15 July 2006

Whiffs of mystery, visions of glory

By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 15 July 2006

"Just be quiet for a moment. Try to smell it," whispers Milan, a black-robed novice at the monastery church of Jesus Christ the Pantocrator in Decani, western Kosovo. So I close my eyes and inhale.

The eyes of a thousand painted saints watch us as we stand silently in the central nave. White light pours in through a high window, then glows blue as it bounces off the 14th-century church's richly frescoed arches and walls. Directly above, the intense face of the Panto­crator - the omniscient Christ - stares down from the interior of the great dome.

"Now do you smell it?" Milan asks. The sweet odour of the wax candles burning behind us mingles with what must be the scent of myrrh. "Yes, that's the smell of incense left over from this morning's service," I reply.

"No. It is almost exactly like incense but it isn't that," he says. "I have learnt to tell the very slight difference between the smell of incense and the smell of the king."

Every Thursday the monks raise the body, clad in crimson and gold and lain in an ornamental sarcophagus, and venerate it. Since the death of King Stefan Decanski in 1331, his majesty's complexion has darkened somewhat and the royal hands have thinned. Even Milan, faithfully in awe, admits that the old monarch looks "like he has lost some water". But the "miracle" of the saintly monarch's uncorrupted body, housed in Decani's magnificent, Unesco-listed monastery church, still powerfully fuels the faith of the monastery's Serbian Orthodox believers.

"God has kept his body from decay to show us that saintliness and holiness are possible, to show us that the kingdom of heaven is here," the novice says.

The emanation of the scent of myrrh from the king's body is one of many enduring medieval marvels in Kosovo that strike the modern heart and mind like unwelcome lightning - flashbacks from a rejected age of faith. Do they illuminate, or do they blind? They certainly disarm and dazzle the visitor, just as the holy places in Serbia's breakaway province have always done, by defying the spiritual pretensions of the outside world and demanding an answer.

One could stomp out through the monastery gate, cursing, and drive away, calling it all a hoax. But standing toe to toe in that glorious nave with gentle Milan, the mere thought of such a reaction seems flagrantly presumptuous, wildly proud.

He asks me if I believe in the uncorrupted body of the saint. Pressure. Either it is a hoax or it is real. Either the shaggy-bearded brothers working quietly in the monastery yard outside the church's walls are liars or they are deluded or they are guardians of a genuine holy relic. I am tempted to cop out. Relativist instincts whirr into motion and suggest a noncommittal reply: "Why shouldn't we believe it when the universe is full of so many wonders?"

But discipline kicks in. A leap of faith is a truer option. "Yes, I do believe it," I say, looking Milan straight in the eyes. He looks back with a mild, sceptical grin.

Now am I the liar? It is something to ponder as I walk out of the monastery grounds, past the group of Italian soldiers stationed at the whitewashed stone gate.

I drive past the tank traps and barbed wire that protect Decani against the Albanian militants who would see it burnt down. I go back out into the anguished secular landscape of this pretty land of fertile fields, grand mountain ranges and exotic fables.

The Orthodox monasteries of Kosovo are diamonds scattered in this moral scrapyard. They count among the places, so rare in the present age, where one's agnosticism and relativism seem to blow away. These places demand focus and reckoning.

If for some visitors the uncorrupted body of Stefan Decanski fails to force the big issue of personal faith, then the constant state of danger in which the monks live inevitably does. These havens of prayer and joy have become the most threatened places in Kosovo since the 1998-1999 war.

On any ordinary day, profound peace prevails in the cloisters. Order becomes beauty as life moves to the rhythm of bells and the low tone of the semantron, a wooden board that strikes the call to prayer. The patterns, colours and shapes of Byzantine, Romanesque and Balkan aesthetics fuse seamlessly in ancient buildings and immaculate gardens amid the muffled clamour of labour from the workshops.

The sheer pleasantness of the scene causes some visitors to doubt that these communities live in genuine danger. But no one can dispute the reality of the routine attacks against Orthodox religious communities in Kosovo, none worse than the 2004 pogrom in which more than 30 churches were destroyed and Decani came under mortar attack.

The diamond metaphor comes to mind again, for the gems are formed under massive pressure. So is the kind of peace that prevails here. The monks and nuns speak no ill word of the ethnic Albanians outside their cloister walls and some even dare to muse, in unreason­ably good humour, that someday the monasteries in Kosovo may all be overrun by militants. "Temples fall. It happens. What matters is that we preserve the community of prayer," a monk says.

So fearless and infectious is this disposition - tempered by what the monastics call harmolipi, "joyful mourning" - that the modern western traveller who ventures here risks departing as a pilgrim, even if he has arrived as a tourist.

I drive onward to the famous monastery at Gracanica, two hours from Decani. The road crumbles into a wilderness of potholes as I cross into the small Serb enclave where the 14th-century monastery stands. The location means security is a smaller problem. A lone Swedish soldier at the modest gate, a member of the same Nato force to which Decani's Italian guards are attached, dreams away the hours with a rifle cradled in his arms.

Admirers call Gracanica "the queen of Kosovo churches". Standing in the middle of her broad yard, she appears regal but petite. Yet beneath her multitude of little domes is a vast blue and gold universe of iconography in which to wander.

Beneath an image of the Hebrew prophet Elijah, fed by ravens in the desert, I am greeted by a nun. Sara approaches me, clad in black from head to toe, bubbling with enthusiasm and keen to chat in whatever combination of Serbian, English and French suits me best.

"What's in the golden box next to the altar?" I ask.

"The relics!" she exclaims. "One of them is a bone from the body of St George. You know it is the saint because it still smells beautiful!"

Surprised, I ask: "St George, the famous one? The dragonslayer?"

"Yes," she says. "Come on St George's Day. You can see it for yourself."

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