Kosovo’s Ethnography (I): The Customary Law And The Crypto-Christians

Kosovo (Serb. Kosovo-Metochia, Alb. Kosova) is a square-shaped province of the Republic of Serbia of 10,877 sq. kilometres that is approximately the size of the USA state of Connecticut. The province is situated in the southern interior of the Balkan Peninsula in South-East Europe.[i] For most of the 20th century-history, this province was part of Serbia like in the Middle Ages but from 1455 to 1912 it was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. After the 1998‒1999 Kosovo War the province is an autonomous territory under the formal administration of the UNO but, in fact, USA’s colony. Officially, the province has a population of some two million people, roughly equivalent to that of neighboring North Macedonia and ex-Yugoslav republic Slovenia. After the ethnic cleansing of the Christian Orthodox Serbs after June 1999, Kosovo-Metochia in inhabited primarily by the Muslim Albanians (up to 96%) followed by the ethnic minorities as the Serbs, the Bosniak, the Roma, and the Turks.

However, the real historical anomaly of the ethnographic breakdown of the province is a fact that in 1455 there were only up to several per cents of the ethnic Albanians in comparison to the rest of the inhabitants – the Serbs, who played a crucial cultural, ethnographic, and political role in the history of Kosovo-Metochia – the region that was „the birthplace of the first independent Serbian state“.[ii] This province is one of the best-known examples in Europe as on one hand disputed land of highest inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts but on another hand as the territory of intermixed and cohabited areas of oppositely different cultural, confessional, mental and customary ethnic groups – the Christian Orthodox Serbs and the Muslim Albanians.

Albanian and Serbian traditional clothing from Kosovo
Albanian and Serbian traditional clothing from Kosovo

The purpose of my personal research presented below is to highlight some of the focal characteristics of Kosovo’s ethnically intermixed ethnography for the sake to as better as understand ethnic, cultural, confessional, ideological, political, historical, and all other important relations between the Serbs and the Albanians in this Serbia’s province and the region of South-East Europe.

Customary Law: Leka Dukagjini’s Codex

Since North Albania was practically beyond any kind of the reach of the state’s law, even the state itself, the traditional ethos had to be subjected to a number of regulations, so that the society retains some political and social stability for the sake to survive and function. The serious crime cases, like murders, had to be somehow sanctioned, in particular in view of the ensuing blood feud – vendetta.[iii] This finally has resulted in in the case of North Albania in the so-called Leka Dukagjini’s Codex which regulated the legal basis of the relations within and between tribes.[iv] The origin of this collection of rules and regulations remains for the researchers so far obscure. The Albanians tend to ascribe it to a local ruler Leka Dukagjini, a contemporary of a national hero Skanderbeg.[v] The Albanians ascribe to him the codex known in the Albanian language as Kanuni i Lek Dukagjinit[vi] (or simply Canun). Another interpretation has been that in all probability the Italian rulers in the late Middle Age composed the codex, Lex Ducagin,[vii] which has been subsequently corrupted and converted into the name adopted today.[viii]

The principal aim of the Codex has been to interrupt the endless chain of blood feud revenge. It proscribed the procedures for settling the disputes and for preventing further murders. Financial or natural compensations for killed or wounded were determined and the besa (oath) was required from the latest victim’s family that the blood feud is terminated.[ix] Among the Albanians, the besa (Alb. besë) was and still is a very popular custom that is one’s word of honor, a sworn oath, a pledge or a cease-fire. In general, in the Albanian culture, the besa is regarded as something that is sacred and its violation was, in principle, quite unthinkable. However, the besa was not only a moral virtue but as well as the especially significant institution and instrument in the customary law among the Albanian population in North Albania and later in Kosovo-Metochia when the North Albania’s tribes occupied it. Among the feuding tribes of North Albania’s regions of the Accursed Mountains the besa, in fact, offered the only successful form of real protection and security and could be given between either individuals or feuding families for a very specific period of time for the sake to give them the opportunity to settle some urgent affairs. It could be as well as concluded between whole tribes as a cease-fire between periods of fighting.[x]

In modern times, blood feud was tackled by forming the so-called village councils, where old men with a good reputation and high credibility were engaged in the long procedure of reconciliation disputed families. It is claimed by the Albanian politicians from Kosovo-Metochia (KosMet) that these councils have succeeded in eliminating blood feud in this region after WWII, but, however, it has more a political propaganda background than actual facts from the ground.[xi] It is worth mentioning that the same claim was made by Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania, although with probably more justification.

