"Gračanica" – calls the bus conductor waving in our direction. Only one other passenger gets off in the quiet Kosovan village of Gračanica, just south of the capital Pristina. And yet there are a couple of cafés and snack bars near the bus stop. A bit further on, the road leads to a tall and sturdy-looking gate. This must be the Christian monastery of Gračanica - but for a church the whole place looks very defensive and closed-off.
"I am not even allowed inside", our host in Pristina had told us when we asked him about the monastery of Gračanica: Like most Kosovars, he is a Muslim, while the Gračanica monastery belongs to the orthodox Christians of the Serbian minority. Whether the rules are indeed so strict we cannot confirm, for in spite of the massive gate, a side door is open and we can enter the premises without anyone paying attention to us (and without showing any proof of our identity, as we had beforehand read online).
In the middle of a wide lawn stands a small square building with several metal cupolas. With its tall lattice windows and the light-coloured bricks it fits more with our imagination of Russian churches: A relatively modern church, we think at first, or possibly Tsarist, 19th century… Is this the UNESCO world heritage church we have come to see?
But once we peer inside the narthex it becomes obvious that we are in the right place - patinated frescoes of saints and martyrs all over. Not a single wall that has gone undecorated, and this in a typical Orthodox church building with many interior walls, corridors and arches, and therefore a lot of wall space to cover with frescoes. Deeper inside the church, a few worshippers are standing near the altar niche, kissing the frescoes of saints.
Some sit on a bench right in front of the scary scene depicting the last judgement: The dead are clambering out of their graves, and even wild animals have to disgorge those humans – or parts of humans – that they have eaten. Demons are already at hand to lead the resurrected souls into hell – and a resolute angel even helps in this task, pushing the damned with a trident. The late Byzantine frescoes are painted in traditional style, and their colours are surprisingly vivid. In contrast to most Byzantine churches, the 14th century building follows new Gothic fashion trends in its verticality, with its five domes rising up high above the worshippers.
On most walls of the nave, saints are standing in two or three tiers, with scenes from the life of Christ and other biblical stories above them, all supervised by the huge Jesus Pantokrator – ruler of the world – in the main dome. In the centre, we find the images of King Milutin, who built this church in the early 14th century, and his Queen.
Like in many of the other images, her eyes are scratched out – a sign of frequent religious disagreements, and an indication that the marauders feared the images of the foreign gods and saints, thinking they would come alive and haunt them as long as they had eyes. Apparently, those zealous "believers" most eager to fight a rival religion are the ones most stuck in archaic beliefs far predating their purported religion …
Back in Pristina we have Espresso Macchiato in one of the many pleasant pavement cafés in the lively town centre. Pristina in summer is quite relaxed, and the people we meet in Kosovo are super-friendly and helpful. No visible remains of the Kosovo War (which was nearly 20 years ago, after all) or such outbursts of violence as continued until after the declaration of independence in 2008, but also no discernible signs of political instability or dissent in the wake of the most recent election. We spent only a few days in Pristina but to us the city and the Kosovo in general seemed utterly inviting, likeable and peaceful … we are hoping to have a chance to come back in the near future.
From Pristina's main bus station just west of the town centre, frequent busses to Gjilan pass through Gračanica after about 20 minutes. The monastery is on the main road about 200 m from the bus stop.
Was Gračanica monastery worth the visit?
Yes, it was. The late-Byzantine frescoes are rather overwhelming and the atmosphere in the small church and its churchyard was calming.
*** If you liked this post about the UNESCO church of Gračanica you might also like our post about the wonderful painted monasteries of Romania, also a UNESCO site. These monasteries have the outer walls covered in frescoes!