Visoki Dečani Monastery – built in the 14th century – is a heritage gem of importance to the whole of humanity, and especially for the whole of Europe. As a living monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church, it also has special significance for the cultural and spiritual identity of the Serbian people. By including this Monastery on our 2021 List of the Seven Most Endangered sites, we wished to launch an appeal to all institutions concerned, both locally and internationally, to jointly find a solution to ensure due protection of the integrity and authenticity of this living monastery, including its surrounding landscape ~ Hermann Parzinger
Renowned historian and archaeologist Hermann Parzinger first visited the Vinča archaeological site some 35 years ago, when he was completing his post-doctoral thesis on the Vinča culture. He found himself back in Vinča again this May, and he excitedly recounts the story of the Belo Brdo site. Speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, Parzinger says that he’s a strong supporter of efforts to continue research in Vinča, to provide additional protection for the sites along the banks of the Danube and to build a visitor centre to enable more people to discover Vinča’s story. As the executive president of Europa Nostra, Parzinger notes concern over accelerated construction around Kalemegdan, the Belgrade Fortress, which – together with Visoki Dečani Monastery – is included on the list of Europe’s most endangered cultural heritage sites, which Europa Nostra publishes annually.
Mr Parzinger, you led a major, high-level Europa Nostra delegation to Belgrade in May. Thus the 60th anniversary of Europa Nostra was also commemorated in Serbia. What were your impressions of the Serbian capital?
It was my first visit to Belgrade after decades, so I was delighted to be back again. I was impressed by the strong commitment and engagement of Europa Nostra Serbia and other heritage actors to protect and safeguard the rich and diverse cultural heritage in Serbia. Belgrade is a great and historic European city, full of iconic historical buildings and amazing museums with outstanding collections. At the same time, I was sad to witness some new urban developments that are not respectful of the distinct identity and historical character of this millennia-old city with a vital connection with its two rivers, the Sava and the Danube. Speaking about the people, I was very pleased to witness the strong dedication of civil society in Serbia to Europe’s shared values, which represent the basis of the entire European project.
You were among the participants and speakers at the Belgrade Heritage Forum “Rethink, Refuse, Reuse”. How can cultural heritage serve as a “strategic resource for Europe and the Western Balkans”, which was one of the messages that emerged from this forum?
The Belgrade Heritage Forum, jointly organised by Europa Nostra Serbia and Europa Nostra with the support of the European Union and the Delphi Economic Forum, is an important step forward. Our ambition is to organise this Forum annually, as a contribution to our European Heritage Hub project, and to use it as a much-needed space for encounters and dialogue among heritage professionals, activists and decision-makers, not only from Serbia and the Western Balkans, but from all over Europe.
In spite of very limited financial means, Europa Nostra Serbia has built a large network of heritage professionals and volunteers and has become a powerful and credible voice of civil society, championing the required protection and enhancement of cultural and natural heritage in Serbia
The voices of cultural heritage professionals and activists from Serbia and neighbouring countries are inspiring and innovative; they should be heard and supported in this region, but also beyond its borders. The speakers at the Forum brought us many important teachings and perspectives on managing heritage and maximising its benefits as a common good and a source of wellbeing for society. We also agreed regarding the enormous potential of cultural heritage as a vector for stronger and better European integration, which must include the Western Balkans.
Europa Nostra Serbia brings together a respectable team of eminent experts and enthusiasts who speak out about the protection of cultural heritage in Serbia. How would you assess their work and the cooperation you have with them?
In spite of very limited financial means, Europa Nostra Serbia has built a large network of heritage professionals and volunteers and has become a powerful and credible voice of civil society, championing the required protection and enhancement of cultural and natural heritage in Serbia. I was truly impressed by their competence, dedication and conviction. I very much hope that the public authorities in Serbia, both at national and local levels, will recognise the huge value of such a civil society organisation and will listen more carefully to their views and recommendations. With the vital support of the European Union, Europa Nostra will further strengthen our cooperation and joint efforts with Europa Nostra Serbia. Led by its founding President, Professor Irina Subotić, as well as by its Secretary General, Vesna Marjanović, it has become a very active and much respected member of the Europa Nostra family. I can no longer imagine Europa Nostra without Europa Nostra Serbia!
The large Europa Nostra delegation you led had an opportunity to visit heritage sites in Belgrade and the surrounding area. What were your impressions?
In addition to the Belgrade Fortress, to which we have devoted much attention over the last four years, we also visited the Neolithic Archaeological Site Belo Brdo in Vinča and the Staro Sajmište [Old Fairground] Memorial Site. I was delighted to be part of the group that visited the Belo Brdo site in Vinča, a famous neolithic site that’s known worldwide and gives its name to one of the most important European civilisations of the neolithic period. Along with Lepenski Vir, Vinča is one of the two archaeological sites in Serbia that are known to archaeologists worldwide.
