by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

A medieval battle still reverberates in the Balkans

A Slovak KFOR peacekeeper scrutinises Kosovo Polje from atop the Vidovdan Battle monument

No one seems to know anything about it. The Albanian children playing on the streets of Kosovo Polje – a town which is rather like a suburb of Pristina – never heard. The women are likewise oblivious. When approached, taxi drivers tend to shrug their shoulders. A policeman makes an effort to explain, but his English turns out to be worse than his botched attempt at drawing a simple map of the area. Everyone is polite and forthcoming, but knows nothing.

Happily, a second policeman, who is observing the construction of the motorway meant to link Albania and Pristina, speaks English and knows where to find Gazimestan, the monument commemorating the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje, or Kosovo Field. It's just a 15-minute drive from Pristina, the capital of Kosova, Europe's newest state. If a direct road existed, it would be less than 70 miles west of Sofia.

Gazimestan, perched on a small ridge and built to resemble a medieval tower, is visible from afar. What strikes you once you get closer are the military fortifications erected around its base. They are the hallmarks of a place that has begotten, and can still beget, conflict: barbed wire, sentry posts, a barrier and guards who take down the data from your ID before letting you into the secure perimeter.

The Kosovo Polje monument looks similar to Bulgaria's own Shipka Top tower, except that you can walk inside it and take in the stupendous views from the top

The Kosovo Polje monument looks similar to Bulgaria's own Shipka Top tower, except that you can walk inside it and take in the stupendous views from the top

You can climb up the monument, erected in the 1950s by the government of the then Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. While you are toiling up the stairs inside, your eyes encounter verses of patriotic Serbian songs that tell the story of the 14th Century battle and the tragic events surrounding it. Once you reach the top, you imagine the battle raging on 28 June 1389, St Vitus' Day, when the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Murad I and the Christian coalition led by the Serbian King Lazar Hrebeljanović met face to face.

What you see also is the course of the Lab River, the white dome of the türbe, or tomb, in which Murad I was buried, the cooling towers of the thermal power plant west of Pristina and the extensive road construction. And there's no way you can forget that you're standing on the most sacred spot the Serbs have – not least because the sniper positioned on the roof will serve as a reminder.

The Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 is among the most famous events in the history of the Balkans. Curiously enough, however, no one can be certain of what exactly happened. What is definitely known is that both Murad I and Lazar died in action. How exactly events unfolded is a matter in which the claims of Serbian patriotic songs outdo the historical sources by a hefty margin. According to various accounts, legends and half-legends, Murad I was killed prior to the battle by the Serbian nobleman Miloš Obilić, who pretended to be a deserter. Or he was killed in the heat of the battle by a Serbian strike force led by Miloš Obilić. Or he was killed by Miloš Obilić while making a postbattle round of the field. The claims about Lazar have it that he was taken prisoner after the battle and beheaded on Murad I's dead body.

Historians are even undecided about whether the Ottoman army actually won; some believe the outcome was a draw.

The Kosovo Curse

The Kosovo Curse

For the Serbs, the battle proved fatal. The carnage put an end to Serbia's medieval political bloom, which had made it both the strongest and the most aggressive nation in the Balkans in the 14th Century. After the death of Murad I, his son Bayezid took control of the Ottoman army and succeeded in reversing the course of the battle, displaying such bravery that he was later nicknamed Yıldırım, or The Lightning. After the event, Ottoman control over the newly conquered Balkan territories was effectively solidified. Of course, the Battle of Kosovo Polje is only one such military clash of fateful significance among dozens, from Gaugamela to Hastings, Waterloo, Gettysburg or Stalingrad, but it still resonates in that it underlies the nationalistic ideology of an entire nation – and what's more, of a vanquished nation. The debacle at Kosovo Polje has underpinned Serbian national aspirations ever since.

The battle's tragic end and its consequences have been used as both a justification and an explanation for almost everything that has befallen Serbia since the Middle Ages. The Serbs lost the war because they had been divided as a result of their leaders' bigoted conceit, and because Vuk Branković, the Serbian nobleman, had betrayed his kin and because King Lazar had made a fatal decision. According to one of the most famous songs about the battle, a grey falcon flew from Jerusalem to the king. The bird was carrying a divine message. Lazar had to choose whether to win the battle and secure for himself power on earth, or to lose, with his army, both the battle and his own life but ensure for himself a place in Paradise. The song claims the king chose the heavenly option.

There are also other explanations for the important role the Battle of Kosovo Polje has played in the mythology of modern Serb nationalism. Kosovo is the land where Serbia was born. Here the Serbs, sacrificing their liberty, lost a crucial battle so that they could slow down the Ottoman drive towards Europe.

Such tendencies of historical freewheeling are prevalent among most of the Balkan peoples. Both the Bulgarians and the Greeks believe that divisions among the individual Balkan statelets, principalities and vassals during the 14th and 15th Centuries unwittingly assisted the Ottoman conquest. Both nations have legends about how their fortresses fell because of betrayal. Both are equally convinced that their own resistance hindered the further Ottoman invasion of Europe.

