Destruction of Islamic Heritage in the Kosovo War, 1998-1999

More than two-thirds of the 560 active mosques in Kosovo on the eve of the 1998-1999 war were buildings dating from the Ottoman era. Many of these were monuments of historical and architectural significance. However, this part of Kosovo’s cultural and religious heritage received relatively little attention from the state authorities charged with the protection of monuments. Between 1947 and 1990, a total of 425 monuments and sites in Kosovo were officially designated for state protection. These included 96 archaeological sites, 16 cemeteries, 116 secular buildings and monuments, and 174 religious sites. Of the last category, 139 were Orthodox churches or monasteries, while only 32 Islamic religious monuments had been listed for protection. Since listed sites received priority in attention and in conservation funding from state agencies, this meant that by the 1990s much of Kosovo’s Islamic built heritage was in a dilapidated state, after decades of neglect. In practice, the authorities not only failed to provide the funds and expertise needed for the preservation of these historic houses of worship, they allowed even listed Islamic monuments to be altered or demolished without intervening. The years of peacetime neglect were followed by the massive wartime destruction of Kosovo’s Islamic religious heritage in 1998-1999. As has been documented in this book, roughly 40 percent of Kosovo’s 560 mosques were damaged or destroyed during the war.

The damage in most cases was clearly the result of deliberate attacks directed against the mosques. There is evidence of explosives planted in the mosque or inside the minaret, of artillery projectiles aimed at the minaret, and of mosques set ablaze. In some places, the mosque was the only building in the vicinity that had been singled out for attack. More often, the destruction of a mosque was accompanied by the burning of the surrounding homes of the local Albanian residents. The devastation of Islamic sacral sites was widespread and systematic, with few areas of Kosovo left untouched. Among the worst hit was the northwestern region of Peja/Peć, where every one of 49 Islamic sites was attacked in 1998 and 1999. Among the sites targeted were the region’s 36 mosques (half of them dating from the 15th-18th centuries), the offices, archives and library of the Islamic Community Council of Peja, a historic medresa, a 15th-century hamam (Turkish baths), 9 schools for Qur’an readers (mekteb), a dervish lodge (tekke), and several mosque libraries

In some places, those responsible for these attacks had left behind their “signatures”— in the form of anti-Albanian and anti-Islamic graffiti in Serbian scrawled on mosque walls, or in the deliberate desecration of Islamic sacred scriptures, torn apart by hand, defiled and burned. Examples of this sort could be seen in the Gjylfatyn Mosque in Peja, the Mosque of Carraleva/Crnoljevo, the Mosque of Livoç i Poshtëm/Donji Livoč, and the Mosque of Stanofc i Poshtëm, and in a number of other mosques. Of the 218 mosques and 11 tekkes in Kosovo that were destroyed or damaged during the war, 22 mosques and 8 tekkes were in the most severe damage categories. Among these, 13 mosques and 5 tekkes were completely razed, the ruins levelled by bulldozer; 9 mosques and 3 tekkes were reduced to rubble, but the ruins were not bulldozed. Among examples of completely levelled Islamic houses of worship are the Bazaar Mosque (built 1761-62; renewed 1878) in Vushtrria/Vučitrn, the Ibër Mosque (built 1878) in Mitrovica, the Mosque of Halil Efendi in Dobërçan/Dobrčane (1526), the Mosque of Loxha (1900), and the historic Bektashi tekke in Gjakova/Đakovica (1790).

An additional 95 mosques suffered lesser degrees of damage, ranging from shell holes in the walls, through the roof or in the shaft of the minaret, to vandalism, including fires set inside the mosque, smashed-up interior furnishings, and the desecration of sacred scriptures. A total of 31 mosques and 2 tekkes (dervish lodges) were attacked by Serb forces during the first year of the war, in the spring and summer of 1998. Two-thirds of these religious buildings were burned down, blown up or otherwise destroyed or seriously damaged. Ten of the mosques that were damaged during 1998 were subjected to repeat attacks and further damage during the spring of 1999. During the second year of the war in 1999, a total of 197 mosques and 9 tekkes in Kosovo were damaged or destroyed by Serb forces. One mosque, in the village of Jabllanica (Prizren region), had its roof partly destroyed by a NATO air strike in the spring of 1999. Otherwise, the destruction of mosques and of other Islamic heritage in Kosovo during the war was entirely attributable to attacks from the ground, carried out by Serbian troops, police and paramilitaries, and in some cases by Serb civilians.

