Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


The Most Famous Monastery in Servia - The Archimandrite - A Glimpse of the First King of Servia - The Vicissitudes of a Silver Coffin - Sacredness of the King's Remains - A Devout Brigand - Dinner in the Monastery - The Church - Feast of St. Mary

DAWN crept over the back of the Servian hills, throwing the palest of green lights into a velvety sky. There glistened a myriad stars which seemed to have come nearer to earth than they do in other lands. It was four o'clock in the morning, and the monastery bell was clang-clang-clanging, sending forth its summons to prayer.

I rose from the simple bed the monks had given me, left my cell, and went on to the broad arched balcony. The air was crisp and stinging with life. From the gloom came the blusterous roar of the river hastening from the Turkish hills to the mighty Danube. The monastery cockerel raised his shrill voice heralding the morning. An unmonastic cockerel gave him challenge from a distance.

Across the grass, silent, like shadows, stole the black-cloaked monks. Taper lights, fitful and vagrant, appeared through the deep-recessed and dusky windows of the church. The clang of the bell ceased. Then sonorous but muffled came the intonation of the monks as, in the old Slavonic tongue of their fathers, they began the day with obeisance to God.


Somehow, as I stood there in the chill of the morning, bathing my soul in peace, I felt I had slipped back through centuries. The clamour of great cities, the screech of trains, the conflicts of commerce, the maddening, deadening scramble for wealth - all such things were but a blurred dream from which I had just awakened. I knew it was not many days since I whizzed through the stifling London streets on the top of a motor omnibus. But it was gracious, while watching the heavens blush with the new day, and listening to the prayers of the monks for us all, to let fancy rove wayward and picture that the simple life in a monasteryfar from the track of rushing civilisation, not easy to reach, visited maybe by a single foreigner a year, where indeed the world stands still, the same to-day as four centuries ago-is really the life beautiful.

Without any priggish pretension to devoutness, the ordinary man, who kicks about the world, is worldly, and knows what modern life means, can go to Studenitza Monastery and feel a little cleaner of heart for his few days' retreat from the outer world.

This monastery is the most famous in Servia. It is intimately associated with the history of the Serbs as a people. It is a shrine. The first crowned King of Servia sleeps here; the latest crowned King, Peter, came here and kissed on the brow his predecessor of nigh six centuries ago.

From eight in the morning till hot afternoon I had ridden in a crawling, often halting, local train. A winding branch line pushed towards the hills. At


a little town there was coffee to be sipped with officials, and haggling with a horse owner for a carriage and horses. There followed an evening drive of forty miles towards the wilderness, the moon our only lantern. At midnight we rattled over the cobbles of the town of Kralievo, slept well at the inn, rose at five, were off at six, followed the swirling waters of the Ibar through the mountains, admired a big, square, ruined castle perched on the rock - which did brave service against the Turks in the centuries that are nothing but rankling memories - fed beneath the trees and slept beneath the trees, struck away up a ravine - surely the haunt of brigands, though so peaceful in the glow of fading afternoon - and, just as the Archimandrite had backed from the church door, bowed his head and made the sign of the cross, disturbed him by our arrival. We smiled and he bowed. We bowed. Then through my interpreter I said nice things and presented my note of introduction from the Prime Minister of Servia.

The Archimandrite was a tall, spare old man, with long but thin grey hair and grey beard; a stern old man, with a visage like that of John Knox, but an old man who had lived amid the sanctity of these hills for forty-six years, away from the world, knowing little of the world, having never been out of Servia. He had a beautiful smile. "I said to myself nearly fifty years ago when I came here that I must never regret. And I have never regretted. I am content. It is very quiet herea very difficult place for a stranger from England


to reach. I am honoured. Let me see to your room."

What a restful room it was! Absolutely severe. But there was refreshment in the thick walls, in the shadows, in the look through the narrow windows to the hills beyond. A peasant, in the white and cleanly garb of his race, was in attendance. There was welcome: first a little glass of whisky made by the monks from plums, then several spoonfuls of preserved cherries, a long drink of icy water, and a tiny cup of Turkish coffee - and all the time the peasant stood like a waxwork holding the little tray before him. So began my rest at Studenitza Monastery.

High walls clasp the sanctuary. In the middle of the sloping sward stands the church, built of white marble from adjoining quarries. That was in the twelfth century, when the Serbs, who had wandered from beyond the Volga, made a nation of themselves with a bigger land than they own to-day.

