Banjska (Kosovo): the martyred monastery

The site of the Association Solidarité Kosovo, dedicated since 2004 to the help of Serbs in Kosovo, published this presentation:

On the outskirts of Kosovska Mitrovica, the mountain range of Rogozna is home to a unique history, that of the Banjska Monastery. With its experience of the major events that marked the history of Serbia –from the Ottoman occupation to the anti-Christian pogroms in 2004– it has had a turbulent and sometimes tragic past, but also an extraordinary destiny and fidelity.
Solidarité Kosovo has had the honor to contribute to the restoration of this Christian building, a jewel of medieval Europe.

Where West and East meet: Gothic style with a Byzantine interior

Built between 1312 and 1316 at the request of the Serbian king Stefan Milutin who wanted to be buried there, the majestic monastery of Banjska stands on the green backdrop of the Zvečan Valley, in the north of Kosovo, bordered by the Ibar river. Built in a Gothic style of French origin and characteristic of Western Europe, the Banjska Monastery is one of only two of its kind in Kosovo. The second is none other than Visoki Dečani Monastery.

The construction works were led by the prior Danilo II, who later became patriarch of the Serbian Church. In addition to the church dedicated to Saint Stephen, the Christian site originally consisted of dormitories and a refectory, as well as of the enclosure walls and towers. Another architectural feature is the facade of the church, adorned with tricolor stones (white, red, and blue), unique in the region.

In contrast to the Western-inspired exterior architecture, the interior of the church was fully adapted to the Orthodox rite, with its majestic frescoes and unique dome adorned with the overlooking Christ Pantocrator. This style, unique in Europe and representing an architectural syncretism at the crossroads of Roman Catholic and Orthodox influences, is called the Raška school.

Razed to the ground, demolished, burned, converted into a mosque, and revived in 1939

The history of Banjska Monastery is emblematic of the vicissitudes of History in the Balkans, and more precisely in Kosovo.

Seventy years after its construction, King Milutin’s resting place, a symbol of the rise of the medieval Serbian state, did not resist the decline inaugurated by the Turkish invasion. After the Battle of Kosovo at Kosovo Polje in 1389, marking the defeat of Serbian troops against the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan ordered the monastery to be razed to the ground. The destruction was trumpeted by the wreckers to morally weaken the Christians of the region who had fallen under their servitude.

Rebuilt by the Orthodox faithful of the surrounding villages, the monastery was demolished again in the 16th century by the Ottoman occupiers. As the ultimate sign of the Moslem domination, the Saint Stephen church, by then almost completely destroyed, was converted into a mosque in the 17th century. Confiscated from the Christians, the site was used for Muslim worship until the First World War. The church became the theater of clashes during the Austro-Hungarian war and the Balkan wars, and was again severely damaged by a fire.

It was not until 1939 that the first restoration work was undertaken. This explains that there is almost nothing visible of the richness of the frescoes that used to adorn the church, except a few traces on the dome. Interrupted during the communist period, restoration work resumed in 1990.

Solidarity Kosovo Association started in this symbolic place and in moving circumstances, through a chance meeting with the parish priest. We had already bumped into him a few days earlier in Mitrovica. Banjska was the first monastery visited by the French volunteers of Solidarité Kosovo, more than 14 years ago, in particularly moving circumstances, as the following will show.

At a crossroads, with Solidarité Kosovo

Friday, January 7, 2005
In the early morning, the cold was biting. The snow had covered the monastery property with a thick layer, without concealing the stigmata of past pogroms. The silence conducive to recollection was interrupted by the Saint-Stephen church bells pealing. Christmas Mass is celebrated there following the Gregorian calendar.
Shouts of joy instilled life and color into the ruined building. The children from Banjska were running to the church square. They were dressed poorly, wore woolen socks and plastic sandals. With a straightforward smile and sparkling eyes, they nodded at six slightly older French youths. A line of boxes was separating them, containing what had been collected in Grenoble, Paris and elsewhere to help Serbs in Kosovo. Arnaud Gouillon knelts down, found a pretty doll with rosy cheeks, and offered it to little Marija. She delicately took it in her arms. This was the first toy in her whole life. She already seemed in love with it. Then the humanitarian distribution began. The bells were still pealing. Solidarité Kosovo was born.

Thirteen years later, the children of Banjska have grown up. Solidarité Kosovo as well. The bonds of brotherhood and solidarity with the Kosovo Serbs have been strengthened, as well as those between the association and the Banjska parish priest. Father Danilo is one of the first liaison of the NGO. He has since become a loyal friend, and regularly receives visits.
During his last meeting with Arnaud Gouillon [the current chairman of the association], Father Danilo asked for the association to help him restore the medieval walls of the monastery. Solidarité Kosovo  felt honored to contribute to this project, as this heritage place is a symbol of protection and resistance to the vicissitudes of History in Serbia and more broadly in Europe. In all, 60,000 euros were devoted to the restoration of the fortifications. Remaining faithful to the original beauty and style required a meticulous and qualified work.

The restoration work was completed early November 2018. The faithful of the Saint-Stephen parish thus received their Christmas present ahead of time! But Santa Claus promised to come again this year, after the Nativity, on the occasion of his traditional convoy established seventeen years ago, to give toys coming from France to Banjska’s children. The children of the children first met in 2005 and who have now become parents.

“Christmas is the spring of the spirit. It is a promise”  Alain (Seasons of the Spirit, published in 1937)