The Battle and the Nation
The consciousness of a distinct Serbian ethnic identity had been present among the Serbs since the times of the founder of an independent medieval Serbian state, veliki župan (Grand Duke) Stefan Nemanja (1166−1196).[i] These consciousnesses were further strengthened by both when Serbia became a kingdom in 1217 and with the establishment of an autocephalous archbishopric in 1219 as a national independent (Christian Orthodox) church.[ii] However, the Battle of Kosovo (on the morning of June 28th, 1389)[iii] which the Serbs de facto lost to the Ottoman Turks and the death of a Serbian ruler, Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović (1371−1389), during the battle had up to nowadays the most powerful impact to the Serbian consciousness about independent state, independent church and awareness of ethnic separateness from other members of South Slavic community. In addition, this battle known also as the Battle of Kosovo Polje, which took place north of the city of Priština is of great patriotic and ideological significance in the history of all Serbs either from Serbia or elsewhere.[iv]
The place of the battle is a geographical region known as the Plain of Kosovo (Kosovo Polje in Serb or Fusha e Kosovës in Albanian) that is a major settlement in the eastern part of Kosovo-Metochia (KosMet)[v] – an autonomous province of the Republic of Serbia. The plain is basically a plateau running from the city of Kosovska Mitrovica passing southward the administrative center of the province Priština and the town of Uroševac going almost to the small town of Kačanik on the border with the Republic of North Macedonia. The Plain of Kosovo has an elevation of between 500 meters and 600 meters and it is the most fertile land within KosMet. In the middle of the plain, one can find a town of the same name – Kosovo Polje, today, in fact, a suburb of Priština. On the place of the battle there are two historical monuments: 1) The memorial to the battle erected by the Serbian authorities after the liberation of KosMet as a consequence of the 1912‒1913 Balkan Wars;[vi] and 2) The Turbe of Murad constructed by the Ottoman authorities in order to mark the place of the death of the Ottoman Sultan Murad I (1359‒1389) during the battle.
Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović of Serbia, allied with Bosnia’s King Tvrtko I Kotromanić (1353‒1391), made in 1389 his last attempt to preserve Serbia’s independence from the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. In 1388 both of them succeeded to defeat the Ottoman Turks in three battles when the Sultan Murad I was occupied by pacifying Asia Minor (Anatolia). Next year, Murad I organized a huge military campaign against Prince Lazar’s Serbia attacking this Balkan state with a huge coalition of forces (overall up to 100.000 soldiers according to some historians) which included his vassals from Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania. Many of his vassals have been Christians and even the Serbs. The opposing army composed by the soldiers from Serbia, Valachia, Bosnia, KosMet, and Albania (the overwhelming majority of them, however, came from Prince Lazar’s Serbia) numbered up to c. 20.000. During the battle, both leaders, Prince Lazar, and Sultan Murad lost their lives. According to the legend but as well as some Turkish sources, the Sultan was assassinated by some Serbian soldier who appears by different names. The most popular version among the Serbs but also based on the Ottoman sources is that the knight Miloš Obilić (Kobilić), insulted a night before the battle by a feudal lord from KosMet Vuk Branković, penetrated heroically into Sultan’s tent and stabbed him to death before being killed by Sultan’s guards.[vii] The defeated and wounded Prince Lazar was basically taken prisoner with his knights and was decapitated by the Ottomans as revenge for killed Sultan Murad I.[viii]