Albanian blood feud
Sisters of the Blood Feud: Revenge Killings in Albania

A Yugoslav jurisdiction, in practice, had to cope with an Albanian ethos in both Kosovo-Metochia and Macedonia and to adjust its punishment system to the ruling ethics practiced on the ground. Even when the murderer is punished and imprisoned, the blood feud remains as a real threat. The prisoner has a leave of absence from the prison when he is allowed to spend some short period at his place of living. However, the authorities must first make inquiries at the local village authorities as to the opportunity for letting the prisoner go to his place. If the local authorities conclude that it would be risky for the prisoner, he would be retained in prison. Of course, the problem remains what to do after the punishment is over and the convict finally must leave the prison. The point is that the Codex does not care about justice and social order. Blood feud rests on the wounded pride of people, individual or collective. The state punishment is of no concern of these proud and pathologically sensitive people, it does not relieve them from their feelings of being humiliated and their self-respect fatally damaged. In fact, the local surrounding blames the victim’s relatives for not taking steps for avenging the murdered member of the family, tribe, etc. They experience it as a common humiliation and encourage the relevant relatives “to take the blood for blood”.

It is known that the blood feud has been present for centuries at Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, as another sign that these islands parallel the Yugoslav highlanders from Dinaric regions in many respects. Mafia avenges have been notorious for that matter, even in the USA, transferring thus the ethos of traditional societies to the modern states.

Here it is dwelled on the  blood feud in some detail not  because it appears to the modern mind as a curious remnant of the ancient ethos from the traditional society[xii] but rather as it has the most profound effect on the present-day society in this part of the Balkans, and has given rise to the most serious conflicts and atrocities in the region in the last century. In a sense that the whole conflict between the Albanians and the Serbs in Kosovo-Metochia, and generally between the ethnic Albanians and the neighboring peoples for that matter, it may be regarded as the phenomenon of the collective blood feud. The vanity pathologically developed within a Dinaric region in Yugoslavia, coupled with an extreme sense of proudness, appear common both to Slavenophonic Herzegovians and the Montenegrins as well as an Albanophonic population of North Albania, but in the case of the ethnic Albanians, it takes the form out of all proportions. It is for this reason that the Albanians do not mix with other nations.

The Albanians brought with themselves to KosMet the blood feud when they started in mass to settle this region from North Albania after the First Great Serbian Migration from KosMet in 1690 led by a Serb Patriarch Arsenije III Crnojević[xiii] by crossing the Accursed Mountains (Prokletije in the Serbian language) – a range of peaks extending along the present-day Albanian border with Montenegro and South Serbia’s region of KosMet. The range is called in Albania as the Albanian Alps. The highest peak of the Accursed Mountains is in KosMet – Mt. Djeravica (2,656 m.), which is at the same time the highest mountain peak in KosMet. In other words, the Accursed Mountains for centuries protected the region of KosMet from the Albanian invasion up to the turn of the 18th century when the Ottoman authorities invited neighboring Muslim Albanians from North Albania to settle depopulated and extremely fertile region due to the Serbian mass emigration.[xiv] However, historical sources clearly claim that up to the end of the 17th century the ethnic Albanian population in KosMet was very tiny – several per cents. For instance, even the Albanian historiographers recognize the very fact that according to the first Ottoman census in the region in 1455 there were only 4 to 5% of ethnic Albanians in KosMet.[xv] However, one of the most significant outcomes of the Albanian massif occupation of KosMet since around 1700, alongside with the extensive Islamization of the region, was a new practice of the social relations among the Albanian highlanders and newcomers – the blood feud, which, actually, soon became transformed into the collective instrument of the settling interethnic relations with the Serb lowlanders.[xvi]

Although the blood feud is substantially restricted in Albania during the Socialism times, it has remained a prominent feature of the Albanian society in North Albania but in KosMet too as a result of a revival of the practice of vendetta since the fall of the Socialist regimes. In both Albania and KosMet, during the last three decades, there were many anti-vendetta campaigns which included several prominent figures who propagated in the favor of the extermination of the blood feud practice. For instance, one of them was Anton Chetta (Çetta, 1920‒1995) born in KosMet’s Djakovica and spending the youth in Prizren. He made his name in KosMet with the collection and codification of the Albanian oral literature in particular from the most nationalistic region of Drenica. He as well as became well-known as the participant in a widespread anti-vendetta campaign at the Priština University and in the mass media. Anton Chetta was in the 1990s, in fact, the aging scholar who led a committee of prominent Albanians from KosMet with the purpose to solve many blood feud cases that were ravaging the Albanian society in this province of South Serbia. In the course of many public rallies he and his committee succeeded to pacify over 900 vendetta cases, and, therefore, saved the lives of many of the men from around 4,000 Albanian families involved into the blood feud.

