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WORLD HERITAGE IN SERBIA

To preserve the world’s most treasured tangible and intangible cultural monuments, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) uses strict criteria when selecting world heritage sites to be inscribed on its lists.  The UNESCO World Heritage List includes cultural assets whose uniqueness, beauty and significance for people’s lives transcends national and regional boundaries and which constitute heritage of all humanity. They are places which we inherited from our ancestors and which we carefully preserve for future generations.

Among the carefully selected landmarks to be preserved and promoted due to their immense value for humanity, four sites in Serbia have earned the distinction of being declared UNESCO World Heritage sites due to their artistic, cultural, social and historic importance.  The World Heritage List includes medieval Serbian monasteries Studenica and Stari Ras with Sopoćani, medieval monuments in Kosovo (Dečani, Patriarchite of Peć, Gračanica and Our Lady of Ljeviš), as well as the Gamzigrad / Felix Romuliana palace as the landmark from classical antiquity. Due to their high aesthetic value, as well as their contribution to the understanding of medieval customs, unique tombstones specific to this part of the world, known as stećci, have secured their place on the list.

 

Three Serbian traditions found their place on the UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity: Slava - a celebration of a family patron saint’s day; Kolo - a traditional folk dance in which dancers hold hands, forming a circle and Singing to the accompaniment of the gusle.  To this day, skilled guslars sing about numerous events from national history as a symbol of national memory and a means of preserving centuries-long cultural identity.

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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja

Studenica Monastery

Studenica, one of the most beautiful 12th-Century Serbian Monasteries, was built by Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjić dynasty, which would rule Serbia for two whole centuries. He is also buried under the vaults of this magnificent endowment.

This monument built in the Raška style is characterised by walls reinforced with shining-white marble and finely-crafted and exquisite relief decorations on its windows. Here you can see frescoes which are considered masterpieces of 13th-Century art. The walls of King’s Church within the monastery’s complex were painted by Mihailo and Evtihije, renowned painters of the period. Their artwork depicts scenes from the life of the Mother of God, masterfully painted and harmoniously combined into a single whole.

Studenica is also known for priceless works of applied art, which are kept at the monastery’s vault, including the ring of Stefan Nemanja, shrouds and many other valuable items.

Stari Ras Fortress

On Gradina hill near the city of Novi Pazar stands Stari Ras, a 12th century fortress. Built to defend the capital city of the same name, it bore witness to the emergence, development and consolidation of the first Serbian state.The monastic compound includes three archaeological sites; the fortress on Gradina, the cave with Holy Archangel’s Monastery and the settlement of Pazarište (also known as Trgovište).

 

Stari Ras, the oldest military structure in the medieval Serbian state of Raška, was built in the shape of an irregular quadrangle. Its wide walls made of crushed stone and limestone mortar had a footpath with spiked edges on top, where Serbian rulers once walked.

Points of entry to the fortress were the western and the southern gates. In the southern section stood a tower which measured eight metres in diameter, while the main gate was defended by two towers of different size. The western gate was bricked up in the 12th century, when Ras became the main stronghold of the Serbian state and was replaced with a new gate next to the main tower.

Underneath the fortress, there is a cave monastery with a church which preserves the remains of 13th century frescoes and 16th and 18th century records. It is believed that the famous Vukan’s Gospel, an illustrated manuscript and one of the oldest monuments of Serbian documentation science, was written here.

The remains of settlements dated to two different periods have been found not far from Stari Ras, in Pazarište. The older remains, dated to the 14th century, were mainly log houses, while the newer remains have been traced to the 17th century when many stone structures were built in the settlement under the Ottoman rule. The remains of some of these structures can still be seen on site. The remains of a church, a necropolis and other structures suggest that the area of Pazarište was already an important spiritual centre in the 12th century.

Stari Ras fortress, together with the medieval monasteries of Sopoćani and Đurđevi stupovi and Saint Peter’s church, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a monument under the joint name of Stari Ras with Sopoćani.

