The Battle of Kosovo Polje

The battle between the Serbian and Ottoman armies which took place on June 28, 1389 and provided the foundation for the Serb national myth. According to tradition, the medieval Serbian empire was immediately conquered by the Ottomans, and the flower of Serbian nobility perished on the 'Field of Blackbirds'. The battle subsequently became the focus of an array of epics, many of which owe more to mythological archetypes than to verifiable history.

Dušan's Glory Days

Under Stefan Dušan, who came to power in 1331 and is remembered as the Serbs' greatest emperor, Serbia had extended into the south of modern-day Albania and even as far as the Gulf of Corinth, taking advantage of the Byzantines' civil war.

Dušan's glory days, however, were long gone by the time of the Battle of Kosovo: the emperor had died in 1355, and his possessions became contested between various noblemen of whom his son, Uroš, was only one. Uroš himself died in 1371, bringing his and Dušan's Nemanjid dynasty to an end.

In another round of readjustment, Kosovo's major towns - Prizren, Peć and Priština - became the fiefdom of Vuk Branković, but the most powerful of the rivals was Lazar Hrebeljanović, who controlled the silver mines of Novo Brdo. Fortunately for one's already twisted tongue, legend knows Hrebeljanović better as Prince Lazar.

Silver Service

The year of Uroš' death, 1371, also marked the first engagement between Serbian and Ottoman forces, on the Marica River in Bulgaria. The Marica battle, eliminating the army of another nobleman, Vukašin, may well have had more strategic significance than Kosovo Polje, but has not been commemorated in the same way.

The Ottomans, under their energetic sultan Murad I, had made their first Balkan conquests after fighting at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzene in the 1350s. In 1361 they had captured Adrianople, the town commanding the land bridge between the Balkans and Asia Minor and the site of fifteen major battles in the last 2000 years. Niš, which belonged to Prince Lazar, was taken in 1386.

Murad ultimately had his eye on the kingdom of Bosnia, which under King Tvrtko had become the strongest power in the Balkan region thanks, once again, to productive silver mines, around the town of Srebrenica. In 1388, Murad attacked the southern tip of Bosnia but was pushed back by Tvrtko's ally Vlatko Vuković.

The extension of Ottoman power into Kosovo, adjacent to Murad's existing possessions, would bring him up to the Bosnian border and reinforce his army with those of the Kosovo noblemen who would join him as vassals, as one or two had done already. Kosovo thus became Murad's direct objective in 1389.

Take Your Marks

Kosovo Polje is only a few miles from Priština, now the capital of Kosovo, and sits on the Lab and Sitnica rivers. The defence of Kosovo was organised by Prince Lazar, who had appealed for help to the Bosnian king - who sent a large detachment commanded by Vuković - and to Vuk Branković, his adversary two decades before.

In line with the myth that would surround that day's battle, Serbian historians have tended to make out that Lazar's army was almost entirely Serbian. Albanian historians add their countrymen to the mix, and an Ottoman chronicler mentions Magyars and even Franks among Lazar's lines.

These last two, in fact, are not unlikely: one of Lazar's allies, related by marriage, was a powerful Hungarian nobleman, Miklos Garai, and German mercenaries had often formed a small but effective contingent on the Serbian side in and before Dušan's time.

Neither would the Ottoman army have been as entirely Turkish as subsequent representations of Kosovo Polje might suggest. The troops of Marko Kraljević and Konstantin Dejanović, Serbian rulers who had become Ottoman vassals after Murad's advance through Macedonia, would have participated.

So too might those of John VII Palaeologus, who had recently become a vassal himself in the hope of enlisting the Ottomans in the latest round of Byzantine goings-on. In this case, he may even have brought along the soldiers from Genoa with whom he would besiege Constantinople the next year and become, for a few months, Byzantine Emperor.

The Kosovo Myths

Later legends have obscured the fact that the result of Kosovo Polje was by no means decisive: Murad and Lazar were both killed in the fighting, and heavy losses were incurred by both sides. King Tvrtko, in fact, reported the result as a Serbian victory, since Murad's son, Bayezid I, quickly pulled out of Kosovo.

However, Bayezid had had to withdraw to the Ottoman heartland in Anatolia to ensure his succession, the preoccupation of every new Sultan until, two centuries later on, Selim II took the precaution of keeping possible heirs shut up in the palace. Unlike Lazar's successors, Bayezid's were able to return to Kosovo with larger and larger forces.

It is perhaps impossible to extract an accurate account of the course of the battle from the poems and traditions. Lazar may well have died early on in the battle when he became tangled up in the left wing of Anatolian cavalry, but some retellings keep both Lazar and Murad alive till the end, when, with all the narrative flair of Hollywood, the mortally wounded commanders engage in the inevitable, climactic duel.

According to the epics, Kosovo Polje reunited an all-star cast of which the Argonauts would have been proud. Marko Kraljević, the protagonist of an epic cycle of his own, shows up on the Ottoman side, while Vuk Branković is popularly supposed to have agreed with the Ottomans to betray Lazar by withdrawing his soldiers.

Another set of songs concerns the nine Jugović brothers - Lazar's queen Milica was meant to be their sister - who all fell in battle, perhaps dreamed up by somebody who had been reading their Second Book of Maccabees, where seven brothers are martyred.

Yet perhaps the most compelling tale of the many which surround Kosovo Polje is the story of the knight immortalised as Miloš Obilić. A Balkan Odysseus, Obilić supposedly approached Murad's tent on the morning of the battle, kissed his hand in obeisance and stabbed the Sultan to death. Many versions establish a rivalry between Obilić and Vuk Branković, both sons-in-law of Lazar.

While Lazar was firstly celebrated as a martyr in his own right, that martyrdom had been transferred by the nineteenth century on to the Serb nation, and Kosovo Polje had been established as its potent symbol. Many stories were revived and as many, perhaps, invented, in a movement led by the folklorist Vuk Karadžić and the poet-prince of Montenegro Petar Petrović Njegoš, whose best-known work, a Serbian nationalist classic, is The Mountain Wreath.

According to a sung poem collected by Karadžić, the Prince had been visited by Elijah on the eve of the battle and offered the choice of a kingdom on earth or the kingdom of heaven: Lazar chose the Lord, in what became known as the Kosovo covenant. Kosovo, already the site of several important Serbian Orthodox monasteries, thus became a sacred site to many Serbs, and the focus of the rising Serb nationalism in 1980s Yugoslavia.

Slobodan Milošević, in fact, raised his profile no end when he took advantage of the police response to a 1987 Serb demonstration at Kosovo Polje to identify himself with the defence of the nation. Many observers would point to a continuity between Milošević's policy in the late 1980s and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians and Roma in the late 1990s.

More extreme nationalists than Milošević have also, perhaps naturally, tapped into the Kosovo myth, and the name of Obilić endures in the Belgrade football team owned, until his death, by the warlord Arkan, who had formed his first paramilitary units from the terrace hooligans of Red Star Belgrade.

Read more:

Tim Judah, Kosovo: War and Revenge
Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History

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