during the war it also saved many Albanians.

Describing Visoki Decani Monastery, British woman writer Edith Mary Durham recorded in 1904:

"Robbed of its broad lands, which have been swooped on by the Albanians, who at the time of my visit made further progress up the valley impossible, [the Monastery] lies precariously on the bloody edge of things, and only the wonderful white marble church tells of its former glory."

Today the situation in many ways resembles that of the one hundred years ago.

However, the cultural and historical importance of the Monastery in all activities remains unchanged.

Hieromonk Sava Janjic emphasizes that monastic life in Visoki Decani has unfolded without interruption since its founding.

Monastery treasury

The most significant sacred treasures of the Monastery are the holy relics of the Holy King Stefan of Decani, the wooden iconostasis and icons from the fourteenth century, the hegumen's throne, and the frescoes, comprising over 1,000 images and topics from the New Testament.

"By the decision of the Holy Synod of Bishops in 1992 the greater part of the Decani treasury was removed from Kosovo and Metohija in 1992, while the library of old manuscripts was removed even earlier, in 1981. The Decani treasury in its entirety is our richest treasury after the treasury of Chilandar Monastery (on Mt. Athos, the Holy Mountain in Greece)," explains Father Sava Janjic.

The holy relics of Holy King Stefan of Decani are believed to have healing powers which are sometimes resorted to by the Albanian Muslim population as well.

"People in difficulties, regardless of their faith, seek help in our Orthodox holy shrines. We have always welcomed such people with joy for the Lord helps everyone. Just as the sun shines for everyone, He, too, shines for all in His love, goodness and blessings. Now, whether we will be able to receive this goodness and blessing depends on us - what our disposition is upon arrival, what our life has been like, what degree of respect we have toward what is sacred," emphasizes Father Sava.

There are twenty-six monks living in the monastery with Vicar Bishop Teodosije Sibalic, the abbot.

Icon painters

They sustain themselves with their icon painting and wood engraving, which are traditions in Visoki Decani.

"Our monks now use modern means and computer technology but, of course, we also nurture the old traditions in our work with icons and in wood so we can continue to create the art that characterized our past and which is still important today," said Decani monk Sava Janjic.


According to folk tradition, the polielei (church lamp) in Visoki Decani, which dates back to the fourteenth century, was wrought from the weapons of the knights who fought in the Battle of Kosovo.

Father Sava Janjic respects the tradition, although he emphasizes that it is not historically accurate.

"During the time of Princess Milica, who came to Decani and offered donations for the renewal of the monastery, it seems that after the Battle of Kosovo one of the Turkish precursors did some damage on the estate itself and perhaps even damaged the church. The polielei was repaired at that time," says Father Sava.

The brotherhood of Visoki Decani Monastery is also renowned for its number of highly educated monks.


However, Hieromonk Sava explains that according to the Orthodox Christian perception education (obrazovanje) is not a matter of formal study and acquired degrees.

"The word 'obraz' means, first and foremost, image; therefore, he who is educated (obrazovan) is he who has managed to replicate the image of Christ within himself. Thus, we view education, first of all, ethically and spiritually, as a measure of the degree to which we have adapted ourselves to the Lord Christ. Such a person is educated, whereas he who is lacking Christ's image is without 'obraz', uneducated," Father Sava Janjic explains for the BBC.

Visoki Decani Monastery has been guarded for the past seven years around the clock by Italian KFOR soldiers, who call the monks who live there "santi Serbi" or "holy Serbs".