The sky softened just enough to cheer us up a bit, but our souls crave more warmth. So, where to? Heading south! But not the far south. To a place where a town of a special spirit has sprung up. Where nature has shown the full scope of its imagination, and the past fortified the walls and sculpted the magnificent temples. And saved some more of it for the future. We are treading into the heart of the medieval Serbian state.
BECAUSE NOVI PAZAR EXUDES DIVERSITY
It was first mentioned in the Dubrovnik records in 1461. At that time, it was founded by an official decree by Isa-Beg Ishaković as Yeni Bazar, Novo Trgovište (New Trgovište), or Novi Pazar. Through the passage of time, the last name prevailed. At the crossroads of caravan routes connecting Bosnia and Dubrovnik with Constantinople and Thessaloniki, it quickly developed and expanded. It experienced the peak of progress in the second half of the 17th century. Due to its significant geostrategic position, many great invaders passed through it. Its natural position is no less valuable. Quite contrary. It resides at an altitude of almost 500 meters, in the valley of four rivers – the Raška, Jošanica, Ljudska, and Deževska Rivers, bordered by Golija and Rogozna Mountains and Pešter Plateau.
We start our exploration on the promenade near the fountain (sabil), a replica of the Sebilj in Sarajevo. It’s always lively there. Crowded, but unobtrusive, rather pleasant. We reach Amir-Aga’s Han from the 18th century, which is today a hospitality business. It is a state-protected monument. We return to the river Raška and the hotel Vrbak, the only one in Europe that is built above a river. We cross the small bridge and enter the Old Town (Stara Čaršija) with cobbled streets and narrow alleys. We snoop around Stambol Džada Street looking at handicraft shops and artisan stores. Some are still adorned with traditional wooden Ottoman shutters that could be transformed into stalls, ćepenak (Turkish – kepenk). We pass through the goldsmith’s alley where everything glitters yellow. If one cannot afford a piece of gold, one could certainly afford a pair of jeans here. Novi Pazar jeans are of excellent quality and affordable prices. We reach Isa-Beg’s hammam (Turkish bath), built in the second half of the 15th century. This hammam, along with the one in Prizren, is the largest and most beautiful building of its kind in Serbia.
It’s the right time to take a break and grab a bite. And what could be better than the widely famous mantije (pastry balls with minced meat or cheese) baked in a sač oven (similar to a Dutch oven). We’re entering a small building. On the walls, there are pictures of famous boxers, Muhammad Ali and Mate Parlov. Rather peculiar display. The host rises to greet us and briefly reveals his boxing history. He hung up his boxing gloves a long time ago and devoted himself to the hospitality business. The polite hostess topples the dough filled with veal or sheep meat with yogurt and brings out a bowl of sour milk. Homemade, perfect. This delicacy is seldom made anywhere else. Mantije pastry is a must because if you don’t taste it, it’s like you haven’t even been to Novi Pazar at all.
We continue our exploration by visiting the city park with the remains of the walls of the former fortress and the surveillance tower. It was built by Isa-Beg Ishaković during the founding of the city in the 15th century. The fortress is only partially preserved, and the mosque inside the fortress was demolished, as well as the tower. Sheer pleasure in the blend of history and greenery. There are several mosques in the city. The most striking one is the Altun-Alem Mosque from the middle of the 16th century. It is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and is a state-protected monument. The oldest one is the Ahmed-Beg Mosque dating back to the 15th century. It was demolished several times, and the current one was probably built in the first half of the 18th century. It is also known as Leylek, because it is believed to be named after storks (Turkish – leylek) which carry a special traditional significance. The Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, with a luxurious iconostasis, has also found a special place in this town. It was built in the second half of the 19th century.
A vibrant city where Islam and Christianity meet, where the old and the new intertwine, and where cultures complement each other in coexistence. A cordial and welcoming town, where people live their lives to the full. The surrounding area is also interesting and extremely rich in history, culture, and religion. In the vicinity, there is a Novi Pazar spa which is perfect for enjoyment and healing. It suits every taste and desire.
