The region of Kosovo holds a very important place in every Serb’s psyche for a number of reasons. It was the heart of the powerful medieval Serbian Empire and was the administrative centre for much of Serbia’s earlier history. It is the birthplace of the Serbian Orthodox Church; and with a country where nationhood and church is, and has always been mutually inclusive, its importance as both a historical and spiritual centre cannot be overstated. Many of these monasteries are world heritage listed and date from the 13th Century, many however, have also been heartlessly destroyed in the last 15 years or so with little regard. Kosovo is also the place where a battle was fought between Serbia and the invading Ottoman Empire. It happened in June, 1389, and what followed this battle is a loss of independence that spanned centuries. Serbia would go on to become a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. There were periods of peace in between brutal years of rebellion however, it wouldn’t be until the early 1900s that the Ottomans would be driven out of the Balkans forever. Amazingly though, throughout these ‘dark’ years of Ottoman rule, Serbia never lost her idea of nationhood, the Serbian identity still remained strong, despite centuries of Ottoman overrule, a testament to this country and its people.
By the commencement of the 14th Century the Serbian Empire was one of the fastest growing in Europe. By the mid 14th Century the empire stretched from present day Belgrade in the north to just outside of Athens in the south. Like most great empires, it starts with a great King, King Stefan Dusan is inarguably Serbia’s greatest king. Dusan, was also about to marry his son off to the princess of the Byzantine Empire, which would have forever strengthened his empire, however political unrest in Constantinople saw this idea peter out. Ultimately, fearing the growing strength of the Serbian Empire, the Byzantines invited the Ottomans to invade mainland Europe to put an end to Dusan’s reign (some say this leads directly to the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, however it is highly likely the Ottoman’s would have ultimately invaded either way, invited or not). When Dusan died unexpectedly in 1355, he was succeeded by his less than capable son, Uros. Like we see so many times through the course of history, when a great leader dies, the empire begins to crumble. Uros, will be nicknamed the ‘weak’ and his rule is seen as the decline of the empire. If Dusan was strong willed, assertive and driven, his son would be the complete opposite. The empire splintered off into various principalities and thus weakened the region as a whole. Uros died childless in 1371.
The impeding threat of the Ottomans required urgent attention and Prince Lazar united Serbia and defeated the Ottoman Empire at Plocnik and Beleca. The Sultan Murad i realised that he would need to go all in, to defeat the Serbs so he marched a huge force across Anatolia, ultimately settling in Kosovo in 1389. Lazar rallied his own troops as did Vlatko Vukovic and Vuk Brankovic (prominent noblemen) and the forces would meet at ‘Kosovo Polje’ on June 15th, 1389.
Battle of Kosovo
The exact figures of troops is difficult to ascertain, however, there is no doubt that the Ottoman forces greatly outnumbered their Serbian combatants. Some put the Ottomans as high as 40000 and the Serbian forces as low as 12000, I would imagine that the Serbs might have had slightly more than that and the Ottomans slightly less than 40000. All sources do agree however, that the Ottoman forces had a very large numerical advantage. The battle started with the Ottoman archers shooting into the Serbian forces. Thus the Serbian cavalry charged inflicting massive losses on the Ottoman side. Sources at this point are vague but it seems Vukovic inflicted the most damage down a flank, however, the other flank, and more importantly the centre, after the initial gains, had succumbed to the vast Ottoman forces. It is at this point that it becomes near impossible to separate fact from fiction, Vuk Brankovic is said to have betrayed Lazar and his men by retreating with his army from the battlefield, thus ending all hope for a decisive Serbian victory. To this day, Brankovic is seen by a traitor to the Serbian people. Lazar and a large contingent of the Serbian army died in battle that day.
A Serbian Knight by the name of Milos Obilic asked for an audience with the Sultan. Allowed in he was asked to kiss the feet of the Sultan, Obilic, who had concealed a knife, bent down to kiss the man’s feet but quickly rose up and opened the man from his belly to his throat. Obilic would be killed himself but not before he took out one of the most powerful people in the medieval world.
Both armies were decimated, both Lazar and the Sultan were dead and history’s course would be changed forever. The battle itself was indecisive, it ebbed and flowed but I think its fair to say that if the numbers were even, the result would have been more decisive.
The battle put a short term halt in the Ottoman advancement into Europe, however with a much larger population, the Ottomans faired much better than Serbia. They would control much of the Balkans for the next 500 years. Serbia, would lose her independence and would become a vassal state of the Ottomans. Ironically, the ‘traitor’ Vuk Brankovic, would fight the invading forces til his capture and would never claim vassalage. He was ultimately seized and thrown into Ottoman custody where he would die in 1397. Bayezid would go on to become Sultan but he would die a humiliating death at the hands of an invading Mongol force (see previous post 5 most humiliating deaths). Milos Obilic would go down in folk tales as one of the most important figures in Serbian history. Epic poetry, stories and movies have been written of his heroic deeds. Ultimately the Battle of Kosovo holds an important role in the hearts of all Serbs worldwide, it was to be the last stand and ultimately lead to the demise of what was once one of the greatest empires in Europe.