by Mary E. Durham
(The Pic: Cakor mountain pass on the way from Berane, Montenegro towards Pec (Kosovo and Metohija) contemporary photo - Mary Durham should have seen this sight on her way towards Pec and Metohija plain)
An English traveller describes her visit Pec Patriarchate and Decani Monastery in the beginning of the XXth century. Durham leaves interesting impressions on Serbs and Albanians from that time.
Illustrations - photos from the Decani Monastery old photo album. The photos are approximately from the time when Miss Durham visited Old Serbia.
Miss Mary E. Durham, an Englishwomen, travelled across the Serb lands and gave the impressions in her book "Through the Lands of the Serb". She visited Montenegro, Serbia and Old Serbia. The chapters directly related to Montenegro are available for reading online. The map is also available. Miss Durham dedicated the book to her mother. The book was published in London, in 1904, by Edward Arnold and printed in Edinburgh by Morrison and Gibb Ltd.
Page at Njegos.com with 8 integral chapters
(covering Ms Durham's visit to Montenegro and Old Serbia).
(After visiting the area of Berane in today's Montenegro, Miss Durham proceded her travel over the mountains and the Rugova gorge towards Pec. The extract is covering the picturesque travel towards Pec and the arrival to the Patriarchate Monastery)
Late in the evening I received orders to start next morning at four with some traders and a zaptieh as escort Radovan disguised himself as a Turkish subject, and we started punctually in the grey dawn. It was very cold, and the entire landscape was blotted out by driving rain. We crossed the Lim by a wooden bridge full of holes, which a portion of the Turkish army had been trying to mend by stuffing sticks into them. Half blinded by the rain, we breasted the hill and waited on the top for the "drushtvo" (company) and the zaptieh, who soon appeared like ghosts out of the fog. The track was pretty bad, the landscape quite invisible, and we rode through a wilderness in a ceaseless downpour. The way was enlivened only by murder stones, which were pretty frequent. "That's the Bohemian," said the zaptieh. "Who shot him?" said someone. "God knows," said the zaptieh stolidly, " how should I ? We slopped on. "Those were traders," said the zaptieh presently (there were two stones this time). "Were they robbed?" asked one of the drushtvo, a trader himself. " By God, I know not. There was nothing on them when they were found." And so on and so on. At eleven the weather cleared quite suddenly; the clouds rolled away and disclosed scenery that was startlingly magnificent. We had been mounting all the time and were on vast uplands. The huge peak of Kom of the Vassoievich towered from Montenegro and a border blockhouse showed clear on a ridge. "That's Mokra," said the zaptieh, and he laughed and tapped his rifle - an unnecessary pantomime, for the land told its own tale.
It is "a land that is not inhabited." There are miles and miles of the richest pasture, where no flocks feed, - they would cost the herdsman's life, - rich valleys where no man dwells, and great lonely forests of stately fir trees. We were in Arnaoutluk (Albania), a land where nothing is done and where under Turkish government nothing can be done. A few most wretched shanties - Albanian, of course - were the only human habitations I saw. The Albanian hordes who till lately had held the district and completely blocked the trade route had been for the time being driven back, and now the road was once again practicable. Radovan spoke Albanian fluently, as did also the zaptieh. We got some smoky milk and some coffee at an Albanian hut (which stank frightfully, for the walls were covered with raw ox-hides nailed up to dry), and sat on the floor and drank out of the same bowl while a party of weird wild men sprawled round and asked questions. They kindly threw logs nn the fire that I might dry my clothes, and only charged five pence for our refreshments. Then on, and we passed through Rugove, a small Albanian village consisting of a handful of cottages and a wooden mosque, a sinister spot, the scene of the recent arrest of some revolutionary chieftains and a good deal of bloodshed, and plunged into the valley of the Bistritza, thickly forested with fir trees. The steep hillside was a tangle of roots or streaming with liquid mud, through which I slithered on foot for some miles, and the pack-animals staggered along-with difficulty, pecking and stumbling. We got ahead of the drushtvo, but as the light was beginning to wane the zaptieh called a halt, and we waited for them. I had been told ten or twelve hours would take us to Ipek, and my heart sank. When we joined forces everyone was dead tired. Poor Radovan was so done that I begged him to ride my pony, but he refused, and the track was soon such that I too had to walk.
