Faith Stronger than Evil
When everything else was disappearing in the whirlpools of destruction and suffering, ”the golden-winged lady” guarded this sanctity and its people. And the sanctity always came to life, the same as it was before. This long-lived church is a feat of faith and duration. Empires have changed, jurisdictions, armies, ”manuscripts of the apocalypse”, but this archangel church stood to indicate the path towards living Christ and in Christ. To ”outlive transience and the Hade” with the church and through it

By: Sandra Kljajić and NR Press
Photo: Sandra Kljajić and NR Archive

The Old Serbian Church in Baščaršija, Sarajevo, dedicated to Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel, is a symbol of longevity and survival in this city, which occupied second place in Yugoslavia according to the number of Serbs (immediately after Belgrade). So tells protopriest-stavrofor Vanja Jovanović, parishioner of Sarajevo, while greeting us. The history of the Old Church and Serbian Ecclesiastical Municipality testifies about living Serbian faith in the Son of God, Savior of the world, the faith that kept us alive.
– The foundations of the Old Church originate before the VI century, at the time Bosnia was a Roman province. It is assumed that it used to be a Roman building, refurbished by Christians into a church. Later documents write about the renewal of the church in the XII century – says Jovanović. – The Old Church remembers medieval Bosnia, Župa Vrhbosna, when the Serbian aristocratic family Pavlović ruled this region. Since the official arrival of the Ottoman Empire in Bosnia, in 1463, sixty-odd Turkish documents mention the Old Church.
The church was burned and destroyed several times in the XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries, but it was always restored, with the same dimensions and appearance it had before.
– The Ottoman authorities wouldn’t allow anything else. The edicts kept in the archive of the Old Church testify about it – continues Jovanović. – Unfortunately, through history, especially from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, all those documented facts have been altered. Thus everyone in Sarajevo will tell you that the Old Church was built in the Middle Ages, and that its construction was approved Gazi Husrev-Bey, considered by Muslims as the founder of Sarajevo. That was a period when the church was frequently repaired, but it was built much earlier.
The times of the Ottoman Empire were very hard both for the church and Orthodox believers, and the laws were draconic. For example, bells were forbidden, so there were no bell towers on the Old Church. (The bell tower was raised only in the late XIX century.) The most difficult period was from 1463 to 1557. However, as it happens, times of biggest temptations bring greatest strength and gifts.
– The five gates on the Old Church originate from those difficult times, including a separate exit for women, upstairs, in the ”female part”, because the Ottomans used to storm the church and do all kinds of evil – says Jovanović. – The carved iconostasis is also from those hard times, a very valuable asset of the Old Church. It includes icons from the XVII century painted by Radule, famous Serbian painter, and by Maksim Tuković from 1734. Master Radule was recommended by the Patriarch of Peć Maksim for renovating the iconostasis burned in 1656. The Sarajevo church maintained close connections with the Patriarch from 1665 to 1672.


In that difficult period, the church received several holy relics, a great treasure preserved to this day.
– The relics of St. James the Persian were a gift of Metropolitan Hristofor in 1671, the relics of St. Tryphon were gifted by famous pilgrims Hadzi-Gavrilo and Hadzi-Sofronije in 1682, and the relics of St. Macrina, sister of St. Basyl the Great, by a certain Dmitar in 1690. Those relics were stolen in a robbery in 1697, but redeemed by Serbs from Gyor that same year. The people of Sarajevo then redeemed them for 70 ducats in 1725 and returned them to the Old Church – tells Jovanović. – We also have the relics of St. Panteleimon, relics of an incorrupt body of a baby, St. Sisoes and many others.
The relics of St. Protomartyr Thecla, the first woman in Christianity who died a martyr’s death, have a special place.
– St. Sava, the first Serbian archbishop brought her right hand in 1233 from Antakya. Serbian Patriarch Arsenije IV Jovanović Šakabenta later gifted it to the Old Church in Sarajevo, as a sign of gratitude for the material aid in maintaining the Patriarchate of Peć after the Migration of the Serbs – says Jovanović.
After the Great Migration of Serbs in 1693, Metropolitan Visarion moved the seat of the Metropolitanate to Sarajevo. However, due to problems with Turks, the Bishop of Dabar permanently settled in Sarajevo, as the main city of its area, only in 1713, and was given the title of Metropolitan of Dabar-Bosnia.
– His seat was next to the Old Church, in the quarters burned down in 1852, at the time of Bishop Prokopije – reminds priest Jovanović.
The Memoirs of Hadzi-Maksa Despić, a manuscript stored in the archive of the Old Church, state that the Bishop’s quarters were later purchased from the Turks and that all bishops resided there until 1896, until Metropolitan Nikola Mandič.
– Prior to 1717, Turks allowed only patriarchs to come to Sarajevo, while metropolitans were not permitted to move further from the villages near Sarajevo. At the time of Metropolitan Melentije, Patriarch Arsenije IV gave the Constitution to the Ecclesiastical Municipality of Sarajevo, with four parishioners and eight to ten tutors.
As the Ottoman Empire began weakening, the Serbian church succeeded in receiving somewhat wider rights and possibilities.
– Staka Skenderova opened the first school for girls in 1858, next to the Old Church. The school was supported by Bishop Prokopije, the Ecclesiastical Municipality and some rich people of Sarajevo, as well as Topal Osman-Pasha, who enrolled his daughters in the school.


