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Kosovo for the Beginners (2)

A Basic Guide Through the Kosovo Question

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

Part 1

Kosovo is a pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic name of a kind of bird, which has about 300 subspecies, from the family Turdidae, derived from the Greek kopsihos. The Kosovo Field, where historically a number of important battles were fought, is situated northwest of the regional capital Priština.[1]

Metochia is derived from a Greek metohi as mentioned above, from meteho – to take part. It denotes a monastery’s estate (of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the KosMet case).

Priština, a pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic term, derived from prysk, derived in its turn from the Indo-European (s)per, to become the verb prisnoti, meaning “to spurt”, “to gush”. In the modern Serbian language, the term prisht designates decease, boil (anthrax). The town of Priština was an important trade and mining center during medieval times, with an important Dubrovnik colony. A Serbian King Stefan Dečanski (1321−1331)[2] used to stay at Priština, while Serbian Emperor Stephan Dušan (1331−1355) had his court here for some time.[3] After Stephan Dušan, Priština became the capital of Vuk Branković’s fife and retained that position even after the Kosovo Battle in 1389. His wife Mara lived there with her sons, Grgur (Gregorie) and Đurađ (Georgie), as well as Prince Lazar’s widow Eugenia (known in the folk songs as Empress Milica). The Ottomans took Priština in 1439, but the Dubrovnik colony remained there as Dubrovnik had during this period very good political relations with the Ottoman authorities.[4] In 1660 a Roman-Catholic missionary mentions Priština as an important post between Novi Pazar and Istanbul (Constantinople). During the Austrian-Ottoman war in 1683−1699 (the Great Siege of Vienna) the former had a small garrison there in 1689.[5] However, according to the Austrian records, there were about 360 villages around, some of which were set on fire by Muslim Turks and Tatars and the Serb Christian inhabitants were slaughtered. At the beginning of the 19th century, Priština appears to be an important trade town, with a famous fair, with some 12.000 inhabitants. France established her consulate there in 1812. According to some reports, Priština had at the time about 7.000−9.000 inhabitants, mainly Christian Orthodox Serbs, but some Muslim Arnauts and semi-Islamized Serbs too. However, in 1852 the reports count 12.000−15.000 inhabitants, one-third Serbs and Tsintsars (the Christian Orthodox Vlachs), the rest Muslim Arnauts.[6] After two big fires in 1859 and 1863, Priština suffered a considerable decline.