Here Stephen, the first crowned King of Servia, was made ruler, and here rest his bones. The double coffin was opened for me to see the form of the sainted king-shrouded, and on his breast a golden cross, containing in its centre a morsel of wood which tradition says, and the faithful believe, is part of the true Cross. When the Archimandrite and I entered the church we were followed by several countrymen who had travelled two days over the hills to attend a festival on the morrow. They stood back humbly, for the shrouded King Stephen is not for peasants' eyes. But when I had cast a


curious gaze, the chief of the monastery invited the peasants to come forward. They bent their heads; they crossed themselves; they kissed the edge of the outer coffin; they kissed the cross; they kissed the covered forehead of the King; they crossed themselves again. Their rugged, sunbaked countenances were illumined with light, for a precious opportunity had been theirs.

I have mentioned two coffins. The first is of black wood, inlaid with exquisite gold and silver design; the outer is a massive silver casque, mag. nificently embossed, supported by silver angels, with a mighty silver cross resting on the crimson velvet lid; the interior is of blue satin, with three plaques in the lid representing incidents in the life of Stephen. But Stephen has not rested quietly. The vendetta between Servia's later rulers has been the cause of impious hustling-though surely he is a sufficiently far-off king for the rival Karageorgovitches and Obrenovitches to seek honour to themselves in honouring him.

When the last Karageorgovitch was on the throne, it was the mother of the present King Peter who hired the finest silversmiths of Vienna to make this gorgeous coffin. With reverence King Stephen was placed in it. But when murder brought the Obrenovitches to power, it would never do to have the most honoured of all Serb kings sleeping in a coffin presented by their enemies. So Stephen was removed, and lay, uncomplaining, in the old coffin which had served him for several hundreds of years. The silver coffin was hidden in a cellar. When


Alexander and Draga visited Studenitza they saw nothing of the silver coffin. They presented the monastery with amazing golden robes and a golden communion cup. But when Alexander and Draga went their hurried way, and King Peter stepped to the throne, the silver coffin was brought out, polished up, and Stephen once more laid in it - to the appreciation of King Peter when he visited the monastery, though he saw nothing of the woven golden robes nor of the golden communion cup, which were safely out of sight in the cellar.

The sacredness of Stephen's bones is part of the faith of the Servian Greek Church. No people have so sure a faith as the peasants of the mountain slopes. The poor, the ignorant, and the humble have an exquisite advantage: they have no religious doubts. It is left for those who are more civilised, who have garnered culture, who have trifled with higher criticism and dabbled in the depths of comparative theology, to smile at the reverence born of superstition. They can be condescending to those who have not yet learnt that it is all a mistakethough a beautiful mistake. But for such as these the simple faith of the peasants has its lessons. And the hallowed church - surely where for five hundred years men and women have poured forth their souls, have felt the anguish and found the hope, is hallowed- b rings peace to the worldly man. The belief of others gives him a peep of something he lacks the quality to understand.

Now the faith in the sacredness of the King's bones is shared by the devout and by others. No


thing is more firmly fixed in the peasant mind than that the possession of a piece of bone from King Stephen's skeleton is an absolute safeguard from death by bullet. And here I have a story to tell. For who is in more need of protection from bullets than the brigand, who must shift his abode often and show alacrity in keeping beyond the range of the rifles of the pursuing soldiery? The Archimandrite was one day honoured with a visit from the most notorious brigand in Servia. The priest's heart was glad; the robber had turned from his wickedness; he had repented. But he hadn't!  That was very far from the mind of the brigand. His visit had a more practical purpose. He confessed that in following his avocation he was occasionally worried at what might be the consequence if a stray bullet came his way. Indeed, he had become nervous about bullets. He did not at all fancy death by a bullet. So he sought the kind assistance of the Archimandrite. Let him have a small portion of the saintly King's skeleton, no matter how tiny, and not only would he be infinitely obliged, but he would be able to follow his business without hesitation, and without fear of a leaden check. The reply he received was disappointing. The Archimandrite would not despoil the saintly king of a finger nail, even to oblige the most distinguished of brigands.

A few days later the Archimandrite was thrown into a fluster. Though the monastery gates are locked nightly, somebody had surmounted the wall, smashed the church window, gained entrance, and


wrenched open the coffin wherein lay the remains of King Stephen. The big toe had disappeared. It was well known who was the robber. Wonder prevailed whether carrying the saint's big toe as a charm was really efficacious in turning aside bullets. More than a year later the brigand was captured alive. Knowing that his fate was sealed, he confessed. It was quite true he had rifled the coffin of the King's big toe. He carried it about with him, in a little bag strung round his neck. But after a time doubt troubled him. What if, after all, the big toe was no safeguard from a bullet? He decided to make an experiment. He fastened the charm to a lamb. Then he fired his gun. Just as he had dreaded! The lamb fell dead. So he did not think much of kings' big toes as charms. However - as he was about to be led out to be shot, sans toe - be returned the relic to the Archimandrite. The Archimandrite was joyed. He returned the big toe to be companion to the four little toes. And once more the skeleton of King Stephen is complete.

