by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

It was once dubbed 'Serbian Constantinople,' but is now a hotbed of Albanian ambition - right in Europe's newest state

prizren 2.jpg

It was a desecration. In the dead of night, somebody had placed a freshly severed pig's head at the door of the Muderis Ali Efendi mosque, one of the oldest and most visited mosques in Prizren. The Muslim Albanians decided to take their revenge on the usual suspects, the Catholic Albanians from the nearby church. Thus, between 1905 and 1908, the city experienced the notorious Three-Year Boycott of Catholic Shops.

It was only some time afterwards that it came to light that the Catholics had had nothing to do with this provocation. It had been planned by the rector of the Orthodox Church School, or Bogoslovija, a Serb named Petar Kostić, who wanted to set Albanian Muslim against Albanian Christian. For centuries, the Serbs in this city, and in Kosova as a whole, had been a minority, but these lands were of paramount importance to them. They were "Old Serbia," the place where their nation was born and had experienced its most glorious years in the 11th-14th centuries. Ironically, Prizren was the place where the Albanians' first national organisation had been founded some thirty years before the pig's head incident.

Prizren is the most picturesque and ethnically diverse city in Kosova, Europe's youngest state. Situated on the northern slopes of the Šar Mountains, Prizren overlooks the vast Kosova Plain and has all the features of an old Balkan city on the threshold of a new era. The fortress on the hilltop, which was successively Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian and Ottoman, is today a popular place for walks and is floodlit at night. The old part of the city is a jigsaw puzzle of Ottoman houses, mosques, workshops and hamams, or Turkish baths, mediaeval Serbian churches of all sizes and dilapidated public buildings in the worst traditions of Yugoslavian architecture. When Tito's federation flourished, Kosova was deliberately kept in economic isolation. It was the poorest region of Yugoslavia and the prefabricated blocks of flats, rank after rank with their neglected landscaping, begin right outside the old city centre. Since the 1999 Kosova War they have been flanked by newer, equally unsightly, blocks of flats, petrol stations, shopping and office centres and other signs of ambitious young Kosova.

The Bistritsa river cuts Prizren in two parts, connected with numerous bridges

The Bistritsa river cuts Prizren in two parts, connected with numerous bridges

Prizren is changing, but the day when it will merit the name "tourist destination" is still a long way off. The mediaeval churches are ghosts of what they used to be, after they were burned down and plundered during the 2004 Albanian riots. Today KFOR guards the Saint Archangels Monastery from the 14th Century and the impressive Our Lady of Ljeviš Church from the 12th Century, which is undergoing restoration. Most of the churches are still abandoned and some, in the old city centre, are hidden from the incurious gaze of the passing Albanians by hoardings that are almost invisible under election billboards and adverts for local pop stars. Others are a more alarming sight. While trying to appreciate the picturesque view of Prizren from the vantage point of the fortress, your eyes will be drawn over and over again to a disembowelled 14th Century masterpiece, the Church of the Holy Salvation – in the same way your tongue repeatedly explores the place in your mouth where a tooth has recently been extracted.

This devastation is not the only obstacle encountered by tourists to Prizren. Hotels are few and have Amsterdam prices. Signs directing you to the landmarks are almost non-existent. The restaurants and qebaptore, or kebab eateries, may serve splendid Balkan dishes: drained yogurt salad called, yes, tarator, kebapcheta, grilled cheese and sausages, but you will be lucky to find any alcohol. If you do, it will usually be the local Peja beer.

Fortunately, the majority of young people speak English, though a knowledge of Turkish is also useful. The city has a sizeable Turkish community and even those who are not part of it speak the language.

Prizren is almost unknown outside these parts of the Balkans, but the city, whose name means "a fortress which could be seen from afar" in old Slavonic, has been the site of key events for three Balkan nations.

The overwhelming majority in Prizren is Muslim

The overwhelming majority in Prizren is Muslim

The first was the Bulgarians, though most of them are now unaware of it. Prizren and the surrounding area became part of Bulgaria in the mid-9th Century and remained so until the country fell under Byzantine rule in 1018. These territories saw the second large Bulgarian uprising against the Emperor of Constantinople, in 1071. It was headed by Georgi Voiteh, a boyar from Skopje but, as he was not of royal blood, he could not be declared tsar of the liberated lands. For this reason, he made a deal with the seventh son of a Serbian prince. Bulgarian rule was officially restored in Prizren in 1072 and Prince Constantine Bodin was crowned tsar. The revolt was crushed that same year and Voiteh died of the wounds he received under torture during his transportation to Constantinople.

The rebellion of 1071-1072 is a tiny detail in Bulgaria's mediaeval history. For the Serbs, however, Prizren was one of the capitals of the royal dynasty of Nemanjić. Under the reign of Stefan IV Dušan (1331-1346) the city gained such importance that it was known as the Serbian Constantinople.

Even today, you will hardly come across a Serb who does not know the song "Onamo, 'namo!" ("There, over there!"). Written in Montenegro at the end of the 19th Century, it is also known as the Serbian Marseillaise. This is how its second stanza goes:

There, over there... I see Prizren!

It is all mine – home I shall come!

Beloved antiquity calls me there,

Armed I must come there one day.

The song provides half of the answer to the conflict between Serbs and Albanians over Prizren and Kosova, which has regularly made the international news over the past 100 years.

