Saturday, June 28, 2014


Kosovo Icon
Saint Lazar
VIDOVDAN (St. Vitus Day) JUNE 28 -
Serbia had indeed reached her pinnacle. Under the leadership of strong and able rulers, she had progressed and flourished during the Middle Ages, and her lands in the Balkans had advanced culturally, spiritually, and politically to make her a powerful and established empire in the Balkans. She would not, however, be allowed to enjoy her status for too long, as competing empires had their sights on her lands, her people, her resources and her very soul. It was the legacy of this glorious period in Serbia’s history that so became imprinted on her national consciousness that no matter how powerful or ruthless an oppressor came along in the future, and there would be many, she would endure and prevail.

In his book “The Serbians”, Author Paul Pavlovich describes this phenomenon:

“….[King/Tsar] Dusan’s tremendous achievement was his building up of national pride in the Serbians of his day, as well as in all of those later generations of Serbians who were, during the centuries of misery and foreign subjugation, to look back on Dusan as a constant inspiration which gave them the fortitude to persist and carry on. The Serbs of the future centuries found solace in that source of pride and inner strength while they were outwardly being driven to the ground by the foreign empires (Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian) or the great powers of Europe (Britain, France, Germany, Russia). For it was soon after the reign of Dusan, and until well into the 19th century, that Serbs were not to be independent to guide their destinies, and it was during this long fight for survival that Serbs were to remind themselves of the glorious past: the whole Nemanya period had been the golden period of medieval Serbian history, and Dusan’s contribution to that period had been its crowning zenith…

"…I, for one, would argue that Dusan’s accomplishments played their most important role during the latter centuries of Serbian history, as the foundation of Serb pride and soul-building, which as stood them in good stead to this very day…” (Pavlovich, Paul. The Serbians, pp. 45-46)

Arguably, the primary problem of the great Dusan’s reign, which may have contributed to the eventual break up of the Serbian Empire, is that he didn’t establish a smooth succession to his throne. Tsar Dusan had been a man and ruler of tremendous personal power, and this power provided a “unifying and cohesive force”, even over the newly acquired and conquered lands that had become part of the Serbian Empire during his reign. But, once he was gone, the Serbian Empire would slowly slide into feudal anarchy, plagued by internal instability. As is often the case with states whose territories and conquered lands are ruled by multiple rulers with divergent interests and competing egos, personal conflicts will inevitably erode whatever strength was inherited. This feudal anarchy and internal conflict would make the once seemingly invincible Serbian lands vulnerable. The Turks were indeed coming and with them the suffocating yoke of Islam. The Ottoman Turk sultanate, which was gradually spreading from Asia to Europe and which would conquer and defeat the already broken Byzantium, relegating the once great and vast Byzantine Empire to the ashes of history, had the Serbian Empire and its Christians in its sights.

When Tsar Dusan died, power passed to Dusan’s son Uros II, who was only 19 years old at the time of his father’s death, and Dusan’s half brother Simeon, also a young man. Neither of the young men, now inheritors of the House of Nemanja, had the qualities of those rulers who had preceded them. In 1356, the Byzantines began disassembling what was left of their once great empire. Uros II attempted to keep the centralized system of government in place in the lands over which he ruled, however, Simeon successfully broke away from that centralized government, as did other rulers of their respective territories.  Instead of consolidating both the existing Serbian territories with the newly acquired lands and maintaining a strong, unified front ready and able to withstand any future attack, the new “leaders” created and aggravated the very cracks that would become increasingly advantageous to those that coveted those lands. When Tsar Uros II died in 1371, the great Nemanjic dynasty was finished after two centuries of glorious and exemplary rule.

Among the new ruling class, a new leader would emerge at this time in the northern part of Serbia proper, where Kosovo lay, that would soon become permanently enshrined in history far beyond what he could possibly have foreseen for himself and his legacy. His name was Lazar Hrebeljanovich, Prince Lazar, and he would manage to successfully fix some of the damage that had been done by the feudal anarchy that began to plague the Serbian lands in the mid 14th century. He would manage to unite most of Serbia, through both battle and diplomacy, although reuniting all of Serbia eluded him. Some of the regional feudal lords just would not cooperate. One has to wonder if they had cooperated in Lazar’s noble and necessary unification effort, perhaps the fate of the entire Serbian state might have ended up differently in the pivotal 14th century in the Balkans.

Complete reconciliation between the Eastern Byzantine and Serbian Orthodox Churches, would culminate during Prince Lazar’s rule, which began in 1370. Though this reconciliation of the Eastern Christian Church served to stabilize and strengthen Orthodox Christianity here where it had been born, it would be alone in facing the future Islamic onslaught that was still to come. The Western Christian Church would not step in to help save the Balkans from the Moslem Turks. The Orthodox Christians in the heart of Europe would be left to fight the battle of saving Christianity from the Islamic onslaught alone.