BECAUSE THE RAS MUSEUM PRESERVES THE HERITAGE OF TWO CULTURES
It is settled in the heart of the city, in an oriental-style building from the 1860s. It was originally a lower Ottoman gymnasium – Rušdija. It has changed its status several times, but never its purpose. It has always served education, culture, science, and the acquisition of knowledge. It was built on an old hammam whose remains can be seen in the courtyard. And the hammam is as old as the city itself. The exhibition settings are divided into archaeology, history, ethnology, and applied arts. Particularly interesting items are coins from Byzantine and Roman times, a collection of yataghans from the period from the 14th to the 20th centuries, a rich collection of oriental books, specimens of traditional crafts and embroidery, furniture, and jewellery. The Turkish and Serbian rooms, as well as traditional folk costumes, show the differences between the two cultures, but also many similarities in their lifestyle and clothing.
Among the most valuable items on display are: the original handwritten Quran from the 15th century, the first bilingual document written in Turkish and Serbian, and a clay figurine called Pazarka (Novi Pazar woman), which belongs to the Vinča culture. It is about 10 centimetres tall, with pronounced feminine attributes, and it is about seven millennia old. It was found in the area of the nearby village of Požežine. The unique collection of coins used in the Nemanjić era is not on display, since it is in the National Museum in Belgrade.
BECAUSE SOPOĆANI IS A TREASURE TROVE OF MAGNIFICENT FRESCOES
At the source of the Raška River, King Stefan Uroš I erected a monastery. He named it after the Slavic word “sopot” meaning river source. In the Middle Ages, it was often called the Sopot Monastery or the House of the Holy Trinity. It was probably erected around 1260. The contribution to the monastery was also made by Emperor Dušan with the addition of an outdoor open narthex and a bell tower. Historical sources on the life of Sopoćani Monastery are very scarce. It is known to have suffered significantly in the 17th century Ottoman rule, during the events that preceded the Great Migration of the Serbs. It was renovated in the first decades of the 20th century. The relics of its endower, Uroš I, rest inside this monastery.
The frescoes of Sopoćani Monastery, painted between 1272 and 1276, are true masterpieces.
The most appreciated one is the grandiose composition of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary painted on 40 square meters. These imaginative and magnificent frescoes with unusual tones are the top painting achievements of that time. It is thanks to this iconography that Sopoćani Monastery is the first monument in Serbia whose excellence was recognized by the UNESCO organization. On the World Heritage List, Stari Ras and Sopoćani were registered as a unity in 1979. The city (fortress) Stari Ras was the central capital of the Serbian medieval state of Raška. The remains are on the archaeological site Gradina with its suburbs, Staro Trgovište (Pazarište), near Sopoćani and about 10 km from Novi Pazar. The protected medieval complex includes the Đurđevi Stupovi monastery and the Holy Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul Church.
BECAUSE ĐURĐEVI STUPOVI MONASTERY IS THE FIRST IMPERIAL ENDOWMENT OF THE NEMANJIĆ FAMILY
On a high hill above Novi Pazar, overlooking the Raška valley, surrounded by conifers, rises one of the most sacred places. At the time of its creation, there was no forest, so it was visible from all sides, like a heavenly temple. It was founded by the grand župan Stefan Nemanja, the progenitor of the Nemanjić lineage. During his imprisonment in a cave, he vowed to build a temple and consecrate it to St. George. He did so upon assuming supreme power in the Serbian lands. The church was completed in 1171, and its iconography was painted four years later. Due to the peculiar architecture with two bell towers/pillars, it was named Đurđevi Stupovi (meaning George’s Pillars) in the Middle Ages. The second ktetor of the monastery was King Dragutin, who built the church and painted its narthex. He turned the entrance tower into a chapel, devoted it to St. George, and planned it as his own tomb church, where his remains rest to this day. It enjoyed great prestige in the 13th century and belonged to the royal monasteries. Under its vault, Rastko Nemanjić, Saint Sava, gained his first spiritual experiences. He is thought to have been born in the nearby village of Miščiće.
With the arrival of the Ottomans, the difficult days for the monastery began. It was desecrated several times, and its stone was built into the surrounding fortresses of conquerors. It also caught fire and was severely damaged. Many old Serbian manuscripts were destroyed. The founding charter has not been preserved. In the 19th century, it was a ruin, which was additionally damaged in the latter wars.
