Old magnificent monasteries and churches, built by Serbian rulers and nobles, represent the brightest pearl of the Serbian cultural heritage. However, little is known about another gem of Serbian medieval heritage, the tombstones, in folklore known as mramorje (marmoreal), markers, stones, Greek or Vlachos graveyards, while in professional literature referred to as stećci.
First tombstones of this type were created in area of Trebinje, old medieval zupa, today, a city in eastern Herzegovina. After arrival of Serbs and formation of Serbian medieval statelets, area of Trebinje belonged to Travunia.
In time, named Zachlumia or Hum will spread throughout Trebinje region and the entire Travunia. Nobility of this state will have a significant role, first in state of Nemanjići, while later on, in Kotromanići state. Zachlumia was given to Rastko Nemanjić to govern over, until he took up the monastic call and became greatest Serbian enlightener St. Sava. In XV century, Stefan Vukčić Kosača proclaims himself as Herzog of St. Sava, a fact which testifies to a lasting memory of St. Sava in Hum.
The oldest dated stećak with inscription is the tombstone of the Trebinje zupan Grdo dating back to the middle of the XII century. Area of Trebinje, in that time, is already under rule of Nemanjići for a long time while in religious sense, it belongs to the Serbian Orthodox church. It follows then that the stećci tombstones began its development within Orthodox cultural framework during the rise of the Serbian state under dynasty of Nemanjići.
These tombstones took several different shapes, that of a plate, chest, sarcophagus, boat, pillar and a cross. Largest number of marmoreal necropolises is concentrated in Herzegovina around Trebinje, Bileća, Ljubinje and Stolac, then in eastern Bosnia, followed by central Bosnia, the center of the medieval Bosnian state. These tombstones can be further found in western Serbia, Mačva, Montenegro and Dalmatia.
In XIV century, Kotromanići will extend their rule over Zachlumia and from there, stećci tombstones will spread out through entire medieval Bosnian state. Marmoreal tombstones will achieve expansion in XV century, a period when richest in decoration and most beautiful tombstones are made. Largest number of stećci with inscriptions appear in this period as well. These inscriptions are written in Cyrillic, in national language variants of the individual regions from the states of Nemanjići and Kotromanići. Through these inscriptions we can discern the confessional belonging of those laid under the tombstones.
Inscriptions containing the words “rab božiji” or “raba božija” (meaning servant of God in both examples) belong to Orthodox Christians. So, for example, we have one inscription from Stolac mentioning “raba božija Marija” (servant of God Marija), wife of the “priest Dabiživ”. Knyaz Radič from Dračevo is mentioned as “smerni rab božiji i ktetor hrama ovoga” (humble servant of god and ktetor of this temple).
That the term “rab” (servant) is typically used for Orthodox Christians can be seen from the inscription “raba božijeg župana Pribiša koji je živeo u dane pravovernog kralja Vladislava” (servant of god zupan Pribiša who lived in the days of orthodoxly king Vladislav). Historical ruler in question here is king Stefan Vladislav Nemanjić, ktetor of Mileševa monastery, who rule from 1234 until 1243.
It’s clear from the inscriptions of several stećci that members of the official "church of Bosnia" are buried underneath them. The tombstone of guest Milutin from Humski near Foča says "Here lies good guest Mišljen of the true faith of the Bosnian". Interestingly enough, although the "Bosnian church" was the state church of the Bosnian kingdom, there are only four inscriptions referring to the members of the church of Bosnia and its clergy.
Marmoreal tombstones, from XV century, are used by members of the Catholic Church and first generation of Islamized inhabitants of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. One stećak, from surroundings of Travnik, bears the description saying that is the grave of man “of a true Roman faith” while tombstone of Mahmut Branković reads “died in Despot’s battle” and “blessed is the hand which hewed and wrote”.
Many necropolises are located near churches, or in places where ecclesiastical buildings used to exist in medieval period. Churches contemporary to tombstones created with them one whole, both in cases where monuments were inside the churches or surrounding them. Likewise, there were cases where stećci were built directly into churches as well.
There are whole necropolises connected with individual families, Orthodox primarily, like one in Radimlje near Stolac, linked with family of Hrabren Miloradić, or necropolis in Veličani, associated with family of Čihorić.
Writers of inscriptions on the marmoreal tombstones were people of various occupations. Occupations mentioned are: blacksmiths, scribes, priests, scriveners or it was done by people indicated only by their name and surname without any indication of their profession. The level of their literacy varied, from rather illiterate people to the priests and feudal lords who were literate, as can be seen by their inscriptions. Nevertheless, most of the inscriptions contain neither the name nor the occupation of their author.
The artistic content on the tombstones is diverse, so one can see Christian symbols of the cross, the Virgin with the child, the resurrected Lazarus, the St. Helena, the holy Christopher, etc, together with images of deer and horse as a symbols of immortality, known both in pagan and in early Christian beliefs. Symbols of light, birth or resurrection are also present and expressed through crosses, spirals, wreaths, crescents or rosette. Images from feudal society of the period are likewise present through representations of a city, fortifications and towers with scenes of dueling, hunting, etc.
Considering the origin of stećak tombstones, some archaeologists are of the opinion that significantly before the carved stone pieces, wooden structures stood over the graves of the deceased. Also, some archaeologists are in favor of the theory that marmoreal monuments are linked with the old Slavic burial practice, described by some Arab writers from the X century. According to their informations, the deceased would be placed in a boat which would then be set aflame. Interestingly, there are tombstones whose shape is reminiscent of a boat, while on several occasion, deceased beneath the monuments were found buried in a boat.
As far as historiography is concerned, in the last over a hundred years, there is a debate on the religious character of tombstones. In the course of the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the theory of the Bogomilistic, non-Christian character of the stećci was forced. There are still supporters of this idea, but generations of outstanding scientists have determined that marmoreal tombstones have nothing to do with Bogomilism.
Author: Boris Radaković