I visited Vinča for the first time exactly 35 years ago, when working on my post-doctoral thesis on the Vinča culture. This time around, I was very pleased to learn about the efforts undertaken since then and about the ambitious plans for the future. We strongly encourage these endeavours, which go in three directions: further research on the stratigraphy and the structure of this monumental prehistoric settlement; measures to protect it from landslides on the high bank of the Danube; and, last but not least, plans to build an impressive visitor centre with the aim of conveying the story of the site and the Vinča culture to the wider public, which is also of great importance. These plans require significant resources and we very much hope that they will be secured by the Serbian authorities, possibly with the welcome support of the European Union.
As far as the Staro Sajmište site is concerned, we learnt about the significant efforts currently being exerted to preserve this important place of remembrance. We remain at the disposal of the experts responsible for rehabilitating and managing this site, to provide them with advice on how to preserve the authenticity and integrity of this site in the best possible way.
As a renowned historian and archaeologist, how do you see the Belgrade Fortress with Kalemegdan Park? Do you share the concern of your colleagues from Europa Nostra Serbia that this important heritage site could be threatened by the implementing of investment activities in its immediate surroundings?
The Belgrade Fortress is one of the most important historical landmarks in Serbia and the wider region. It allows people to appreciate and understand the multiple layers of this region’s momentous history, dating all the way back to Roman times. In line with relevant laws, this monument needs maximum care and protection. I fully share the serious concerns of Europa Nostra Serbia and many other organisations that are raising their voice against unsuitable construction in the immediate surroundings of the Fortress.
I was delighted to be part of the group that visited the Belo Brdo site in Vinča, a famous neolithic site that’s known worldwide and gives its name to one of the most important European civilisations of the neolithic period. Along with Lepenski Vir, Vinča is one of the two archaeological sites in Serbia that are known to archaeologists worldwide
We strongly support their campaign to safeguard the Fortress, as confirmed by the inclusion of the Belgrade Fortress on our Seven Most Endangered List in 2020. It is our shared responsibility to defend and preserve the integrity of this site, which is so important not only for the history of Serbia, but also for the history of Europe as a whole. We very much hope that the European Union will soon decide to also open the European Heritage Label scheme to EU candidate countries. Once this happens, the Belgrade Fortress would be the ideal candidate to receive a European Heritage Label!
In response to concerns over the preservation of the Belgrade Fortress, we here in Serbia often hear a theory that you probably also encounter often in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, and which relates to the need for progress and modern times that are also seeking a space for themselves. How can the needs of modernity and the need to preserve the legacy of the past be reconciled?
Reconciling the needs of modernity and the needs to protect the legacy from our past is a long-standing and worldwide challenge. The meaning of ‘reconciliation’ has to be defined case by case. Yet – in general – we lose much more from our heritage than we are able to preserve, so the so-called “needs of modernity” are not the ones in danger. Monuments and sites like the Belgrade Fortress are of the utmost importance not only for our past, but also for our future. Therefore, saving their authenticity and integrity should be a top priority. The proposed development of a cable-car between Ušće and Kalemegdan is definitely not an adequate response to the needs of modernity, but rather a waste of precious resources, both natural and financial, with unnecessary and unacceptable heavy damage to a site that deserves to be featured on the World Heritage List. We are delighted that Europa Nostra could give its support to all those who have opposed this project, both experts and civil society. We remain confident that this project has been definitely abandoned.
With this in mind, could you tell us what lies at the heart of the New Heritage Deal for Europe that’s being championed by Europa Nostra?
We believe strongly that cultural heritage is a strategic resource for responding effectively to so many pressing needs to build a better society and save our planet, and for achieving so many priority policy objectives in Europe today – from sustainable development and climate action, to social cohesion and inclusion, as well as to ensuring better quality of life and a more beautiful living environment for Europe’s citizens and their communities. Cultural heritage is also vital for boosting the much-needed sense of togetherness, and also the sense of belonging to the wider European family. This is particularly important today, when peace and fundamental values in Europe are under attack, especially in Ukraine, but also in some other parts of Europe. For all these reasons, and many more, we advocate the need for a “New Heritage Deal” for Europe, alongside a wider “Cultural Deal for Europe”.
We are indeed convinced that culture, education and cultural heritage ought to be afforded a much more central place across policy and funding programmes of the European Union, as well as in the framework of the EU enlargement process, which includes Serbia and the other countries of the Western Balkans.
Europa Nostra recently inaugurated the European Heritage Hub pilot project with the support of the European Union. What are the main objectives of the European Heritage Hub?