It was an extraordinarily wild and impressive scene. The cliffs on the opposite side rose in a perpendicular wall, there was a night sky overhead, and the moon came out and glittered on the torrent that spouted and roared below. It was pitch dark under the trees, and numberless tiny fireflies flashed and disappeared. We staggered and scrambled over the rocky path, which was too narrow in many places to let one animal pass another. I walked ahead with the zaptieh, who uttered loud yells to warn any other caravan of our approach. We heard yells ahead, and the narrow valley echoed with unearthly howls. We met, and as we were all cross and tired, we backed, scrambled, and shouted, in a tangle as each party tried to make the other give way. I divided the last lump of dry bread with the zaptieh and Radovan as we tramped out from under the trees, and the valley was wide and bare. On the steep cliff was an inscription in Turkish with a great blot of crimson under it - only paint, but it showed mysterious in the moonlight and struck awe into all beholders except myself. As no one could read it they called a halt, began to discuss its probable meaning, and were in no hurry to start again. I walked on and the zaptieh followed, and we came to the end of the gorge. "Pech very soon," said the zaptieh ; "ride, lady, ride, the way is good." I mounted reluctantly, for it was not, and very nearly came to grief in consequence.
Natural beauties of Kosovo and Metohija - a few photos of the mounatinous area around Pec
At last, after sixteen and a half hours on the march, we clattered over a stony breakwater by the river's edge to tile big iron-faced gates of tile monastery, which is surrounded by a high stone wall. The zaptieh banged the heavy knocker, the gates were opened cautiously, I slid from my weary beast, and we entered. Here were some long white buildings, a fountain, and a group of men sitting on the ground. The Iguman came forward to welcome me. He proved later to be a friend indeed, but now he and the others were too much overcome by astonishment and curiosity to think of anything else but satisfying it. They gave me a chair, a rickety hard thing, and I sat stiff and tired in the chill moonlight and enumerated my brothers, sisters, and other relatives in answer to a flood of questions. One man who was gnawing a piece of meat kindly offered me a clammy lump by way of refreshment. Radovan asked if we could have some hay for the horse, and was told there was none at all and none could be got till the next day. I was so sorry for the poor brute that I forgot my own fatigues. It was turned loose In the monastery enclosure to pick up what it could, but as that had been fed over by geese the fare was very scanty. The Iguman meanwhile was arranging for me. It was lucky that there were other guests in the house or I should have fared hardly, for it was the fast of SS. Peter and Paul. As it was, supper was just ready. The company was most kind to me, and, when I had fed, the Iguman conducted me to the room which was reserved for the Vladika when he visited the monastery. It had a proper bedstead in it ! I wished the Iguman "good-night," tumbled into bed without further investigations, and did not find out till next morning that I had not only the Vladika's room but in all probability his sheets also.
The Iguman came early to see me, gave me a lump of sweet stuff and a tumbler full of boiled milk and sugar for breakfast, - for no one in these parts thinks of eating anything solid before midday, - and we went out to see the churches. The Patriarchia of Pech, formerly the seat of the Archbishop of Serbia, was, to the grief of the Serbs, made dependent on the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1766 by the Turkish Government. Of the four little churches neatly fitted together to form one large, irregular, dome-sprinkled building, three, including the Church of the Virgin and the Saborna Crkva (cathedral), were built by the Patriarch Arsenio, and are, I was told, nearly eight hundred years old. The fourth and smallest, St. Nikola, was added later by the Patriarch Makario. The churches are entered by a portico, the tiled roof of which is supported on wooden posts and which leads into a long narthex. The Saborna Crkva is by far the largest. Nor is it easy to give an idea of the interior of any of these churches. The general effect, made up of a mass of extraordinary detail, is old-world and barbaric in the extreme. The walls are entirely covered with frescoes of the most primitive description, a jumble of fierce colours toned by age into a rich harmony. Quantities of cut glass chandeliers hang from the roof, and from these again dangle numbers of ostrich eggs. Dim gilt ikons and holy pictures, blackened by the tapers that with pious zeal are stuck on their frames by a blob of hot wax, hang on the walls. Reading desks, taper stands, candle-sticks, all are of the most early pattern and the rudest make. A curious seat, under a canopy hung with dingle-dangles, is the throne upon which was crowned Stefan Dechanski, the Sveti Kralj. And this curious primitive art, that now looks exotic, Eastern, foreign, once swayed the art of all Europe. We find its traces in our own Norman architecture ; we find them in the early churches of Italy. It reached its highest stage of development in St. Sophia, and St. Mark's, Venice, but it is now dead and done for. Art is no exception to the rule, that all things are blighted in the land on which the Turk has laid a hand. After his arrival all further development was arrested.
