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FIGHT FOR HILANDAR: How King Alexander I of Serbia saved the Holy Royal Lavra from Bulgarian invasions
Najveća srpska svetinja Manastir Hilandar više od osam vekova simbol je pravoslavlja u našem narodu, Foto: Shutterstock, arhiva


FIGHT FOR HILANDAR: How King Alexander I of Serbia saved the Holy Royal Lavra from Bulgarian invasions


King Alexander visited the monastery at Easter 1896, on his way to the Olympic Games in Athens. At the time, there were about 70 monks at Hilandar, of whom only three were Serbian.

The Serbian candle, lit by Saint Simeon and Saint Sava at Hilandar, was about to go out in the late 19th century, after centuries of prayer and fasting. At the time, the Holy Royal Lavra was Serbian in name only. The monastery was run by Bulgarians, and it was owing to King Alexander Obrenović that this shrine had not been taken over and that the light of Serbian spirituality had not been extinguished.


The large-scale migrations of the Serbian people towards the north and the abolishment of the Patriarchal Monastery of Peć put the Hilandar Monastery at risk as the ethnic structure of its fraternity was changing. At the turn of the 19th century, the monastery was steeped in debt, and incursions were made into it by the Bulgarians and the Greeks. These events were referenced in the writings of Dositej Obradović, Ljubomir Nenadović, and Dimitrije Avramović, as well as other travel writers who visited Mount Athos at different times.

Despite the exceedingly difficult circumstances, Serbia saw to Hilandar's well-being, donating 100,000 groats to it in the 1840s. Furthermore, in a letter from 1842, Prince Mihailo promised the Hilandar fraternity that he would take care of them, and Prince (later King) Milan Obrenović provided aid and protection to the monastery.

foto: Shutterstock

The ties between Hilandar and Serbia, strong until the 1870s, weakened around the time when increasingly vocal arguments between the Bulgarians and the few Serbs were taking place at the monastery over who its true owner was. And yet, Serbia never forgot Hilandar.

Only one Serb

On his trip to Constantinople, Archimandrite Nićifor Dučić was ordered to visit Hilandar. On this occasion, no monk at Hilandar introduced himself as Serbian except monk Bessarion, who had accompanied Dučić to Hilandar. The monastery had about 80 monks in total.

In 1887, an attempt was made to accommodate several Serbian monks at Hilandar, but the Bulgarian monastics drove them away. Stojan Novaković, Serbia's envoy in Constantinople, complained to the Patriarch of Constantinople about the actions of the Bulgarian fraternity. According to an important study titled The Return of the Serbian Monks to the Hilandar Monastery, 1896-1900, by historian Dr Radmila Radić, the Patriarch responded by saying that the monasteries had autonomous self-government and that he was unable to interfere with their business.

On the occasion of the accession to the throne of Alexander Obrenović, the Hilandar monastics sent their representatives to Belgrade. It is possible that it was then that the idea first appeared that a Serbian ruler should visit Hilandar again after many centuries. The king paid a visit to the Monastery at Easter 1896, on his way to the Olympic Games in Athens.


Miroslav's Gospel

At the time, there were about 70 monks at Hilandar, of whom only three were Serbian. Owing to the support of Bishop Dimitrije, the king received Nemanja's Charter and Miroslav's Gospel as gifts. This marked the beginning of an intense diplomatic effort to take Hilandar back.

The Kingdom of Serbia's authorities decided in 1897 to pay an annual relief to Hilandar in the amount of 6,000 dinars. Archimandrite Basil (Vasilije), credited with bringing Hilandar back under the auspices of the Serbian cultural sphere, returned to Hilandar in 1897, and discovered that the Serbs were in a very difficult situation there. At the time, the Bishop of Žiča, Sava, was also preparing for the trip to Hilandar. As he said in his letter to Metropolitan Mihailo, the bishop travelled to Hilandar in order to set in order what was "in disarray" and so prevent "the ultimate disaster."

Bishop Sava arrived in Hilandar on 21 October 1897 and was given a hostile welcome. The monks told him they had no business with Serbia and that they rejected the Serbian administration. According to Bishop Sava, this resistance came down to the "Macedonian Question" and the pressure from Constantinople and Sofia. Moreover, the monastics had received a letter from Shopov, a Bulgarian sales agent based in Thessaloniki, informing them that they had to banish Bishop Sava from Hilandar in order to obtain from Bulgaria what they had requested. Bulgaria had in fact been sending more of their emissaries to Hilandar since King Alexander's visit, relying on the help from Turkey in the process. In early November, the monks decided that Bishop Sava had to leave the monastery compound. Sixty monks then proceeded to attack him, claiming that Hilandar was a Bulgarian monastery. Bishop Sava was eventually banished from the monastery. Vasilije Trbić writes that at the time, photographs of the Bulgarian prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and his wife Maria Luisa, as well as of Crown Prince Boris, could be seen in every corner of the spacious guest quarters.

With the exception of the cell of St. John Chrysostom, the Vatopedi Monastery, and the Lavra, all the monasteries in Mount Athos were interested in maintaining the status quo at Hilandar. Some were against putting things in order as that would mean having to give back the land that they had appropriated. Others, e.g. the Russian monks, saw the return of Hilandar to Serbia as competition.

The Kingdom of Serbia resented the banishment of Bishop Sava and were not sitting idle.