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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja
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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja

Sopoćani Monastery

The Sopoćani Monastery, an endowment of King Stefan Uroš I of Serbia, was built from 1259 to 1270, near the source of the Raška River in the region of Ras, the centre of the Serbian medieval state. The monastery was once surrounded by a high stone wall with two gates. The completion of the painting of the main parts of the church can be indirectly dated to between 1263 and 1270. In Sopocani a decorative plan was carried out which was formed throughout the thirteenth century - in the chancel there are liturgical scenes, in the nave Christ's salvation work is shown through a cycle of the Great Feasts, in the narthex the Old Testament, dogmatic and eschatological themes are presented. Through the iconographic portraits of the Nemanjic family and through historical scenes Simeon Nemanja and Saint Sava. After Gradac (about 1275), the endowment of Queen Helen of Anjou, the wife of the founder of Sopocani - King Uros I - whose painters were high on the scale of creativity, there was a hiatus in creative artwork in Serbia.

In the 16th century the monks had to temporarily leave the monastery on several occasions due to the Ottoman threat. Finally, during one of the raids in 1689 the Ottoman Turks set fire to the monastery and carried off the lead from the church roof. The brotherhood escaped with some important relics to Kosovo - but did not return to Sopoćani; it remained deserted for over two hundred years, until the 20th century. The church slowly decayed: its vaults caved in, its dome fell down, and the remains of the surrounding buildings were covered with rubble and earth.Finally, during the 20th century the monastery was restored and today it is settled by a thriving brotherhood of dedicated monks. The fact that most of the Sopoćani frescoes still shine with radiant beauty - surviving more than two centuries of extreme exposure to the elements.

The Church of Saint Peter

The Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, also known as the Church of Saint Peter, is one of the oldest mediaeval sacral monuments in Serbia.

The exact date of founding is unknown; it is mentioned in the 9th century as the seat of the eparchy of Serbia. Excavations on the site have unearthed Greek sculptures and Black-figure pottery dating to 7th and 6th century BC, as well as a 5th-century BC princely grave (with regalia, robes, gold-silver jewelry, masks, beads and Attic pottery), underneath the floor of the church in 1957–58. The findings are presently at the National Museum of Serbia, in Belgrade. Roman, Byzantine and medieval Slavic tombs surround the church.

 

The present church has been built on several earlier churches of which remains have been well preserved. The foundation of the church, the massive columns, ground-plan and the octagonal tower which conceals an inner cupola are examples of the circular mausoleal architectural type used after Emperor Constantine (306–312).

 

Archaeological findings point that the church has been rebuilt several times in history, beginning in the 4th century, with notable additions made in the 7th century. The architectural style resembles that of early churches in Pomorje, Armenia, Georgia, and Italy, dated to between the 7th and 9th centuries

Serbian Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja was baptised here. It was here that the aging Grand Prince passed the throne to his son Stefan the First-Crowned. The Council against Bogomilism was also held here.

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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja
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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja

Gamzigrad - Romuliana

Felix Romuliana in Gamzigrad is the only site of classical antiquity in Serbia to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The imperial palace built by the Roman Emperor Galerius in the 3rd and 4th Centuries to honour his mother Romula is flanked by massive walls, which used to protect the city from barbarians in ancient times.


Visitors find the northern part of the palace with a small temple particularly attractive because of its well-reserved ancient altar and the strong pillars around it. In the southern part of the palace, you can see the ruins of a large temple with two crypts, a horreum and a Roman thermae – a luxury bath for Roman emperors.


Owing to its well-preserved buildings, which are among the finest examples of tetrarchic imperial architecture in these parts, as well as its beautiful frescoes and floor mosaics with geometric and figurative patterns, Felix Romuliana is a classical antiquity site of immense international importance.

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Dečani Monastery

Not far from the Patriarchate of Peć lies Dečani monastery, the largest sacral building of medieval Serbia. It was erected by King Stefan Uroš III Dečanski in the 14th Century and it served both as a shrine and a family mausoleum.The underlying structure of a typical Byzantine temple is encased in a Romanesque-style façade, with patterns made of successive horizontal rows of light-yellow and purple-red marble and an abundance of sculptural decorations. An instantly recognisable feature is the imposing dome, measuring a full 28 metres in height.During the Middle Ages, the monastery gathered scholars and artists, who painted the monastery with more than a thousand individual figures and scenes from the history of Christianity, grouped into more than 20 cycles, including the portraits of the monastery’s patrons and other members of the Nemanjić dynasty.


