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Subject: Destruction of cultural heritage in Kosovo: a postwar report

Destruction of cultural heritage in Kosovo: a postwar report

From: Andras Riedlmayer <riedlmay>
Date: Thursday, September 21, 2000
In October 1999, Andrew Herscher and I went to Kosovo to conduct a
post-war survey of damage to cultural and religious
heritage--historical architecture, houses of worship, libraries,
archives, and museums. Our survey was funded by the Packard
Humanities Institute and sponsored by Harvard's Center for Middle
Eastern Studies.

Below is a report summing up our findings on architecture. An
abbreviated version of the report appears in the October issue of
US/ICOMOS Newsletter and in the September/October 2000 issue of
Bosnia Report (London), which also published our other two survey

  "Museums in Kosovo: A First Postwar Assessment"

  "Libraries and Archives in Kosovo: A Postwar Report"

Subsequent to our survey, the International Federation of Library
Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the International Council
on Archives (ICA) sent expert missions to Kosovo which confirmed and
expanded on our findings. Their reports are available on the web:

  "Libraries in Kosova/Kosovo"
  by Carsten Frederiksen and Frode Bakken

  "General Assessment of the Situation of Archives in Kosovo"
  by Bruce Jackson and Wladyslav Stepniak

  Sample images from our survey of damage to architectural heritage
  in Kosovo can be viewed on the Web at
  Andras Riedlmayer

                           September 2000
        Architectural Heritage in Kosovo: A Post-War Report
              By Andrew Herscher and Andras Riedlmayer

>From the spring of 1998 until the summer of 1999, Kosovo was the
scene of armed conflict and savage "ethnic cleansing." Thousands of
the region's Kosovar Albanian inhabitants were killed and nearly a
million were driven from their homes. Less well known than the human
tragedy is the fate of Kosovo's rich cultural heritage--its
churches, mosques, monasteries, and other religious monuments,
traditional residential architecture, well-preserved historic urban
centres, libraries, archives, museums and other cultural and
educational institutions. During the war, there had been disturbing
reports from official and professional sources in Yugoslavia,
suggesting that major damage had been inflicted on historic
monuments in Kosovo by NATO's aerial bombardment. Among the
monuments and sites reported to have been destroyed or seriously
damaged by the air strikes: the Gracanica monastery near Prishtina;
the Decani monastery; the Pec Patriarchate complex; the Church of
the Virgin Ljeviska and the Sinan Pasha Mosque in Prizren; the
Prizren League Museum; the Hadum Mosque complex in Gjakova (Serbian:
Djakovica); the historic bazaars in Gjakova and Pec (Albanian:
Peja); the Roman Catholic church of St. Anthony in Gjakova; and two
old Ottoman bridges, Ura e Terzive (Terzijski most) and Ura e
Tabakeve (Tabacki most), near Gjakova. These allegations were given
wide publicity on Internet web sites, in the news media, in
professional forums (including the US/ICOMOS Newsletter), and in two
white books issued by the Yugoslav government.[1] On June 1, 1999,
Yugoslavia's ambassador to UNESCO announced that the old parts of
the Kosovo city of Prizren and the provincial capital Prishtina had
been completely destroyed by NATO bombing.[2]

Meanwhile, eyewitness accounts by Kosovar refugees also spoke of
cultural destruction. In a survey of Kosovar refugee heads of
households in camps in Albania and Macedonia, carried out in
April-May 1999 by the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, nearly half
(47 percent) of the respondents reported seeing mosques destroyed by
Serb forces before they left Kosovo.[3]

Following the end of hostilities in June 1999, it was evident that
there was an urgent need to assess what had happened to cultural
heritage in Kosovo during the war. However, amidst the human drama
of the post-war return of refugees, the discoveries of mass graves
and other evidence of atrocities, and the urgency of providing
shelter before the onset of winter, the fate of heritage was not
foremost among the concerns of the international organizations
active in Kosovo. In response, we formed the Kosovo Cultural
Heritage Project. Our first task was to carry out a post-war field
survey in Kosovo; supported by a grant from the Packard Humanities
Institute, we spent three weeks in Kosovo in October 1999
documenting damage to cultural and religious heritage.