We are very proud to lead a strong consortium of European partners, including major historic cities fealike Athens, Krakow and Lisbon, which has been selected by the European Commission to run the European Heritage Hub pilot project proposed by the European Parliament. The aim of this Hub is to ensure a lasting legacy of the European Year of Cultural Heritage that was commemorated in 2018 and to bring together as many European partners and projects as possible to support Europe’s green, social and digital transformation through cultural heritage.
This ambitious project will bring our longstanding partnership with the European Union to the next level. We are particularly delighted that the European Union will allocate an additional budget of one million euros (for two years) to help us duly involve partners from the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova and the Caucasus in the implementation of our European Heritage Hub.
The list of Europe’s 7 Most Endangered Heritage Sites for 2023 includes as many as three sites located on the territory of the former Yugoslavia: The Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Cultural Landscape of Sveti Stefan in Montenegro and the Watermills of Bistrica in Serbia’s Petrovac na Mlava. Does such a concentration of sites in the Western Balkans testify more to the region’s wealth of cultural heritage or the lack of concern over the preservation of that heritage?
Both! The countries of the former Yugoslavia have an extraordinarily rich cultural and natural heritage that matters to their citizens and communities. At the same time, we are aware that this heritage is very fragile and is facing many threats, ranging from a lack of resources to the proliferation of unsuitable and unsustainable development projects in cities or rural areas reflecting the lack of political will to recognise the multiple values of heritage for society, the economy and the environment. We also feel encouraged by the mobilisation of civil society organisations across the region to save endangered sites and – together with our partner, the European Investment Bank Institute – we stand ready to provide them our support and advice.
We very much hope that the European Union will soon decide to also open the European Heritage Label scheme to EU candidate countries. Once this happens, the Belgrade Fortress would be the ideal candidate to receive a European Heritage Label!
Of course, we find endangered monuments and sites everywhere in Europe, not only in the Western Balkans. We therefore see it as our duty to use our “European Voice” to make such cases public in order to sound the alarm to prevent their damage or loss. However, our list is not a list of “blame and shame”. Its aim is to place a spotlight on such cases, wherever they are in Europe, before it’s too late. Humanity has already lost too much of the legacy from our past, we must do better now.
The list of Europe’s Most endangered heritage sites, which has been published annually for the last 10 years, also includes the Visoki Dečani Monastery complex, which was visited by a Europa Nostra delegation last summer. How would you explain the apparent lack of understanding among the Pristina authorities regarding the threat to this monastery, which – as Europa Nostra has recalled – is also featured on the UNESCO List of world heritage in danger?
Visoki Dečani Monastery – built in the 14th century – is a heritage gem of importance to the whole of humanity and especially for the whole of Europe. As a living monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church, it also has special significance to the cultural and spiritual identity of the Serbian people. The monastery also forms part of the rich multicultural heritage of Kosovo and, as such, ought to be respected by all citizens and communities who live in Kosovo today and tomorrow. By including this Monastery on our 2021 List of the 7 Most Endangered sites, we wished to launch an appeal to all institutions concerned, both locally and internationally, to jointly find a solution to ensure due protection of the integrity and authenticity of this living monastery, including its surrounding landscape.
We are convinced that the stunning cultural and natural setting of this monastery can again become a haven of peace and a place of dialogue and encounters for all people of good will, for the benefit of present and future generations. Of course, this can only be done with appropriate respect for the rich history of this site, and also due respect for the rule of law, and with the necessary political will of all parties concerned.
As a historian, you are a specialist in the culture of the Scythians. You have received worldwide recognition for your work, everywhere from Europe and Russia to the U.S. Do you wonder about what will remain as key symbols of our time for some future historians who will deal with the legacy of today’s society in the next century?
This indeed is very difficult to say. We are now living in the digital age and what will remain from this period as physical hardware is still unknown. Perhaps we also have to change our understanding of what the meaning of this legacy is. Legacy and heritage are not only made from bricks and stone. It is possible that, after many centuries, our period will be remembered as the epoch when the understanding of our heritage shifted, becoming a turning point in our conception of heritage. Regardless, it is our duty to ensure that our time shall also be remembered as a period of maximum care and responsibility – both individual and collective – towards the protection and safeguarding of our shared cultural and natural heritage.
Speaking about the people, I was very pleased to witness the strong dedication of civil society in Serbia to Europe’s shared values, which represent the basis of the entire European project
I fully share the serious concerns of Europa Nostra Serbia and many other organisations that are raising their voice against unsuitable construction in the immediate surroundings of the Fortress
These plans require significant resources and we very much hope that they will be secured by the Serbian authorities, possibly with the welcome support of the European Union