The monastery covers a good deal of ground. There are long rambling guest-houses for the crowds that come on pilgrimage days, rooms with long fixed tables spreading out into a large round at one end for the accommodation of those of high degree. One of these buildings is of the same date as the church. Timbered, wide-eaved, and picturesque, it is a wonderful relic of medieval days. This was doubt less the sort of accommodation Chaucer's pilgrims put up with. Pilgrims in those days were as ready to sleep in rows on the floor as they are in the Balkans now, and their luggage was doubtless brought down to the same irreducible minimum.
(Miss Durham continues her story about the Pec Patriarchate. After visiting the town of Pec, she went to see Decani monastery, where she spend the night and the next day. At the end of the extract Mary Durham leaves Old Serbia (Kosovo and Metohija) riding back towards Berane)
Having shown me all over the monastery, the Iguman suggested that Dechani was only three hours' ride, and that, as my pony was fed and refreshed, I could easily ride over in the cool of the afternoon. Dechani was his joy, and no English traveller had been allowed to go there for twelve or fifteen years. Though my interest in the churches of the Patriarchia pleased him much, "You must see Dechani," was his constant cry, and he spared no pains to get me there. But my passport had been taken off to the Sud (police bureau.) by the zaptieh, and without a passport even a three hours' ride was, I was told, an impossibility. It is one thing to give up a passport and quite another thing to get it back. It was a Friday, moreover, the Turkish holy day, and the passport department refused to act till the evening. I proposed to employ the afternoon by a walk through Pech, and evoked a chorus of dismay and horror. Radovan said briefly, "It is better that thou goest not"; the monastery people prayed me not to go. And the reason was "the Nizams." It was Friday, and the streets would be full of them. The fear of the Christians as to the fate of a woman among Nizams off duty amounted to terror ; they offered instead to take me up a little hill whence I could sec the town in safety. They would not hear of my going to town with only one protector, and as, in event of "a row," the blame would probably fall most heavily upon any local Christian mixed up in it, I gave up my plan reluctantly.
Now the Nizams were part of the much-vaunted Austro-Russian reform scheme, and were supposed to be there in the interests of the Christian population.
There were some 30,000 Nizams quartered in and around Pech, I was told, and from the "safe little hill" the vast camps around the town were very visible. It was only the presence of these troops that made it possible to go from one place to another; the pass I had ridden had been open a bare two months. The situation, as I found it, was that the people lived in present terror of the Nizams and in future terror of the Albanians, who would return as soon as they were withdrawn. The town had to feed the troops, and bread and hay were dear. All Friday afternoon Turkish officers came sight-seeing to the Patriarchia, dashed into the courtyard, shouted for someone to hold their horses, were supplied with coffee and tobacco, and were conducted round the churches by the Iguman. Gangs of Tommies, too, swarmed in, and the monastery people, who, I noticed, never let them enter the church unattended, were quite tired out. By request I sat well apart on the farther side, for "the Turks will say bad things to you." Knowing no Turkish, I thought this would not matter; but as the others could not see things from this point of view, I spent the afternoon with the various Christian visitors who came in. Among these were a schoolmaster and a young theological student who came from Dechani.
