Stari Ras and Sopocani
Stari Ras and Sopocani are medieval Serbian monuments. Stari Ras was one of the first capitals of the medieval Serbian state of Raška. It was founded between 8th and 10th centuries and got deserted sometime in the 13th century.
Nearby Sopocani monastery was built in the second half of the 13th century. The frescoes of Sopocani are considered by some experts on Serbian medieval art as the most beautiful of that period. On the western wall of the nave is a famous fresco of the Dormition of the Virgin.
The WHS consists of 4 parts:
- Mediaeval Town of Ras
- Sopocani Monastery
- The Holy Apostles St Peter and St Paul Church
- Djurdjevi Stupovi Monastery
Map of Stari Ras and SopocaniLoad map
Visit May 2013
This WHS lies about 60km south of Studenica Monastery, and their histories are strongly related. The area was the heartland of medieval Serbia. Now the region lies at the end of a beautiful winding road through a valley. It ends at Novi Pazar, the current regional capital that has preserved some buildings from Ottoman times. There is somewhat of an "end of the world"-feeling to it, as the area is close to the borders with Montenegro and Kosovo.
The site consists of 4 separate monuments. These are all scattered around Novi Pazar within a circle of some 10km. I planned to visit all of them, and fortunately each is well-signposted via the large brown signs that are signalling to monuments worldwide.
My first stop was Sopocani Monastery, which I found at the end of a small backroad full of potholes. There's a tiny car park, and the man attending the monastery shop was already on the lookout for me. I did visit the main church first however. It's a large romanesque structure, not too spectactular from the outside. The interior has a wealth of murals, painted in the same style as the ones in Studenica. This church is much larger and higher though, so the murals get more natural light.
At the road to Sopocani the remains of the old town, Stari Ras are to be found also. Well, I noticed some piles of stones across the street from Motel Stari Ras, so I guessed that must be it. There are no explanation signs however. When I looked it up later on the internet, I saw a kind of fortress on a hill-top. Maybe I should have walked uphill...
Last planned stop before lunch was the Djurdjevi Stupovi Monastery. This lies in another direction, but it also takes a small mountain road to get there. Approaching it, I was totally surprised with the number of cars wanting to go there too. Cars were left along the side of the road well before the hilltop. It all ended with one big traffic jam. I had to decide between seeing for myself what all the fuss was about, or turning around while I could and head for lunch in Novi Pazar. I choose the latter....
Refreshed after lunch, I drove to the last component of this WHS: St. Peters Church. It is the oldest church in Serbia, though how old is a bit of a mystery (somewhere between 4th and 9th century). Here I was the only visitor again. The gates were open and I could admire the pretty little building from the outside. It is surrounded by an old cemetery, with grave markers made out of heavy stones. I waited awhile for someone to show up, the "friendly priest" or the "neighbour with a key", to show me the interior of the church. But nobody did.
Site visited July 2016. Stari Ras and Sopoćani is generally least known and visited among the six Yugoslavian sites which were inscribed in 1979. Although the name makes you think that there are two sites the inscription consists of four separate sites around the town of Novi Pazar. This group of medieval monuments of the first capital of Serbia gives you an interesting insight to the history of the country.
I travelled to Novi Pazar by bus from Belgrad and visited the Studenica Monastery during the trip. I spent the whole next day exploring these four sites. Novi Pazar is predominantly a muslim city which is noteworthy in Eastern Orthodox Serbia. You can immediately notice that on the streets. The border of Kosovo is just a few kilometers away. I hired a taxi to take me to the sites. This is very cheap like everything is in Serbia. Three of the sites are outside of Novi Pazar: Stari Ras 8 kilometers, Sopoćani 13 km and Djurdjevi Stupovi 5 km from the city center. Only the Saint Peters Church is within a walking distance from the center of Novi Pazar.
This site is the only one of Yugoslavian legendary 'six of 1979' (the others are Dubrovnik, Kotor, Ohrid, Plitvice and Split) which is not a target of international mass tourism. It would be interesting to know why Stari Ras and Sopoćani has been selected to the same group among the huge potential of former Yugoslavia. I guess the reason is that this is the only site that represented Serbia and the history of Slavic culture of the country.
Archaeological site of the Medieval Town of Ras or Stari Ras is located on a valley west of Novi Pazar. The site consists of the hilltop fortress of Gradina and the lower town of Trgovište. The lower town is just few building foundations beside the parking place of Stari Ras. The fortress of Gradina is on top of a steep cliff which rises 170 meters above the valley floor. Stari Ras became the first capital of the Serbian independent state in 1159 so it is of big historical importance for Serbians.
Climbing to the fortress of Gradina was a strenuous job in the midday heat in the beginning of August. But it was worth the effort. From the top of the hill are wonderful views to surrounding valley all the way to Novi Pazar. The low stone walls encircles the top of the hill. The length of the fortress is about 200 meters. Apart from the wall and nice views there is little to see.
Sopoćani Monastery is a short drive away from Stari Ras. The monastery, built in 1260, is very important to the Serbian Orthodox church. It is third in hierarchy after Studenica and Žiča monasteries. It suffered bad damages in 1689 when Ottoman Turks set it to fire and destroyed the roof. The monastery was restored and partly reconstructed in 1926. Before that the church was without roof and dome for over 200 years. The frescoes inside the church were also exposed to the elements for a long time. The frescoes were restored in 1920’s and 1950’s. The surrounding outer stone wall and all the other buildings are still in ruins and you can see only the base of them.
