Series: Monastic life – then and now
Travel guides through the centuries
After taking a good look at the monasteries in Vienna and Lower Austria, we are turning our attention this week to Belgrade.
Both outlying districts and the urban centre contain numerous holy sites, including ten Orthodox and six Roman Catholic monasteries, each with its own authentic history.
The Orthodox religion
The large majority of the inhabitants of Belgrade are Serbian Orthodox. There are seven Orthodox monasteries in the surrounding villages that belong administratively to the city, and a further three situated in outlying districts or in the city centre.
The most central of the monasteries is the Monastery of Saint Archangel Gabriel in the municipal park of Zemun in the west of Belgrade around 5 km from the city centre. During the reign of the Habsburg emperor Charles VI (1711–40) the area was a “kontumaz” or quarantine zone set up as a plague epidemic threatened Belgrade from the east. The church was built in 1786 and continued to serve initially as a quarantine church. After the First World War and the arrival of numerous anti-Bolshevik refugees from the Russian Revolution, it served for a long time as a Russian church. It has been a Serbian Orthodox monastery since 1990.
Rakovica convent is nestled between two hills in the Belgrade district of the same name, about 10 km from the city centre. The church in this convent is dedicated to the archangels Michael and Gabriel. It was first mentioned in records in the sixteenth century. The convent suffered serious damage during the two wars between Austria and Turkey in the eighteenth century. Over the last 200 years a number of Serbian dignitaries have found their last resting place there, the most recent being the highly respected Serbian Patriarch Pavel (1914–2009). For this reason Rakovica has become an important place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Serbs.
Central but well hidden
The monastery of the Presentation of the Most Holy Mother of God in the district of Senjak, a villa district close to the city centre is relatively new, having been built between the wars. Perhaps because of its discreet setting it has played an important role in the rebuilding of religious observance under the Communist regime. Services in this convent on Sundays and religious holidays are accompanied by the Melody choir, one of the best ensembles of its type in Serbia.
Fenek monastery and its historical background
Not far from the western suburb of Jakovo, around 20 km from the city centre, is the Serbian Orthodox Fenek monastery with a church dedicated to the holy martyr Paraskeva. The monastery was mentioned for the first time in the sixteenth century and also played an important historical role as the meeting place in 1788 of the Serbian prince Aleksa Nenadović and the Austrian emperor Joseph II to discuss their joint struggle against the Ottoman troops. From 1789 to 1791 the monastery served as a military camp. Karađorđe Petrović, the legendary leader of the Serbs in their revolt against the Turks, also stayed in Fenek. The monastery was damaged by a fire during the First World War and almost completely destroyed in 1942. It was rebuilt in 1991 and is today the home of Serbian Orthodox monks, but is also open to the public.
Miracle in the monastery of Saint Stefan
A miracle occurred in the monastery of St Stefan near the village of Slanci in the north-east of Belgrade at the start of the service to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1989. A cross made of drops of water was noticed on the forehead of the icon of Trojeručica (the “three-handed” Virgin Mary) and then tears flowing from Christ’s two eyes. Some people interpreted this miraculous phenomenon as a foreboding of great suffering, as in fact occurred during the Yugoslavian civil war. The monastery was originally built in the thirteenth century by the Serbian king Dragutin. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times, before ending in its present state in 1970. It is also one of the rare Metochi monasteries, whose monks are trained at Hilandar monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, the most well-known and holy Serbian monastery.
Other Serbian Orthodox monasteries
Serbian Orthodox monasteries are often very impressive and well worth visiting. Grabovac monastery in Obrenovac on the southern outskirts of the city is a case in point. It was built in 1280 by the Serbian king Dragutin Nemanjić. It is a convent and home of numerous valuable works of art. The library contains 113 manuscripts, many of which date from the early days of the Serbian Orthodox church. In the village of Begaljica to the east of Belgrade is the sixteenth-century Rajinovac monastery, and close by is the monastery of Tresije, dedicated to the Synaxis of the Archangels. It is thought to have been built at the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century. Another monastery in the area is Pavlovac monastery, which was built in the early fifteenth century under the despot Stefan Lazarević. Like many other Serbian Orthodox monasteries and holy places it was destroyed by the Ottomans in the late seventeenth century and was completely rebuilt in 1967.
Roman Catholic monasteries
The Catholic Sisters of Mercy arrived 125 years ago in Zemun, then an Austro-Hungarian border town on the Danube and today a district of Belgrade. They found a small hospital with forty beds, which they helped to expand into a reputed medical centre. The monastery of the Sisters of Mercy is located today in Zemun municipal park. After the outbreak of the civil war in ex-Yugoslavia the population of the convent shrank, and there are only a few nuns left today to keep up the tradition. Also in Zemun is the Franciscan monastery to Saint John the Baptist, the only Franciscan monastery in the city of Belgrade. The first Franciscans arrived in Zemun in the early fourteenth century but had to leave in the mid-fifteenth century because of the Turkish siege. They returned to Belgrade in the eighteenth century and built a new monastery between 1750 and 1752, which burnt down after being struck by lightning in 1790 and was rebuilt in 1838. Belgrade also has four smaller Roman Catholic monasteries, most of which are in the old part of the city
Monastic life then and now
Part 1: Viennese monasteries
Part 2: Klosterneuburg Monastery and Altenburg Monastery / Lower Austria
Part 3: Stift Melk and Seitenstetten Monastery / Lower Austria
Part 4: Serbian monasteries
Part 5: The Capuchin monastery in Bratislava
Part 6: The monastery of Divine Mercy in Nové Hrady
Part 7: Pannonhalma: monastery, school and vineyard
Part 8: The Remete monastery in Zagreb
Part 9: Novodevichy Convent in Moscow
Part 10: The Slovenian Stična Cistercian Abby
Part 11: Franciscan Monastery in Sarajevo
Part 12: Stavropoleos Monastery in Bucharest
Part 13: The bulgarian Rila Monastery