No matter where you are in Serbia’s capital city, you cannot miss the gargantuan dome of Saint Sava. It took 40 days to lift the dome of Belgrade’s Church of Saint Sava with the use of hydraulic machines; the 4,000-tonne structure has 18 gilded crosses. Gilded crosses gleaming in the sunlight on the Serbian Byzantine style marble-and-granite facade on Svetosavski trg dominate the cityscape. The largest Orthodox place of worship in the Balkans, it accommodates 10,000 worshippers at one time, and has 49 bells in total with the biggest weighing a whopping six tonnes. In fact, if you visit at noon you can hear the longest bell ring of the day playing the Hymn of Saint Sava.
Saint Sava stands at the site where its namesake priest’s relics were burnt in 1595 by Turkish Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha, who wanted to suppress the Serbs. Born in the mid-12th century as Rastko Nemanjić, Sava was the son of a royal, but renounced the riches for the life of a monk and escaped to Mount Athos, Greece. He founded the order of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1219.
This grandiose structure has often been referred to as Eastern Europe’s Sagrada Familia owing to its unfinished interiors. It has been a 100-year work-in-progress, its history as turbulent as that of the nation, halting progress of its construction through the years. The Society for Construction of Saint Sava on Vracar, formed in 1895, decided to build a church at the site of the burning. A contest for entries for the design of the structure was first held in 1905, but the Balkan and First World Wars put a stopper to any plans of construction. A contest was held again in 1926 and it was finally in 1935 that the foundation was laid with the chosen design in mind. Of the 22 applications, Serbian architect Aleksandar Deroko’s was chosen. But politics and war got in the way again.
During World War II, the unfinished structure—the foundation and walls had been raised—was used as a parking lot and a storage space by the German forces. After the Yugoslav government took over, socialism played its part—construction stopped for over 10 years. After 88 repeated requests, a building permit was obtained again in 1984, only for the NATO bombing to halt activity in 1999. It was in 2000, with donations from people and a consortium of Serbian businesses, that restorations finally started in earnest.
Today, the square outside the church also holds the city’s important events such as large gatherings on Christmas Eve and the Orthodox New Year, marked annually by fireworks, music and dance.
Inside, plastic-shrouded metal scaffoldings reach up to the dome. On the left of the hall, a small temporary chapel has been cordoned off, where worshippers light candles. Nothing, however, takes away from the grand spectacle that is the dome. Sunlight filtering in makes the gilded mosaics glow. Created by leading Russian iconographer Nikolai Mukhin and 70 Russian and Serbian artists in Moscow—then transported in 66 sections to be assembled at Belgrade—the artwork is inspired by the Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It depicts the Ascension of Christ and shows Christ sitting on a rainbow, surrounded by the apostles and four angels, his hands raised in blessing. The project was a four-million Euro gift from a Russian gas company.
The real surprise, however, is at the basement where the crypt and treasury lie. Down a marble staircase to the crypt and you come across a spectacular sight—a large hall accented by archways with gold chandeliers, and meticulously painted frescoes on the walls, ceiling and polished floor. Everything about this hall is opulent. Murano glass frescoes with gold leaf embellishments adorn the wall and ceiling, portraying apostles, saints and martyrs alongside the patriarchs of the Serbian Church.
The Church of Saint Sava might be unfinished but it is awe-inspiring at any given time. Wall paintings, stone reliefs and mosaics are on the anvil for the interiors of the church and there is a team of 90 painters and artists at work. It is expected that in about eight to ten years, the work will be completed. For many locals the construction of this church has lasted their lifetime. And to some people, the church stands as a symbol of the perseverance, resilience and faith of the country itself—going through its dark tunnels but coming out into bright sunshine.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.