Nevertheless, the Battle of Kosovo surely became a focal element of the Serbian patriotism and nationalism up today as no other historical event had a stronger emotional and psychological influence on the Serb people as a nation. In fact, the battle and all different myths and legends around it in the course of time created a modern Serbian nation as an “imagined community”.[ix] According to tradition incorporated into the folk songs, before the battle, Prince Lazar was offered by the Sultan the choice between an earthly kingdom (vassalage without battle) and a heavenly kingdom (death in the battle) and chose the second option. That is why the Serbs describe themselves as a “heavenly people” at least within the framework of their nationalist ideology in which the central element is Prince Lazar’s covenant with God. In other words, the Serbs chose in 1389 freedom in a heavenly empire over serfdom and humiliation in a temporal earthly world.[x]
However, historically speaking, the Battle of Kosovo accelerated the disintegration of the Serbian state and opened the direct way to four centuries of the Ottoman rule over Serbia and her south province of KosMet as well as the southern portions of the Balkans. KosMet itself was finally incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1455 (when the Ottomans conquered Novo Brdo) and the rest of Serbia with capital Smederevo in 1459.[xi] As one of the direct consequences of the Battle of Kosovo was/is that the first substantial wave of the Turkish-speaking immigrants happened to KosMet between 1389 and 1455 but the first Turkish-speaking population appeared to have settled in this Serbia’s province even in the early 14th century under Serbia’s King Milutin (1282‒1321). In other words, after the battle and during the period of gradual Ottoman conquest of KosMet, soldiers, feudal lords (spahees), officials, and merchants began to start to live in major KosMet’s towns. Later, when after 1699 the ethnic Albanians of Islamic faith from High Albania started to occupy KosMet, the distinction between the ethnic Turks and ethnic Albanians became in practice difficult to draw since, with time, many Muslim Albanians regarded themselves as both Albanian and Turkish.[xii]
After the battle, a tradition has developed both the motif of heroism and the cult of Prince Lazar who was proclaimed by the Serbian Orthodox Church as “Kosovo’s great martyr”. In the following centuries, the crucial national task of the Serbs became to revenge to the Muslim Turks for the lost battle, independent state and the death of Prince Lazar – a task for which accomplishment they had to wait for almost five hundred years. This national consciousness of “revenge for Kosovo’s tragedy” is, however, revived since June 1999 as Kosovo-Metochia is once again considered as occupied national soil of the Serbs, but now by the Muslim Albanians and their Western sponsors (USA, EU, NATO).[xiii] This feeling became stronger after February 17th, 2008 when Kosovo’s Albanians unilaterally proclaimed state’s independence that is recognized by a part of the international community (usually by US’ satellites). Nevertheless, in both cases, when a “national revenge” was directed towards Muslim Turks and now when it is directed towards Muslim Albanians (who settled KosMet from North and Central Albania after the 1690 First Great Serbian Migration from KosMet) the cult of Prince Lazar – “Kosovo’s great martyr” had a crucial impact to the Serbian mind, national feelings, aims, and pride.[xiv]
The real importance of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, “Kosovo’s Myth”, “Kosovo’s Legend”, and the cult of Prince Lazar for the Serbs can be seen from the very fact that the Serbs are dividing their national history into two chronological periods: 1) Before Kosovo’s tragedy; and 2) After the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.
The Written Documents about the Cult of Prince Lazar
There are ten survived written documents upon the cult of Prince Lazar. All of them are originating between 1389 and 1419/20. They are:
- The Prologue Hagiography of Prince Lazar written by an unknown writer.
- The Letter concerning Prince Lazar written by Patriarch Danilo III.
- The Hagiography concerning Prince Lazar written by an unknown writer.
- The Praise to Prince Lazar written by Jefimia.
- The Hagiography and Office of Prince Lazar written by an unknown writer.
- The Service to Prince Lazar written by an unknown writer.
- The Praise’s Letter to Prince Lazar written by an unknown writer.
- The Inscription on the Marble Column in Kosovo written by an unknown writer.
- The Letter concerning Saint Prince Lazar written by Andonie Rafail.