Prizren, a pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic name, from zreti, to see. Derived from the Indo-European gher, to flash, participle perfect zren. A prefix pri is the common pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic. Prizren (a main urban settlement in Metochia) was mentioned as the episcopate in 1019 as subordinated to the Byzantine Ohrid archiepiscopate. The first Serbian archiepiscop (archbishop) St. Sava (1219−1236) subordinated it to his new Serbian archiepiscopate.[7] Prizren was developed as a trade town in the 13th and 14th centuries, especially during Serbian King Milutin (1282−1321) and Serbian Emperors Stephan Dušan and Stephan Uroš (1355−1371), who had their courts there. Stephan Dušan built a monastery with a memorial church devoted to St. Archangels (Michael and Gavril). After falling into the Ottoman hands, the monastery was demolished and no trace of the grave of Emperor Dušan has remained. It was an important colony of Dubrovnik in Prizren, with two Roman-Catholic churches. The Ottomans took Prizren in 1455 and after that, the town became more and more Islamic, but even in 1878 two thirds of its population were Christian Orthodox Serbs (today only several Serbs are left in the city). Nevertheless, during the Ottoman occupation, Prizren lost most of its trade role but there were some rich merchants like Turk Mehmed Hajredin Kukli-beg with his 117 shops, 6 watermills, and caravanserai (hotel). The Shqiptars appear there late, in the second half of the 17th century only. In the 17th century, trade receives a new impetus at Prizren, with some 8.600 (1610) and 12.000 (1655) homes. The town was renowned for its fountains, watermills (600), nice houses, and pleasant gardens. Craftsmanship was very developed, especially guns and sabers productions. Prizren was the largest Serb town in the region, second only to Skopje. Still, the overwhelming majority of the population was Christian Orthodox Serbs. Though there was a Roman Catholic episcope chair, there were 30−40 Roman-Catholic homes only. However, in both the 16th and 17th centuries Prizren was a victim of ethnic-Shqiptar highlanders, mainly of the Mirdites tribe from North Albania. At the end of the 18th century, many towns were devastated by the Shqiptars, including Prizren, mainly by highwaymen. For instance, Father Sava reports how in 1795 Mahmud-pasha Bushatli and his Shqiptars devastated Prizren and only 7.000−8.000 homes remained, much lesser than there were in the 17th century. According to one record in 1805, Prizren experienced a revival. Its inhabitants were partly Muslims and partly Christian Orthodox, but both the Serbs, as their (Slavic) language revived. The 19th century witnessed the further development of Prizren. According to J. Miller (1844), the following statistics were offered; 6.000 homes, with 18.600 Orthodox citizens, 2.150 Roman Catholics, 4.000 Muslims (4/5 Serbs), and 600 Tsigans (Roma/Gypsies). Trade was mainly in the hands of the Serbs. The town had many mosques (12 big, 42 altogether), many clock towers, and one Christian Orthodox and one Roman-Catholic church. Trade was done mainly with Thessaloniki since the trade road to Skadar (Scodra/Scutari) was insecure due to the Shqiptar highwaymen.

Mitrovica, after the Greek St. Demetrios, Serb Dimitrije. Demetrios itself means son of Demetre, goddess of fertility and agriculture.[8] When Serbian King Milutin donated in the 14th century to the St. Stephan monastery at Banjska the church “St. Dimitrije under Zvečan”, the new town founded in the vicinity obtained the name D(i)mitrovica, or Mitrovica. Renowned Turkish traveler Evlia Čelebija mentions Mitrovica as “on the border of Bosnian vilayet”, with the castle (probably Zvečan) abandoned but the town flourished. Father Jukić mentions (1852) 300 Muslim and 50 Orthodox houses. Unimpressive until 1871 Mitrovica experienced a fast development with a railway.

Zvečan was a Serbian castle built in the 11th century during Serbia’s fight against the Byzantine Empire. The castle served as a prison (something like London Tower), where many noblemen finished their lives, including King Stephan Dečanski’s brother, Constantine, and the King himself. Ottoman rule was imposed already at the end of the 14th century after the Kosovo Battle. Zvečan used to be left empty for many periods. It suffered the most in 1884 when the wall material of the castle was used by the Ottoman authorities for building the bridge across the River Ibar in Mitrovica and some other objects.

As mentioned before, nearby Banjska was a village, which had a beautiful monastery, but was ruined after the Kosovo Battle.[9] Nevertheless, the place won its celebrity after the beautiful folk poem Strahinjić Bane, an epic Serb hero from Banjska. The Ottomans founded a small town over the ruins of Banjska, with a mosque and sahat-kula (clock tower). At the hill’s foot, there was a bath, which remaibned [10] in use a long time afterwards. At the beginning of the 20th century, one could still see a remnant of the minaret on the ruins of the old Serbian Christian Orthodox church, converted into the mosque in the 15th century.

