Fifty years after Yugoslav authorities demolished a chapel atop Montenegro's Mount Lovcen, the memorial that stands in its place has become a lightning rod for debate over national identity.
KOTOR, Montenegro -- Nemanja Krivokapic speaks with awe about the view from nearby Mount Lovcen, where all of Montenegro can be seen -- from the jagged mountains of the north down to the waters of the Bay of Kotor in the Adriatic Sea. But the head priest of Kotor’s Serbian Orthodox Church may never see that spectacle himself.
“I will not go up there. I will only go when there is a chapel,” Krivokapic said as a rainstorm lashed Kotor’s old town on November 22.
In 1845, Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, a ruler of Montenegro and a revered writer, oversaw the construction of a stone chapel on Mount Lovcen. Njegos is respected in both Montenegro and Serbia for his writings, which draw heavily from Serbian folklore, and his ferocious resistance to Islamic rule. Some of his work remains controversial for depictions of mass killings of those Montenegrins who converted to Islam under pressure from the Ottoman Turkish authorities.
Njegos’s dying wish was to be interred inside his chapel and, soon after his death in 1851, the ruler's remains were placed inside a sarcophagus in the building.
Njegos’s chapel soon became an icon of Montenegro, and a target. During World War I, Austro-Hungarian ships lobbed shells at the peak from the nearby Bay of Kotor until the chapel was reduced to rubble. The church was rebuilt, then damaged by Nazi-allied Italian forces in World War II, and built up once more. After the war, the mountaintop building was chosen as the centerpiece of the emblem for the Socialist Republic of Montenegro.
In 1972, the communist authorities of Yugoslavia demolished the chapel and built in its place a block-like mausoleum to hold Njegos’s remains. This building was opened in 1974. Many believe the destruction of the Serbian Orthodox chapel, atop a peak of Montenegro when it was part of Yugoslavia, was one of many forceful acts of “brotherhood and unity” by the authorities to stamp out any potentially troublesome symbols of national identity.
Half a century after the demolition of the chapel on Mount Lovcen, calls to rebuild the structure have been gathering steam. In July, Metropolitan Joanikije of the Serbian Orthodox Church of Montenegro repeated a call to "restore Njegos's legacy, to build a church on Lovcen and to return his holy and tormented bones to that chapel.”
But those calls sharply divide Montenegrins. Some view the potential rebuilding of the Serbian Orthodox chapel as a simple fulfilment of Njegos’s final wish; others fear a restored chapel would be used as a symbol of Serbian claims over Montenegro.
After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Montenegro and Serbia briefly existed as one country until a Montenegrin referendum in 2006 led to the creation of two independent nations.
However, the Serbian Orthodox Church, which does not fully recognize Montenegro’s independence from Serbia, still has considerable influence in the country and many Montenegrins worship under its auspices.
Priest Krivokapic in Kotor says “the chapel was a symbol of Serbian Orthodoxy; that’s why the communists wanted to remove it. And now, 50 years later, we want to make this chapel again, but people who know that it’s a symbol of Serbs, of course, don’t want to let us.”
In Cetinje, a city at the base of Mount Lovcen known for being staunchly opposed to Serbian nationalism, waiter Dejan, who declined to give his surname, framed the debate in stark terms.
“The Serbian Orthodox Church wants conquest. One conquest will be with this small church, then they can say all of this is Serbian,” he said, sweeping an arm to indicate Montenegrin land.
“If, at some point, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church wants a new chapel on Lovcen, then it’s not a problem. The problem is with this church. The Serbian Orthodox Church wants the conquest of Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro, and they want the conquest of every Montenegrin person,” Dejan said.
At Mount Lovcen on November 24, a small trickle of visitors crunched into the snow-covered carpark, only to be turned away by a lone security guard who claimed ice left from a storm has made the mountain too dangerous to climb. Tour guide Marko Tagic is clearly annoyed by the closure of the peak, known as Montenegro's “sacred altar,” and more generally by what the mausoleum represents.
“This building represents something that is new," he says, shaking his head as he looks up toward the hulking mausoleum, "something that was not [Njegos's] last wish. His last wish was to be entombed in his own chapel that he built. And the communists destroyed this, and they built this mausoleum. Now communists don’t exist anymore, but liberals exist, and they want this situation to continue because they are people without any values.”
Although some who want the chapel restored have called for the demolition of the mausoleum, Serbian Orthodox Church leaders now say they only request that the chapel is built behind the existing building, on the site of a small platform people currently use for traditional dances.