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The Nemanjic Dynasty

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Grand Zupan Stefan Nemanja

Stefan Nemanja was born in Podgorica, sometime after 1113. Although his early years are somewhaat obscure - even his year of birth and the actual identity of his father Zavida are both widely disputed - Nemanja nonetheless appears to have been at least indirectly related to the Raskan ruling family. Yet, the state institutions and subsequent spiritual legacy established by him and his sons marked such a break with earlier practices, that these (probably more so than uncertainties of his lineage) marked him as a founder of a brand new dynasty - indeed, one that was to become virtually synonymous with the glory of medieval Serbia.

Nemanja's rise to power comes sometime during 1166-8, first from the appanage of Dubocica (city of Leskovac), in the shadow of his elder brother Tihomir - a Byzantine appointee - and together with the two other brethren, Stracimir and Miroslav. Rising fraternal disputes effectively dissolved this tetrarchy, leading to the decisive battle of Pantino in Kosovo, where Tihomir perished, and Nemanja - aided, tradition has it, by St. George - prevailed. He was thenceforth to reign supreme as Grand Zupan, having secured pledges of allegiance from his two surviving brothers. This assertion of unity - perhaps as much as an opportunistic attempt to ride a short-lived tide of Hungarian-Venetian aggressiveness towards Byzantium - led him on a collision course with his nominal overlord, emperor Manuel. Abandoned by Western allies and facing a superior Byzantine force, Nemanja nevertheless did show political prowess and farsightedness. His spectacular surrender to Manuel in 1172, followed by seemingly humiliating ceremonies of submission at Constantinople - all ultimately led to his return and consolidation of power and stability in an autonomous Raska for the next eight years.

Not surprisingly, however, Nemanja's loyalty to the emperor did not survive the latter's death in 1180. During the 10-year aftermath, he took advantage of Byzantine internal disorders and a more favorable international situation (which included Hungarian, Crusader and Norman regional interests) to expanded considerably in all directions at the Empire's expense. Eastward, acquisitions included, among other areas, the plains of Kosovo, territory between Western and Great Morava (with the city of Nis, which then served as a capital), Timok and northern Macedonia. On the other side, most Adriatic coastal and littoral regions from Zahumlje, through Travunija and Zeta, to the Lake Skadar region were added. Despite initial hostilities, relations between Raska and the important merchant city-state of Dubrovnik were settled by the 1186 treaty that provided for a symbiotic relationship between the two throughout most of the Nemanjic dynasty. Further Serbian advances were checked by Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos, in 1190; however, the ensuing peace treaty left most acquisitions intact for the Serbian (Raskan) state, along with full recognition and an amicable disposition from the ailing Constantinopolitan court.

Having achieved considerable political successes on all fronts, the Nemanjic dynasty founder ensured smooth succession at the Sabor (council) of Ras, in 1196. There he abdicated in favor of his middle son, Stefan, and having bequeathed all his earthly possessions, proceeded to a life of spirituality as monk Simeon. He soon joined his youngest son St. Sava, at the monastic community of the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos) in Greece, where the two were shorlty to build the key center of Serbian spiritual life, the famed Hilandar monastery. Nemanja's deeds as a practical earthly sovereign were matched by his religious fervor and faith, as evidenced, above all, by his numerous church foundations and other generous ecclesiastic donations. Apart from Hilandar, his key endowement - the majestic Studenica monastery - as well as Djurdjevi Stupovi and several others, remain as lasting monuments to this effect. Nemanja-Simeon was canonized shortly after his death in 1200, his feast being on Feb. 26 (13). As word of the wonderworking quality of his relics spread throughout the realm along with the awareness of his deeds, so did the general veneraton of Simeon the Myrrh-flowing - as he came to be known as a result. While technically not the first Serbian saint, it was the establishment of his cult that laid the foundation for a firm national identity - backed at first by a strong state establishment, but ultimately surviving on its Christian ethics alone - for many centuries to come.


Saint Sava

Saint Sava (1175 or 1176 - January 12, 1235 or 1236), originally the prince Rastko Nemanjic (son of the Serbian ruler and founder of the Serbian medieval state Stefan Nemanja and brother of Stefan Prvovencani, first Serbian king), is the first Serb archbishop (1219-1233) and the most important saint in the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In his youth (around 1192) he escaped from home to join the orthodox monastic colony on Mount Athos (Holy Mountain on the Chalkidiki peninsula) and was given the name Sava. He first traveled to a Russian monastery and then moved to a Greek Monastery Vatoped. At the end of 1197 his father, king Stefan Nemanja joined him. In 1198 they together moved to and restored the abandoned monastery Hilandar, which was at that time the center of Serbian Christian monastic life.

St. Sava's father took the monastic vows under the name Simeon, and died in Hilandar on February 13, 1200. He is also canonised, as Saint Simeon.

After his father's death, Sava retreated to an ascetic nun in Kareya which he built himself in 1199. He also wrote the Kareya Typicon both for Hilandar and for the nun of ascetism. The last typicon is inscribed into the marble board at the ascetic nun, which today also exists in it. He stayed on Athos until the end of 1207.

St. Sava managed to persuade the patriarch of the Greek/Byzantine Orthodox Church to elevate St. Sava to the position of the first Serbian Archbishop, thereby establishing the Independence of Archbishopic of the Serbian Church in the year of 1219.

Saint Sava is celebrated as the founder of the independent Serbian Orthodox Church and as patron saint of education and medicine among Serbs. His day is observed on January 27th of the Gregorian calendar (January 14th of the Julian calendar still observed by the Serbian Church). Since the 1830's, Saint Sava has become the patron saint of Serb schools and schoolchildren. On his day, students partake in recitals in church.