Miloš Obilić in the imagination of a 19th-Century painter

Miloš Obilić in the imagination of a 19th-Century painter

Be that as it may, it is the Serbs who have nurtured a genuine obsession over their defeat at Kosovo Polje. They regard St Vitus' Day as pivotal to their history, a date around which, time and again, significant historical events have taken place.

On 28 June 1914 the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by young Serb nationalists. Bosnia and Herzegovina, a territory annexed by Austria-Hungary, was considered to be Serbian and the decision of Franz Ferdinand to go to Sarajevo to observe military exercises on that particular day was seen as a severe provocation. A month later the Great War broke out. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 marked the formal end of the conflict.

On 28 June 1921 the parliament of the newly created Kingdom of Yugoslavia signed the country's first constitution. This united – or so the optimists believed – all Serb territories, albeit in a federal state.

On 28 June 1948 the rift between Tito and Stalin became permanent. Adding insult to injury, on the same day the Comintern member-states controlled by Stalin voted to expel Yugoslavia from the organisation.

On 28 June 1989 a million Serbs gathered at Gazimestan to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje. The times were turbulent, as the Croats and the Slovenes were becoming increasingly sceptical about the idea of a Serbia-controlled federation, and the Kosovo Albanians were becoming ever more dissatisfied with the lack of autonomy for Kosovo. The Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic chose this moment to deliver his landmark speech. He said much about the friendship between the different peoples and how equal they all were, but he also extolled the greatness of the Serbs and the need to overcome the existing divisions. He mentioned that soon the Serbs might have to defend their independence on the battlefield.

Historians now consider that speech to be the moral prompt for the bloody Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

The Kosovo war of 1999 was the last of these wars. It placed the land, so precious to the Serbs, in the hands of the Kosovo Albanians. The Serbian nationalist poet Matija Beković said after Milosevic's speech: "There is so much Serb blood and Serb sanctity there that Kosovo will remain Serbian even if there is not a single Serb left there."

This pretty much explains two things: why the majority of the population of Pristina claim not to know the location of Gazimestan, and why the monument has to be guarded.

Until quite recently, Gazimestan was under the protection of KFOR, as were the Serbian monasteries at Gračanica and Pec. In March 2010 control was handed over to the Kosova police.

To what extent the new guardians will succeed in guaranteeing the monument's safety? It could become evident on St Vitus' Day. Most of the time, hardly anyone visits the monument, but on 28 June thousands of Serbs flock there to pay tribute to the site of their greatest defeat. This year everything went smoothly.

Will Vidovdan come?

The Kosovo Polje battle not only changed the course of Balkan history, but left its mark also on folk beliefs and proverbs.

For example, St Vitus, who prior to the battle had been reputed to heal afflictions of the eyes, was cast in a new role. According to one of the songs that relate the story of the battle, Miloš Obilić became angry over allegations that he was preparing to betray his sovereign. He told King Lazar that his loyalty would be proved on St Vitus' Day, Vidovdan, and on that day he slew Murad I.

In Serbia today, and also in Bulgaria, the expression "St Vitus' Day is bound to come" is an idiomatic expression meaning that truth will out.

There is also a widely known expression in Bulgaria, that someone is "as stuck as Marko at Kosovo Polje." On the face of it, the simile is innocuous: the Marko in question is a hero from both the Bulgarian and Serbian folk traditions and is considered to have been a mighty warrior who stood up to the Ottomans.

However, the historical figure is almost the exact opposite. Marko Mrnjavčević, the ruler of Prilep, in today's Former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, was a loyal Ottoman vassal and even took part in the Kosovo Polje battle, fighting on Murad I's side.

The Kosovo Curse

At Gazimestan, excerpts from old nationalistic songs are so numerous that perusing them may give you a headache. However, one of them is particularly renowned. According to a song published in the mid-19th Century, before the battle began King Lazar delivered the now famous Kosovo curse, which he cast on those who had not supported him:

Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth,

And of Serb blood and heritage,

And comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,

May he never have the progeny his heart desires,

Neither son nor daughter!

May nothing grow that his hand sows,

Neither dark wine nor white wheat!

And let him be cursed from all ages to all ages!

The Balkans Passport Game

Balkan passports

Following the 1999 war in which NATO bombed rump Yugoslavia, Kosova declared full independence in 2008. Most EU countries as well as the United States have recognised the new Balkan state as a sovereign entity. Serbia and some others, for example India, Russia and China, have not. The Serbs, who consider Kosovo a historical part of Serbia, will not let you enter Serbia proper from Kosova unless you started your journey in Serbia or are travelling to Serbia from Kosova via Macedonia or Montenegro.

The position is not very clear and may change at short notice, but there have been incidents when foreign nationals have been denied entry into Serbia if their passports bear Kosova stamps. When visiting Kosova, you may be required, by the Kosova border police, to provide documents explaining your visit – for example a letter of introduction. If you are driving your own vehicle, you will be requested to buy a 50-euro third-party insurance at the Kosova border. The international Green Card is not valid here. Residual landmines and other unexploded ordnance remain in Kosova, although all roads and tracks have been cleared.

The UK Foreign Office and the US State Department advise against all but essential travel to northern Kosova, especially to the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica where ethnic tensions remain high.


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