Before the epic Battle of Kosovo in 1389 that would change everything in the Balkans, especially for the Christians, an event preceded it that was a harbinger of the tragedy that was yet to come. By 1371, the ambitious Turks were already firmly established in much of the territory that used to be ruled by Byzantium. What used to be Byzantine lands were now Ottoman lands. At this time, the Ottoman Empire was just beginning the great expansion of the Islamic way of life into south-eastern Europe where the Balkans lay. Their first “base” on European soil had already been established in 1354 at Dardanelles, a narrow international waterway (strait) that together with the Bosporus, connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and divided the Balkans (Europe) along the Gallipoli Peninsula from Asia Minor. Who were these new “invaders”?

According to historian Paul Pavlovich,

“There is still much controversy among historians about the origin of Ottomans. For our purposes, it is sufficient to accept the view that the Ottomans found their origin among one of the closely related Turkish groups which invaded Anatolia (part of modern Turkey) in the 13th century. Ottoman is a “political” concept, and the name of the Turkish state and Empire which existed from the 13th century until World War I. The founder of the Ottoman state was Osman (Othman) who established the dynasty that bore his name – Osmanli, or Ottoman.” (Pavlovich, Paul. The Serbians, p. 48)

In 1359, Murad I, the first Turkish Sultan, which was the equivalent of “Emperor” or “Tsar”, came to power, and by this time, the Ottomans had proven themselves superior over their Christian adversaries. They achieved this advantage by being well organized militarily and by having an effectively mobile light cavalry. Had the western Christian powers united with the eastern Christian powers at this time, it is unlikely that the Ottomans would have been as successful, but such a unified Christian Front was not to be.

The Ottoman advance into the Balkans would also be aided by the feudal conflicts and battles resulting from the political anarchy that plagued the Balkans at this crucial time and by Hungarian and Venetian interference in Balkan affairs. Could Islam have been stopped from reaching and enveloping the heart of Europe for centuries to come? Had the above mentioned points not been a factor, the answer could have been yes.

The Ottomans were well aware of the Serbian fighting spirit. They knew that Serbs were courageous and able warriors. But to get what they wanted in the Balkans, the Turks would have to face these courageous and able Christian warriors and beat them. Murad’s soldiers were preparing to face the Serbs at Maritsa River in 1371 (near the village of Chernomen which was today's Ormenio in Greece). This river flowed through Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. By this time, the Serbs and Byzantines had successfully “reconciled”, with peace and good will having been restored between their churches due to the efforts of Tsar Dusan’s widowed Empress Helena and Serbian leader Despot Jovan Uglješa who both knew that the common enemy, the Turks, could be faced better with a united front.

Uglješa’s brother King Vukashin and Vukashin’s son Prince Marko, who would become the legendary “Kraljevich Marko”, came to help Uglješa at the Maritsa River. This great battle would take place on the terrible night of September 26, 1371. The battle would only last this one solitary night, ending by the dawn of the next day, but it was marked by a vicious storm passing through that overwhelmed the entire area with incredible amounts of rainfall that would swell the Maritsa River and swallow the dead bodies of the Serbian warriors and their horses who were massacred that night. Among the massacred Serbs were the brave Despot Jovan Uglješa and King Vukashin. It is worthy to note this tradition of Serbian leaders, regardless of their status and whether or not they were royalty, being willing to fight in the trenches with their men. They did not leave the fighting just to their soldiers, but rather joined them in battle, either celebrating victory with them or dying with them.

During this one stormy, singular night in September on the Maritsa River, the disarray that had befallen the Serbs after Tsar Dusan’s death over a period of just 15 years, came to terrible fruition. For the Ottoman Turks, the Battle of the Maritsa River was the beginning of their mastery over not just the Serbs, but most of the Southern Slavs as well, which was to last for the next half a millennium to come. Virtually overnight, the Turks became lords of Thessaly (northern Greece) and all the lands as far west as Albania.  The newly expanded territory and power of the Ottomans resulted in the Christian rulers and their peoples living on those lands which bordered on the ever expanding Islamic Empire, being made Turkish vassals, essentially in servitude to the Moslem victors.

This would not be the last significant battle fought between the Moslem Turks and the Christian Serbs. Another, far more epic and far reaching battle remained to be fought in the future, and that one would be even more decisive and pivotal. Serbia, what was left of her, would continue to “exist” for another 88 years after the Battle of the Maritsa River. Instead of consolidating her remaining “free territories” to become one strong unified state, with a centralized system of government, however, she would continue to be comprised by her own different despots in charge of administering the different areas just as she had been prior to the Turkish victory at the Maritsa.

