“Forgotten Bonds: Albanian armed guards protected medieval Serbian churches & monasteries in Kosovo…” (and a short Ayesha Saddiqi addendum)

17 Sep

@Purpura57912934 tweeted:

Forgotten Bonds: Albanian armed guards protected medieval Serbian churches & monasteries in Kosovo during the last centuries of Ottoman rule. The commanders were hereditary Vojvodas, the guards permanently lived on the church grounds & were most likely Laramans (Crypto-Orthodox).

Purpura begins his tweet with the words: “Forgotten Bonds”. I think it’s safe to assume that his intentions are to show how, in some indeterminate past, Albanian Muslims and Orthodox Serbs lived in harmony together in Kosovo and in such multicultural peace that it was Albanians who guarded the extensive and dazzling ecclesiastic art heritage of Kosovo Serbian Orthodoxy (instead of vandalizing it like they do now). But he concludes by saying that most of these guards were secretly Christian. And that of course belies the whole myth of “bonds” and tolerance and happiness and how “there is no compulsion in religion.”

Read about the Laramans on Wiki . It’s a fascinating page because it puts together a whole package of phenomena that all, to some extent, grew out of Ottoman defeat in the Great Austro-Turkish War at the end of the 17th century: the retaliatory violence against the still-Christian Albanian and Serbian population that lived in the western Balkans on the corridor where much of the fighting of the prolonged conflict had occurred; the flight of Serbs to the north; the Islamization of Albanian Catholic Ghegs who then settled in a depopulated Kosovo and the parts of southern Serbia that the Serbs had fled from*; the spread of Bektashism throughout the Albanian Balkans and how that form of Sufism may have grown out of the crypto-Christianity of much of the population and even from Janissaries (with whom the Bektashi order was widely associated) of Albanian extraction; and the spread of violent Islamization campaigns to the Orthodox, mixed Albanian-Greek population, of southern Albania later in the 18th and early 19th century.

A testament to this last phenomenon — the Islamization of southern Albania — is the obstinate Christianity of the region my father was from, the valley of Dropoli (shown above). There are several songs in the region’s folk repertoire that deal with the conversion pressures of the past, but one song that is heard at every festival or wedding and could be called the “national anthem” of the region, is “Deropolitissa” — “Woman of Dropoli.” Below are two versions; the first a capella in the weird, haunting polyphonic singing of the Albanian south (see here and here and here and especially here)**; and another with full musical accompaniment, so readers who are interested can get a sense of the region’s dance tradition as well (though in the second video the dress is not that of Dropoli for some reason). If you’re interested in Epirotiko music, listen for the “γύριζμα” or “the turn” — the improv’ elaborate clarinet playing — toward the end of the second video, 4:02; the clarinet is a Shiva-lingam, sacred fetish object of mad reverence in Epiros and southern Albania.

The lyrics are [“The singers are urging their fellow Christian, a girl from Dropull, not to imitate their example but keep her faith and pray for them in church.”]:

σύ (ντ)α πας στην εκκλησιά,
με λαμπάδες με κεριά,
και με μοσκοθυμιατά,
για προσκύνα για τ’ εμάς,
τι μας πλάκωσε η Τουρκιά,
κι όλη η Αρβανιτιά,
και μας σέρνουν στα Τζαμιά,
και μας σφάζουν σαν τ’ αρνιά,
σαν τ’ αρνιά την Πασχαλιά.
σαν κατσίκια τ’ Αγιωργιού.

…and go to church
with lamps and candles
and with sweet-smelling incense
pray for us too
because Turkey has seized us,
so has all of Arvanitia (Albania),
to take us to the mosques,
and slaughter us like lambs,
like lambs at Easter, like goats on Saint George’s day.

Until the first part of nineteenth century women in Dropoli used to wear a tattooed cross on their forehead, the way many Egyptian Copts, both men and women, still wear on their wrists; there are photographs of Dropolitiko women with the tattoo but I haven’t been able to find them. Here’s a beautiful photo, though — looks like some time pre-WWII — of Dropolitisses in regional dress.

Of course, as per my yaar, Ayesha Siddiqi, “I don’t think I can ever really be that close to people…” whose ancestors didn’t experience and stand up to religious persecution of the kind mine did.

