A Grave Story

“All the gravestones offered were dates, something to serve as mere parentheses around what really happened in a person’s life’’ – Roy MacGregor

See that gravestone above this article? It is known as a stècak. The word originates from an even older word stojećak, which can be translated literally as ‘standing thing’.  Stećci are monumental medieval tombstones, that lay scattered across the Balkan area. Around 70.000 of these gravestones have been found in this area; mainly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in and around the border parts of Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia.

According to most historians, the gravestones first appeared in the 11th century and started disappearing only from the 18th century onwards due to the Ottoman occupation of Bosnia. These historians connect the gravestones with the medieval Kingdom of Bosnia and the Bosnian Church. They argue that these graves were part of the Bosnian rebellion against the Vatican.

A popular legend, which was told to me by the Bosnian historian and journalist Amir Telibecirovic,  says that the graves belonged to the Bogomils. Bogomilism, meaning ‘dear to God’, was a Christian sect which originated in Bulgaria. During the Middle Ages, it spread via Bosnia and Herzegovina all the way to Western Europe, which was quite a scare for the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. In France, they were known as the Cathars and actually encompassed a great number of high-ranking noblemen.

The Bogomils held that all matter was evil. They rejected the construction of own churches, the eating of animal products and the use of relics and material items in worship. They even rejected marriage, as it resulted in children, who – in their view – were ‘fleshly sins’.

The human figures, animals and floral motifs that are depicted on the gravestones represent religious acts and rituals, according to the Hungarian writer Janosh Asboth. Some of the reliefs reflect the lives of Slavic nobility, while others depict barbaric scenes.

There is more disagreement on the epitaphs of the gravestones. Whereas one group of contemporary historians argues that it is a symbolic language that developed in the region, another group claims that the texts on the stećci are written in Bosnian Cyrillic alphabet, the alphabet which was mainly used by the Bosnian Church.
Although we still don’t know the real meaning and origin of these gravestones, the four Balkan countries have nominated the stećci to the UNESCO World Heritage List as Joint Cultural Heritage in 2009.

My view on this matter? Mr. Telibecirovic offered me the most inspiring explanation.”Graves like this are scattered all around Bosnia. A name, birth date and date of death wouldn’t be of importance for next generationsTherefore, the Bogomils would depict their deceased with several images. A butcher would be depicted as a man killing a pig with a spear, a group of people holding hands depicted a family grave.’’

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