Those lands that were not taken over by the Turks yet at this time were ruled by notable Serbs whose names would become permanently etched in the history of the period. King Vukashin’s son, Prince Marko (“Kraljevich Marko”), survived the Battle at the Maritsa, but was forced into becoming a dreaded Turkish vassal, and ruled over the city of Prilep. Vuk Brankovich, who would soon become infamous, established his rule around Prishtina and Skopye, but his rule would not last long. The most legendary of the new rulers would be the already mentioned Prince Lazar, (Lazar Hrebeljanovich), who was born in 1329 and whose father had been one of Tsar Dusan’s court officials. His distant connection to the Nemanjic dynasty would come by way of his marriage to Militsa in 1353, who was the daughter of one of the military nobles who had served Dushan. Prince Lazar would come to rule over the most northern areas of Serbia - the Morava River Valley. His rule would extend as far as the Sava and Danube Rivers. The heart of Serbia, her soul, which was Kosovo, lay here.

Lazar’s territory began to feel the threat for real in 1381 when the first Turkish raids in northern Serbia began. The pivotal invasion would come on a Tuesday, eight years later. That Tuesday, June 28, 1389, would become probably the single most important date in all of Serbian history, and the impact of the events of that single day would not only effect the Serbians and their lands, but all of the Balkans and the future of Europe as well. It is impossible to quantify all of the collateral impact of the Kosovo Battle in 1389 on the “Field of Blackbirds”, but as a result of Ottoman Empire domination in the Balkans, the Serbs would become essential pawns and players in the eyes of other states and empires to the north and to the east. The power play that would result would have international consequences far beyond the Balkans.
The Turks won the battle. The Serbs lost the battle. Murad I lost his life. So did Prince Lazar. And so did the entire Serbian Army of Christians who faced down the Moslem Ottoman invaders and perished doing so. How do you adequately explain the Battle of Kosovo and all that this one battle meant, not just to the Serbians, but to all of Christianity? To the Serbs, you don’t have to.
Back when the land of Kosovo was still an integral part of the Republic of Serbia, historians Alex N. Dragnich and Slavko Todorovich gave us a history of Kosovo which included the following attempt to define this very special place that’s permanently etched in the Christian Serbian heart and consciousness for eternity:

“Although the problem of Kosovo is complex and complicated, for about one-half of Yugoslavia’s population, the Serbs, it is not. To them Kosovo is holy ground. It is the cradle of their nationhood, when they were virtually its sole occupants. It was the center of Serbia’s empire in the Middle Ages, at one time the strongest empire in the Balkans. It was in Kosovo in 1389 that Ottoman forces won the crucial battle with the Serbs, leading to the end of their empire. But Kosovo is also the place where Serbia’s most historic and religious monuments are located…a symbol of the Serbs’ identity, their greatness, and the hope of their ultimate resurrection.” (Dragnich, Alex N. and Slavko Todorovich, The Saga of Kosovo)

"Free" Serbia, as such, would continue to “exist” until 1459 when the Serbian lands finally and completely fell to the Turks, and a whole new chapter in Serbian history began that was to last for several centuries.  During those centuries, Serbs would become integral to the “Eastern Question” involving another great empire, that of Russia.  They would become increasingly significant to the Austrians, who would not only use and covet the Serbs as able warriors to keep the Turks from the gates of Vienna, but who would come to have their own self-serving agenda with regards to the Serbian lands. This “western” agenda would continue to escalate after the Turkish “invaders” from the East had been vanquished and it was this agenda that would culminate in consequences for the entire world in the Twentieth Century and beyond. How far back in history the evolution of this “western” agenda can be traced is probably from the very beginning of the Serbian presence on the Balkan Peninsula in the 7th Century, but this agenda would come increasingly into focus many centuries later as the resilient Serbs began successfully rising up against centuries of Ottoman subjugation and seeking the Unification of all the Serbian Lands, a national dream no different than that of the other peoples and nations of Europe.

It was when they were finally able to shake off the last vestiges of Ottoman rule and liberate themselves from their vassalage and subjugation almost five centuries after the Battle of Kosovo that the Serbians would come to be looked upon not just as pawns or “assets”, but as true contenders.  As with all contenders, they would make new enemies, this time in the west, who no longer just perceived them as a barrier to Eastern encroachment, but as a threat to western interests and intentions and what they coveted.

There would be no rest for the Serbians, whether in defeat or in victory. Such would be the fate of the valiant people who had settled in the crossroad between East and West and who would pay dearly for making their home in the Balkans.

Aleksandra Rebic
June 28, 2014


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I learned quite a bit from this article,

Thanks, Steve