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* Good to know something about the traumas of Serbian history before we rail against them and villainize them in a knee-jerk fashion. I think my best summary came from this post last year, Prečani-Serbs:

Prečani-Serbs: It’s doubtful that any Balkan peoples suffered more from the see-saw wars between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs than the Serbs did.  It’s easy to see why; Serbian lands are pretty much the highway for getting from the south Balkans to Vienna.detailed-political-map-of-the-former-yugoslavia-1983It’s the easiest proof there is that war always had “collateral damage” and civilian casualties.  The Ottomans launched rapid campaigns up through to Vienna in 1529 and 1683.  Both times they failed to take the city and retreated.  Thank the gods, because the idea of Turkish armies at the walls of Vienna is even more terrifying than the idea of Arab armies in the Loire valley at Tours just 70 kilometers from Paris in 732. But in 1683 they not only failed to conquer Vienna, the Hapsburgs chased the retreating Ottomans across the Danube and as far south as Kosovo.  That could have meant Serbian liberation from the Ottomans 200 years before it actually happened.

But then the Austrians made the fateful decision to retreat.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps they felt overextended or thought they were getting too deep into imperial overreach.  And of course this meant horrific retaliatory violence on the part of Turks and local Muslims against the southern Serbs who had welcomed the Austrians as liberators.  And an epic exodus of the Serbs northwards, in what are called the Great Migrations of the Serbs, began.  This resulted in a massive shift to the north of the Serbian nation’s center of gravity and, perhaps most fatefully, marks the beginning of the de-Serbianization of Kosovo, which was the spiritual heartland of the Serbs.  And an influx of increasingly aggressive highland Albanians, now Islamicized and emboldened in their impunity as such, only accelerated the departure of Kosovo Serbs to the north.

Conditions in northern but still Ottoman Serbia were better than in the south.  But for many Serbs this was not enough.  A great many crossed the Danube and settled in what is now the autonomous region of Vojvodina and the parts of Croatia called Slavonia and Krajina.  Ironically, just as the Ottomans made Serbia prime recruiting country for their system of enslaving young boys to turn them into the most powerful unit in the Ottoman army, the Janissaries, the Austrians themselves also recognized that Serbs were, as always, good soldier material, and they invited Serbian fighters and their families into Austria’s border regions to protect the boundaries of the Hapsburg empire from possible Ottoman aggression.

So Prečani-Serbs, refers, very broadly, to those Serbs who went and settled in the borderlands of the Austrian empire; the term comes from “preko” or “over there” or “the other side”, across the Danube, Sava and Drina rivers, in other words, that were the borders between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs for centuries.

I don’t know whether Krajina Serbs from around Knin — shown in green in map below — are considered prečani or not, those from that part of Croatia that was largely Serbian until 1995, when it’s Serbian inhabitants were expelled with American help in what was the largest single act of ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars, with some 200,000 Serbs expelled from their homes.  Serbs are soldiers and poets, as I’ve quoted Rebecca West saying so many times; Croatians are lawyers; but with the detestable Milošević having abandoned Krajina Serbs (Venizelos-style), and with Americans arming, training them and watching their backs, Croats proved themselves to be formidable warriors indeed.

war_map

So, if one can put one’s biases aside, the poignant tragedy of this whole set of some 600-years of pain and trauma becomes clear.  Bullied out of Kosovo over the centuries, Serbs move north, even so far north as to settle in Austria itself.  Then, with no one’s help, they gather Serbs from Kosovo to the trans-Danube-Sava lands where they had settled over the centuries into one state.  And less than 100 years later, they lose and are almost entirely expelled from both the Kosovo they had fled from and from the Krajina and Prečani lands they had fled to.

Good to know the whole stories sometimes.

** I’m pissed and disappointed at my χωριανοί, “landsmen”, who have totally abandoned this beautiful and UNESCO-protected form of singing. When I first went to Albania to see my father’s village for the first time in 1992, after the fall of its heinous Stalinist regime, and to meet relatives we only knew through the spotty correspondence that made it through the Albanian Communist καθίκια‘s censorship, a group of aunts and uncles of mine recorded two hours of traditional singing for me to take back to my father (my father put off visitting until much later, when he was very sick because I imagine he was afraid that it would be traumatic; of course, going back when he did in 2002, knowing it would be his one and last time was just as painful.)

(If you want to know more about my family’s history, see: Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather.)

My grandmother and my father a baby

Now, thirty years later, no one except a few very old men still sing; they’ve totally left the playing field of the region’s song to neighboring Albanian villages; just like only a few young girls still wear traditional dress as brides, just like they’ve built horrible concrete polykatoikies without even a nominal nod to the traditional architectural idiom… Dance and dance music they’ve maintained, though they’ve sped up the tempo a little (compared to the second video above for instance) and that would have irritated my dad, since the aesthetic ideal of dance in the region is slow, almost motion-less, restraint — reminds you of Japanese Nōh drama. I carry the torch for him and get “grouchy”, as my friend E. says, when things get a little too uppity-happy on the dance floor.

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