The destruction also encompassed the written record of Islamic religious and cultural life in Kosovo. The Central Historical Archives of the Islamic Community of Kosovo were burned by Serbian police in June 1999, hours before the arrival of the first NATO troops in Prishtina. Six of the regional archives of the Islamic Community were also attacked and wholly or partially destroyed, among them the archives of the Islamic Community Councils in Peja/Peć, Gjakova/Đakovica, Gllogoc/Glogovac, Lipjan, Peja/Peć, Skenderaj/Srbica, and Suhareka. Kosovo’s Islamic religious libraries were also singled out for destruction. Notable losses include the manuscripts and old books of the library of Hadum Syleiman Efendi in Gjakova/Đakovica, founded in 1595 and burned in 1999, as well as the libraries of dervish lodges in Gjakova/Đakovica, Mitrovica and Peja/Peć, also destroyed in 1999. However, the losses go far beyond this. Many old mosques in Kosovo had been endowed with collections of Qur’an manuscripts and Islamic religious books that were destroyed or damaged in 1998-1999Remarkably, not a single Serb Orthodox church or monastery in Kosovo was damaged or destroyed by Albanians during the 1998-1999 conflict. Unfortunately that changed after the end of the war, as thousands of Albanian refugees who had been forced out of Kosovo during the war returned to their burned-out home towns and villages. Following the end of hostilities in June 1999, dozens of Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries were damaged in revenge attacks. Some 40 Serb Orthodox sites were vandalized, while another 40 suffered serious structural damage or were destroyed completely. Many of these buildings were village churches, some of them built during the previous decade. But about 15 to 20 of the destroyed churches dated from the medieval period.By the end of the summer of 1999, as a result of the efforts of KFOR and the UN administration to restore order, and in response to public appeals by Kosovo Albanian political and religious leaders, attacks on Serb Orthodox religious sites largely ceased.

“This book is an attempt to document, to the extent possible, the Islamic sacral heritage of Kosovo that was lost during the 1998-1999 war. As Kosovo and its people come to terms with the painful memories of the recent past and work towards a common future it is well to recall that, for most of Kosovo’s long history, houses of worship were protected by all communities and had traditionally been held immune from personal and communal vendettas. The rich cultural heritage that remains in Kosovo, despite the ravages of time and the destruction of war, is the common patrimony of all of Kosovo’s people. It is up to them, as it was up to their forefathers, to jointly value and preserve it for future generations.“  - Destruction of Islamic Heritage in the Kosovo War, 1998-1999, by Sabri Bajgora

1. Mitrovica. Tekke (dervish lodge) of Sheh Fejzullah. Destroyed in spring 1999.
2. Vushtrria. Gazi Ali Beg Mosque, its minaret blown away by tank cannon
3. Peja/Peć. The Market Mosque (1471), torched by Serbian policemen, June 1999.
4. Mushtisht/Mušutište. Mosque of Hasan Pasha (1702). Blown up in April 1999.
5. Deçan. Mosque, built like a kulla; the mosque was burned in the 1999 war.
6. Carraleva/Crnoljevo. Torn-up and desecrated Qur’ans in the village mosque.

November 18th, 1601 | Siege of Naģykanizsa

The early 17th Century, and not many conversations can be had without the words “Hapsburg” or “Ottoman” creeping in there every other sentence or so.  And let’s face it: even the small nations liked to kick off for just about any old reason, so if you’re talking about two large empires, both intent on controlling … well … everything … then it’s highly likely that these two powers are going to have a few differences. And they did. All of the time.

Draw a line between these two protagonists – with both of them being widespread, this would end up spanning many countries – and you have a lot of contested borders. And one such border lay along southwest Hungary.

