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Roma History: The Nemanjic Dynasty, the Ottomans and Medieval Kosovo


The Serbian ruler Stefan Nemanjic, a vassal of the Byzantines, ruled Raška (an area directly north of Kosovo) from 1169 to 1196. Stefan expanded his rule through modern-day Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro. Upon Stefan’s death, his son, also Stefan, was declared king of Raška by the Byzantine Pope Honorius III in 1217.

In 1219 Stefan created the autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church (Stefan, with the approval of the Byzantine Empire, broke the congregation of his lands away from the enraged archbishopric of Ohrid) with its seat based in Žica, near Kraljevo, Serbia. The church’s seat was moved to Pec (Kosovo) after Žica was destroyed in a Tartar raid. Stefan’s brother, Rastko, was the church’s first archbishop; he was later canonized as Saint Sava.

Stefan’s grandson, Stefan Uroš II- now known as Stefan Milutin- expanded the Raška kingdom into Macedonia, at the expense of the now-weak Byzantine empire; he made Skopje his capital. Stefan Uroš II eldest son, Stefan Uroš III- later known as Stefan Decanski- led a revolt against his father. The revolt was crushed. Stefan Uroš III was blinded on the order of his father- a typical Byzantine punishment- and exiled to Constantinople. Legend states that he was not completely blinded; he only pretended to be blind for his time in exile. Years later, Stefan Uroš III was allowed to return; soon after Milutin died, Stefan Uroš III ‘regained’ his sight- a miracle to all- and seized the throne. He expanded the empire into Bulgaria and began the construction of the Decani Monestary; soon he was removed from power by his son, Stefan Dušan. Stefan Uroš III was imprisoned in the fortress of Zvecan, Kosovo, and was later garroted.

Stefan Dušan’s reign was the pinnacle of Serbian medieval civilization. Under his rule, the empire grew rich on trade, mining and agriculture. The Serbian Orthodox Church prospered and expanded under his endowments to them for new monasteries and churches. Western Kosovo became Metohija- Serbian for church estates. Stefan Dušan waged war against the Byzantines; he conquered Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and vast areas of Northern Greece. Had he lived longer, he may have taken Byzantium as well. The empire reached its maximum expansion- culturally and economically as well as geographically- under his reign.

The year before Stefan Dušan’s 1355 death, the Ottoman Turks first set foot in Europe. The Serbian kingdom had less than a century of life left at the height of its power.

Ottoman military prowess would bring them to the gates of Vienna, Austria by 1529.

Stefan Dušan’s son, Stefan Uroš V, lost the empire his father had created; under his weak rule, the kingdom dissolved into rival principalities. These principalities became vassals of the Byzantine Empire; after the fall of Adrianople to the Ottomans, the rival Serb princes who ruled the pieces of Stefan Dušan’s expansion united to counter the Turkish threat. In 1371, their armies met the Turks on the Maritsa River. The Serbs were crushed. The Ottomans, led by Murat, conquered Sofia, Bulgaria in 1385 and Niš, Serbia in 1386. A Serb-led army defeated an Ottoman expeditionary force in 1387 (or 1388) at Plocnik.

The Ottoman invasions were seasonal. The Serbs and their Christian allies waited. The Bulgarians- allies of the Serbs- unexpectedly accepted Ottoman vassalage; Murat was free to strike west. And on June 28th, 1389, a Christian army led by the Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic met a large Ottoman army at Kosovo Polje. Lazar’s army was made up of Serbs, Hungarians, Bosnians and Albanians. The Ottoman army, led by Sultan Murat, was not nearly as diverse, but Christian mercenaries, including Greeks, Bulgarians, and even Serbs, were present in its ranks.

The armies fought one another to a standstill; both Lazar and Murat were killed. The Ottomans, led by Murat’s son, Bayezid I, left the field, in order to secure Bayezid’s succession. He returned to Constantinople to kill his brothers and rule. Lazar’s wife accepted Ottoman vassalage; she then entered a convent. A truncated version of the Serbian empire survived, with its seat of rule in Belgrade, and later Smederevo. The Ottomans finally eliminated the Serbian empire in 1459.

The Turks ruled Kosovo for the next five centuries. The Austrians expanded southward after the Turkish siege of Vienna was broken; they invaded Kosovo between 1688 and 1689. The Serbs threw their weight behind the Austrians and rose against the Turks. The Austrians pulled back in 1690; thousands of Serbs- perhaps as many as 30-40,000 families- fled northward with them, led by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Arsenije. These refugees were later settled in the Vojska Krajina- the military frontier (present-day western Herzegovina & Croatia) that separated the Austrian empire from the Ottomans.

The descendants of these settlers created a Serbian Republic of the Krajina in 1991 by force of arms, and were driven from the Krajina in 1995 by the Croatian army; 200,000 fled into Serbia and Serbian areas of Bosnia. Many were forcibly resettled in Kosovo- three hundred years after their families had fled behind the Austrian forces.

Kosovo had an Albanian character before the arrival of the Slavs; under the Nemanjic dynasty, Serbs were the majority. Under Ottoman rule, Kosovo assumed an Albanian character again. After 1690 Albanians may have outnumbered Serbs. The Serbian Orthodox Church was abolished in 1766; this contributed to the far advanced Serbian cultural decay.

Kosovo, in the mind of the Serbs, became an icon of all they had achieved, and all they had lost. The 1389 battle was remembered in epic folk poems; an entire mythology developed around it that shunted many truths to the side. Lazar’s men became all Serb. The Turkish army increased exponentially in size. A blackbird appeared before Lazar on the eve of the battle; it offered him a kingdom in heaven or a kingdom on earth. He chose heaven; he and his men died. Legends of the nine brothers Jugovic, the Serb hero Miloš Kobilic and the traitor Vuk Brankovic- claimed in folk legend to be the father of Montenegro’s Roma- became the reality of that battle; in truth, the Serbs had reported the 1389 battle as a victory, but over time it became a crushing defeat. The Serbian empire eventually died because they left their best warriors slain on that battlefield; they demographically exhausted themselves. The Ottomans had troops to spare; they returned, season after season. The Serbs and their allies could do no such thing. The next Turkish seasonal campaigns met the fathers and sons of those men who had earlier died at Ottoman hands.

The Serbs identified with Kosovo; they thought it was their heart. When ideas of enlightenment and nationalism drifted into southeastern Europe, the Serbs finally developed a national consciousness: much of that consciousness was based on Kosovo. It became what they lost, and what they wanted back. The legend of Kosovo had been altered, shaped and preserved in folk poetry; Byron, Goethe and other cultural notables publicized the Homeric tradition in the West’s backyard. The first tracts written in the Serbian language concerned the Nemanjic dynasty and the 1389 battle. The Mountain Wreath, by the Montenegrin Bishop- Prince Njegoš, turned the struggle against the Turks into an epic fable that enchanted Western Europe.

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