On the fourth day of our Kosovo trip, Nenad Vukićević and Zoran Jovanović headed south to the old royal city of Prizren. The road is well-known, as we spent some considerable time there in June of 2019 while recording for churches of Prizren, including the famous Virgin Ljeviška. Our destination is a cluster of small churches in Sirnićka and Sredačka župa, and in the course of the next three days, we visited fifteen (15) of them.
Sredačka župa is a small geographical area at the foot of the Šar Mountains, around the upper course of the river Bistrica. Ošljak surrounds it in the north, Crni Vrh in the south, the Prevalac pass in the east, and to the west by the settlement of Drvengrad located in the gorge of the Bistrica River. It is a basin between Prizren and Sirnićka župa. The following are the villages of the area: Sredska (with hamlets Bogoševce, Krajći, Milačići, Račojći, Paličojći, Pejčići and Stajkovce), Drajčići, Živinjane, Lokvica, Mušnikovo, Planjane (villages in which Serbs live), Donje Ljubinje, Jablanica, Manastirica, Nebregošte, Pousko, Rečane, Stružje (villages inhabited by Serbian-speaking Muslims).The villages of Sredačka župa date back to the times of the Nemanjić dynasty. They were first mentioned in the charters of Kings Dragutin and Milutin, as well as that of Emperor Dušan, which state that some of the villages shall be given as presents to Hilandar or to the Monastery of Holy Archangels.
Few of the churches built in the 16th and 17th centuries are still in their original form. These are the Church of Saint Nicolas and the Church of the Virgin in Gotovuša, and the Church of Saint Theodore Tyron in Donja Bitinja. A common feature of all the churches is a rectangular plan with a single nave and an altar apse on the eastern side.
The area of Sirnićka župa is located in the Lepenac valley, on the northern slopes of the Šar Mountains, between its steep ridges, Prevalac, Ošljak, and Jezeračka Mountain. There are 15 villages in this area: Berevce, Brod, Viča, Vrbeštica, Gornja Bitinja, Gotovuša, Donja Bitinja, Drajkovce, Ižance, Jažince, Koštanjevo, Sevce, Sušiće, Firaja, and Štrpce as their center.The Chrysobull of Emperor Dušan (still king at the time) mentions Sirinić as the estate of the Monastery of Hilandar (1331), while numerous villages of Župa are mentioned in Emperor Dušan's Holy Archangels' Chrysobull. Restoration of the Patriarchate of Peć resulted in spiritual enthusiasm among the inhabitants of Sirnićka župa, who built numerous churches. Despite modest financial means, the preserved churches testify to the high artistic qualities of their creators.
We are excited to come back to the Monastery of Holy Archangels, where we were greeted by our old friends, Abbot Mihajlo, Father Nikolaj, as well as the caretaker and cook Slavica. The other part of our team for this endeavor already arrived the previous night: Professor Dr. Zoran Rakić (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade), Donka Stančić, art historian (Novi Sad), and Dr. Ivana Ženarju (Institute for Serbian culture in Leposavić). After the short break, we leave for Štrpce as Sirnićka župa is our goal for the day.
Day 1 - Sirnićka Župa
The road to Štrpce is long, even though it is only 50km from the Monastery of Holy Archangels. At first, it follows the canyon of river Bistrica, then over Brezovica mountain, and finally the gorge of the Lepenica river. We met our guide for today, Father Boško from Štrpce at St Nicholas Church, located almost in the center of the city. A beautiful church, newly fresco painted, is well taken care of. In the following two days, we'll follow a familiar pattern, we locate the church, then find the key of the church. Our expedition leader, Donka, has phone numbers of everyone as she visited the area a few years ago. All the key holders, 'kllisari,' are very important as they take care of the church and manage the property.
The church of St Theodor Tyron, Donja Bitinja, is located in the village cemetery and was erected and painted in the late 16th century. At first, we were not sure how much time we had, but we tried to do a complete collection of each church, drone footage, 3D pictures, and full photographs of inside and outside of the church.
The church of St George, Gornja Bitinja, is mentioned in the 15th-century Turkish census of the area as belonging to the Branković family. At some point, it was destroyed, and in 1920 a new church was built on the ruins of the older one. The altar area and two round marble slabs on the floor with carved ornaments are preserved.
The village of Gotovuša is relatively large compared to the rest and is mainly inhabited by the Serbian population, judging from the large Orthodox cemeteries.The church of St Nicholas, Gotovuša, is also mentioned in the 15th-century Turkish census. A single-nave church was painted in the mid-16th-century, and some of the frescoes are preserved to this day.
On the way to another church in Gotovuša, we stopped by the region's old and architecturally unique house and met some new friends, including the friendly dog Čupko. As our guide, priest Boško, argued for preserving the house, the owner, čiča Milivoje, reminded him that all earthly matters have a price tag associated.
