Visoki Decani Monastery has been described as "the largest and best-preserved medieval church in the entire Balkans" with several thousand Byzantine frescoes adorning the interior walls. The paintings took 6 groups of artists ten years to complete and cover an area of 4,000m2.
25 monks live within its heavily guarded walls, although the last direct attack was grenades in 2007, the threat of ethnic violence remains.
We stopped off in the monastery shop, the cheerful sales assistant monk, Damaskin, informing us that at one time they received many busloads of visitors every weekend but now he can go days without a single visitor. He cheerfully added that he didn’t mind, he was still happy in his work. We bought goat’s cheese and goat milk soap, produced along with painted icons and woodcarvings by the monks themselves.
The grounds were immaculate; neat lawns surrounding the centrepiece Cathedral constructed from pale purple and yellow marble blocks. Monastical buildings encircled the impeccable church alongside Chestnut trees and stone graves.
A welcoming monk greeted us as we peered outside the monastery doors, eager to show us inside. Our impromptu guide Petar opened the heavy wooden doors and escorted us into the Romanesque building.
The Monastery was established in 1327 under the instruction of Serbian Medieval King St. Stephen of Decani. The monastery is both his life’s work and his mausoleum; his 684 year-old body remains in a coffin at the head of the altar. Petar informed us that 10 years after his funeral, the body of St Stephen was found intact in his grave, perfectly preserved and undecomposed, with a sweet smell which exists until today. “We do nothing to preserve the body, it is forbidden in the Orthodox Church to do anything with a human body after death- we don’t even know any technique to do it! We have no interest to preserve the body, because this is not an important factor when considering someone as Holy”. Petar explained “The body is still whole and fragrant, even when constantly exposed to air and kissing. We believe this is because God’s energies are still present in it.”
Every Thursday, the coffin is opened to allow worshippers to show respect, say prayers and offer Thanks to St Stephen. Petar invited us to join them for this service in 5 days but, with people awaiting our arrival in Montenegro, we regrettably declined the offer. We were however, fortunate enough to accept his invitation to join them for their evening worship.
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For the next hour we were completely captivated by black-robed, bearded monks arriving, assembling and beginning their ceremonial tasks. Harmonious chanting gained momentum and volume as more monks joined the dulcet sung words of devoutness. Sat in original 14 Century wooden pews, we were both mesmerised yet honoured to be present at such an amazing atmospheric spectacle. The hauntingly beautiful chanting envelopes you in your own dark, heavy robe of calm. Closing my eyes I could feel both the peace of the place but also the isolation.
I asked Petar what he hoped for the future of the Monastery; “We hope it will survive because it is under God’s protection. He has preserved the Monastery during seven centuries under very difficult circumstances. We are determined to stay and live here no matter what happens, trying to have love also with our enemies”.