By the evening, as nothing had been heard of my passport, the Iguman became very anxious ; folk seemed to think there was going to be trouble, and told me that the Pasha was a "ljuta zmija" (a fierce serpent). A final message to the Sud brought the reply that the passport and two zaptiehs would arrive at the monastery at eight next morning. Eight came and passed, and nothing happened. The monastery decided I must go myself to the Sud. The Iguman, another monk, the schoolmaster, the theology student, Radovan, and the pony all came too. I was very much ashamed of giving so much trouble, but they would not hear of my going with less escort. We first went round outside the town, as "our Catholic brethren" wished to see me before I left. They were Franciscans, mostly Italian, and were exceedingly civil. Their house was far better found and evidently much wealthier than the Orthodox establishment, and the rakija which they pressed upon me with lavish hospitality was most alarmingly strong, I was glad to find that the representatives of the two Christian Churches were on very friendly terms, and was given to understand that the Frati were the only people who had any civilising effect upon the Albanians. Unfortunately, their flock is but small, the mass of the Albanians here being Moslem.
At last we arrived at the Sud, went into a yard full of zaptiehs and armed men, were sent into an office by the entrance, and told to wait a little. We did. A man came in and said he knew nothing about an English passport. The Iguman and I were sent up a ramshackle wooden staircase on to a large landing crowded with awful filthy people, stinking and a-buzz with files, wild-eyed and apparently half starved. The air was hot and heavy, and the constant clamour of imploring voices ceased only when from time to time a zaptieh bounced in and bellowed. Streaming with perspiration, I pulled out my handkerchief, and with it a little hard crust of the day before yesterday's bread. A man snatched it almost before it touched the floor, and bolted it like a wild beast. It was terrible; but I dared not offer money, nor show that I had any. At last an official asked us into an office, a stuffy den, but better than the Inferno outside. Clerks who tried to look European on chairs, but spoilt the effect by sitting cross-legged, were scratching backwards writing, and passing it through "buttery hatches" with desperate energy. We were told to "wait," and were given coffee. The Iguman up till now had shown no signs of impatience. "They must give you permission; you are English," was his constant cry. Now he began to ask questions of everyone that came in. And no one had heard of an English passport. I told him I would give up Dechani. He replied that the Turks were always like this, "and you must see it, you must"
Then we were ordered to another office. This belonged to a very great personage, the Pasha himself, I believe. After a hurried and whispered conversation between several people, I was told to wait outside the door. A voice was loudly raised within, and the Iguman came flying out. We were to return to the first office again! We went. It was crowded, and we were told to wait.
By this time I felt so strongly that Oriental methods did not suit me at all that I said "No, thank you" to coffee, and told the official that if he did not give me my passport at once I would go back to Berani without it. This great linguistic effort amazed him so much that he explained the delay. They had sent a telegram about me, and were awaiting the reply. A voice from the crowd said suddenly in French, "Mademoiselle is without doubt English! They do not know what to do about you. They are afraid to stop you, but they dare not let you travel farther. They have sent for instructions to Uskub. I too am waiting for my teskereh, but you will have yours first; you are English. No one here understands French ; one may talk. If you had been here a few weeks ago you could have gone to Uskub, and met the newspaper correspondents. Now they are all gone." He came nearer, and added in a lower voice, "They think it is all over, and it has not begun." I was aware of this, and hastily squashed his remarks on such a dangerous subject. The official was occupied in bellowing at the crowd of poor wretches who were applying for passes. And they were all told to wait. One luckless boy who had two women with him cried out wildly that they had nothing to eat, that they wished to go to work as reapers, and had waited many days. "By God, it is true," cried a voice from the crowd ; but the official only bellowed at him, and he had to give place to the next applicant. They were all Serb-speaking peasants in the last stages of misery. Finally, I was told that my passport should be sent me very soon, and that I was to go.