Kralj Aleksandar Obrenović
foto: arhiva

No playing games with the state

In January 1898, Stojan Novaković notified Metropolitan Mihailo from Constantinople that he had secured the permission of the Ecumenical Patriarch for Bishop Sava to perform public worship in Mount Athos. Sometime before that, college lecturer Ljubomir Kovačević and lawyer Aleksa Novaković travelled to Mount Athos at the urging of King Alexander, bringing three copies of Miroslav's Gospel and financial aid for the monastery. They had a cold welcome at Hilandar, but told the monks upon arrival that a dozen men could not play games with the state, which would "find the ways and means to obtain satisfaction." Bishop Sava arrived around that time as well. The Hilandar fraternity were critical of Serbia for sending "bad-apple monks", for not sending more aid, for imposing the head of monastery on them, all of which was forcing them to go to Bulgaria for help.

However, Aleksa Novaković told the monks that they were at a Serbian monastery, and that mixing politics and that holy site was dangerous. He reminded the monks that in 1896 King Alexander had been welcomed as a patron and that the monastery received annual relief from Serbia.

Kovačević and Novaković returned to Serbia soon after, and specified in their mission report that the Bulgarian aspirations to take over Hilandar were evident, appearing first circa 1885 and intensifying in the wake of King Alexander's visit. Bulgaria did not spare promises, and an envoy from Sofia, Baikushev, visited Hilandar in August 1897, convincing the monastics to seek protection from Bulgaria. The Hilandar fraternity accepted this as the monastery was heavily in debt.

In 1898, Hilandar did not mark the 700th anniversary of the monastery as the Bulgarian sales agent from Thessaloniki, Atanas Shopov, had convinced the monks that no such a festival existed. The conflict and clashes between the proponents of Bulgaria and Serbia reached a peak at that time, even resulting in a murder committed at the monastery.

Paying back debts

Nonetheless, in late 1899 the possibility of a favourable solution to the Hilandar question appeared on the horizon. That year, King Alexander received a delegation of the Hilandar fraternity, and it was then that the negotiations were most probably initiated. In early February 1900, Branislav Nušić – a one-time consul in Thessaloniki – wrote to the Hilandar fraternity that the work they started would have to end on a note favourable to Hilandar. The capable Nušić had been in close touch with Hilandar from 1899, and offered to the monks legal, financial, and any other help of the Serbian Consulate in Thessaloniki.


In a letter from December 1900, sent to the then minister of foreign affairs Aleksa S. Jovanović, the Bishop of Šabac Dimitrije explained, among many other things, how he had come to be sent to Hilandar. The bishop wrote that the Hilandar fraternity had expected Bulgaria to help them, but that Bulgaria was unable to do so due to financial difficulties. That was when the Hilandar fraternity contacted Bishop Dimitrije in a conciliatory letter, which the bishop passed on to King Alexander.

The contract between the Serbian state and the Hilandar Monastery was concluded on 30 March 1900. Among other things, Serbia undertook to pay back the monastery's debt in its entirety, to provide the monastery with the annual relief in the amount of 1,000 lira, and to ensure that the original members of the fraternity were not driven out.

Bishop Dimitrije stayed at Hilandar between March and late May 1900. Three monastics accompanied him on his trip back from Mount Athos to Serbia, as they wanted to thank King Alexander Obrenović for his help. Hilandar remained Serbian and, if we take good care of it, will remain so forever.



The murder of the King and Queen

The May Coup was a coup d'état in which King Alexander Obrenović and his wife, Queen Draga, were killed, bringing an end to the Obrenović Dynasty, which had ruled Serbia since the mid-19th century. After the May Coup, the Karađorđević dynasty took the throne of Serbia.

The event itself – the murder of the king and queen – was carried out by a group of army officer and civilian conspirators, led by officer Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis, on the night between 28 and 29 May 1903 (under the old calendar). The most prominent conspirators, led by Apis, had founded a shadow organization called Unification Or Death, better known as the Black Hand.


A planned kidnapping

King Alexander Obrenović's visit to Mount Athos attracted the attention of different political circles and figures. Historian Vladimir Jovanović writes that at the time of the king's visit, Boris Safarov, a Macedonian Komitadji voivode and adventurer, was also at Hilandar, collecting money from a number of Zografos Monastery monks for a Chetnik organization in Macedonia. Disguised as a Russian monastic, Sarafov was at Hilandar at Easter and was able to shake hands with King Alexander. He even planned to hold the young king for ransom, and claimed that the majority of the Hilandar fraternity were very interested in Serbia's financial offer, as guaranteed by Alexander Obrenović.


Travelling because of Princess Maria?

In April of 1896, sportsmen from 14 different countries arrived in Greece for the first Olympic Games in modern times. In contrast, only one foreign ruler arrived – the king of Serbia. Some researchers even claim that King Alexander travelled to Athens because of the daughter of the Greek King George. However, when he disembarked at the Port of Piraeus, Princess Maria was already promised in marriage to the grand duke of Russia. Had he not been late, the history of Serbia would have been different.


Simeon and Sava

Sveti Sava
foto: arhiva

The Hilandar Monastery was founded by George Chelandarios, a Greek monk from Mount Athos. It was reconstructed by Stefan Nemanja (monastic name Simeon) and his son Rastko, i.e. Saint Sava, in 1198. Stefan Nemanja passed away at the monastery in 1199.

King Stefan Uroš I fortified Hilandar in 1262. King Milutin provided considerable help to the monastery, erecting circa 1320 a new Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the place of the old one. During the reign of King (subsequently Emperor) Dušan, Mount Athos was brought back under his sway – a period of greatest prosperity of the monastery.

In modern times, the monastery was considerably damaged in 2004 in a catastrophic fire, followed by the reconstruction of the affected buildings. The monastery is currently under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  Uglješa Balšić 

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