Among the goals of the survey was to gather evidence to assist the
investigations of the UN Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
(ICTY). The deliberate destruction of cultural property, in the
absence of overriding military necessity, is a serious violation of
international law and those responsible for ordering and carrying
out such attacks can be prosecuted for war crimes. According to the
Tribunal's statute, these include the "seizure of, destruction, or
willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity,
and education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments, and works
of art and science."[4]

Another aim of the survey was to provide a basis for planning the
post-war restoration of heritage sites by identifying monuments in
need of immediate conservation and assisting in the formulation of
reconstruction projects. We also sought to identify qualified
individuals, institutions, and local initiatives on the ground in
Kosovo that would benefit from outside support. Documentation
assembled in the survey has already been used to launch the first
projects for the protection and reconstruction of war-damaged
historical architecture in Kosovo since the end of the war.

The survey was not focused solely on listed monuments, due in part
to our commitment to document war crimes against cultural property.
While the 1954 Hague Convention requires that protected monuments be
designated and marked as such, the 1977 Protocols I and II
Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 use a more inclusive
wording, which is also reflected in the ICTY's statute. Furthermore,
it was evident that the criteria employed in listing monuments for
protection by the Serbian authorities before the war had been
conditioned to a considerable extent by ideological

Thus, we made it our goal to ascertain, insofar as possible, the
condition of all cultural and religious monuments and institutions,
whether listed or not, that were reported to have been damaged.
Covering both wartime and post-war destruction, the survey was
primarily a damage assessment. Limitations on our time and resources
and the difficulties of access to some sites prevented us from
making a more detailed study of each monument.

Our survey database has 268 entries for architectural monuments,
representing sites we visited during our fieldwork in October 1999
or for which we have obtained photographs and other documentation
from local institutions and individuals that had carried out their
own efforts to document the destruction of cultural heritage.[6]
Those sources, including the Institute for the Protection of
Monuments of Kosovo, the Presidency of the Islamic Community of
Kosovo (KBI), and the Serbian Orthodox Eparchy of Raska and Prizren,
have additional documentation in their files. The Department of
Culture in the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo
(UNMIK), established in April 2000 (
<URL:> ) is now working with
the Institute for the Protection of Monuments of Kosovo to prepare a
more detailed survey of monuments and sites in Kosovo that are in
need of protection and restoration.

We found that out of the four well-preserved historic urban centres
in Kosovo three old towns--Pec, Gjakova, Vushtrri (Serbian:
Vucitrn)--had suffered severe devastation. Allegations by the
Yugoslav authorities notwithstanding, it was evident both from the
nature of the damage we saw and from the statements of eyewitnesses
we interviewed that this destruction was not the result of aerial
bombardment. The historic city of Prizren survived the war without
significant damage to any of its monuments, except for the Museum of
the 1878 Albanian League of Prizren, which was burned down on March
28, 1999, by Serbian police using rifle-propelled grenades.
Prishtina, Kosovo's capital city, had already lost much of its
historic core to Tito-era urban renewal decades ago, but has a
number of major monuments, which survived the war intact as did most
of the rest of the city. War damage in the capital was largely
limited to a handful of modern government buildings, including the
Serbian police headquarters and the post and telecommunications
centre, which were hit by NATO air strikes; one 16th-c. neighborhood
mosque and a number of Albanian houses and shops were burned by
Serbian forces during the war.