Đakovica, from the Greek diakonos, servant, pupil. The earliest record about the place came from the 17th century but the town probably existed before. The Albanian used toponym Gjakova was given by the Ottomans and the Shqiptars while the Serbs are calling the town Đakovica.[11] This is the only area in KosMet (very close to Albania) in which, according to the first Ottoman population census (defter) in KosMet done in 1455, the Shqiptars lived in some big numbers.[12] It was a small town, which started to be massively populated by Shqiptars from neighboring North Albania after the First Great Serbian Migration from KosMet to the Habsburg Monarchy (i.e, to South Hungary) in 1689−1690.[13] It was probably on that account that the Serbs used to call it Arnaut-Pazar. According to some sources, in 1844 there were 1.900 houses, 11 mosques, and 640−650 shops. In the same year, there were 18.000 Muslims, 2.600 Orthodox, and 450 Roman-Catholic inhabitants in Đakovica. As for the ethnic partition, the same records provide 17.000 Arnauts, 3.800 Slavs (Serbs), 180 Turks, and finally some Tsintsars and Gypsies (Tsigans). However, statistics greatly differ from author to author and may be taken as a rough estimate only. The Christians were engaged mainly in craftsmanship, with the Roman Catholics as goldsmiths and the Orthodox as saddle-makers and painters.

Peć, a pan-Slavic, and pra-Slavic from pekti, to roast. Pekt/peć means furnace. It is a cult place of the Serbian people, the former seat of the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć in the nearby church (est. 1346), established by the Serbian King Milutin (1282−1321). However, besides its spiritual importance, Peć was a town with a lively trade, especially by the Dubrovnik colony in the town. The Ottomans abolished the Patriarchate of Peć after 1459, to be re-established in 1557 and ultimately to be abolished in 1766 and subordinated to the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople.[14] In the 19th century, there were 2.000 houses with some 7.000−8.000 inhabitants, mainly the Christian Orthodox Serbs. The town had 900 shops. A principal occupation was silk production and agriculture (fruit and tobacco). Despite its size, Peć (in Turkish Ipek) was not able to develop trade,  due to, according to the source, insecurity ”from (the local) Arnauts”, who were “public highwaymen”.

Uroševac, a pra-Church-Slavonic from Uroš, derived from ur, master, from Hungarian ursu for a lord. In Turkish Ferizović, in Shqip Ferizaj. It was a small Gypsy village. The railway made it a town and a trade center of the region. 

Lipljan, an old Serbian, probably from the Roman name for the nearby Roman-Byzantine castrum Ulpiana. 

Orahovac, a pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic name oreh for nut (orah in the contemporary Serb), derived from Indo-European ar and reks (to smash), something one eats skinned. 

Drenica, derived from a pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic dren, dogwood, from the Indo-European root dher(e)ghno. 

Vučitrn, derived from Serb vuk, a pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic vlk, for wolf, the Indo-European ulkuos[15] and trn, the Teutonic-pra-Slavic term for thorn (the Indo-European (s)ter, for thorny plants). The town is built probably over the ancient Vicianum. It is mentioned for the first time in the 14th century as a place belonging to the Serbian feudal lord Vuk Branković, who had his palace there too. The town was renowned for its trade activities, especially for its Dubrovnik colony. A Serbian despot Đurađ Branković (1427−1456) used it as his seat too. In the vicinity, there was a well-known trade and mine town Trepča. Vučitrn fell to the Ottomans in 1439 (or 1440) for the first time, then definitely in 1455 when all KosMet became finally occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Some travelers mention it as an important trade center. The Ottoman historian Turk Evlija Čelebija counts 2.000 houses, then tekija,[16] schools, a Christian Orthodox school, a hammam (bath), vineyards, and orchards. In the 18th century, Vučitrn appears as an insignificant place but becomes the seat of a sanjak.[17] In 1894 one counted about 7.000−8.000 inhabitants. The main occupation was blacksmith and leather craftsmanship. 

Glogovac, a pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic name from glog for hawthorn (from Greek glohiis – top of a blade). 

Istok, from tok, a pra-Slavic noun for flow (from the Indo-European teq – to run (away), and iz as the perfective prefix for the verb teći – to flow, from the Indo-European eghs. 

