Mary E. Durham on Visoki Dečani at the beginning of the 20th century: The residents in abject poverty and the Monastery’s treasures scattered

Mary E. Durham (1863-1944), an British traveler, artist and writer, wrote about the life of Serbs and Albanians from the beginning of the 20th century. She was visiting the Balkans between 1900 and 1914, where she traveled at the age of 37, after the death of her mother whom she had been nursing for a long time due to an illness. She visited Serbia, Montenegro, and part of Metohija from 1900 through mid-1903, and in 1904 published a travelogue "Through the Lands of the Serb". In one part of her writings she also described a visit to Peć and Dečani, giving an account of Old Serbia as it was then, during the breakup of the Ottoman administration. As she wrote, the beauty of the monastery Visoki Dečani left a powerful impression on her, as well as the "hard-to-describe sense of displacement from the space and time". The Monastery, Durham said, "lies uncertainly on the bloody edge of reality": "In a country almost completely sunken in barbarism, it is viewed as something almost wondrous, and is respected with worship." She recognized also the symbolism and importance of Visoki Dečani for Serbs: "This is an outward and visible sign for a Serb that this country is his. Although it was owned by the Turk for five hundred years, he did not put any such sign on her."

Durham on her trip from Peć to Dečani:Durham before her arrival in the Balkans

"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."

She also described her trip to Dečani, the landscape, giving her first impression of the appearance of the monastery, as well as information on the position of the monastery in which it was.

"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 Dečanska Bistrica, 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" – wrote Durham in her travelogue.

I was never, she sad – "allowed outside the monastery gate without a couple of them".

She also recalled on the monastic treasure, as well as the inhabitants, whom, she wrote – "the feeding of the soldiers quartered upon them strained their resources sadly":

"The treasures of the monastery are all dispersed, and its books and MSS. relating to the old kings of Serbia are scattered. The folk at the monastery are now miserably poor, and toil in their few fields for a bare living."

About Saint Stefan Dečanski:

"The dead king was canonized as St. Stefan Dečanski and is extraordinarily celebrated as a miracle worker. His death is pictured upon his shrine ; two men tug the ends of a cord that is twisted round his neck, and an angel fetches his soul. He is, I was told, exceedingly good, and it is of no use to approach him in prayer if you have any bad thought in your heart. He helps the poor and performs the most marvelous cures. The belief in his power is far spread, even Yakoub had a sort of sneaking respect for him, and I was bidden to prepare my mind for the visit to the Holy King even before I had left Berane. Nor does he, alone, protect the church. Once a Turk stole a jewel from a picture of the Holy Mother of God. Shortly afterwards he was found dead and unwounded ! Then the jewel was found upon him, and it was known that the Holy Mother of God had slain him, for to die of anything but a wound was clearly a great marvel."

In spite of the difficult situation, the importance of the Metohija monastery for the Serbs was also emphasized:

"Here, a unique specimen in a land almost 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."

On the other hand, Durham did not hide her enchantment with Visoki Dečani – both when it comes to the inward and outward aspects of the monastery.

Readers were introduced to the history of the monastery, and with details she gives concerning the builder and the material used for construction she demonstrates the beauty of Visoki Dečani: 

"Dečani 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."

She noticed the carving, the genealogy of Nemanjić, and the damaged frescoes:

"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)."

Visoki Dečani at the time of Mary Durham’s visit"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 Holy King’s sister Helena (also, I believe, canonized) stands in the body of the church. The two marbles from which the church is entirely built were quarried in the immediate, neighborhood. It is thirty meters high to the base of the cupola," she stated also.

However, in her travelogue, she did not just introduce the readers to the monastery's appearance. She also described the "faith of the people":

"Doors and windows are all elaborately and splendidly carved, and the whole is in such a wonderfully good state of preservation that it is small wonder that the people have deep faith in the protecting power of the Holy King, and believe that in the whole world there is no building quite so beautiful."

For other stories from the Dečani Treasury, read on our page "From the Dečani Treasury"


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