Dečani is also one of the few Serbian churches where the original stone iconostasis and most of the 14th-Century icons have been preserved. The monastery’s treasury holds some 60 icons painted between the 14th and the 17th Century, as well as numerous manuscripts, books and church artefacts.

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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja
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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja

Gračanica Monastery

Gračanica monastery is considered by many to be one of the finest monuments of Serbian medieval architecture. It is known for its harmonious proportions and heavy walls built of chiselled stone and red bricks. Of the once majestic monastery complex, only the Church of the Annunciation still remains.


The frescoes at Gračanica are painted in the style of Serbian and Byzantine art of the first half of the 14th Century and are exceptionally well-preserved. These frescoes of exquisite detail and enchanting beauty depict illustrious persons of the era. At the entrance to the church you will see portraits of the patron of the church, King Milutin and his wife Simonida.

 

These paintings at Gračanica are the earliest known portraits of members of the Nemanjić dynasty.

Stećci

Stećci, mediaeval tombstone graveyards, offer a unique testimony to the cultural tradition of the Serbian peoples. These lavishly adorned tombstones of various shapes were carved between the second half of the 12th Century and the 16th Century.


Stećci are scattered on the sites of former necropolises, on more than 200 sites in southwestern Serbia. Apart from Serbia, stećci are also found on sites across Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia.

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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja
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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja

Patriarchate of Peć

The Patriarchate of Peć is a large monastery complex near the city of Peć, comprised of four churches built next to one another, creating a unique architectural whole.


The oldest among them, the Church of the Holy Apostles, was built in the third decade of the 13th Century, becoming the new seat of the Serbian Archiepiscopate. The Church of Saint Demetrius, the Church of the Mother of God and the small Church of Saint Nicholas were built in the early 14th Century.The walls of these churches in Peć bear witness to a succession of various styles in mediaeval fresco painting. The frescoes at the Patriarchate of Peć were painted between the 14th and the 18thCentury.The frescoes at the Church of Saint Demetrius, painted in the first half of the 14th Century, are characterised by an unusual level of attention to detail. At the entrance to the church, you will see portraits of members of the Serbian dynasty of Nemanjić, a common motif on the walls of Serbian medieval monasteries. The treasury of this church keeps icons, manuscripts and other artefacts. Serbian King Dušan, the mightiest of all Serbian rulers, during whose reign the medieval Serbian state reached the peak of its power, was crowned in this church.

This monument built in the Raška style is characterised by walls reinforced with shining-white marble and finely-crafted and exquisite relief decorations on its windows. Here you can see frescoes which are considered masterpieces of 13th-Century art. The walls of King’s Church within the monastery’s complex were painted by Mihailo and Evtihije, renowned painters of the period. Their artwork depicts scenes from the life of the Mother of God, masterfully painted and harmoniously combined into a single whole.

Studenica is also known for priceless works of applied art, which are kept at the monastery’s vault, including the ring of Stefan Nemanja, shrouds and many other valuable items.

Our Lady of Ljeviš

The Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš was built in the 14th Century on top of the remains of a 13th-Century church, as an endowment of King Milutin. The architect who designed the church, proto-master Nikola, merged the remains of the old three-nave church with the new cross-shaped temple to create a magnificent five-nave building built with successive layers of red brick and tufa.The unique artistic legacy of this church are its two layers of frescoes, which bear witness to the development of medieval art. The three preserved 13th-Century frescoes (Wedding at Cana, Healing of the Blind Person and the Mother of God with Christ the Provider) are characterised by vivid colours and grandiose compositions.The most notable frescoes of the second layer, painted between 1310 and 1313, are the larger-than-life portraits of members of the Nemanjić dynasty and the monastery’s patrons.

 

The later frescoes, with noticeably more human figures and with strong symbolism, allegory and personification, are illustrative of a style change in mediaeval fresco painting which took place in the early 14th Century.The monastery of Our Lady of Ljeviš has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, in recognition of its immense cultural importance.

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Ilustration: Marinko Lugonja

"It is that from the past which affects the present but also conditions the future.” – Ivo Andrić

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