Hungary and the Ottomans had been mad-dogging each other over the fence for the last 100 years, and rather than just lift your t-shirt and show off a mad six-pack to get some respect, back then it was all about how many plate-clad boots you could put on the ground, and how many castles you could wrap around them. And Hungary loved their castles: Buda, Naģykanizsa, Simontornya, Siklós, Drégely, and Jurisics castle were but a few of the “yeah, that’s right, welcome to the gun show!” demonstrations of power thrown up along the various borders, with Naģykanizsa being one of the most important.

(wrong castle, but never-the-less awesome, so shaddup!)

Naģykanizsa town could trace its origins back to Roman times, and as the centuries had flowed-by it had become important as a trade hub. Naturally you don’t have such a little jewel close to the border without giving it some protection, so as early as the 13th Century a nice little castle started to grow there. By the 16th Century this castle is one of the most important along the Hungarian borders, forming a “umad, bro? shield wall” against would be invaders.

Now you don’t get to hear about Hungary that much anymore, but back around the first half of the millennium they were always up in someone’s grill and running over skulls with Hunyadi armored carts. But the minute King Matthias died without any lawful sons, shit started to fall apart. This was typical back then: if you couldn’t leave your finely crafted empire in capable – legitimate – hands, odds on it was going to collapse into civil war before your body is cold.

So when Matthias died, it’s not long before rebellions are kicking off, cars are burnings, windows have been smashed, shopping carts are cluttering the streets, trash is piling up, and just across the border the Ottoman Empire twiddles its collective moustaches and thinks “well, if you’re not doing anything useful with that land, we can probably find a better home for it. Hey look, you even built some castles for us; oooh, cozy!”

The little buggers rolled over the border and started sticking little flags in everything soft enough, and if it wasn’t soft enough they’d pummel it with a cannon until it was. 

Hungary started to further break apart. The Hapsburgs  snagged the west and called it “Royal Hungary,” ‘cos … it sounds cool, yo … while the Principality of Transylvania, or Eastern Hungarian Kingdom, decided to throw in the towel and become an Ottoman vassal; the equivalent of handing over your lunch money each day in exchange for not being beaten black and blue.

And with Hungary now split into three, one of the coolest sounding eras kicked into gear: the Fortress Wars. Why “The Fortress Wars?” For exactly the same reason as your brain is thinking right now. Everyone went bloody gangbusters building walls, forts, castles, towers, moats, barbicans, and Starbucks.  The Habsburgs built 100-120 forts they called the Bastion of Christianity (of course they did), with the most important at Croatia, Slavonia, Kanizsa, Győr, Bányavidék and Upper Hungary.  The Ottomans in response threw up 100-130 fortresses, at Buda-Pest, Esztergom and Temesvár.

Virtually overnight the view in any direction was blocked by a ruddy great wall; there was barely a hill anywhere without a tower on it. A bit like Risk, but on a 1-to-1 scale. But you can’t just keep throwing up walls and barricades on all sides without things eventually slipping into a stalemate, and towards the end of the century that’s exactly what happened.

Enter the scene: Tiryaki Hasan Pasha, an Ottoman commander and – I kid you not – a coffee addict. Perhaps he was all kinds of hopped up on caffeine, but when things are slowing down into a 16th Century trench warfare, this guy is all kinds of “oh hell no!” *shadowbox* *sniff sniff* *jab* and he promptly took Naģykanizsa castle.

“Nice digs!” he was heard to have said, quickly followed by “someone get the coffee on the go, I’m losing my high.”

Into this cozy new pad he invited 7,000 buddies, and very quickly he started redrawing territorial lines; promptly establishing the Turkish administrative region of Kanije Eyalet, barely twenty miles from the Austrian duchy of Styria.

And you have to imagine that if you’re a Styrian going for a bottle of milk one morning, knowing that the Ottomans are close enough to trip you over along the way is probably the type of thing that plays at your nerves. Pope Clement VIII tended to concur.

A third invasion of Hungary was ordered and under this onslaught the Ottomans decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and they gave their new neighbors a little breathing space. Which promptly gave Ferdinand II, commander of a Habsburg coalition army, the opportunity he was looking for: a Turk Kickin’.