The Conversion: The Crypto-Christianity

Another historical feature of the region of Kosovo-Metochia is the so-called Crypto-Christianity which started to exist after the Muslim-Albanian invasion of the region from North Albania since the turn of the 18th century. This phenomenon is known across the Ottoman Balkans and it is a form of popular belief.[xvii] In essence, the Crypto-Christians have been those ex-Christians who because of different reasons accepted Islam. They were adhering to their old Christian belief in the private domain but officially on public places professed newly accepted Islam. Many of them had two names: a Christian name for private use and a Muslim one for public use. In KosMet, the Crypto-Christianity was particularly common in the region of the town of Peć, where the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox Church was and on the Plain of Kosovo where historical Battle of Kosovo occured in 1389. In Albania, the Crypto-Christianity (Alb. laramane or mixed) was widespread at least in the first generation after the conversion to Islam and especially in those regions in which the Ottoman authorities were weak or did not exist.[xviii] The practice of the Crypto-Christianity in many cases often resulted in a syncretism of folk beliefs and rituals.

Kosovo’s ‘Crypto-Catholics’ Are Making Their Way Back to the Church

What concerns Serbia’s province of Kosovo-Metochia, a phenomenon of the Crypto-Christianity was in direct connection with both Islamization and Albanization of the local Christian Orthodox Serbs.[xix] In other words, newly Islamized and Albanized Christian Orthodox Serbs – the Arnauts, have been for a while, in fact, the Crypto-Christians who secretly in their homes professed the Christian faith. They and their children often had double names – one official Muslim and another private Christian. The Arnauts, at least in the first and second generation after the Islamization and Albanization, used to speak both languages – the Serbian and the Albanian.[xx] However, those converts later became according to the 19th century-reports by Serbia’s consuls in Priština, the most fervent persecutors of the Christian Orthodox Serbs in KosMet but as well as well-known Muslim bandits and even the „Albanian“ national heroes and leaders.[xxi] Some of those leaders even did not properly speak the Albanian language but only the Serbian one.[xxii] The Arnauts, in fact, did not have a proper national identity as they have been between the Serbs and the Albanians. They could not be the Serbs as they, in this case, had to be the Christian Orthodox but on other hands they also could not be the Turks or the Albanians as they did not speak either the Turkish language at all or the Albanian language properly.[xxiii]

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] See [Moseley Ch., Asher E. R. (eds.), Atlas of the World’s Languages, New York‒London: Routledge, 1994, map 64].

[ii] Palmowski J., Oxford Dictionary of Twentieth Century World History, Oxford‒New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 339.

[iii] The blood feud in the Albanian language is gjakmarrje.

[iv] Бартл, П., Албанци од средњег века до данас, Београд: CLIO, 2001, 58.

[v] Giorgio Castriotto Scanderbech (according to one Italian drawing from the 18th century), 1405−1468 was, in fact, of the Serb ethnic origin from the father side. He came from a family of landowners from the Debar region in North-East Albania who were no doubt of mixed the Serbian-Albanian ancestry. Today, he is the focal symbol of the Albanian nationalism and, therefore, his equestrian statue after the 1998‒1999 Kosovo War stands in a very downtown of Priština regardless of the very fact that he personally has nothing to do with KosMet. The Germans during WWII created the Skanderbeg Waffen-SS Division, approved by Adolf Hitler in February 1944 as a volunteer force of KosMet’s Albanian nationalists who were terrorizing the Serb population. The Division participated in the rounding up of 281 Jews, who were deported to Bergen-Belsen death camp. The final activity of the Division was to assist the German troops in their withdrawal through and from KosMet in November 1944 [Elsie R., Historical Dictionary of Kosova, Lanham, Maryland‒Toronto‒Oxford, The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004, 169].

[vi] Бартл, П., Албанци од средњег века до данас, Београд: CLIO, 2001, 55.

[vii] This term comes from the Latin dux (Duke) for a local leader and from Gjin (John), i.e., Duke John. The Albanians are calling West KosMet as Dukagjin (in the Serbian language Metochia) just to avoid both the Christian Orthodox and the Serbian historical, political, and ethnographic roots of it. This is, in fact, the populated plateau running from the city of Peć to the city of Prizren (the latter is known as the “Serbian Constantinople” or the “Serbian Jerusalem”).

[viii] It is one of the best examples how local mythology becomes “historical fact”.

[ix] Бартл, П., Албанци од средњег века до данас, Београд: CLIO, 2001, 58.

[x] Elsie R., Historical Dictionary of Kosova, Lanham, Maryland‒Toronto‒Oxford, The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004, 25.

[xi] About this issue, see in [Slađana Đurić, Osveta i kazna: Sociološko istraživanje krvne osvete na Kosovu i Metohiji, Niš: Prosveta, 1998].

[xii] As recorded, inter alia, in the Bible, as dictum “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”.