- The Letter concerning Prince Lazar written by an unknown writer.[xv]
Unfortunately, the Balkan historians from the 19th century (most of them have been romanticists) did not use these written documents as a historical source for the very reason that according to their opinion, these documents presented a false chronology of real historical events. However, these documents as historical reports, in fact, are directly challenging their writings upon the Balkan history of the time during the Ottoman conquest of the peninsula (1354−1521).[xvi] On another hand, a Russian writer Alexander Gilferding expressed the most severe criticism of these documents for the reason that according to him, those documents had a lot of the locus communis and the general phrases. He thought that a chronology was totally absent in these documents.[xvii] Mainly the same opinion about them expressed as well as several Slavic historians and philologists like P. J. Šafařik, Đ. Daničić, V. Jagić or Lj. Kovačević. Nevertheless, according to their common opinion, neither the role of Prince Lazar in the battle nor the battle against the Ottoman Turks itself, are satisfactory described and presented in the Serbian literature and the Balkan historiography of their time. They urged that these ten written documents upon the cult of the Serbian Prince Lazar deserve to be scientifically investigated according to the valid research methodology and then used as relevant historical sources.
It is necessary to notice that these written documents, in general, did not use a historical chronology at all because the aim of their writers was not to deal with a historical detail or to give us a detailed description of historical fact. However, they are of double validity: 1) for the events which they described, and 2) for the time when they are made. In this case, the validity of these documents is not of the same value for the time before and after the Battle of Kosovo (in the year of 1389 according to the Christian style time-counting, in 6897 year according to the creation of the world time-counting style, and in 879 year according to the Muslim calendar). The documents in regard to Prince Lazar’s cult among the Serbs did not trace and did not back the hagiographies dedicated to the saint Serbian ruling medieval family−the Nemanjić’s (1166‒1371). As a matter of fact, until the time of Grigorije Camblak, in hagiographies of the Nemanić’s, there were not descriptions of the martyr’s death. However, writers of the cult’s documents concerning Prince Lazar put the main stress exactly on his martyr’s death which was the chief point of many literal works. Therefore, the cult’s written documents dedicated to Prince Lazar are, in fact, martyr’s hagiographies and are based on the idea of a continuation of the Bible.[xviii]
Almost all writers of cult’s documents dedicated to Prince Lazar were contemporaries either of him, i.e. of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo or of the time of the transposition of Prince’s relics after the battle. The last of these ten documents is written by Andonie Rafail (The Letter concerning Saint Prince Lazar) in 1419/20. The rest of them were written earlier and they are closer to the time of the Serbian-Ottoman fighting on the Kosovo Plain. However, the documents which are emphasizing the Serbian military victory are oldest because the first reports with regard to the results of the battle were telling about the Serbian victory, mainly because of the death of the Ottoman Sultan Murad I during the battle. Nevertheless, in the most recent documents, like The Letter concerning Saint Prince Lazar by Andonie Rafail, Prince Lazar was also a winner, but this victory had just a spiritual meaning instead of the real military-political one.[xix]
The oldest document, The Prologue Hagiography of Prince Lazar is telling us about the “bright” victory of him and the Serbian army but the use of term “bright” has, in fact, primarily a spiritual meaning of the term. The most “historically” written document concerning the cult of Prince Lazar is The Letter concerning Prince Lazar by the Serbian Patriarch Danilo III. In this document, there are more historical events presented than in others. In the rest of cult’s documents, there were chosen only historical facts which are appropriate to the spiritual aims of the cult and its national ideals. The most information given in this Letter…, which are referring to the feudal families, can be used as historical truth for the sake that Patriarch Danilo was in very close and friendly relations to the court of Prince Lazar and his family.
It is a very interesting remark given by the Patriarch Danilo that the 1389 Battle of Kosovo was finished in the way that both of the armies stopped to fight because they were totally exhausted. The Patriarch Danilo is clearly telling us that the Lazarević’s family originated from the Nemanjić’s dynasty, a ruling Serbia’s dynasty from 1166 to 1371. This information is partially correct because Prince Lazar’s wife (Milica) really traced her origin from Vukan, the oldest son of the founder of the Nemanjić’s dynasty − Stefan Nemanja (1166−1196). However, in comparison to the Patriarch Danilo’s report, the origin of the Lazarević’s family is so ambiguous in the rest of the cult’s written documents.
