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St. Sava Temple - Eastern Europe’s Sagrada Família

On the descent into Belgrade, the St. Sava Temple protrudes from the top of Vračar Hill like the city’s crowning jewel. But its grand white marble and granite facade topped with copper domes contains a secret: The second largest Orthodox temple in the world is largely incomplete inside. With a story that rivals that of Barcelona’s famously incomplete Sagrada Família, Belgrade’s St. Sava Temple is an eternal work-in-progress—one that’s existed in various stages of creation for more than 100 years.

The plan for the temple was laid in 1893, in a spot chosen for its significance to the life of Serbia’s first archbishop. Born into royalty in the late 12th century, Rastko Nemanjić gave up his crown as a teenager in favor of a life of simplicity and service. He escaped at night to Greece’s Mt. Athos, where he became a monk, took the name Sava, and dedicated his life to the growth of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

His efforts won Sava the title of Serbia’s first archbishop, so it makes sense that after his remains were burned on Belgrade’s Vračar Hill by the occupying Ottomans during an uprising in 1594, the St. Sava Temple would rise from the exact spot where his ashes fell. Construction on the temple began in 1935, around the same time that construction on the Sagrada Família—begun more than 50 years earlier—was being slowed substantially by the Spanish Civil War, 1,200 miles to Belgrade’s west.

But the desecration of Sava’s body wasn’t to be the final tumultuous moment in his story. Like in Spain, politics and war would slow down the construction of Belgrade’s icon-to-be. World War II brought both German and Allied bombings to Belgrade, causing work on the temple to stall for decades. The space inside the walls that existed to date was put to work by German forces during the war . . . as a parking lot and later, a storage space.

Serbia plunged into socialism as a part of Yugoslavia after World War II, and, as a result, the site of the temple became property of the Yugoslav government. “After the war, the Communist authorities didn’t want to give this place back [to the Serbian church] for 40 years,” said Mladen, an employee at the temple who I found tending a display of prayer candles. “They were exterminating the Orthodox church. But after 40 years, our patriarch got the permission to continue with the construction. He had written 88 times to ask.”

Works on the temple finally continued in 1986 after a 35-year delay. And enthusiasm for the project was at an all-time high. The temple walls soon reached their final height, and a 4,000-ton copper dome was raised to the top of the building from the inside in a painstaking process that took 40 days to complete.

And then Yugoslavia began to fall apart. In 1991, progress on the temple would come to a 10-year halt when the region plummeted into war yet again. “Our Patriarch Pavle, his opinion was that it was more important to help people,” Mladen said. “We had many refugees, many people who needed help. So he stopped the construction again and after 10 years when all of that was ended, construction started again in 2000.”

Today, the city of Belgrade still exhibits visible signs of its decade of strife—the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense building remains a crumbling ruin from a 1999 NATO bombing. But less than a mile southeast of the bombed-out brick shell, the St. Sava Temple, spared any significant damage in the Yugoslav Wars, is closer to completion than ever. In 2000, construction on the temple began for the final time, funded by donations from a consortium of Serbia’s largest businesses, coupled with the small givings of ordinary people. Though the exterior of the building was completed in 2004, a step inside the temple today reveals just how much work there remains to be done. To the average eye, the temple’s gaping nave is still little more than a concrete hall, with surrounding brick walls and pillars shrouded in plastic. A gallery on the building’s left serves as a chapel, where a mix of temporary and permanent iconography adorns the space.

But at the bottom of a pristine marble staircase, the temple’s completed underground crypt is a stunning—and somewhat unanticipated—sight. The archway-accented room gleams with ornate gold chandeliers, Murano glass mosaics, and stunning frescoes—it’s even warmed from below by a heated floor. This worthy underground discovery won’t come as a surprise to the seasoned visitor to Serbia, though. An exploration of Belgrade requires a patient effort itself—the city’s coolest cafes and burgeoning cultural scene remain hidden amongst the streets of its graffitied neighborhoods.

It may not resemble much more than a construction site now, but it doesn’t take Gaudí’s wild imagination to envision what the St. Sava Temple will look like upon completion. Plans for the building’s interior include a colorful combination of mosaics, wall paintings, and stone reliefs. The 17,000 square meters of mosaic work is expected to take eight years to complete alone, even with a team of 90 artists and assistants on the job. With current Russian backing for the interior design, it’s likely that the St. Sava Temple will beat its Spanish counterpart to the finish line—the latter estimates its own completion for the first third of the 21st century but makes no promises.

The narrative of Sava’s life remains widely shared amongst the ever-enduring Serbian people. “We say that it’s a true fairy tale, because who would leave the throne?” Mladen asked. “Imagine? That someone would not choose to rule . . . to choose to pray and serve for all. For our people, he is truly the biggest. He didn’t want to be that, but God’s plan was different.” So it is appropriate then, that Belgrade’s St. Sava Temple would weather decades of obstacles and finally stand nearly complete today, its own version of a Serbian fairy tale.

The original article can be found on vogue.com

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