[xiii] Arsenije III Crnojević (ca. 1633‒1706) of the Montenegrin origin became a Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Peć (West KosMet) in 1672 and, therefore, was both spiritual and political leader of the Serbs. During the 1683‒1699 Austrian-Ottoman War, which affected KosMet very much, in January 1689, when the Austrian army, defeated by the Ottomans, began withdrawing from North Macedonia (Skopje) and KosMet, they were accompanied by a large number of the Serb refugees who wanted to escape from the harsh Turkish revenge. The refugees were headed by the Patriarch, who fled northward with his people of around 100,000 to the safety of the southern parts of the Habsburg Monarchy. In June 1690 the Patriarch asked the Habsburg Emperor for the permission to settle his people in South Hungary (present-day Vojvodina in Serbia), and was granted land. This historical event is known as the First Great Serbian Migration from Kosovo-Metochia and is regarded as a turning point in the history of the region [Elsie R., Historical Dictionary of Kosova, Lanham, Maryland‒Toronto‒Oxford, The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004]. About history of KosMet, see more in [Самарџић Р., и други, Косово и Метохија у српској историји, Београд: Српска књижевна задруга, 1989; Krestić V., Lekić Đ., Kosovo i Metohija tokom vekova, Priština: Grigorije Božović, 1995].

[xiv] On the First Great Serbian Migration from KosMet, see in [Чакић С., Велика Сеоба Срба 1689/90 и патријарх Арсеније III Црнојевић, Нови Сад: Добра вест, 1990].

[xv] Бартл, П., Албанци од средњег века до данас, Београд: CLIO, 2001, 59.

[xvi] About an ethnic history of the Albanians, see more in [Jacques E., The Albanians: An Ethnic History from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Jefferson, N.C.‒McFarland, 1995]. About the relations between the Serbs and the Albanians in the Middle Ages, see in [Šuflaj M., Srbi i Arbanasi: Njihova simbioza u srednjem vjeku, Beograd: Izdanje seminara za Arbanašku filologiju, 1925].

[xvii] Dawkins M. R., „The Crypto-Christians of Turkey“, Byzantion, Vol. VIII, Paris, 1933.

[xviii] Бартл, П., Албанци од средњег века до данас, Београд: CLIO, 2001, 52−53.

[xix] On this issue, see more in [Хаџи-Васиљевић Ј., „Муслимани наше крви у Јужној Србији“, Браство, књ. XIX, Београд, 1925, 21−94; Урошевић А., Етнички процеси на Косову и Метохији током турске владавине, Београд: САНУ, 1987].

[xx] Станковић П. Т., Путне белешке по Старој Србији 1871−1898, Београд, 1910, 105.

[xxi] See, for instance [Бован В., Јастребов у Призрену, Приштина, 1983; Батаковић Т. Д., Косово и Метохија: Историја и идеологија, Друго допуњено издање, Београд: Чигоја штампа, 2007, 49].

[xxii] One of such populated micro-regions in the 19th century is, for instance, Drenica Valley. Drenica is the geographical name of a hilly and mountainous micro-region in North-Central KosMet located between the Kosovo Field and the Metochia Plateau situated within the triangle formed by the cities of Priština, Kosovska Mitrovica, and Peć. The Drenica Valley is divided into two sub micro-regions: the Upper Drenica or the Red Drenica, to the North, and the Lower Drenica or the Paša Drenica, to the South. The highest mountains are 1,177 m. and 1,091 m., respectively. The main settlement of this micro-region is Srbica (Albanized as Skenderaj). The Albanian speaking Drenica Valley’s population today is to a great extent of the Serb origin but extremely pro-Albanian nationalistic. The 1998‒1999 Kosovo War started exactly in this valley as an anti-terroristic operation against the Albanian terrorists led by Adem Jashari from the village of Prekaz. Warlord Adem Jashari was pacified on March 7th, 1998 after a three-day shootout with regular security forces of Serbia that surrounded his home in Prekaz in the Drenica Valley as a part of an anti-terroristic action. During this war, for the first time in history, the Albanian nationalists and terrorists coined a new term – East Kosovo (Alb. Kosova Lindore) referring to Serbia’s region of the Preševo Valley [Elsie R., Historical Dictionary of Kosova, Lanham, Maryland‒Toronto‒Oxford, The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004] which became gradually populated by the Albanians after WWII. The Drenica Valley is a birthplace (the village of Buroja) of a former Crypto-Christian of the Serb origin – Hashim Taçi (born on April 24th, 1968) who was during the 1998‒1999 Kosovo War a commander of a terrorist organization the Kosovo Liberation Army (the KLA or in the Albanian language the UÇK).

[xxiii] Цвијић Ј., Основе за географију и геологију Македоније и Старе Србије, књ. III, Београд: 1911, 1162−1166.

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