Some of the authors of cult’s documents presented Prince Lazar’s warship oration before the battle. This oration is actually preserved in three documents: The Letter concerning Prince Lazar by the Patriarch Danilo, The Hagiography concerning Prince Lazar and The Letter concerning Prince Lazar. The last two of them are written by unknown authors. The longest text of warship oration is presented in the Patriarch Danilo’s work in which the crucial dramatic point is not the battle itself but it is the last eve before the battle (a Last Supper motif) in which Prince Lazar’s warship oration had to play a focal role for the future national pride and revival of the Serbs who chose the Heavenly instead of the Earthly Empire.[xx]
We can conclude after the investigation by using the methodology of the text comparison that the authors of the Prince Lazar’s cult’s documents knew about the chronicles of Georgie Chamartol and Constantin Manas as well as about The Alexandrida and The History of the Jewish War written by Joseph Flavius.[xxi] It is obvious that the heroic sentences with regard to the warship orations in The Alexandrida, given by Alexander the Great and in The Letter concerning Prince Lazar, given by the Serbian ruler are very similar. From a political point of view, the warship oration in the work by the Patriarch Danilo belongs to so-called Kosovo’s ideology.[xxii] Generally, on one hand, a number of real historical facts for the period of the Serbian history with regard to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo in the written documents concerning the Prince Lazar’s cult are very modest but on the other hand, cult’s documents are very appropriate sources for doing research on the state’s ideology, nationalism, cultural history, and ethnic identity.[xxiii]
To be continued
Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.
[i] Stefan Nemanja, born in present-day Montenegro in Ribnica near Podgorica, was a medieval ruler of Serbia known as Raška (Rascia in Latin) at that time and the founder of the most famous medieval ruling dynasty of Serbia – the Nemanjićs. He inherited part of the territory of Raška, northwest of present-day Kosovo-Metochia (KosMet), in 1166 but soon took over all of Raška which became a nucleus of the future state of Serbia and was declared the Grand Duke. In 1183, he annexed Doclea or Zeta (medieval terms for Montenegro/Crna Gora) which was, in fact, his motherland, North Albania, and KosMet. At that time, all of those three lands were inhabited by the Serbs: Doclea/Zeta and KosMet exclusively by the Serbs and North Albania together with the Albanians. In his biography written by his son, it is mentioned that he conquered in 1183 the district of Prizren in Metochia while the rest of Metochia was included into Raška up to his abdication from the throne in 1196. His successor and son Grand Duke and King Stefan Prvovenčani (1196‒1228) annexed the western portions of KosMet from the Byzantine Empire [В. Ћоровић, Историја Срба, Београд: БИГЗ, 1993, 131−149; С. Станојевић, Сви српски владари: Биографије српских (са црногорским и босанским) и преглед хрватских владара, Београд: Отворена књига, 2015, 25−34].
[ii] On the history of the Serbian Orthodox Church, see in [Đ. M. Slijepčević, Istorija srpske pravoslavne crkve, I‒III, Münich: Iskra, 1962‒1986; P. Pavlovich, History of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Toronto: Serbian Heritage Books, 1989].
[iii] About the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, see more in [Р. Пековић, Косовска битка: Мит, легенда и стварност, Београд: Литера, 1987; Ј. Калић, Срби у позном Средњем веку, друго издање, Београд: ЈП Службени лист, 2001, 57−64].
[iv] R. Elsie, Historical Dictionary of Kosova, Lanham, Maryland‒Toronto‒Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2004, 95.
[v] KosMet is an abbreviated term for historical Serbia’s province of Kosovo-Metochia. The term was in use until December 1968 when the Yugoslav Communist authorities replaced it by only the term Kosovo (Kosova in Albanian) for the sake to politically more link the province with the Albanian population and, therefore, to more alienate it from Serbia, the Serbs, and Serbian history and culture. The problem with the term Metochia was in essence of the political nature as it is in direct association with the Serbian national, historical, and cultural background. Metochia as a geographical region of the western part of the province of Kosovo-Metochia is originally meaning the “church land”, i.e. the huge portions of West KosMet which historically belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. The term Metochia is derived from the Greek word metoch – the land belonging to the church or the monastery usually granted by the feudal lords (magnates) or the rulers. Politically, the term Metochia shows no Albanian historical connections with the province but only the Serbian ones. Geographically, Metochia is the populated and fertile plain running from the city of Peć down to the city of Prizren (for the Serbs – the “Serbian Constantinople” as Prizren was in the Middle Ages a capital of Serbia). The term KosMet is applied for the whole province, with the term Kosovo referring only to its western part. The Albanian-language equivalent of Metochia is Dukagjin – a term derived from the Latin dux (Duke).