Gračanica, a pan-Slavic and pra-Slavic diminutive of gord, initially any fenced settlement, later town, and castle, from the Indo-European gherdh, to fence.[18]

Kačanik, a Turkish name, from kaçak–highwayman. Kačanik (situated on the very border to the present-day Republic of North Macedonia) was notorious for its highwayman activities from the beginning of its history, which dates from the 16th century. Situated at the entrance of the gorge Kačanik, made by the river Lepenac, it controlled the passage through the gorge, the only possible between Macedonia and KosMet. A report from 1573 warns people to guard themselves well in passing the gorge, for the danger from the local Shqiptars. It was for this danger that Sinan-pasha built the small fortress at the gorge entrance, which was intended to protect travelers, mainly tradesmen, from robbery and slaughter. The Austrian soldiers during the Great Vienna War under General Piccolomini took the fortress in 1689, but after their retreat in 1690, the Ottomans captured the fortress and slaughtered the Austrian garrison. It was not until 1807 when Reshid-pasha cleared Kačanik from highwaymen that the traffic through the gorge was resumed. Around the middle of the 19th century, the town consisted of, according to the source, about a „hundred miserable Arnaut (Shqiptar) houses“, situated beside the ruined fortress. Before the Balkan Wars (1912−1913) town was renamed by the Ottomans as Orhanije and at that time had about 250 houses.

Names of the rivers, mountains, and other geographical entities are likewise Slavic in the entire KosMet. They are easily recognized by suffixes, like –va for the river, -ica for rivers or settlements. We mention the Rivers Sitnica, Studenica, etc. The suffix -or for mountains is considered to be of Celtic origin, but mountains with this ending are scattered all around the West Balkans. Some toponyms bear Turkish names, as expected after centuries of Ottoman rule in this part of the Balkans.[19] We emphasize here that since KosMet used to be separated from modern Serbia for two centuries, its development was considerably retarded concerning the language and folklore generally. It appears today as a sort of reservation in this respect, as a remnant of ancient times, from the medieval Serbian state and the Serbian nation in general. This is also the case with other mountainous regions of the Balkans, in particular, North Albania, Montenegro, and Herzegovina, which were on the margin of European civilization and culture for centuries.[20]

As for the toponyms in Albania, many appear corrupted from the original Greek or Roman, whereas some bear purely Slavic names. This applies particularly to the plain regions, which were settled by ethnic-Shqiptar (Albanian) highlanders only relatively recently.

As was already pointed out above, these linguistic details are not merely of a linguistic nature but reveal the essence of the issue of who is the genuine owner of the “disputed” land. It concerns the question of “negative designation” as well. The ancient Greeks (and Romans as well) used to call other nations “barbarians”, meaning “non-Greeks” or “neither Romans nor Greeks”. It had somewhat pejorative overtones, which one could appreciate regarding their superiority over the surrounding nations, in particular, those much less civilized, like Skits.[21]  The same point appears with the Israelites, who designate non-Jews as goyim, meaning (other, non-Jewish) nations.[22] Though no Jew would admit it, it has a pejorative meaning whatsoever, and this overtone cannot be ignored.

The Shqiptar Question, in fact, involves all nationalities with whom the ethnic Shqiptars are in close contact at the Balkan Peninsula. Subsequently, one faces the conflict of the Shqiptars versus non-Shqiptars, which places inevitably the ethnic Shqiptars in a privileged position. This will sound cynical when we compare the civilization levels of both sides in the conflict over KosMet. Unfortunately, the term “non-Albanian” has been widely accepted by the international community, and even an eventual neologism that would substitute the unfortunate term “non-Albanian” would not do. In a sense, this terminology would correspond to a “non-sick” man (as compared to a sick one), meaning “healthy man”. “Non-Albanian” implies inevitably the feeling of “something wrong” with those singled out so.