It is a special building. It is the first building of the Raška school style, with Byzantine visions of the interior space united with the forms of Romanesque architecture. There was almost nothing left of the iconography. Partial reconstruction began in the second half of the 20th century, and the construction of monastic quarters in 2000 restored monastic life after more than 300 years. The towers (pillars) after which it was named, and which are believed to have represented the power of Nemanjić, have not been rebuilt. There are no reliable data on the basis of which this would be done, and the rules of the UNESCO organization are very strict. But after all the misery the monastery has endured and after almost three centuries in ruins, Đurđevi Stupovi monastery again guards the medieval Serbian land.
BECAUSE ST. PETER’S CHURCH IS THE MOST FAMOUS MONUMENT OF SACRAL ARCHITECTURE
Its full name is the Holy Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul Church, but the people shortened it to St. Peter’s Church. It is located on a hill near Novi Pazar, near the mouth of the Dežava into the Raška River. It was built in the 10th, and according to some sources in the second half of the 9th century, over an early Christian place of worship from the 6th century, which was erected over a prehistoric tumulus (mound) that dates from the 5th century BC. It is of immeasurable historical and religious importance. In it, Stefan Nemanja was received into Orthodoxy as a child, was enthroned as a great župan, handed over the throne to his son Stefan the First-Crowned, and became a monk. In the 10th century, it became the seat of the Diocese of Raška and retained its status throughout the Middle Ages. According to the method of construction, it is similar to churches from the area of Pomorje, Georgia, Armenia, and Italy from the period from the 7th to the 9th century, but the modifications and additions made it unique. It is the oldest preserved Christian church in the Balkans, according to the UNESCO website.
The bolted iron gates of the stone temple do not allow entry. We were unable to find out when and if they open at all. The interior hides the most unique iconography in Serbia. Plaster and lime covered it up until the middle of the 20th century. Then the research began, and 114 square meters of frescoes were discovered in four layers from different epochs. The newest and most preserved ones are from the 12th century, and the oldest are probably from the 10th century.
In front of the church, there is an Orthodox cemetery. Tombstones are made of stone, leaning, covered with moss, most in the shape of a cross, some trapezoidal and rectangular. They date back to the period from the 16th to the end of the 19th century. It’s all surrounded by the remains of once massive walls. There’s a lot to renovate and tidy up here. But perhaps it is this disorder that gives it the additional shade of mystique and mystery. The main road is below it, the surrounding area is inhabited, and the temple at the glade appears to be away from all that is earthly. Silent, inconspicuous, anciently dignified.
BECAUSE ĆEVAPI DISH AT BEKO RESTAURANT IS FIT FOR A KING
We are greeted by the boss with a warm, wide smile. Without thinking, we all order ćevapi dish in unison, placed over traditional cream, kajmak, of course, with hot buns. They’re served fast as they know in the restaurant how much we crave for them. “I’m sorry to swallow the food from my mouth,” after a few bites, says a colleague, a sworn meat lover who has tried various meat delicacies all over Serbia and Bosnia. We all nodded in approval. May all the other grandmasters of the ćevapi dish forgive us, but the ones from the Beko restaurant are the best. While we hedonistically enjoy in silence, the host brings the coffee, probably from the nearest café owner. The smell of the black beverage prepared in a Turkish coffee pot, cezve, spreads over the room. It is served in a Turkish coffee cup, fildzan, with Turkish delight and sugar cubes. The coffee is prepared on embers, with the fullness of flavour, strong, and just the way it should be. People in Novi Pazar are not merely skilled at hospitality, they are first and foremost true hosts with old-fashioned manners.
BECAUSE DRIVE CAFE AWAITS US AS THE CROWN OF OUR JOURNEY
On the way back from this trip abounding in new impressions and knowledge, a well-deserved break awaits us at Drive Cafe restaurants. We know that wherever we go, we can take a quality break easily and along the way at one of 300 locations across Serbia, perfect for summing up impressions and enjoying top-quality products.