[vi] On the Balkan Wars, see in [Б. Ратковић, М. Ђуришић, С. Скоко, Србија и Црна Гора у Балканским ратовима 1912−1913, Друго издање, Београд: БИГЗ, 1972].
[vii] J. von Hammer, Historija Turskog/Osmanskog/Carstva, 1, Zagreb: Nerkez Smailagić, 1979, 73−75.
[viii] В. Ћоровић, Историја Срба, Београд: БИГЗ, 1993, 260.
[ix] About a phenomenon of “imagined community” as a collective identity feature, see in [B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1983].
[x] About the connection of myths and conflicts in the case of KosMet, see Western approach in [K. Drezov, Bulent G., D. Kostovičová (eds.), Kosovo: Myths, Conflict and War, Keele: European Research Centre, 1999].
[xi] М. Јовић, К. Радић, Српске земље и владари, Крушевац: Друштво за неговање историјских и уметничких вредности, 1990, 111−112; Ј. Калић, Срби у позном Средњем веку, друго издање, Београд: ЈП Службени лист, 2001, 139−186.
[xii] R. Elsie, Historical Dictionary of Kosova, Lanham, Maryland‒Toronto‒Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2004, 180‒181.
[xiii] М. Чупић, Отета земља: Косово и Метохија (злочини, прогони, отпори…), Београд: Нолит, 2006; H. Hofbauer, Eksperiment Kosovo: Povratak kolonijalizma, Beograd: Albatros Plus, 2009.
[xiv] On the crucified Christian Serbian KosMet by the local Muslim Albanians in 1999, see [Lj. Folić, Crucified Kosovo: Destroyed and Desecrated Serbian Orthodox Churches in Kosovo and Metohija, June-October 1999, Belgrade: Glas Kosova i Metohije, 1999].
[xv] Đ. Trifunović, Srpski srednjovekovni spisi o knezu Lazaru i Kosovskom boju, Kruševac, 1968, 451−452; “Slovo o svetom knezu Lazaru Andonija Rafaila”, Zbornik istorije književnosti SANU, Vol. 10, 1976, 147−179.
[xvi] About this issue, see in [G. Castellan, History of the Balkans: From Mohammed the Conqueror to Stalin, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, 49−98].
[xvii] A. F. Giljferding, Putovanje po Hercegovini, Bosni i Staroj Srbiji, Sarajevo, 1972, 241.
[xviii] D. Bogdanović, “Stara srpska biblioteka”, Letopis Matice srpske, Vol. 408/5, 1971, 408−432.
[xix] Đ. Trifunović, Srpski srednjovekovni spisi o knezu Lazaru i Kosovskom boju, Kruševac, 1968, 365−371.
[xx] About Kosovo’s myth and ideology between the heaven and earth, see in [R. Popović, Kosovo i na nebu i na zemlji, Beograd: Udruženje izdavača i knjižara Jugoslavije, 1994].
[xxi] Ibid., 343.
[xxii] On religion and national identity in KosMet, see in [G. Duijzings, Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo, London: C. Hurst, 2000].
[xxiii] On national identity, nationalism, and the power of ideology, see in [E. Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Oxford: Blackwell, 1983; A. Smith, National Identity, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991; W. Connor, Ethnonationalism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994; S. Malešević, “Nationalism and the Power of Ideology”, G. Delanty, K. Kumar (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, London‒Thousand Oaks‒New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2006, 307‒319].