Two mounted zaptiehs clattered into the yard at one o'clock, and I was told to start at once. They were to take me to Dechani and bring me back. I was to go nowhere else, and the Pasha would keep my passport. I had hoped to push right on to Prisren from Dechani, but was outwitted. As for returning across country to Andrijevitza, that, I was told, was out of the question. The Albanians were up, and even with an escort of Nizams we should probably not get through without a fight. We set off for Dechani at once. The school teacher and the student both rode with me, and the former most kindly lent me his horse, a very good one. We rode over the undulating plain, and they showed me where Kosovo lay, where Mitrovitza, and where Prisren. The two zaptiehs, both Moslem, were apparently as much interested in Kosovo as were the Christians. One, Yakoub, was a Bosnian, and his Mohammedanism sat exceeding light upon him. He was delighted with the job of riding about with me ; his discourse was all of the Montenegrins, and their great valour, and of that hero, Milosh Obilich, who slew the wicked Sultan Murad. "He was a veliki junak! Come with me, and I will show you his grave," said Yakoub enthusiastically. But he wore the Sultan's uniform, and of his two uncles one was a Pasha and the other a Kaimmakam ! He was a fair-haired, blue-eyed young fellow bubbling with animal spirits, singing songs and making his horse plunge out of pure light-heartedness. The conversion of his forefathers, doubtless for the sake of peace and quiet, to Islam had placed him in the class of the rulers and not of the ruled. It therefore naturally never occurred to him to doubt the superiority of Mohammedanism, but the heroes that he cherished in his heart were all Christian, and belonged to the days of Tsar Lazar and the great Serbian empire.
The ride was a short and easy one. The land is rich and fertile but little cultivated, for it is constantly liable to be raided. Such crops as there were, were splendid, and the grass grew thick in the fields. It was hard to believe that the country had been impassable two months before, or that there was any present danger, but the few peasants who were going our way clung to our party carefully; all the houses, and there were very few, were more like blockhouses, had no windows on the ground floor and none larger than loopholes above, and Yakoub thought it necessary to assure us every few minutes that nothing would happen today. The monastery, which lies about 1500 feet above sea-level, appeared as a white church surrounded by outbuildings at the entrance of a magnificently wooded valley, through which flows a small river, the Dechanski Bistritza, the one slope rich with stately chestnuts and the other fir-clad. Robbed of its broad lands, which have been swooped on by the Albanians, who at the time of my visit made further progress up the valley impossible, it lies precariously on the bloody edge of things, and only the wonderful white marble church tells of its former glory. It was being used as a military outpost, and twenty-five Nizams and an officer were quartered on the monastery, which had also a guard of its own, a set of Mohammedan Albanians, who were said to be very loyal. They looked like a wild-beast show, spoke nothing but Albanian, had the most elegant manners, and I was never allowed outside the monastery gate without a couple of them.
Dechani dates from the palmy days of the Serbian empire, and is its finest monument. The church, built by a Dalmatian from Cattaro, is of white and dull red marble, striped in the manner familiar to us in Italy, and would be a fine building anywhere. Here, a unique specimen in a land almostly entirely given over to barbarism, it is looked upon as something almost miraculous, and is regarded with a veneration which has not improbably worked upon the superstitious souls of the Albanians and saved it from destruction. And to the Serb it is an outward and visible sign that this land is his. Though it has been the Turk's for five hundred years, he has set no such mark upon it. Roughly speaking, he has spent those five centuries in camping out on it temporarily as an army of occupation ! Nothing is more surprising about him than the speed with which all visible signs of his existence can be wiped out, but the stain he has left upon the souls of the people is, alas! harder to erase.
The whole interior of the church is elaborately frescoed. All the faces that are within reach from the ground have been poked out, but those above are very well preserved. The line of Nemanja kings that covers one wall of the narthex is especially interesting. The magnificent old Ikonostasis is of carved and gilt wood (cleverly restored). Its pillars are all wreathed and twined with plants, birds, and beasts elaborately coloured and carved in very high relief, and the whole mass or brown gold and colour is very rich in effect. The floor is paved with white and dull red marble, and the piers which support the roof are in several instances monolithic. The tomb of the Sveti Kralj's sister Helena (also, I believe, canonised) stands in the body of the church, and a big cross from Russia, recently presented.
