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Kosovo - Background information
Collapse of the Ottoman Empire
In 1908, a new force appeared on the Istanbul stage, which directly impacted Kosovo’s destiny. The movement of the Young Turks, particularly strong among the Ottoman officer corps, hoped to save the empire from separatist nationalist movements by imposing radical modernisation and ‘Ottoman nationalism’. For a brief period, Kosovo enjoyed the liberalising spirit of the Young Turks: 25 Albanian deputies were elected for the Ottoman Parliament and a dozen new papers were published. This honeymoon period, however, did not last long.
The news that the sultan had been deposed in spring 1909 turned a revolt against higher taxes into an all-out rebellion against the regime of the Young Turks. The Young Turks quelled the rebellion with a force of 5,000 troops. In the course of this crackdown, more than 60 kulla (traditional Albanian fortified towers) were destroyed in Peja and Gjakova, two years of taxes were forcibly collected, and arms confiscated. In 1910, another tax revolt in northern Kosovo ended in a crushing defeat of the rebels near Ferizaj by a 16,000-strong Ottoman army and the brutal hanging and internment of the rebel leaders. Isa Boletin, one of the masterminds behind this revolt, managed to escape. As a sign of goodwill, Sultan Mehmet V came to Prishtina in 1911 to declare an amnesty for all those who had taken part in the 1910 revolt.
Two years later, another revolt erupted in western Kosovo. At a meeting in Junik (near Deçan), the leaders of the revolt swore a general truce from all blood feuds and took an oath to overturn the Young Turk regime. Hasan Prishtina, Isa Boletin, Bajram Curri and Nexhip Draga were among the representatives at the Junik meeting. A list of demands known as the ‘Fourteen Points’ of Hasan Prishtina was presented to Istanbul. As before, the demands were not part of a separatist agenda, but a reformist one. The rebellion spread and within weeks Prishtina, Mitrovica, Vushtrri and Prizren were in the hands of the rebels. The leaders mustered a force of 25,000 armed men in Prishtina and another 20,000 in Kosovo’s southeast. On 18 August 1912, Istanbul finally conceded and accepted an Albanian statelet within the empire. Triumphantly, Hasan Prishtina ordered the troops to go home. The struggle for recognition of Albanian national aspiration had reached its zenith. At the same time the rebellion sent a strong signal to Kosovo’s neighbours that the Ottoman Empire was weak. A mere six months later, the hiatus of relative stability suffered a new blow.
On 18 October 1912, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Within just four days, Serbia managed to take control of Prishtina. Prizren surrendered without a fight, and the Ottoman armies beat a hasty retreat south into present-day Macedonia. The Serb victory was celebrated like a long-overdue revenge for its defeat in 1389. Conscious that its territorial acquisition required approval by the Great Powers, Serbia quickly set out to change the ethnic composition of the area to better strengthen its ‘ethnic claim’ over the territory of Kosovo.
Years of instability and the attraction to migrate to liberated areas in Serbia had reduced the numbers of Kosovo-resident Serbs to less than a quarter of the Kosovo population by 1912. Serb paramilitaries and parts of the Serb and Montenegrin army embarked on a violent rampage, burning down villages and forcing conversions from Islam to Orthodoxy. Meanwhile in Vlora, Albania, the declaration of Albanian Independence encompassed Kosovo.
The diplomatic poker began in December 1912 when the Great Powers met in London to discuss the situation unravelling throughout the Ottoman Empire. Belgrade sent a memorandum claiming that it had both a moral right to the region and that it was a more civilised people; asserting a historic right by referring to the Patriarchate; and an ethnic right by citing the ‘recent invasion’ of Albanians. Serbia’s overriding strategic goal was to gain access to the Adriatic by securing the port of Durrës, a move Austria-Hungary adamantly opposed. The London conference ultimately produced a peace package in March 1913, ignoring the Albanian demands and allocating the area of western Kosovo – Peja, Deçan and Gjakova – to Montenegro, while the remaining territory was considered ‘liberated’ by Serbia.
