Dear fellow travellers
When the celebrated English travel writer Edith Durham arrived at the monastery at Gracanica one hundred years ago, she came to a place that had virtually no experience of the twentieth century. It is an episode that Durham recalls in her book High Albania. The incumbents, evidently horribly worried by Durham's unmarried condition, interrogated their visitor about the keystones of modernity:
"They asked me of the great world beyond the Turkish frontiers; if it were true that there is a railway that goes underground and another on the roofs of houses; of electricity and motor-cars."
Gracanica is a Serbian enclave just a twenty-minute drive south of Prishtina. If, as seems now very likely, Kosovo's imminent declaration of independence is recognised by some countries in the wider international community, then Prishtina will enjoy a new-found status as a capital city. A real achievement for a place that Edith Durham dismissed as "hopeless looking".
In the great game of nation-building, there are inevitably winner and losers. With Albanian interests in the ascendant in Kosovo, after eight years of international administration of the province, the two dozen or so Serbian Orthodox nuns who live and work at Gracanica monastery are naturally apprehensive about the future. What place for them in a potentially independent Kosovo that will surely have no great affection for a Serbian minority? A small contingent of Swedish peace-keeping troops and a large supply of barbed wire protect the monastery and its grounds - which are home not just to the nuns but also to the local Serbian Orthodox bishop and his entourage.
The nuns pray, keep bees, paint icons and attend to the marvellous Byzantine frescos that adorn the interior of the beautiful five-domed monastic church. NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 shook the building severely, but happily the church took no direct hits. It is a deeply religious place, but much more besides. There is something of the Serbian soul in this monastery, and any decent settlement for Kosovo's future really should include some accommodation for Serbian shrines and holy places that lie within the territory of the would-be independent republic. Kosovo's religious art, be it at Gracanica or elsewhere in Kosovo, is one of Serbia's prize cultural assets, and so surely not something that will be given up lightly.
Rebecca West was another early visitor to Gracanica, when she travelled through Yugoslavia in 1937. West quickly appreciated the monastery's importance to the Serbian diaspora. "It was as if Chartres Cathedral should stand alone on land that has been shorn of all that was France," she wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
In the weeks ahead, as every spring, a great carpet of rich red peonies will slowly drape the meadows around Gracanica. For the nuns, as for many Serbs, the red meadows are potent reminders of Serbian blood spilt on the fields of Kosovo. Armies have fought before over Gracanica, and the Serbian embers in and around the monastery could so very easily be a flashpoint in the future. Gracanica is surely a place to watch in the weeks ahead.