My visit to the Sopoćani Monastery was nice. The church indeed looks solemn standing lonely surrounded by beautiful countryside. After I had walked around the monastery courtyard, a monk who spoke very good English invited me inside. He showed me different places in the monastery and told me about its history. The frescoes are actually quite good and impressive considering the history of the building. ”It is a miracle of God” commented the monk about the frescoes. You can notice only that the roof is reconstructed, otherwise the interior looks quite original.
Monastery of Djurdjevi Stupovi is attractively located on top of a hill. The monastery was completed 1171 and abandoned in 1689 when Ottoman Turks occupied the area. Ottomans destroyed the monastery in 1722 used the stones from the original church to the construction of their fortress in the center of Novi Pazar. After that the monastery was in ruins for 300 years. Architecturally the monastery represents the synthesis of two medieval styles – the interior is Byzantine style from the East and the facade is Romanesque style from the West. The monastery was named after the church dedicated to St. George which used to have two monumental bell towers, or ”St. George’s pillars”. Today only the foundations of the bell towers are left.
Although the location is appealing the monastery itself is heavily reconstructed. The reconstructions started at the end of 20th century and are still in process. It makes you wonder what actually is original and what is new, although it is very easy to spot new stones from the walls. Also big part of the interior is reconstructed. Luckily there are at least some fragments of old frescoes. But overall the monastery didn’t impress that much because in many places it looked like new building.
Saint Peter’s Church, officially Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, was the last site of my tour. Built in the 9th century on the foundations from 6th century it is the oldest intact church in Serbia, and one of the oldest surviving Christian churches in the Balkans. The church served as the seat of the Serbian church, and as the baptismal church and state council site of the Nemanjić dynasty.
I found the church and the surrounding cemetery with robust crosses very photogenic. It is the most memorable thing of this site. I took lot lot of photos of the graveyard with the church on the background. The interior of the church looks very old indeed, and there are some fragments of the old frescoes. After my visit to Saint Peter’s Church I walked back to Novi Pazar.
So, what I think about this WHS and the four separate sites. Saint Peter’s Church was the most impressive site and after that comes Sopoćani, even though it is too much the same than Studenica Monastery. Stari Ras was nice change to religious places, and Djurdjevi Stupovi was a bit of disappointment. Although not World class, like other Yugoslavian sites of 1979, this WHS is a nice place to visit. Visiting it gives you some understanding of the history of Serbia and also life and culture of that part of the country.
I visited Sopocani as part of a road trip through Serbia, starting and ending in Belgrade. The site is a bit off the beaten path and certainly not in a tourist region. Novi Pazar is one of these towns that make you doubt you are in a developed part of the world. The sites within the city however are easy to find. St Peter’s church and the cemetery were open for visit without entry fee. We spent the night in Stari Ras, which is actually just a hotel and some ruins.
From the hotel (RAS Pazatiste) there is a small footpath leading to the fortress ruin on the top of the hill. It’s a nice little hike and chances are you won’t meet anybody and have the ruins all for yourself. From the hotel you can follow the road to the Sopocani monastery (around 7mins by car). You will find a smaller version of the Studenica monastery, but still enjoyable enough to be worth the effort.
I had to create another WHS hunting trip itinerary around my annual skiing trip, and this winter the ski resort of my choice was at Jahorina, Bosnia, the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics. So I attempted to bag remaining WHSs in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. Unlike last winter when I couldn't move around in Bulgaria due to criplingly heavy snow, there wasn't so much snow in the Balkan this winter, so I was able to follow my itinerary fairly well, although bus timetables I got off internet in Serbia and Bosnia were way off.
Flew from Berlin to Nis in Serbia and took bus from Nis through Kraljevo and Usce to Novi Pazar.
The day I arrived in Novi Pazar, I just walked to St. Peter's Church, which was about 2 km from my hotel.
A woman at the bus station of Novi Pazar had told me there was no bus to the Stari Ras area, and completely forgetting seeing a bus in Els' photo at the Stari Ras area, I decided to take a taxi the following morning from Novi Pazar to Stari Ras and Sopocani Monastery for 13 Euros. Well, the woman probably thought infrequent bus would be too inconvenient for me...
We headed to the Sopocani Monastery first, and I saw a bus passing by the Monastery...Damn...
There was no attendant at the Monastery, so I just freely walked around, having the taxi wait for me for about 20 min.
After Sopocani I was expecting the taxi driver to take the road that leads to Stari Ras up on the hill that I saw on Google Map, but as it turned out, the road was not for cars. I was told at the hotel at the Stari Ras area that the only way to go up to Stari Ras was to hike up a trail that starts off right behind the restaurant of the hotel for about 30 min.
So, by giving another 10 Euros to the demanding taxi driver, something I hated to do, I had the driver wait at the hotel parking for 90 min. and hiked up. Walking on the snow-covered trail was majorly difficult, especially on the way back down; nonetheless, I managed to go up and down, falling down only once, within about 70 min, spending about 20 min. up there. It wasn't quite Masada, but the view of Novi Pazar from the top of the hill was rewarding. Since I still had 20 min. left for the 90 min. time limit, I had a quick lunch at the restaurant.
I didn't go to see Stupovi Monastery, as I was no longer willing to spend money for taxi for this WHS.
Photo 01 shows the interior of the Sopocani Monastery Church. In Photo 02 or any Google satellite photo you can actually see the trail, albeit vaguely. Photo 03 was taken near the hotel parking, and you can see part of Stari Ras on top of the hill. Indeed I saw the parking from the top. Photo 04 shows the ruin of the first capital of Serbia on the hill!
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