On 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo. Bulgaria joined the Axis Powers and occupied Kosovo’s southeast. Serbian troops attempted a flight over impassable mountain roads into Montenegro. A large number of Serb soldiers died and about 150,000 Serbian soldiers were captured by the advancing Austrian army. Kosovo was divided into an Austrian zone of occupation, including Mitrovica and Peja, and a Bulgarian zone in the south, including Prishtina and Prizren. About 3,000 Albanian volunteers willingly joined the Austrian forces. The Austrians actively promoted Albanian-language education, established schools, teacher-training centres and set up a special commission to standardise Albanian spelling.
By the summer of 1918, the Allied armies were fast advancing from Thessaloniki. In September, Bulgaria signed an armistice and on 1 October 1918 the Austria-Hungarian troops were ordered to withdraw north. By the end of the month, French forces had taken Prishtina and Mitrovica and Italians had entered Prizren. In the wake of the defeat of the Axis Powers, Serbian troops occupied Kosovo for a second time in four years and on 1 December 1918, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed under the new Serbian king Aleksandar Karadjordjević. In 1919, the kingdom was officially renamed Yugoslavia.
At least on paper, the Treaty for the Protection of Minorities signed in 1919 provided for primary education in minority local languages. In contravention of the treaty, however, Yugoslavia did not recognise Albanians as a national minority and refused to grant the right to Albanian-language education.
Kosovo’s flora includes typical European plants such as silver birches and pines, as well as alpine plants. The Dragash area is best known for herbs and includes a wide variety of wild flowers. The fact that many fields have remained uncultivated for nearly two decades due to ownership disputes (or because their owners have left Kosovo) has meant that you can see wild flower meadows in Kosovo – almost an unknown sight in heavily cultivated western Europe. The best time for the flower meadows is April–May.
Walnut trees are often seen in the Deçan area © Durim, Wikimedia Commons
Walnut and chestnut trees can be found around the Deçan area; calendula, juniper berries and St John’s wort can be found in Dragash.
In terms of fauna, you cannot fail to notice the ubiquitous blackbirds of Kosovo, which gather ominously and noisily, particularly in the evenings, like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. A much nicer bird – which is not uncommon to spot and is the Albanian national symbol – is the eagle. Kosovo’s wildlife is quite varied and if you take more than three walks in the countryside proper you are almost bound to see a tortoise, a brown snake or an eagle. While driving back at night through the Dukagjini Valley, eg: on the road back from Montenegro, you may even see the bright eyes of a fox.
A black lizard in the countryside © Daniel Sevcik
Deer are also present, especially around Lipjan and the Gjilan area, but again they are quite rare to catch. Slightly less rare, perhaps because Kosovar Muslims do not generally eat them, are wild boar. The best location to see these is Blinaja National Park in Lipjan. The movement of large parts of the population away from villages to the towns has in fact left large tracts of the countryside uncultivated and unhunted and many villagers will testify that there are more wild animals now than before 1999, particularly close to the border areas with Serbia.
Diverse communities have been living in Kosovo for millennia. Kosovo, like all other territories in the Balkans, has always been an ethnic patchwork. It has become what it is today because of its unique melange of peoples, languages and cultures, all adding their bit to Kosovo’s cultural heritage. Too much ink and blood has been spilt in futile efforts to argue over who has an exclusive right to claim Kosovo.
A member of a Sufi sect in Prizren piercing himself with a small iron skewer known as a zarf during an annual ritual held on the spring equinox © Ivan S Abrams
The Roma moved to the Balkans in the 13th century. Over the centuries, most adopted Islam as a faith and Albanian as their language. Many refer to themselves now as Ashkali. A second group, tracing their ancestry back to Egypt, is called Egyptians. There are an estimated 40,000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians believed to be living in Kosovo today. Some 78% declare Albanian to be their mother tongue, and 22% speak Romani at home. The vast majority are Muslims. Since 1999, all three groupings are officially recognised as minorities and controversially referred to en masse as RAE (Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians).
