23. Serbo-Albanian cross-cultural history in Kosovo

Kosovo has a history of co-existence with considerable movement across its ethnic and religious frontiers. This was through trade, cultural diffusion, religious exchange and conversion. Many cultural traits were seen as being shared across group boundaries  throughout its history. Ethnic and religious barriers were not watertight. Periods of confrontation alternated with periods of contact and cooperation across ethnic and religious lines.

It was at the end of the 19th century that divisions between Christians and Muslims developed into an ethnic divide between the two communities. Relations between Serbs and Albanians in northern Albania were far from being only conflictual. There were strong links between Albanian and Montenegrin clans, they were longstanding allies in war, took brides from each other’s clans and there were legends of common ancestry.  Lines of division have not always been ethnic ones. In the 18th and 19th centuries the main lines of division were between Albanian landlords and the rest of the population, there were clan and tribal loyalties, and religion forming other divisions. In the 1980s most Albanian ‘irredentists’ were sentenced and jailed by fellow Albanians, and not Serbs.

Pilgrimages and religious holidays were times when the communities came together. Even though pilgrimages are events firmly grounded in specific religion and involve the belief in the healing powers of particular saints, at a local level they usually always included members of other religious communities, individuals hoping to be healed, or simply people wishing to be a part of an important annual gathering.

The village of Letnica in the Vitina municipality in southeast Kosovo, usually drew thousands of worshipers of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their destination was the Catholic church there, the religious and cultural centre of Kosovo Croats. However, not just Croatian and Albanian Catholics, but predominantly Muslim Roma, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Albanians also took part in the pilgrimage.  In the surrounding villages, notably in the mixed Catholic-Albanian Stublla and Binqa communities of the so called Laraman could be found. The Laramans were neither Catholics nor Muslims, but a mix of the two, “Crypto-Catholics”.  Many Albanians in these villages adopted Islam as late as the 18th century, but their conversion, according to Albanian Catholic priests, was purely nominal. They simulated their Muslim identity in the public sphere to avoid Ottoman persecution whilst at home secretly holding their Catholic identity and religious practices.

 

Orthodox Christian sacred objects and holy places also attracted non-Orthodox pilgrimages:

Gracanica, Zociste, Devic, Visoki Decani. In the Gracanica monastery, which celebrates the Assumption as its holy day, a large number of Muslim Roma came to the monastery and celebrated alongside Serbian pilgrims. Among them were sick people, infertile or pregnant women who usually came with their families and spent the night in the monastery’s yard, believing that it would accelerate their recovery or help them to conceive. Most visitors, however, came to have fun and a good time. Local taverns offered live music for those who wanted to dance, and local merchants set up stalls outside of the monastery walls, and the holy day became a fair ground.

Under the Ottoman empire people of different ethnicities and faiths lived side by side. Not everything there was perfect. Muslims had more rights and privileges but other religious communities were granted autonomy. Their everyday life came under the control of their religious leaders, who even acted as judges for most crimes and offences.

With the demise of the Ottomans the position of Christians deteriorated but it was only at the end of the 19th century that significant conflicts between Serbs and Albanians started. After  centuries of living together, for the first time, with a few exceptions, Albanians and Serbs no longer lived with each other and among each other but rather alongside each other. Later, however, during the Second World War Serbs and many Albanians were joint members of partisan units. In the former Yugoslavia they worked together in the world of film, theatre and music, a rich cultural cooperation and wider including joint sports teams.

 

Ger Duijzings, Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo, London, 2000; Noel Malcom, Kosovo: A Short History, London, 1998;  Srdjan Atanasovski, Religion and Identity in Kosovo: Historical and Contemporary Practices of Pilgrimage; Aleksandar Pavlović “Serbs and Albanians lived not as neighbors, but together” – Beyond Enmity: Changing Serbian-Albanian Perceptions, implemented by Qendra Multimedia