“Ferdinand II?” you ask, “the same bloke that would 19 years from now be somewhat famous for causing the Battle of White Mountain?”

“The very same,” I would respond.

Ferdinand is a Catholic through and through, and by the Lord Almighty he wasn’t going to have any coffee swilling Turk occupying Hungarian real-estate. So he gathered up 35,000 of his very finest face-pummelers  and promptly paid a visit to Naģykanizsa.

“Sweet crib!” he shouted over the walls, and immediately sealed off all methods of getting in or out, “give it back, or you don’t get any more coffee.”

Tiryaki Hasan Pasha was already in trouble. Aside from the fact that he was outnumbered 5-to-1, he had forgotten to do a store-run that morning and there’s no way food and ammunition were going to last.

But Hasan was one smart cookie. Like he was really smart. Knowing that the stockroom and armory were hardly overflowing with supplies, he ordered his 100 cannon to conserve ammunition and his men to use their guns instead. Ferdinand meanwhile goes “oh my, they must be like super low on ammunition! ATTTTACCCCKKKKK!!!!!!”

Except they weren’t super-low, not yet at least, so when the coalition charged the Turkish held walls, 100 cannon greeted them in a hail of face splattering glory.

The Coalition retreated, licked their wounds, and exchanged “what the living fuck was that?” stories.

Undaunted, Ferdinand ordered another attack; if they were low on ammo to begin with, they must be really, really low now!

Nope! Still good over here!

There were explosions, lots of iron balls flying around, a horrible rending of flesh, bone, and all the bits you normally want to keep inside of you.

Again the Coalition was beaten back.

“Well … shit …” Ferdinand muttered, at which point an aide handed him a letter that had been found on one of the bodies outside of the fortress:

“Hello dad, all is great here in Naģykanizsa. We have supplies to last for a very long time, and that Ferdi-bloke really doesn’t know what he is doing. Love Hasan. P.S. Maybe send some more coffee?”

“What? This must be a ruse?” pondered Ferdinand, “better attack them to be sure!”

Nope, wasn’t a ruse; again the Hapsburg Coalition was bloodily repulsed.

By now night was falling, but instead of the sounds of wailing and a gnashing of teeth coming from within the castle, there was music and laughter. Ferdinand was pissed.

The very next morning he ordered another attack, which ultimately was like throwing a flank of beef at a combine harvester. But if he thought about perhaps pulling back a little and thinking of another way to tackle this problem, those thoughts were gone when an aide handed him a second letter, also found on a dead body:

“Hi pops, Hasan again. Sorry to be a bother, but we’re run out of hummus and köfte, please send more. Thank you! P.S.  don’t forget the coffee, but not Hungarian blend, I’m blending enough Hungarians for a lifetime over here, lol, ronflmao, omgwtfbbq.”

Again the Coalition attacked; again they just threw themselves into a grinder.

And again that night music played on the other side of the Turkish walls.

What was really going on behind the scenes was that Hasan was playing mind games. In reality the Turks were desperately low on supplies and ammunition, but by planting fake letters where he knew they’d be found and by ordering the sounds of celebrations each night, his forces gave the impression that they were not only doing just fine, but that relief forces were soon to arrive.

Days dragged on into months and Ferdinand was completely unable to break the stalemate and win the siege. Things for both sides were getting desperate; particularly as come November winter was just around the corner.

And then in a surprise move – on the 73rd day – Hasan … ATTACKED.

Ferdinand – doubtlessly mind-fucked from 73 days of peppy letters and nighttime music – was utterly surprised, and – thinking that the attack was actually Ottoman reinforcements – the Coalition FLED. All along they’d had the Turks on the ropes, and yet for 73 days they didn’t know it. Then, on November 18th, they were high-tailing it out of there, leaving 47 large cannon, 14,000 guns, 60,000 tents, 15,000 shovels, and lots of scrummy food.

The castle was safe.

For his part in organizing an amazing defense and proving that he was a bluff-master-flash, Hasan earned himself the rank of Vizier, and he went on to command this region for another ten years.

And that – ladies and gentlefolk – is how you mind-fuck with the enemy.


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