In 1961 Yugoslav statistics, Slav-speaking Muslims were able to identify themselves for the first time as ‘Muslim in the ethnic sense’. Since 1999, some of this group adopted the name Bosniak, indicating that they speak Bosnian as distinct from Serbian or Croatian. There are about 30,000 Bosniaks in Kosovo today. The Gorani form another Slav-speaking Muslim group to be found in the mountainous Gora (Dragash) region mostly south and east of Prizren. They number around 11,000 today. There is also a small Catholic Croat minority concentrated in Janjevo, a former mining town in central Kosovo, and Letnica, a well-known pilgrimage site in Viti municipality in Kosovo’s southeast.
The origins of Kosovo’s Turkish minority date back to the 14th century when Turkish officials and soldiers took posts in Kosovo. Today, there are approximately 19,000 Turks who live mostly scattered in the Prizren area and in a few larger towns. A 2008 pilot project created a separate municipality in Mamusha, a Turkish majority village. It is difficult to pin down what makes a Turk in Kosovo. In the past, many Muslim Albanian families were so Ottomanised that the distinction between Albanian and Turkish has blurred. Turkish was recognised as one of the official languages in the 1974 constitution. Today, national radio and television broadcast news in the Turkish language and the Turkish-language daily Yeni is available in most towns. To this day, all Turks in Kosovo are either bi- or multi-lingual.
Kosovo’s historical Jewish population has all but disappeared. Numbering a few hundred in 1941, many were killed during the Holocaust and the survivors left for Israel right after World War II. The Vlachs constitute the second minority that has vanished over the years. Most Vlachs assimilated and became Serbs with the result that no one in Kosovo today identifies themselves as Vlach.
Art is usually a good souvenir, although it can be hard to find paintings of Kosovo scenery or anything typically Kosovar. Nevertheless, Kosovo has a few prominent artists with galleries in Prishtina. Kosovo’s most distinctive artwork is filigree (filigran in Albanian), which uses silver wire to create elaborate designs for jewellery, clocks, etc. Kosovo’s most famous artisans are based in Prizren or Peja, but you can also find some unique pieces in Prishtina.
Film-making is a high-budget, high-risk industry in the best of places, but nevertheless Kosovo has a flourishing film culture for a country of its size. The most noteworthy films tend to be about the war and include Kukumi by Isa Qosja, which won the Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sarajevo Film Festival; The Return, which won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival; as well as short films Shok, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2015 and Home, which won the BAFTA for Best Short Film in 2017.
The classical music scene is pretty well limited to the Kosovo Philharmonic and there is currently no opera. There is a lively bar and coffee-house culture and some local live bands that play, but much to the regret of the young population, few of the major international bands tour Kosovo; the closest they get is Skopje. However, Kosovo has a thriving contemporary music scene and its artists sell records not just in Kosovo but also to the diaspora and to Albania. The internet is teeming with Albanian music websites full of Kosovar artists. An Albanian satellite/cable TV channel, MyMusic, shows local and international music and a material percentage of the bands playing will be Kosovo Albanian. In recent years, Kosovo has earned a reputation internationally for churning out global pop stars like Rita Ora (born in Kosovo), Dua Lipa (born to Kosovar parents) and Era Istrefi (born and raised in Kosovo).
Kosovo’s traditional music is folk music. In the past, epic poetry in Kosovo and northern Albania was sung on a lahuta (a one-string fiddle) and then a more tuneful çiftelia was used which has two strings – one for the melody and one for the drone. There were also wind instruments and a lodra – a big drum. These instruments can still been seen played at special events and the drum is a traditional accompaniment to weddings.
Frustratingly, Kosovo Albanians are not great about recording their own history. Kosovo Albanian literature – what little there is – developed late because of the restrictions on Albanian-language education that lasted well into the 1960s. There is a general bias towards poetry when it comes to famous Kosovar authors. Kosovo Albanian authors whose works are translated into English include Rexhep Qoshja, Ali Podrimja and Sabri Hamiti.