Reinventing the cultural landscape of Sandžak

The historical Sandžak/Raška region offers different types of cultural and metacultural heritage – being restored/rebuilt, retained and remained or even renamed.

Our invented territory

Beside our subjective and visual absorption of the cultural landscape, maintained through our pictures, we visited on one side different museums and on the other side Muslim and Christian cemeteries, as well as houses of prayer like mosques and monasteries. Beyond that we had different conversations, in a qualitative sense, not only at the institutional level and in urban area like in Prijepolje, Bijelo Polje, Novi Pazar, Tutin and Rožaje, but also with locals in different villages, like Sutivan, Gubavač, Njegnjevo, three Montenegrin villages on the river Lim, near the southwestern border of Serbia, then Kajeviće and Kalače, located in Montenegro’s border region to Serbia and Kosovo, but also in the Muslim village Rasno and its neighbouring Štavalj, both in Serbia.   Concerning the material cultural heritage, we got the most interesting information from the curator of the Prijepolje Museum, Ljiljana Ljujić, and from the retired philologist Mijo Cvijović, a local of the religiously mixed village Sutivan. But to generalise our findings we used all obtained information.

Ring with an Arabic inscription. Photo: Goranka Cejvanovic

“The damnation gets you and your descendants if you destroy our common ancestors’ heritage”

As a geographical region, cross-bordered between Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the Kosovo, the Sandžak or Raška is almost characterized by the historical, cultural and religious transformations throughout the centuries. The Raška region, being a part of the medieval Serbia and Bosnia until the conquest by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century which lasted until 1912, has been renamed into Sandžak – a Turkish loanword, meaning province.  From 1463 to1878, this region belonged firstly to Bosanski sandžak, and from 1580 to Bosanski ejalet, later vilajet, until the Austro-Hungarian occupation from 1878 to 1908. From 1915 to 1918 it gets   territorially divided between Serbia and Montenegro, which after the fall of  SFRY definitively turned over into independent states and thereby dissolved the historical and cultural unity of Sandžak, that through the ages has been affected by large migrations of Christian and later of the Muslim population. But, meanwhile historical names Raška and Sandžak continue to be used – Raška by the Christian orthodox Serbs and Sandžak preferably by the Muslim population. Due to these changes, the region can be considered as an ethnically diverse one, featuring a “cross-over“ of cultural landscapes, particularly in the religious context. Without enlarging on the immaterial heritage, we focused on documenting the visible material cultural heritage, both being indispensable interlaced by their immediacy. But despite these separate orientations, it is essential to point out the existence of a deep grounded belief which had indirectly contributed to preserving the cultural heritage – in terms of the damnation gets you and your descendants if you destroy our common ancestors’ heritage.

Through the cultures and out

According to the given information, we can assert that the habitants of Sandžak/Raška region still guard their traditional komšiluk manner, even more through the cultivation of pobratimstvo. Nevertheless, we have to note the hard-living conditions, predicated not only on the barren landscape, but also on the ethnically and religiously split political systems, which create a linguistic, cultural and identity disorder and thereby separate the two religious groups. Furthermore, these circumstances are affecting the preservation of the rich cultural treasures of that region.

Concerning the beginning of the cultural history here, we can’t give an exact point in time, but different archaeological excavation has shown that this area has been populated in the 5th century B.C. Such substantial corpus of finds is located at the Petrova Crkva, near Novi Pazar, which itself is one of the oldest remained sacral buildings, being again and again restored and rebuilt (Figure 2). Together, and as a part of the historical Stari Ras, with the oldest local Orthodox monastery Đurđevi Stupovi (12th c.) andthe monastery Sopoćani (13th c.), placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and known for his original and unique frescoes (Figure 3), they are retaining the traces of the Raška school and the Nemanjić dynasty.  Besides the Christian material heritage, the Sandžak/Raška area, getting a part of the Ottoman empire, has also been culturally influenced by Islam. In Novi Pazar e.g. you can find the Altun-Alem džamija (beginning of 16th c.), protected since 1979 or, and in particular to mention, the Husein-(Boljanić)-pašina džamija in Pljevlja, this yearcelebrating the 450th anniversary, gardening one of the rare examples of Islamic fresco paintings (Figure 3)., described as metacultural in religious context.  Moreover, cultural meta-representativity is also given in the museum of Bijelo Polje, which as a former  ruždija,  is exhibiting the cross-cultural past of this city and in which surroundings you can find an example of deculturation of common heritage: the medieval settlement Mileševac, during the Ottoman period renamed into Hisardžik is today a ruin and left to its own devices. But cultural material heritage seems to be also left to private excavation, as the Christian tombstone found by locals in Sutivan show (Figure 4), but the cultural material heritage is also deconstructed and recontextualised like the stećak next to the bust of Mile Perunčić. 

Contrary to cross-culturalised and publicly available findings, the private collections remain mostly disregarded and therefore often only found by chance.

In concluding, cultural material heritage of Sandžak/Raška doesn´t exist only through its visibility but also by traditional orality – in ethnically and religiously mixed locations the komšije are helping each other to build new houses of prayer, while believing, that anciently there has been one.

Transculturology as a common mission

The absorption of transcultural landscape and the involvement with Sandžak/Raška on various levels provided us with a plethora of different perceptions and constructions, seen through the prism of different conceptions of identity, culture and language. Similarly, this is one of the main reasons of an ethnic, religious and consequently political split between the local population, affecting the preservation and the promotion of the cultural heritage.

The context in which Sandžak/Raška is found, poses a series of questions regarding the sustainment of the heritage through institutionalization of cultural infrastructure, be it national and/or regional – which state would endorse and promote it as whose? This duality of interpretations of the same cultural monuments, can be applied on the example of stećci and Stari Ras.  One-sided conceptions of cultural heritage with respect to a certain group seems possible, intertwined with the contemporary notion of identity and the political reality, which could influence the manner of transmission and perception of heritage.                                                                                            

Furthermore, and to conclude, improvements in the educational system are needed in order to bridge the conflicting perceptions of the common cultural heritage, as well as a general change in thinking and attitude towards the cultural landscape.


Team: Mirza Čohadžić, Goranka Ćejvanović, Selma Đečević, Sead Šabotić, Sara Marenčić, Marko Milošević, Ana Мarija Pavlović

Texts: Mirza Čohadžić, Goranka Ćejvanović, Selma Đečević