Other allegations of NATO bombing damage to cultural monuments in
Kosovo also proved to be unfounded. In Gjakova, for example, we
found the two Ottoman-era bridges, both alleged to have suffered
direct hits, to be completely intact. The Roman Catholic church of
St. Anthony had been taken over by soldiers from the nearby Yugoslav
army base, who evicted the Albanian priests and the nuns from the
church and convent "half an hour before the war (i.e. the NATO
bombing) began," according to the parish priest, Fr. Ambroz Ukaj.
The church and the convent were used as a military command centre
for the next two months, while the army base was flattened by NATO's
air strikes. The only damage to the church, other than windows
broken by air blast, was that caused by Yugoslav soldiers who
thoroughly looted and vandalized the premises before they left in
early June 1999. The destruction of the old urban centres was also
clearly the result of arson rather than aerial bombardment, with
signs that historic structures associated with the culture and
religion of Kosovo's Albanian majority population had been singled
out for attack while adjacent modern, concrete apartment buildings
stood untouched.

In the small towns and villages of the countryside, traditional
residential architecture was also a major target in the recent
conflict. Ottoman-era town houses (konak, shtepia) of prominent
Albanian families, and the stone tower-residences (kulla) that are
indigenous to this area of the Balkans and typical of Albanian
traditional architecture, had clearly been singled out for
destruction by Serb forces during the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns
of the summer of 1998 and the spring of 1999. Of some 500 kullas in
Kosovo, most built during the 18th-19th c. and inhabited by
generations of the same families, barely 10 per cent are estimated
to have survived the war intact.

As was also the case in Bosnia after the war, international
reconstruction agencies in Kosovo, with their focus on triage, rapid
reconstruction and the use of standardized building materials, are
in effect forcing the rapid, wholesale abandonment of the
traditional housing stock--including buildings that were still
inhabited and considered desirable by the locals until they were
destroyed just a year or so ago. Without urgent intervention to
stabilize and help rebuild these threatened kullas, a traditional
architectural type unique to this region of Europe is threatened
with extinction.[7]

Another category of historical architecture in urgent need of
protection in Kosovo is Muslim houses of worship. This part of
Europe is home to an indigenous Islamic tradition going back more
than 600 years, with its own rich architectural heritage--mosques,
tekkes (lodges of the Sufi lay brotherhoods), medreses (theological
schools), Islamic libraries, hamams (Turkish baths), and bazaars
built to support charitable foundations. This heritage suffered
massive destruction during the recent conflict. In the majority of
cases, it was evident from the statements of eyewitnesses, from the
type of damage (mosques burned out from within, with no bullet or
shrapnel holes; minarets that had been blown up with explosives
placed inside, causing the stone spire to collapse onto the
building), and from visible signs of vandalism (Koran manuscripts
ripped from bindings and burned or defaced with human excrement,
crude anti-Muslim and anti-Albanian graffiti in Serbian on the walls
of destroyed and desecrated mosques) that this destruction was not
the result of military activities. These were not buildings that had
been caught in the crossfire as Serbian forces fought Albanian
rebels, or hit by NATO's bombs and missiles.

According to statistics published before the war, there were 607
mosques in Kosovo as of 1993. Of these, 528 were congregational
mosques (xhamia) of which 498 were in active use, and 79 smaller
mosques (mesxhid) of which 70 were in active use; the majority dated
from Ottoman times.[8] More than 200 of these mosques--a third of
all Islamic houses of worship in Kosovo--were destroyed or damaged
during the recent conflict, according to our survey and
documentation we examined in the offices of the Islamic Community.
Now some of these mosques are being rebuilt, often with the
assistance of Islamic charities from abroad which are pursuing their
own sectarian agendas, with little consideration given to historic
preservation or indigenous traditions.[9] Dr Rexhep Boja, the
president of the Islamic Community of Kosovo, is not happy about
this state of affairs. He told us the Islamic Community would
welcome the assistance of international organizations concerned with
heritage protection in restoring mosques that are of importance as
historic monuments, or as examples of traditional village mosque

