Visoki Dečani is the largest, and one of the best preserved, Serbian Orthodox Christian Churches: a World Heritage site and part of Medieval Monuments in Kosovo. Commissioned by King Stefan Dečanski in the 14th Century, it was dedicated to the Ascension of the Lord. It sits snuggly in the foothills of the Prokletkje mountain range, in the Bistrica river valley, an oasis of spiritual calm.
It represents the high point of Byzantine and Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture and culture. The quality and extent of the frescoes inside the church are some of the best preserved and most skilfully painted in the world.
It remains a working monastery, inhabited by 30 brethren, who, as well as dedicating their lives to God, carry on the age old skills of making and painting exquisite icons, wooden carving and book publishing. They also cultivate fruit and vegetables and make their own fiery rakia to ward of the cold; essential during the harsh winters prevalent here.
Given the current political situation and ongoing tensions in Kosovo, this religious compound is symbolic of the religious divide between Christian Serbs to the north and Albanian Muslims; the religious majority in Kosovo. Ironically, Kosovo, which gained independence in 2008, contains some of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s most sacred monasteries and churches, of which this is one. Nearby is the Patriarchate of Peç, the Serb equivalent of Jerusalem.
As a result, it’s been a frequent target of Albanian attacks, necessitating full time protection from the Italian Carabinieri. In the photo (above), the new commander of the latest detachment, greets one of the brothers at the start of their tour of duty.
During the protection of any vulnerable site, much time is spent standing and waiting around in case of attack, but, given the immediate environs outside the monastery’s perimeter are wholly Albanian, hostility is well stoked, and therefore the probability of attack high.
The Carabinieri protect many of the sacred religious sites in Kosovo, a role they have played throughout history. They are part of the KFOR mission in Kosovo, which took over from the UN after Kosovan independence, and carry out an invaluable role.