Another church in Gotovuša is the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin, located in the cemetery in the middle of the village. It is also from the 16th century but was in ruins until 1886 when it was restored. Many icons on the iconostasis were painted by the painter Evgenije in the 19th century.
After a short lunch break, we continued our trip through Sinićka župa and arrived at the church of St Petka in Berevce, a small village on the hill above Štrpce. It is also from the 16th century, but it was painted with tempera on wood by the painter Stergije from Kozani (1858). The style of painting reminds us of St Stephen's church in Velika Hoča that was painted in the same period.
NOTE: The church is not on Google maps. We already sent in a suggestion for map edit, which was granted by Google.
And our last church for the day is the church of St Nicholas in Sevce, a small and remote village on mountain Brezovica. It is also from the 16th century, but it has been renovated many times since then.
NOTE: This church is on Google maps but at the wrong location. We have already sent in a suggestion for a new place on the map.
For the end of the day, a visit to a self-taught artist in Jažince, a real treat for the long day of work and traveling. The whole area was big in mining, and many artifacts of the process are used to create a medieval surrounding, full of knight armors, medieval weapons and lanterns, and the royal coat of arms.
We arrived at the Holy Archangels monastery pretty late in the evening.
Day 2 - Sredačka župa
The second day of the trip started early. Slavica, our host at the Holy Archangels, prepared sandwiches for our lunch as we would not have time or place to stop for one in a restaurant. Today's target is Sredačka župa, around the town of Sredska.
The church of St Nicholas in Sredska, first mentioned when Emperor Dušan gave it to the Monastery of Holy Archangels, was erected in the 16th century. It was renovated and expanded around 1875 when the frescoes were painted. We were welcomed by the 'klisar' Slaviša and shown around the church and the cemetery.
Ruins of St Petka Church
On our way to the next church, we stopped by the ruins of the St Petka church. The ruins are only a few hundred meters from the main road but otherwise pretty inaccessible. This is the first time that anyone has taken pictures and measurements of the church.
NOTE: The ruins are not on Google maps. We already sent in a suggestion for map edit, which Google granted.
A tiny church, St George in Milačić (hamlet of Sredska), is a gem. Its main entrance is so small that we almost had to crawl in; this may have been the reason its alternative name is a Repentance Church. It is on the property of the Radivojević family, who are the great benefactors as they completely renovated it a few years ago. The church houses an actual capital from the pillars of the Monastery of Holy Archangels. NOTE: The church is in the wrong place on Google maps. We have already sent in a modification.
Out of two churches in Mušnikovo, we first visit the church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. It is on the hill above the village situated on both sides of the small creek. The church was built in the 16th century, while the village itself was first mentioned in the 15th. Several preserved frescoes are small, but a composition of Sts. Peter and Paul in their brotherly embrace is worth mentioning.
The second church in the village is the church of St Nicholas, located in the middle of the village. It has well-preserved frescoes from the 16th century, and the local people were responsible for them. The beauty of depictions of Sts. Sava and Simeon is outstanding.
The day was long, but in the end, we managed to have a short dinner in the old town of Prizren, just before the pandemic curfew. For some of our companions, this has been the very first visit to Prizren.
Day 3, Crkolez
The third day of our side trip started early again as the village of Crkolez was about two hours drive from Prizren. It is located in the Drenica region, south of Mitrovica, and it is supposed to be the last collection of this side trip before returning to Gračanica. We were not quite sure what to expect, as literature on the church is sparse and Prof. Rakić is currently preparing a monograph devoted to it.
The church was built in the first half of the 14th century and is mentioned in 1395 when Duke Novak presented it to the monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos. The church is a relatively small building with a barrel vault and a narthex separated from the nave by pilasters and an arch. It has an altar apse five-sided on the outside and brick decoration on the west façade. Only small remains of the original frescoes have been preserved, but the frescoes from 1673, the work of the famous painter Radul, who signed himself in the niche of the prothesis, are very well preserved. The scenes of the Great Feasts are painted in the nave along with the extensive cycle of Christ's sufferings, and the narthex is decorated with the cycle of John the Baptist, the patron of the church.
The church also houses several icons from the 17th century from the old iconostasis, as well as two old tombstones.
We arrived early, but the whole village was already up, even though it was Sunday. Almost one hundred inhabitants, almost entirely of Serbian population (with a few exceptions of Romanian and Ukrainian wives), surrounded by villages with mainly Albanian people. The church is located in the cemetery, as almost all the others we visited in the last two days, and seemed well preserved from the outside. To our surprise, the inside of the church was a real gem, with frescoes from the fourteenth century in good condition, with some of the most beautiful and original artwork we have encountered during this trip.
Saying goodbye is hard, but after three days of travel and work, Nenad and Zoran were happy to be on the way back to Gračanica.