Having seen the church, I was taken to see a spring of effervescent mineral water which rises on the bank of the river opposite the monastery, and is considered a great wonder. To get at it we had to walk up the valley for about ten minutes and cross a bridge. The student and the. schoolmaster took me, and the two Albanian zaptiehs and Yakoub came too. It was very hot, and they all felt the heat much more than I did. When we had duly drunk of the water and cooled a bit, Yakoub remarked it was a pity to go all the way back in the sun, when the monastery was so near; if the lady would only take her boots off, we could all cross the river. This tender care for his own comfort was very characteristic of Yakoub. The student asked me timidly if I had ever done such a thing. I had. They were delighted, and we all took to the water. It was very much deeper and swifter than I expected, and the bottom very slippery. I narrowly escaped having the bath that I was greatly in need of, but we all got through, climbed the hedge into the monastery orchard, and lay out in the shade. Yakoub being warm, took off his cartridge belt, threw down his rifle, strewed his weapons about, bared his chest, spread a wet handkerchief on it, and sighed with satisfaction. Weapons as worn by him were certainly uncomfortable. He had a large revolver and a sheath-knife with a blade some ten inches long shoved down inside his trousers, and could not bend till he had fished them out. He gave me the lot to play with, and took my lock-backed pocket-knife to examine in return. His knife was a beauty, with a broad, deeply grooved blade, "for the blood," he explained. It tapered to a fine point, slid into a leather silver-mounted sheath, and had belonged to his grandfather. He pointed out its fine edge, spat on the blade, and shaved the tip of his chin delicately.
The Albanians contributed their silver-mounted revolvers to the collection, for they were most anxious to assist in entertaining me, and the conversation ran entirely on murdered monarchs. Yakoub was in his element. He ran through all the recent assassinations, including that of President McKinley. "And not one in England!" he said regretfully. Not wishing to be out of it, I contributed Charles the First. No one had heard of him, and it excited great interest. "How did you kill him ?" asked Yakoub eagerly. "We cut his head off." He roared with laughter. Shooting is a death for soldiers and gentlemen ; head-cutting is a way of triumphing over a contemptible foe. The idea of cutting off a king's head pleased him so that he passed it on to the Albanians, whose faces became wreathed in smiles. "But we killed one," said Yakoub, for he felt that I at present held the record, and did not wish to be cut out. "We killed Abdul Aziz like this," and. he turned up his sleeve and prodded the veins of his arm with his knife tip. Alexander's death struck him as very humorous, but he disapproved most strongly of the shooting of Draga. He pondered some minutes on the list of dead rulers, then he cried suddenly, "I would not be a king; if I could, I would not be a king! A king lives in a prison. Everyone wishes to kill him. He is always afraid. Day and night he is afraid. I would be like thee, O lady. I would have enough money to live, and I would see the world. Thou goest everywhere, seest all things, and no one wishes to kill thee. Thou art a woman, but men serve thee. By God, that is a marvel !"
Next morning I woke up and shook myself, and the student brought a quarter of a pint of water, and kindly superintended the washing of my hands and face. The arrangements were all primitive: towel and table-napkin were one and the same, and the spoon and fork were cleaned on my pillow ; but then it is a great thing to have a spoon, fork, or pillow at all.
I went down into the yard and began drawing. Out came the Turkish officer, a young lieutenant. I was scared, for Turks are said to disapprove of all drawing, and I feared to lose all my notes. As luck would have it, he had never seen anybody sketch before, and was childishly delighted. He looked at everything I had done, and then wanted to see a drawing made. Yakoub, the enterprising, at once suggested sitting for his portrait, and did so. The lieutenant was now enthusiastic, made no objection to my little camera, which I had hitherto carefully concealed from all but Christian eyes, and would, I believe, have let me photograph him had I dared ask. He left to drill his men, but his curiosity soon brought him back again. This time we had a formal interview in my room. The monastery people attended humbly, the officer came in style with several zaptiehs; there was much saluting and salaaming. Radovan stood in the background and listened. I alone knew that he was a Montenegrin. The lieutenant was quite a young fellow - small, slim, and dark, with clean-cut, good features. He was smart and dapper as to his uniform, and wore tight, shiny boots of a most unpractical nature. He spoke nothing but Turkish, of which I know no word. He had never before, I believe, talked with a foreign lady, seemed to find my unveiledness most embarrassing, and spoke with his eyes discreetly cast down. He preferred speaking sideways over my shoulder. In striving to understand him I once looked him squarely in the eyes, and he turned his head abruptly.
The return ride to Berani was easier than the previous journey. Unhampered by a caravan, and provided through the lieutenant's kindness with two mounted gendarmes, we made good progress....