Over and over again I would hear  the famous date 1389 bantered about. For the Turks it was the date of  a decisive battle on Blackbird Field in Kosovo, which paved the way for their ultimate incursion into the Balkans and their foothold there. For the Serbs, however, it was much more loaded in import – a  date which spelled the end of their short-lived, but long shadowed, empire, when they lost nearly all of their noblemen, opting for a “heavenly empire” over Turkish vassalage, vowing thus to die on their feet rather than live on their knees.

And so after arriving in Prishtina and getting settled in my hotel, I decided to head out to Blackbird Field, Kosovo Polje, to the  1953 monument  built on the site of the battle, otherwise known as Gazimestan. 

The name Gazimestan is a portmanteau, derived from the Turkish gazi,  meaning “hero” and the Serbian word, “mesto”, meaning place. 

Every year on Vidovdan (St Vitus Day), 28 June, bus loads of Serbs, protected by armed convoy, come from all over the former Yugoslavia to remember the famous battle. An image of Serb Tsar Lazar drapes the tower, and Serbs rally to their nationalist cause, engaging in rousing speeches and singing songs endowed with the blessing of the Serbian Orthodox Church, under the watchful gaze of KFOR peacekeepers.

On 24 April 1987, Slobodan Milošević – then leader of Yugoslavia’s League of Communists – came out here, giving an impromptu speech to the regions beleaguered Serb minority that they would be pushed around no longer; Yugoslavia would stand up for them, against the persecution of the Albanian majority. 

“First I want to tell you, comrades, that you should stay here,” Milošević intoned. “This is your country, these are your houses, your fields and gardens, your memories. You are not going to abandon your lands because life is hard, because you are oppressed by injustice and humiliation. It has never been a characteristic of the Serbian and Montenegrin people to retreat in the face of obstacles, to demobilize when they should fight, to become demoralized when things are difficult. You should stay here, both for your ancestors and your descendents. Otherwise you would shame your ancestors and disappoint your descendents. But I do not suggest you stay here suffering and enduring a situation with which you are not satisfied. On the contrary! It should be changed, together with all the progressive people here, in Serbia and in Yugoslavia…Yugoslavia does not exist without Kosovo! Yugoslavia would disintegrate without Kosovo! Yugoslavia and Serbia are not going to give up Kosovo!”

The speech for many ominously presaged armed battles and ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. Ultimately NATO would intervene, crushing the Serbs, and at war’s end Western soldiers would be stationed in Kosovo to keep the peace and prevent Albanians from engaging in reprisals against the Serbs. Gazimestan would be barricaded off with razor wire and KFOR troops.

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There was no getting to Gazimestan by foot, I needed a guide who would drive me out there. I was worried no Albanian would deign to visit this memorial to Serb nationalism, but  was surprised when I found an Albanian cab driver who said he would be happy to accompany me. He spoke to me eagerly in Serbian, his second tongue, growing up as he had in the days of Yugoslavia.

Did I know, asked the driver, that it was not only the Serbs who had fought the Ottomans at this famous battle, but that there had been a strong contingent of Albanians among Prince Lazar’s forces? 

We drove out into the low, rolling hills west of Prishtina. The earth was sun-baked and here and there were clumps of red poppies, the famous poppies of Kosovo that grow nowhere else, and are supposed to have sprung from the blood of slaughtered Serbs.

After 20 minutes we had arrived at Gazimestan, The site was cordoned off by NATO peacekeepers who were dug in, in a nearby military base. Until NATO troops entered Kosovo in 1999 it belonged to the Yugoslav Army. Now the British were there, heavily armed and poised around the ring of razor wire encircling the monument. 

The driver and I flashed our IDs and passed through the razor wire, climbing the stone memorial, built in the form of a medieval tower,  six or seven kilometers to the southeast of the actual battlefield, with the inscription in Serbian at its base:

Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth

And of Serb blood and heritage

And comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,

May he never have the progeny his heart desires!

Neither son nor daughter

May nothing grow that his hand sows!

Neither dark wine nor white wheat

And let him be cursed from all ages to all ages!”

We climbed to the top. And there it was, the great battlefield! The plains of Kosovo – rich and fertile. In the distance there were hills, and a couple kilometers from the tower there was a vast power station that belched black smoke into the air, obscuring the view of the battlefield below. 

Sultan Murad I, who led the Ottoman forces in battle had determined that the Ottomans could never claim ultimate glory had they remained comfortably ensconced in Asia, and if they were to make a name for themselves,  they would have to seek their fortunes in the Western lands of Byzantium, Rumelia, as the region was called then by the Turks – the lands of Rome.