Unfortunately, the story does not end here. Serbia used to have, during her recent history (since 1945), two regions, which had privileged positions relative to the rest of the state. One was the autonomous province of Vojvodina, the other the autonomous region (later to become a province, too) of Kosovo and Metohia (KosMet). The problem is the “rest of Serbia”. Some call it “Serbia proper”, some “Central Serbia”. The first designation appears particularly unsuitable, for it implies that KosMet is not ”proper Serbia”, thus concealing in the very name a political message.

End of the article.

Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirovic

Ex-University Professor

Research Fellow at Centre for Geostrategic Studies

Belgrade, Serbia

© Vladislav B. Sotirovic 2023


[1] Undoubtedly, the most important battle occurred in KosMet was that of 1389 (June 15/28th) between Serbian army led by Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović and Ottoman army led by Sultan Murad I. Both military leaders died during the battle. On the battle, see: Ратко Пековић (избор текстова), Косовска битка: Мит, легенда и стварност, Београд: Литера, 1987. About Prince Lazar, see: Раде Михаљчић, Лазар Хребељановић: Историја, култ, предање, Београд: БИГЗ, 1989.

[2] About Stephan Dečanski, see: Станоје Станојевић, Сви српски владари: Биографије српских (са црногорским и босанским) и преглед хрватских владара, Београд: Отворена књига, 2015, 49−50.

[3] About the Empire of Stephan Dušan, see: Миладин Стевановић, Душаново Царство, Београд: Књига-Комерц, 2001.

[4] On the golden age of the history of Dubrovnik, see: Radovan Samardžić, Zlatni vek Dubrovnika, Beograd: Prosveta, 1962.

[5]  About this war and KosMet, see: Радован Самарџић и други, Косово и Метохија у српској историји, Београд: Српска књижевна задруга, 1989, 127−141.

[6] The Ottoman census system for the very taxation purposes did not count ethnic nations but rather only the confessional groups (millets).

[7]  About St. Sava, see: Драган Антић, Љиљана Цвекић, Венац Светога Саве, Шабац: Глас цркве, 1988.

[8] According to Robert Graves, Demetre means mother of barley.

[9] Slobodan Milošević’s family claims to have the origin from Banjska.

[10] Banja in the Serbian language means bath or spa.

[11] There are indications that the original town-name was Jakova or Giacovo.

[12] Translated text of the original defter from 1455 to the Serbo-Croat language is published in 1972 by the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo:

[13] About the First Great Serbian Migration, see: Стефан Чакић, Велика сеоба Срба 1689/90 и патријарх Арсеније III Црнојевић, Нови Сад: Добра вест, 1990.

[14] About a historical role of the Patriarchate of Peć in the preservation of the Serbian national and cultural identity, see: Vladislav B. Sotirović, “The Historical Role of the Patriarchate of Peć in Preservation of Serbian National and Cultural Identity”, Актуальнье проблемы науки в контексте православных традиций, Сборник материалов международной научно-практической конференции, 28−29 февраля 2008 года, Армавир, Россия, 2008, 22−25.

[15] Ulk has been preserved in contemporary Albanian, as a common name, with the same meaning – wolf. In modern Serb Vuk appears a common name, too, in particular among the people coming from poor regions (usually high mountains).

[16] Dervish house, after Turkish tekke (Arab täkyä).

[17] Sanjak was the Ottoman smaller administrative-territorial unit as a part of a bigger pashalik.

[18] Some toponyms Shiptars still call by Albanian names, like Ferizaj for Uroševac.

[19] About the Ottoman rule in the region, see: Peter F. Sugar, Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354−1804, Seattle−London: University of Washington Press, 1977.

[20] See the book by Maria Todorova: Imagining the Balkans, New York−Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[21] The anecdote on the dispute between a bully Greek and philosopher Abaris, of the Scythian origin, who exclaimed “My homeland is a shame for me, but you are the shame of your homeland!”  illustrates well the issue.

[22] In modern parlance it renders gentiles.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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April 5, 2023

Fantastic article. Thank you for taking the time out to put this together.

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