Although much concern was expressed during last spring's NATO
bombing campaign about the fate of Kosovo's medieval Orthodox
churches and monasteries, in fact we found no evidence that any
Orthodox sites had suffered serious damage during the war--either
from NATO bombs or at the hands of Albanian rebels. After the end of
the war, however, the situation with respect to Serbian Orthodox
heritage changed for the worse. Although international peacekeeping
forces were deployed swiftly to guard the famous medieval churches
and monasteries, many less well-known churches in rural areas
abandoned by the fleeing ethnic Serb minority became easy targets
for revenge attacks by returning Albanian villagers in the immediate
aftermath of the war. Most of the Serbian Orthodox village churches
that have been vandalized or destroyed are of relatively recent
vintage, built or "rebuilt on ancient foundations" (obnovljena) in
the 20th century; 25 of them were churches constructed in the 1980s
and 1990s. About a dozen, however, were genuinely medieval
structures and listed monuments.[10] Providing security for such
sites is a matter for the UN peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR),
which somewhat belatedly last summer realized the need to protect
all Orthodox churches, not just the ones listed in the
encyclopaedias and guidebooks. In response to increased vigilance on
the part of KFOR and appeals by Kosovar Albanian civic and religious
leaders, the number of attacks on churches has dropped significantly
(a total of eleven incidents resulting in damage have been reported
since last October; nine of these were repeat attacks on abandoned
sites already damaged last summer). It seems, however, that this
protection has not included any effort to consolidate damaged
structures or shield them from the elements.

There is also an urgent need to provide the local professionals and
authorities in Kosovo with up-to-date information and training on
matters concerning heritage protection and planning. Although it has
been claimed that the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has contributed
to the crisis of heritage protection and reconstruction by rejecting
collaboration with Serbian institutions concerned with cultural
heritage, this argument is misleading.[11] According to the terms of
its mandate from the United Nations, from June 1999 on UNMIK assumed
full legal responsibility for the civil administration of Kosovo and
is barred from having direct dealings with the official Yugoslav
state agencies. As we were informed by the UNESCO representative in
Kosovo, Serbian professionals have been encouraged to work with the
UN Administration in their private capacity, but none have chosen to
do so. The Belgrade government, in turn, has branded Serbs who
choose to cooperate with UNMIK as traitors. It should also be kept
in mind that even before the war cultural heritage and its
protection in Kosovo had become not merely a professional but also a
profoundly politicized matter, and the state agencies charged with
heritage protection were carrying out the regime's political agenda
as well as exercising their professional mandate.

During the decade preceding the war (1989-1999), Kosovo was
effectively cut off from access to international professional
literature and contacts, while Kosovar Albanians were excluded from
the universities and most were unable to practice their professions.
At present, while there are many bright, talented and well-motivated
people in local institutions who have an interest in heritage
preservation, many of them lack adequate training and even trained
professionals lack recent experience and need to update their
skills. The Faculty of Architecture in Prishtina needs both basic
tools--current professional books and journals, computers and
software, etc.--and also visiting faculty and lecturers who could
help to bring the curriculum up to current international standards
and introduce new methods and approaches to conservation.

The international community has spent a good deal of money over the
past year on sending expert consultants to Kosovo for short-term
"needs assessment" visits, but there has been a shortage of any
serious funding devoted to actual, practical projects. In October
2000, the Kosovo Cultural Heritage Project[12] and the Faculty of
Architecture at the University of Prishtina are co-hosting an
international workshop on the post-war reconstruction of Kosovo's
damaged architectural heritage. This workshop is bringing architects
involved with the reconstruction of historic buildings and urban
centres elsewhere in the Balkans together with architects and
students of architecture from the Faculty in Prishtina. In the
workshop, pilot reconstruction projects will be developed for three
war-damaged historical structures and these projects will then be
realized with funding from the Kosovo Cultural Heritage Project,
supported by a grant from the Packard Humanities Institute. However,
as cultural heritage currently ranks near the bottom of the
priorities for international reconstruction assistance in Kosovo,
much work remains to be done.


[1] "War Damage in the Balkans," US/ICOMOS Newsletter, no. 2
(March-April 1999), pp. 1-3; Internet sites publicizing these
allegations include: <URL:>,
Crimes in Yugoslavia: Documentary Evidence, I: 24 March-24 April
1999 (Belgrade: Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Federal
Republic of Yugoslavia, 1999), pp. 226-228; NATO Crimes in
Yugoslavia: Documentary Evidence, II: 25 April-10 June 1999
(Belgrade: Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia, 1999), pp.310-317.