Kosova is Europe's poorest state, with a median income of 1,700 euros per year

Kosova is Europe's poorest state, with a median income of 1,700 euros per year

The other half of the explanation lies in an event that happened – again – in Prizren. It was the place where the first Albanian national and political organisation was founded in 1878. It was called the League of Prizren. Today the house where the delegates met is a landmark. You can easily identify it from the statues of two of the leading figures in the establishment of the league, Sami Frash'ri and Ymer Prizreni.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, conflict between Serbs and Albanians was ready to flare up at any time, and the pig's head incident was not even its first outbreak.

When British traveller Mary Edith Durham arrived in Prizren in 1904, the city was still within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire (together with Kosova, it became part of Serbia during the Balkan War of 1912- 1913). During her stay, Durham witnessed a remarkable event, which boded ill for future civic relations. The Muslim Albanians were so enraged by the decision of the central authorities to appoint a Serbian policeman in the city that they instantaneously organised themselves into an angry mob." Within 10 minutes every shop was shut and barred, and all the Muslims fully armed were rushing down the street, led by Sherrif Effendi, a very popular Hodja," Durham wrote. "The armed crowd swung down the street in a pack, like wolves on the trail. The air was full of rumours. Sherrif was said to be responsible for the expulsion of the Serb zaptieh. He was prepared to defend the Sheriat (Islamic Law) at any price, and would tolerate no privileges for the Christians. They returned shortly, satisfied that no immediate attempt would be made on it." Minutes later the crowd dispersed. The merchants reopened their shops and the craftsmen got back to work as if nothing had happened.

Living tradition: As elsewhere in the Muslim world, barbers are a significant part of social life, and their shops stay open until late

Living tradition: As elsewhere in the Muslim world, barbers are a significant part of social life, and their shops stay open until late

Over the next decades, tension continued to grow, escalating into acts of violence on both sides, such as the Serbian attacks on Albanian civilians in 1912-1913, and the Albanian riot of 2004.

Today, two years after Kosova declared its independence, all is quiet in Prizren. The Serbs live in enclaves protected by KFOR and the Kosovars, engaged in all sorts of business, from the production of boza, or millet ale, to hotel-keeping, pass by the devastated churches as if they do not exist. Yet they still have not lost their ability to organise themselves into a mob in seconds. You will experience this if your stay in Prizren coincides with an election rally or the visit of a pop star from Albania. In short, if you want to see the real Prizren, now is the time.

Tradition and modernity meet in Prizren as headscarved women are a rarity

Tradition and modernity meet in Prizren as headscarved women are a rarity

Kosova On Fire

The deaths of four people in March 2004 emphasised the fragility of the peace established between Serbs and Albanians at the end of the war in the former Autonomous Province of Kosova and Metohija. On 15 March Kosovars killed an 18-year-old Kosova Serb. The next day, three Albanian boys from the village of Čabar drowned in the Ibar River. The story told by a fourth boy, who claimed that the children had been chased into the river by a group of Kosova Serbs, was not confirmed but it was enough to spark off mass Albanian demonstrations. On 17 March Serbs and Albanians confronted each other in the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica. Despite the intervention of KFOR, there was gunfire. The unrest spread throughout Kosova and continued on the following day, taking the lives of 19 Serbs and one Kosovar. The Albanian persecution was so fierce that 10,000 Kosova Serbs left the province for good.

The turmoil in the province affected not only the people, but destroyed hundreds of Serbian homes and dozens of mediaeval churches, most of which were monuments of culture. Prizren was among the towns that suffered the worst damage: seven churches and monasteries in the city were burned down or looted.

The Birth of a Nation: The League of Prizren

Prizren League inauguration

Prizren League inauguration

When, in the 15th Century, the Ottomans were conquering every piece of Europe they set foot on, the Albanians became a symbol of the determined resistance of the Christians against the invader. Led by the remarkable Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-1468), they protected the western shores of the Balkans for years until, finally, their resistance was overcome. Over the next few centuries most of them converted to Islam. Like everybody else in the Ottoman Empire, the Albanians were divided by the millet system. This categorised the subjects of the sultan depending on their religious affiliation, rather than on their ethnic origin. The first signs of a common consciousness among the Albanians, who realised they were the same nation no matter whether they were Christians or Muslims, appeared because of the Bulgarians. The 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War was the key event. The war ended with the restoration of Bulgaria after five centuries of Ottoman rule. The territory of the young state was dramatically curtailed, but it was clear to anyone that as soon as it got on its feet, it would try to expand to the west. It was no secret either that Greece and Serbia would compete with Bulgaria for these pieces of the sultan's domain. The Albanians, who were the majority in the Ottoman provinces of Kosovo, Monastir, Janina and Shkodër, quickly felt under threat. Eighty Albanian delegates and intellectuals, both Muslims and Christians, gathered on 10 June 1878 in Prizren to establish the first Albanian national organisation. The task of the League of Prizren was to defend the rights of the Albanians with Ottoman help. Its aims were ambitious. The four provinces were to become a single, financially independent province with its own local army. It was to have national schools where the Albanian language, written in the Roman alphabet, would be taught. The league existed only until 1881 but it achieved its main purpose: the Balkans acquired one more young and ambitious nation.

Kosova is an young country not only historically. The average age is 25.9 years, compared to 40.2 in the UK and 41.4 in Bulgaria

Kosova is an young country not only historically. The average age is 25.9 years, compared to 40.2 in the UK and 41.4 in Bulgaria

Kosova-style fast food: Excellent qebaptore preparing lamb and veal meatballs right under your eyes

Kosova-style fast food: Excellent qebaptore preparing lamb and veal meatballs right under your eyes


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