The situation was easier during the Austro-Hungarian rule. The Serbian Ecclesiastical Municipality in Sarajevo began the construction of the Cathedral Church in 1863, and the present building of the Metropolitanate of Dabar-Bosnia next to it in 1899. Already in 1882 and 1883, Consistoria, the spiritual court, and the Seminary were opened in Sarajevo, while the palace of the Serbian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Municipality of Sarajevo was raised in 1910 across the street from the Old Church.
– The Museum of the Old Church in Sarajevo was opened in that period as well – explains protopriest-stavrofor Vanja Jovanović. – It was created from its treasury and the church tutor Jeftan Despić had a particularly important role in its founding. Despić had the idea to turn the treasury into a Museum in 1889, after the opening of the National Museum in Sarajevo.
In the Turkish times, many church valuables were kept in Dubrovnik, confirmed by documents and correspondence. Many of those exhibits were brought from pilgrimages of Orthodox Serbs to the Holy Land. Until World War II, Sarajevo was a city with the most Orthodox pilgrims in the Serbian church. Serbs of Sarajevo had their representative in Jerusalem, who maintained very active relations between these two cities.
– Many societies and associations, ”Circle of Serbian Sisters”, ”Prosvjeta”, appeared in that period under the auspices of the Ecclesiastical Municipality. The Club of Entrepreneurs was also established, a club of reputable people who managed the church’s assets and continuously increased them. The purview of the church also included education, publishing, and an orphanage managed by nuns.
However, reminds Jovanović, Austro-Hungary was afraid of the unexpected flourishing of Orthodox Serbs, so it soon changed its benevolent attitude.
– Roman-Catholic propaganda was brought to life and the occupational forces began their involvement in the internal affairs of the Ecclesiastical Municipality. According to Jeftanović, the Austrian authorities often took control of the Old Church and the Municipality for a few weeks. Upon entering Sarajevo, General Ivan Filipović requested Metropolitan Sava Kosanović to hold a service with the Catholic military priest in the church, with the military orchestra accompanying the chorus, under a threat of hanging. Kosanović refused. Serious and open pressures were made on the Serbian church to accept the union with Rome, which is why Kosanović finally resigned in 1885.
Reputable Serbs and members of the Ecclesiastical Municipality in Sarajevo wrote and submitted to Vienna their first memorandum on November 25, 1896, stating all breaches of their rights and requested church and school autonomy.
– They were persistent and won the battle for the Serbian church and school autonomy in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1905, after getting the blessing of Patriarch of Constantinople Joakim and confirmation of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph – says Jovanović.