It is pleasant to idle the days in this monastic retreat, to lounge within the shadows of the trees, to gossip with black-haired, black-whiskered, blackgowned monks: genially happy, and with no greater ambition than to take their last sleep close to the walls of the old church, where moss-flaked slabs mark the stone cots in which monks of ages past have their eternal slumber.

There is a little inn beyond the monastery gates. Vine leaves straggle over crooked boughs, and in the warm breath of the lazy afternoon it is well


to sit within their fretted shade and drink the native wine, tart, strong, cool, enough for six of us, several glasses each, at a price of tenpence. The bell sounds vespers, and the monks go off to pray for us all. Night comes tardily, and the lights flicker eerily.

In the long, dim hall is set a simple dinner. The Archimandrite mutters a blessing. I sit on his right with my interpreter facing me, and in the gloom stand the peasant servants, in clean linen garb, with crude shoes removed. It is a time of fasting, and the patriarch eats humbly of porridge and small cucumbers, vinegar-soaked. For his guest is a better meal, but all the dishes are vinegarsoaked, a simple monkish device to check the warming of the blood. But there comes the wine. And what monastery is not proud of its wine? A great flagon of it, cool and delicious, is brought from the cellar: the real juice of the grape, grown and nurtured by the monks, gathered by monks, pressed by monks, and drunk to bring sunshine into the heart. The old Archimandrite is proud of the wine of his monastery; he stands, a tall, dignified figure, smiling as he fills my glass once, twice, thrice, many times. He watches with curious eyes my first taste, the parley with the wine upon the tongue, the appreciative smack of the lips. Later he drinks my health, standing, his spare, black figure bending over the table, his black eyes gleaming under his black, funnel-like hat, his grey hair tumbling about his shoulders. "My heart is very glad," says he. " It is a bright day, for the son of


the most enlightened of nations has travelled all this way to honour our humble monastery. I raise my glass to the distinguished gospodin. I wish him a pleasant journey and a quick return to Servia." I have not the knack of pretty cross-table speeches. "Say thanks," I mutter to my interpreter. Says the interpreter in free and elongated translation: "The heart of the gospodin is so touched with your kindness that his tongue cannot express all he feels."

The church, a medley of marble and whitewash, of precious relics and gewgaw decorations, has a chastened distinction. In its six hundred years it has had batterings. Time has done something in disfigurement, but the Turk has done more. The grey marble pavement is cracked and uneven. Marble pillars which graced the inner sanctuary have been wrenched away. A group of Apostles present only battered and unrecognisable features. The walls bear frescoes of saints painted in garish Byzantine style. But years have softened the colouring. In places the frescoes have gone, and cheap plaster fills the cracks. Turkish spears have smashed the painted faces of the saints, and a blodge of plaster has done the mending. There are pictures of sainted kings - famous in Servian history, but of whom the foreigner never heard, though he listens with the ears of a child to the story of their heroic deeds. The altar-screen is ornate with Scriptural scenes in the " Pilgrim's Progress" vein. About are heavy gold and silver ornaments. I see the robes worn on high festivals. A key opens a


cupboard full of sacred books in old Slavonic - all Russian gifts from the time of Peter the Great. The Turks burned the old Servian manuscript volumes.

There was celebrated the feast of Saint Mary. Peasants had come two, even three, days' journey. They were clean, stalwart, God-fearing people, picturesque in Balkan garb. Some came by horse; most had walked. The women with their gay kerchief head - coverings sat in huddled groups. The men, in groups also, sauntered the monastery grounds. A few stayed at the adjoining inn; a few slept on the balcony of the cells; most slept beneath the trees. Quite a hundred arrived the afternoon before the festival. At sun-dip they munched their black bread. With the coming of night they wrapped their cloaks about them and slept beneath the stars, the burnished silver moon their lantern. At four in the morning, when the bell clanged, they crowded the church.

I attended one of the services. The church reeked with incense. The voices of the monks, chanting in old Slavonic, were sonorous, musical, impressive. Only the voice of the Archimandrite had thinned with forty and more years of praying. The peasants stood with bowed heads and clasped hands. Their womenfolk stood modestly aside and in corners. The gilt doors of the Holy of Holies opened, and a monk, pale, with long raven hair, and wearing a robe of silver adornment, came swinging the censer. All the peasants knelt, and the intoning was loud and ardent. I daresay there


was much that was bizarre in the scene. I have thought so since.

But just then I had eyes and ears only for the picture of reverent, humble folk, in an unknown corner of the world, giving heart - thanks to the Giver of the good they knew.

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