And so he led his men into the Balkans in a series of armed forays, to mix it up with the warring Slav tribes West of Edirne, now in state of disarray. The Ottoman forces drove west the direction of the historic Roman road, the Via Egnatia, streaming up green mountain valleys, with  flying columns of Turkish horsemen and furious bellowing of the aga of the janissaries and the skirling of the janissary bands urging attack,rushing forward with horrible cries. Dervishes established themselves in lodges along the way and Turkish peasants awarded themselves farmsteads or grazing ground. 

Finally, in 1389 Sultan Murad I stood poised to attack the defenders of Christendom in the Balkans – the combined forces of King Lazar and Vuk Branković and their men. King Tvrtko of Bosnia had sent soldiers under the command of Vlatko Vuković. There were probably some Albanian contingents under Lazar’s flag plus mercenaries from many parts of the region, as there were in the Turkish ranks too.

The battle was far from decisive, with both sides claiming victory. However, while the Serbian army was all but decimated, the Ottomans still had hordes of soldiers at their beck and call, and so ultimately it was the Turks who emerged as the de facto victors of Kosovo Polje, cementing their dominance in the Balkans until the beginning of the twentieth century.

However, to be sure, it was a pyrrhic victory, overshadowed by the martyred death of Sultan Murad I, who was stabbed  in his tent repeatedly by the Serbian soldier Milos Obilić, long since immortalized in Serbian ballad.

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Later, after we had gazed our full at the scorched landscape of Kosovo, my driver took me to the tomb of Sultan Murad I, a mausoleum to the north of Gazimestan, where the Sultan’s entrails are interred (the rest of his body lays in Bursa). Inside a courtyard garden lay the türbe, the tomb of the Sultan bearing a sloping gabled coffin covered with velvet. 

Apparently the mausoleum was built on the exact spot where the sultan’s tent stood during the battle and where he was supposed to have been hacked down. After the battle, a family was brought from Bursa to take care of the monument, the Türbedaris family, as they have come to be known. Up until 1912 the Türbedaris were paid by Turkey, upon which they entered the payroll of the Royal Yugoslav Government. 

After 1974  the ethnic Turkish Türbedaris were displaced by Kosovo Albanians. In 1994 they reclaimed the work of their ancestors, which according to Tim Judah, in his book, The Serbs,they continued to tend into the present day.

However, when I was there, it was a Slav Muslim woman from Novi Pazar, who tended the space, urging us to take off our shoes upon entering the mausoleum.

Rebecca West had visited Gazimestan and the tomb of Sultan Murad on the brink of World War II. Enamored of the Serbs as she was, she had distinctly anti-Turkish sentiments, and upon visiting the nearby tomb of Sultan Murad’s standard bearer and its seedy custodian had this to say about the Ottoman Empire:

“I saw before me what an empire which spreads beyond its legitimate boundaries must do to its subjects. It cannot spread its own life over the conquered areas, for life cannot travel too far from its source, and it blights the life that is native to those parts. Therefore it imprisons all its subjects in a stale conservatism, in a seedy gentility that celebrated past achievements over and over again. It could be seem what these people had  been. With better boned, with more flesh, with unatrophied wills, they would have been Turks as they were in the great days of the past, or as they are in the Ataturk’s Turkey, robust and gracious. But they were sweet-sour phantoms, human wine gone to vinegar.”

Today, Ottomanism is in ascendance again in Turkey and in the Balkans. In the past eighteen years of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule as Prime Minister and then as President, the Turkish government has been busy building new mosques and rebuilding and renovating existing mosques, shrines, türbes and hamams in the Balkans.

The türbe at Kosovo Polje is no exception. After the Kosovo war, Turkey stepped in and renovated it, assuring its upkeep.

As for the remains of King Lazar, they have also had an extraordinary life after death, first being laid to rest in Prishtina, thereafter exhumed and brought to Ravanica, the monastery founded by King Lazar, his dried body adorned in a coat with lions rampant, the garb he was thought to have worn at his death. 

But still the bones did not find rest, taken was they were to Hungary during the great exodus of Serbs from Kosovo in 1697. In 1942, minus some golden rings nicked  by Croatian Ustashas, the body was then brought to Belgrade, where it languished till 1987, upon which it was taken on tour through Serbia and Bosnia, drawing devout crowds of Serbs, until finally being deposited once more in Ravanica, where on Sundays the coffin is opened and Lazar’s brown, withered hand allowed to peak out from under his embroidered gown for the pious viewing pleasure of Serbian pilgrims.