If you have seen a production of, or listened to the music from, Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”, you actually have some passing knowledge of one of the tiniest but fiercest corners of Serbdom, the Black Mountain – Crna Gora – Montenegro. Disguised with the pseudonym Pontevedro in the operetta, Lehar included elements of Montenegrin life throughout every aspect of the production. Premiering in 1905, the two leads, Mizzi Gunther (playing the eponymous widow, Hanna Glavari, a Pontevedran expatriate in Paris) and Louis Treumann (playing the dashing Prince Danilo), wore stage versions of traditional court costume; characters’ names were reflective of the region and the ruling dynasty, the Petrović-Njegoš family; an aria titled “The Song of the Vila” hearkened to the mythological vile (pl.) of Serb folklore, beautiful but temperamental female fairies who inhabited forests and mountains. The operetta was, in many ways, a Viennese nod to the Slavs of its kingdom, even though Montenegro lay beyond its boundaries. The land of mountains and eagles had never been fully conquered through five centuries of Ottoman presence in the Balkans; little did the Viennese know that in less than a decade, Montenegrin Serbs would be fighting off their armies, too.
In a corner bounded by the Sava and the Danube, three centuries before the common era, Celts found the abandoned settlement of a Thracian tribe, the Singi. Recognizing its strategic advantages and abundance of resources, they settled there. A fortress arose, in Celtic dun, and Singidunum was born. It was home to Celts, Romans and Byzantines for a millenium before the Slavs arrived. Seeing the pale limestone palisades in the distance, they called it the White City – Beo Grad. It became part of the kingdom of King Dragutin Nemanjić in the 13th century, and flourished under Stefan Lazarević in 15th century. It fell into Hungarian hands, setting into play a back-and-forth struggle between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire that went on for centuries. In 1594 as a reprisal for a Serbian uprising, Albanian Ottoman vezier Sinan Paša ordered the public burning of St. Sava’s relics on Vračar hill. The warring continued until Karađorđe liberated it on St. Andrew’s day 1807. The failed first rebellion led to notable migration of Serbs out of the region in 1813, and it took decades for the city to earn its place as capital of the Principality and Kingdom of Serbia.
Niš, in the south central part of Serbia, has its greatest claim to fame as the birthplace of Constantine, the first Byzantine emperor. Located near the confluence of the Nišava and Morava rivers, the valleys have always made for a natural thoroughfare since ancient times. By Constantine’s time, the Via Militaris or Carigradski Drum was a well travelled route for both trade and conquest. Continue reading
In 2019, an iconic painting is marking its centennial. Depicting events that happened over 600 years ago, the Kosovka Devojka, or Kosovo Maiden, has become the most widely known image of all of Serbian art. It has become a symbol of charity and mercy, of selflessness, and of bravery. This painting was preceded by others that have not retained the same impact in our collective soul. Legendary, not historic, the Kosovo Maiden is a woman every Serb knows like a sister. Continue reading
“The citizens of Travnik, the wisest in all Bosnia, know more tales than anyone else, but rarely tell them to strangers, much as the rich are loathe to give away their money. One of their stories is worth three of anyone else’s; in their judgment, at any rate “ Continue reading
The Kumanovo district is one that has attracted a lot of attention from folklore ensembles lately, with mixed results when it comes to costume. The region is complex, with two distinct costume forms found locally among Serbian and Macedonian populations. Ethnic Bulgarian and Turkish populations dwindled but their influence remained as well. Moreover, the district experienced rapid changes in costume from the beginning of the twentieth century, something spurred by the preponderance of migrant work (pečalba, gurbet) among the men of the region; returning, they brought home new fabrics and western-style garments that were incorporated into, and eventually replaced, the folk costume. All of these things have led to a bizarre spectacle on the stages of Serbian folklore ensembles: costumes from wildly different time periods, side by side in the same choreography; multiple dancers wearing the heavy bridal headdress abandoned by WWI, even when not presenting wedding customs; and bizarre innovations borrowed from neighbouring regions and cultures. I hope that by sharing some of the costumes from my collection, I can at least sufficiently educate blog readers to spot these anomalies when they encounter them. Let’s make Kumanovo great again, people!
The Tree of Life is known throughout Indo-European cultures, with ancient roots. Slavic cultures are no exception; the Tree of Life had robust meaning in both Pagan and Christian culture. Alongside its ritual and religious use, this symbol entered every aspect of Slavic and Serbian decorative art, from stone and wood carving to weaving and embroidery.
The term Vlah is from Old Slavonic, believed to share a common root with volkh, volkhov (magician, magus) and the pagan deity Volos, Veles (ancient slavic deity, protector of Livestock). The volkhov connection may seem strange, but it is proposed that the word was also used to designate the unknown, or strangers. This could arise from the distinctly different Vlach language which would have been unintelligible to the Slavs, or from the mystical ritual folk life of Vlasi (pl). The Vlachs were overwhelmingly pastoralists, and their lifestyle so closely tied to their flocks and herds that the etymology from Volos or Veles may have some basis there. With the adoption of Christianity, St. Blaise (Sv. Vlasije, Sv. Vlaho) took on the role of Veles, and is considered patron of domestic animals.
What can I say that has not been said about Kosovo? The cradle of Serbian statehood, faith and identity since the arrival of the Slavs, who encountered Romanized populations, remnants of the tribes and colonies of the Roman Empire. Kosovo, which emerged as part of Raška, alongside Zahumlje and Travunija (Hercegovina), Duklja and Zeta (Montenegro) as one of the earliest Serbian principalities, and which became part of the first Serbian Kingdom of Stefan Nemanjić “Prvovenčani” (The First Crowned). Kosovo became the jewel of the Serbian state, with fortresses and monasteries constructed under the order of kings, emperors and patriarchs: Bogorodica Ljeviška, Gračanica, Banjska, Dečani, so many more… prime among them, the Peć Patriarchate, nucleus of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Kosovo was the turning point for Serbian history, too, as Serbian and Ottoman armies met once again, this time on the Field of Blackbirds (kos, Kosovo Polje) and set in motion the events of future centuries, peonies sprouting from the blood of the fallen.