Kosovo: A Short Historyby Noel Malcolm, New York University Press Staff
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Kosovo, a contested region of Serbia, was left out of the Bosnian peace agreement of 1995. For the 2.2 million Albanians living in Kosovo, this sparked the abandonment of a nonviolent independence movement in favor of an armed struggle. This book provides the definitive story of Kosovo, from its origins to its present state of unrest.
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A journalistic cliche of the nineteenth century described the Kosovo region as the lost heart of the Balkans. Like many cliches, this one was both slightly foolish and, at the same time, suggestive of a significant truth. Although Kosovo has played a central role in Balkan history, it has remained, during much of that history, mysterious and little known to outsiders. Western knowledge of the whole central Balkan area was confined to the major through-routes until surprisingly recently: European maps of this area contained gross inaccuracies well into the late nineteenth century. Yet it was not only Westerners who knew little of this area. According to a Bulgarian geographer who visited Kosovo during the First World War, parts of the Kosovo region had been, until just a few years previously, `almost as unknown and inaccessible as a stretch of land in Central Africa' .Z Political factors are the main reason for the inaccessibility of Kosovo during the last period of Ottoman rule, which was marked by chronic disorder, violent rebellion and even more violent repression. But simple physical geography also matters, helping as it does to explain both the seclusion of the area and, at the same time, its near-central importance.
The present borders of Kosovo -- that is, of the `Autonomous Province' of the post-1945 Yugoslav constitutions -- are of course the products of political history. At the same time, they correspond more or less to a physical fact. Kosovo forms a geographical unit because it is ringed by ranges of mountains and hills. The most dramatic of these is the range of thefar mountains (Alb.: Sharr) which runs eastwards out of the mountain complex of northern Albania and forms much of Kosovo's southern border. Its highest peaks are over 2,500 metres (nearly 8,000 feet), some of them crowned with permanent snow; the high pastures, green and Alpine, are places of breathtaking beauty, grazed in the summer by herds of semi-wild horses, which veer off from the approaching traveller like flocks of starlings on the wing. On the western side of Kosovo, running northwards from the Albanian massif into Montenegro, is another range, the `Accursed Mountains' (Srb.: Prokletije; Alb.: Bjeshket a Nemura), so called because of their fierce impenetrability: rivers have sliced through their dry limestone like wires through cheese, creating a network of vertiginous gorges. The borders of Kosovo continue (still moving clockwise) along another mountain range until, at their northernmost extension, they cross a different massif the Kopaonik range, which pushes down into Kosovo from the highlands of central Serbia. On the eastern side of Kosovo the circuit of mountains softens, with a string of summits less than half the height of those of the south and west, until we come back, in the south-eastern corner of Kosovo, to the easternmost extension of the far mountains -- a range of hills known as the Skopska Crna Gora (Alb.: Karadak, from the Turkish for `Black Mountain'; this is also the meaning of Srb. `Crna Gora').
Within this ring of peaks and hills, the interior of Kosovo is raised up, its plains qualifying as plateaux, 1,200 feet or more above sea level. Some idea of the elevation, and the near-central position of Kosovo in this Balkan region, can be gained from the curious fact that rivers run out of Kosovo into each of the three coastlines of the Balkans: the Aegean, the Black Sea and the Adriatic.' One, the Lepenac, runs south through the Kacanik (Srb.: Kacanik gorge into Macedonia, where it joins the broad river Vardar on its slow journey to the Greek coast near Salonica. Another, the Ibar, flows northwards out of the eastern half of Kosovo and passes through central Serbia into the river Morava, which joins the Danube near Belgrade. The valley of the Morava is the main south-north axis of Serbia, and its most important head-waters, near the Serbian-Macedonian border, are streams which flow out of the southeastern corner of Kosovo. Finally, on Kosovo's western flank, there is a river whose name recurs constantly in the history of the region: the Drin (Srb.: Drim). This is the river which flows westwards through the mountainous territory of northern Albania, entering the Adriatic a little way past the city of Shkodra (Srb.: Skadar; Itl.: Scutari). At a point just inside Albania, 10 miles west of the border with Kosovo, two contributary rivers join to create the united Drin: one, the White Drin, has flowed southwards through the western half of Kosovo, while the other, the Black Drin, has never quite touched Kosovo territory, flowing northwards from Lake Ohrid, first through Macedonia, then through Albania itself.
Running from north to south through the middle of Kosovo is a lesser range of hills which divides the whole territory into two roughly equal halves: streams running off the eastern side of these hills will flow into the Ibar and the Danube, while the western side sends its waters to the White Drin and the Adriatic. The two halves of Kosovo have their own traditional names, which for various reasons, political and geographical, have been sources of both friction and confusion. The western half of Kosovo is known to Serbs as the Metohija. This is derived from metochia, a Byzantine Greek word for monastic estates, and reflects the fact that many Orthodox monasteries were granted rich endowments here (farmland, orchards and famously fine vineyards) by medieval Serb rulers. Kosovo Albanians, on the other hand, resent the use of this name, since it seems to imply that the identity of the territory itself is bound up with Serbian Orthodox land-ownership. Their own name for this part of Kosovo is Rrafsh i Dukagjinit, the `Dukagjin plateau' - Dukagjin being a medieval Albanian ruling family which also gave its name to a broad swathe of territory in northern Albania.
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An excellent scholarly contribution to the study of the province. . . . Seriously differs from the biased interpretations published by Serbian and Albanian historians, or trendy but shallow Western "Kosovology experts."-Canadian Slavonic Papers
Meet the Author
NOEL MALCOLM, author of the widely acclaimed Bosnia: A Short History (also available from NYU Press), has been described by The New York Times as "President Clinton's favorite Balkans expert."
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