[2] Statement by Yugoslav ambassador to UNESCO Nada Popovic Perisic
quoted in "Yugoslavia Appeals for UNESCO Aid to Restore War-damaged
Monuments," Agence France-Presse, June 1, 1999.

[3] Physicians for Human Rights, War Crimes in Kosovo: A
Population-Based Assessment of Human Rights Violations against
Kosovar Albanians (Boston: Physicians for Human Rights, 1999), p.

[4] The Tribunal's statute and its May 1999 indictment of Yugoslav
President Slobodan Milosevic and other top Yugoslav and Serbian
officials, which specifies among the charges "the destruction of
non-Serbian residential areas and cultural and religious sites," can
be found at <URL:> .

[5] By the time of last year's war, some 210 Serbian Orthodox
monuments (churches, monasteries, cemeteries) in Kosovo had been
granted listed status, including 40 churches built between the 1930s
and the 1990s. In contrast, only 15 of the more than 600 mosques in
Kosovo were listed as historic monuments, even though more than half
of these mosques date from the Ottoman era (14th-19th c.). See
Cultural Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija, ed. Mileta Milic
(Belgrade: Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of the
Republic of Serbia, 1999).

[6] The survey database will be mounted on Archnet, a new on-line
resource on architecture, urban design, planning and restoration now
being developed at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. A
sample of our survey's documentation on the destruction of
historical architecture in Kosovo can be viewed at

[7] The Institute for the Protection of Monuments of Kosovo has
prepared an exhibition on the destruction of kullas in Kosovo; a
selection of photographs from the exhibit can be viewed on the
web site of UNMIK's Department of Culture -

[8] Pre-war statistics on Kosovo mosques published in Dituria
Islame, no. 49 (May 1993). The Presidency of the Islamic Community
of Kosovo recently published an illustrated volume documenting the
destruction of 218 mosques during the 1998-99 conflict, entitled
Barbara Serbe ndaj monumenteve Islame ne Kosove = Serbian
Barbarities against Islamic Monuments in Kosova (Prishtina: Kryesia
e Bashkesise Islame te Kosoves, 2000).

[9] Jolyon Naegele, "Saudi Wahhabi Aid Workers Bulldoze Balkan
Monuments" RFE/RL Weekly Magazine (August 4, 2000)
For a recent update by UNMIK's Department of Culture, see "The
Restoration of the Hadum Mosque Complex in Gjakova: A Cautionary

[10] The Orthodox Eparchy of Raska and Prizren has issued an
illustrated catalogue listing 75 churches attacked after the war,
about 40 of them seriously damaged or destroyed: Crucified Kosovo:
Destroyed and Desecrated Serbian Orthodox Churches in Kosovo and
Metohia (1999-2000). An on-line edition is available at

[11] See "More on Serbian Heritage in Kosovo," US/ICOMOS Newsletter,
no. 3 (May-June 2000), p. 6, which cites allegations made by Prof.
Slobodan Curcic in the latest issue of the Bulletin of British
Byzantine Studies.

[12] On the Kosovo Cultural Heritage Project and its reconstruction
initiatives in Kosovo, see

The authors:

    Andrew Herscher is an architect, PhD candidate in architectural
    history and theory at Harvard University, and co-director of the
    Kosovo Cultural Heritage Project.

    Andras J. Riedlmayer directs the Aga Khan Program's
    Documentation Center for Islamic Art and Architecture at
    Harvard's Fine Arts Library and is co-director of the Kosovo
    Cultural Heritage Project

Andras J. Riedlmayer
Fine Arts Library
Harvard University

                  Conservation DistList Instance 14:19
               Distributed: Thursday, September 21, 2000
                       Message Id: cdl-14-19-003
Received on Thursday, 21 September, 2000

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