The period of peace, unfortunately, didn’t last long. Many priests and believers died in World War I. Many of them were taken to Arad and never came back.
A short period of peace followed, and then came World War II. Horrible sufferings of Serbs within the criminal creation called the Independent State of Croatia. Concentration camps, mass murders, establishing the ”Croatian Orthodox Church”, martyrdom of Metropolitan of Dabar-Bosnia Petar Zimonjić...
– After refusing the request of the Ustasha commissioner for Bosnia, Roman-Catholic pastor of Sarajevo Božidar Bral, to abolish the Cyrillic alphabet and replace the Cyrillic seals of the Church with those in Latin, Metropolitan Petar was taken to Beledija, the prison next to the City Hall, and then to Zagreb, where he disappeared without a trace. The name of the Ecclesiastical Municipality was changed into Croatian, Latin became the official alphabet and all seals were in Latin letters...
After the end of World War II, the Ecclesiastical Municipality, as well as the entire Serbian Orthodox Church, faced difficult temptations. In the war from 1992 to 1995, the Old Church shared the fate of its nation.
– During that war, father Avakum Rosić and then retired priest Krstan Bijeljac were in the Old Church. The Church was partially damaged, a bit less than the surrounding buildings – says Jovanović.
This church with a long memory represents a feat of faith and duration. Empires and jurisdictions changed, armies passed, fires struck, all kinds of plagues. However, the church stood upright to indicate the way towards living Christ and in Christ. To ”outlive transience and the Hade” with the church and through it.
– The heavy door made of oak is still here today, with a testimony on it. It stood on the church from 1656 to 1856 and Orthodox Serbs were hanged on it for two centuries. Those who wanted to enter the church, to attend the service, had to crawl through the corpses of their relatives and friends. According to then regulations, it was not permitted to remove the corpses from the door. In World War II, trains heading for Jasenovac, full of Serbs from Sarajevo, passed by the Old Church. In the last war, the assassination of a Serb attending a wedding in front of the Old Church triggered a wave of rage. (...) Just imagine how much faith it takes to endure in such circumstances. There are numerous Serbian heroes and martyrs who sacrificed themselves and everything they had for the survival of the people and church here, and everything the church represents – emphasizes priest Jovanović.


Life was slowly returning to the Old Church after the last war. First the Museum was reconstructed and then the entire complex, including the church and upper buildings. The Library and Archive were opened again.
– Thank God, in average five to ten scientists a year work in the archive and library. There are about twenty organized lectures of professors to students, from different colleges. We have about fifty foreign magister and doctoral candidates, mostly from Europe, but also from the US and Japan. High and elementary school students also visit us. According to the protocol, all foreign officials who come to Bosnia and Herzegovina visit the Old Church and Museum. They usually stay at least twice longer than planned – says Jovanović.
Before the war, 70.000 to 100.000 tourists visited the complex every year. Today there are about 50.000. The Museum of the Old Church is really something special. It exhibits about 700 artifacts, including invaluable icons, objects and documents.
– It’s really difficult to name the most valuable object. The Museum stores, for example, The Nomocanon of Sarajevo from 1307. It is the only copy of The Nomocanon of St. Sava written on leather and preserved as a whole. (...) Regarding the icons stored here, we could write an entire book. Even experts from the Byzantine Museum in Athens were astonished after seeing our collection of post-Byzantine art.
Unfortunately, the life of the Old Church and its Museum in Sarajevo isn’t easy today either.
– The fight for survival is almost invisible from the outside. It is administrative, behind the curtains, silent, persistent and exhausting. Sometimes everything reminds of Kafka’s Process – says parishioner Vanja Jovanović. – The chapels and cemeteries in the city center, expropriated at the beginning of the last war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, still haven’t been returned to our church... But we’re alive! Thank God, we’ll keep on living! Life doesn’t depend on someone else, only on us.


Redemption of the Treasure
Part of the assets of the Old Church was plundered in late XVII century, at the time Eugene of Savoy burst into Bosnia. Most of the robbed objects were redeemed by Serbs in the following years and decades, and returned to the Church.


– In the year 1942, under Croatian occupation, Pavelić’s soldiers came and tried to take the uncorrupted hand of St. Thecle from the Old Church by force – tells parishioner Vanja Jovanović. – At the exit from the churchyard, the one who was carrying the hand, a young man, suddenly died from heart attack. Since then, they never came back for the holy relics.


An icon from the Museum of the Old Church, painted by George Clondzas, El Greco’s student, was exhibited at the world exhibition organized for the observance of four centuries since the death of the famous painter.
– The icon was painted in 1600 by a Cretan painter, mannerist. At times of horrible sufferings here, when events resembled the apocalypse and corpses hanged on the church door, the Serbs of Sarajevo collected money and ordered the icon from Byzantine painters who took refuge in Crete. Does that tell you anything about how we used to be? – says parishioner Jovanović.

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