Sava died in 1237 and his sacred bones were held in the monastery Mileseva in southern Serbia. 360 years later the Ottoman Turks dug out his bones and burnt them on the main square in Belgrade.

The Temple of Saint Sava in Belgrade, whose construction was planned in 1939, begun in 1985 and awaits completion by 2004 is the largest active Orthodox temple in the world today. It was built on the place where the holy bones were burned.


At first we were confused. The East thought that we were West, while the West considered us to be East. Some of us misunderstood our place in the clash of currents, so they cried that we belong to neither side, and others that we belong exclusively to one side or the other. But I tell you, Ireneus, we are doomed by fate to be the East in the West and the West in the East, to acknowledge only heavenly Jerusalem beyond us, and here on earth--no one

- St. Sava to Ireneus, 13th century


Stefan Prvovenchani (First-Crowned), (1196-1227)

As the founder of the Nemanjic dynasty retired to a life of spirituality and reflection, the challenging task of continuing his work fell on his hand-picked successor and middle son, Stefan Nemanjic. Navigating through the often troubled political waters of early 13th century southeastern Europe, Stefan managed during his reign of over 30 years to claim considerable accomplishments, having elevated the state to an internationally recognized and independent kingdom, and the church to an autocephalous archbishopric. However, the reign and deeds of Stefan are also intextricably tied to the name of St. Sava; indeed, the twin state-church achievements of this period the result of complementary statesmanship of the two brothers.

Early during Stefan's rule, the international context appeared favorable, as relations with the hitherto main threat - the Byzantine state - were cordial. Solidified by the grand zupan's marriage to emperor Alexios III's daughter, the former's prestige was further boosted by an unprecedented granting to a foreigner of the high Byzantine title of sebastocrator. But the venerable splendor of the Constantinopolitan court could not mask its decay, and this became painfully evident following its sack by Venetian-sponsored Latin Crusaders (1204). Stefan's problems began even earlier, emanating mainly from Hungary's expansionism, and its overt support for a rebellion by his seemingly disgruntled elder brother Vukan (1202). Having dislodged Stefan as legitimate zupan, Vukan ruled under Hungarian suzerainty for a couple of years, but by 1205, with Bulgarian help, Stefan managed to regain the throne, relegating his brother to his traditional Zeta appanage.

It is at this point that the remarkable figure of their third brother, Sava Nemanjic, enters the broader picture. Sava returned to Raska from Mt. Athos in 1207, bringing with him the relics of the holy dynasty's founder, St. Simeon. The relics served as the basis of a lasting peace Sava officiated between the two brothers, and having been laid to rest in the newly expanded and illuminated Studenica monastery, became the center of healing miracles and broad veneration. This phase of Sava's work in Serbia continued for the next 10 years.

The political climate having changed, Stefan was forced to look westward for the kinds of political support and recognition that his realm reqauired at that point. He remarried, this time to the granddaughter of the old Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo, Ana. Infamous as her grandfather was in connection with the shameful sack of Constantinople, Ana played a respectable role on her new court; the mourning of her death by her son, king Uros I, has been immortalized in one of the more famous frescoes at the Sopocani monastery. Futhermore, Stefan looked to the Pope to get that elusive state sybmol - the royal crown. Following customary diplomacy and associated promises of ecclesiastic union with Rome, the coronation did finally take place in 1217, and he is thus referred to as Prvovencani (First-Crowned).

Disgruntled by this dangerous leaning to the West - or perhaps just inspired to match it with necessary new steps in Church organization - Sava at this point leaves Serbia, only to come back two years later. But this time - having negotiated details with the Constantinopolitan patriarch in Nicean exile - hed does so as the head of the newly autocephalous Serbian archbishopric, with its first seat at the famous Zica monastery, erected by Stefan. Sava set up a number of new bishoprics and trained a domestic clergy and church hierarchy, drawing support from the already well-established Serbian monastic communities on Mt. Athos and elsewhere. Sava served in this position until his 1233 retirement in favor of his disciple Arsenije I, upon which he embarked on his second series of travels to the Holy Lands of the East. But just as he strived to unite this medieval Church and State, he harmoniously blended statesmanship with piousness: it remains a puzzle what was it - his skillful diplomacy or the halo and authoirity of a walking saint - that miraculously averted imminent attacks by Hungarians and Bulgarians during the mid-1210s.

Stefan retired peacefully in 1227, shortly before his death as monk Simeon. His deeds as a statesman were matched by his church-building, and his literary achievements, of which the hagiographic narative of his father's time - "The Life of St. Simeon" takes key place.

Though hard to summarize, St. Sava's far-reaching legacy nevertheless stems from his ability, at a time of moral and political dissaray following the Latin sack of Constantimople, to lay the ground for transforming a limited but important medieval ethnicum into a civilized and self-aware race, adherent to true, universal Christian morality and norms. And although his practical focus was on vigorously implementing this spiritual enlightenment on a national level - his reputation, message, and achievemnents were to transcend the boundaries of his homeland far and wide.

And, for the end, Nemanjic dynasty frescoe from monastery Visoki Dechani

From left to right (not in the order of ruling):

Bottom row: St. Sava, St. Stefan Nemanja, St. Stefan Prvovenchani

Middle row: St. King Dragutin, St. King Milutin, St. King Urosh I

Top row: St. Tsar Urosh V "The Weak", Tsar Dushan "The mighty", St. King Stefan Dechanski

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