Kosovo's refuge: worship & life in a war zone

The Decani Monastery in Kosovo's western Prokletije mountains is one of the latest added to the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Meanwhile, "the monastery's cells are brimming," reports The Christian Science Monitor. "Days are busy with farming, writing, icon-painting, translating, woodcarving, and more. For the first time in decades, Decani is thriving."

The monastic life at Decani has rarely been happy—or safe. The monastery faced lootings in the 16th and 17th centuries, and persecution from Albanians in the 19th century and the Bulgarians, Albanians, and communists of all ethnicities in the 20th century.

During the Kosovo conflict of the late 1990s, the Serbian Orthodox monastery became an important refuge for Muslims and ethnic Albanians even as shocks from nato bombs threatened its fragile onyx sculptures. nato forces still guard the site and its 30 monks, and anti-Serb demonstrations from ethnic Albanians threatened the monastery as recently as last March. "We are living in this monastery like in a prison," Father Nektar told Voice of America (VOA) in October.

It is the 14th-century Byzantine-Romanesque architecture and ancient icons that attracted UNESCO, which notes that the monastery "represents an exceptional synthesis of Byzantine and Western traditions," and "exercised an important influence on the development of art and architecture during the Ottoman period." That makes it, art historians told VOA, "the most significant medieval structure in its part of Europe."

That history can unite Kosovo's warring ethnicities, says Father Sava Janjic, the monastery's deputy abbot. "These places where the beauty and the history and something which is noble is enshrined so deeply in these stones and these frescoes is bringing people together around the values which have eternal meaning," he said.

Affluent Essenes

The consensus in the academy has been that the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the cliffside caves of Qumran, were written by Essenes, an ascetic, monkish sect that avoided materialism and population centers.

But results of a 10-year-study of Qumran promise to "contradict everything we know about every aspect of the Essenes," says Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University's Archaeological Institute. The dig, by Israelis Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, found imported Phoenician glass, jewelry, perfume bottles, and other non-ascetic artifacts. "It's impossible to say that the people who lived at Qumran were poor," Peleg told the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha'aretz.

Magen, who believes the scrolls were written by Jerusalem temple priests, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "We did not find any evidence that the scrolls were written (at) Qumran or the caves which overlook it. Our conclusion is that they were brought there mainly from Jerusalem across the Judean Desert. We discovered several ancient way stations which once were [first-century] Jewish communities where they could have been kept temporarily in local synagogues before being transferred to the caves of Qumran for safety."

Psalter psatire

When the 1320s "Macclesfield Psalter" was discovered in 2003 between two larger books in a private collection, it was hailed as the most exciting discovery of an English manuscript in living memory. Created in eastern England, at the foremost school of English art at the time, it may not stay in the country. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles purchased it in June for $2.8 million, and the National Art Collections Fund has until November 10 to attempt to buy it back. The 252-page book is of particular interest for its humorous marginal artworks, many of which scholars believe are satires on the army commander who commissioned the book, John de Warenne, the 8th Earl of Surrey, Earl of Sussex and Strathern. The many rabbits, for example, symbolize the earl's lust (he was excommunicated in 1316 for multiple adulterous affairs), and their burrows (called warrens) were apparently a pun upon his name. Other satirical images include a dog dressed in bishops' robes, an ape playing doctor with a bear, and a man without pants fighting a dragon.

The Real Rosslyn Chapel

The Episcopalian Church at Roslin was almost empty every Sunday," a government official wrote to the British Minister of Labor in 1942. "On a recent Sunday there was a congregation of only two, and … I suggest that steps are taken to close it down."

This July, 9,029 people visited the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian, Scotland—up 96 percent from 2003, and about as many as visited annually a decade ago. These new visitors are pilgrims of a different sort. Their holy book is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, a novel that suggests the gothic structure holds the Holy Grail. Others claim secret chambers beneath the chapel hold the Ark of the Covenant and the head of Christ, while some tourists come to the chapel because it's supposedly an "astral portal," a good place for UFO sightings, and the spiritual birthplace of freemasonry.

"I think it's very much in kin with the Loch Ness Monster. It's a hugely good story," chapel director Simon Beattie said of Brown's novel. Recent bans on documentary filmmakers, however, suggest that the chapel keepers' humor is waning.

The church does have ties to real history, however. In 1589, William Knox (brother of John) was censured for baptizing in the Catholic-seeming chapel. Presbytery records described it as a "house and monument of idolatry, " and in 1592 Protestants demolished the altars and worship there ceased. Mobs finished the job in 1688, destroying all religious imagery. Services didn't begin again until 1861.

An icon's extraordinary travels

Pope John Paul II intended the return of one of the most revered icons of the Russian Orthodox Church to be an entrée to Christian unity. Instead, it became a subject of dissent.

"This icon is only one of the copies of the miraculous image," Patriarch Alexis II claimed. Vatican experts say it's "an authentic icon attributable to a period not later than the first half of the 18th century," but agree that it's not the original, which was discovered (miraculously, it is reported) by a 9-year-old girl in 1579 and credited with the defeat of the Polish army in 1612. A thief stole the original in 1904—and later claimed that he stripped it of its gold, silver, and jewels, then burned it.

The Pope has had the copy since 1993 and had hoped to give it to Russia in person. Alexis II, however, said the Pope was not welcome in the country.

Chaucer's scribe anonymous no more

Geoffrey Chaucer was so annoyed with errors introduced by his scribe that he once composed a poem complaining, "So oft a day I mot thy werke renewe," and threatened to curse him with "the scall" (scabs) if he didn't shape up. Now the University of Maine's Linne Mooney says she knows the identify of the scribe, whom Chaucer called "Adam scrivener." The signature of Adam Pinkhurst, the son of a small landowner near London, matches several Chaucer manuscripts, including a note at the end of the Canterbury Cook's Tale: "Of this tale Chaucer wrote no more."

Here I squat

According to some historians, what archaeologists uncovered in October in a previously buried annex of Martin Luther's house may be a key site of the Reformation. Since Erik Erikson's 1958 biography, many historians have interpreted Luther's remark that his insight into justification came "in cl." to mean "in cloaca"—on the toilet. "We just had no idea where this sewer was. Now it's clear what the reformer meant," Luther Memorial Foundation director Stefan Rhein told The Telegraph. "The 450-year-old lavatory, which was very advanced for its time, is made out of stone blocks and, unusually, has a 30 cm-square seat with a hole," the paper reported. "Underneath is a cesspit attached to a primitive drain."

In his 1990 Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Heiko Oberman muses, "The cloaca is not just a privy, it is the most degrading place for man and the Devil's favorite habitat. Medieval monks already knew this, but the reformer knows even more now: It is right here that we have Christ, the mighty helper, on our side. No spot is unholy for the Holy Ghost; this is the very place to express contempt for the adversary through trust in Christ crucified."

Viking last rites a mixed lot

Archaeologists in northwestern England have for the first time discovered a Viking burial ground in their country. It dates from the 900s—supposedly long after the Vikings would have been Christianized. Indeed, they were buried from east to west, in keeping with Christian tradition at the time. But the Vikings, or perhaps their buriers, also maintained significant ties to their pagan beliefs, and included weapons, spurs, a bridle, and a drinking horn for the afterlife. Newspapers described the Vikings as "hedging their bets," but such syncretism was not unique. A Viking metalworker's mold in Norway, for example, has casts for both the cross of Christ and the hammer of Thor.