Guide: The ancient town of Gjytet

by Antigone Isufi12/06/2020 - 13:08

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Imbued with mysticism and folklore by the locals in the area, the ruins of the town of Gjytet in Vushtrri make for the perfect day trip, a rare chance to see an abandoned human settlement in Kosovo, dating back to the Neolithic era, that nature has reclaimed.

Surrounded by natural beauty, in the depths of the mountains of Qyqavica, you can find the ancient medieval town of Gjytet. It would be difficult to find a place in Kosovo more immersed in mysticism, folklore, and the sound of cuckoos’ birdsong echoing off the mountainside. In short, this place is a must see destination for visitors to Vushtrri.

It takes about half an hour by car from Vushtrri to arrive at the village of Stroc, about 20 kilometres away. If you park there, you can begin to climb the winding road through Qyqavica. Keep climbing, about the length of three Guns N’ Roses songs, and you reach a magnificent rock, known by locals as the Guri i Kishes, or the Church Stone. 

Photo: Antigone Isufi/BIRN.

Residents of the surrounding villages come to visit the Church Stone to spend their free time in an uninhabited, pristine environment, popular because it has become overrun by nature. According to the stories told by residents of the villages of Stroc and nearby Bivolak, this spot used to be visited every year on St. George’s Day. 

The area was famous for the spring whose water flowed over the Stone and the impressive geological structures in the area. For the last five or six years, though, it is more well-known as a hangout spot for the younger residents of the surrounding villages.

Climbing up and observing the ancient village from the Church Stone that overlooks it, over 25 meters high, it feels like you’re the only person left in the world, and the world looks totally untouched by human hands: from the Stone you can see how tall the trees are, standing noble and stretching far above the rocks surrounding them. According to the historian Habib Mustafa, a church was built near Guri i Kishes many centuries ago, from which the Church Stone got its name.

Mustafa says that the ancient town’s foundations date back to the Illyrian, Roman and Byzantine era, and that a series of archaeological digs that have taken place on the site has revealed that civilisation present there dates back to the Neolithic period. 

Photo: Antigone Isufi/BIRN.

Mustafa explains that the characteristic name of the site, Gjytet, is derived from the Albanian word for town, ‘qytet.’ “The name Gjytet was taken because the inhabitants of that time were not able to pronounce the word ‘qytet’,” he says. “The town had fortified gates with towers, and was surrounded by strong walls, parts of which you can still see. The surrounding wall is made of stones and bricks with binding material that was used by the Romans, while another wall is made only with stone, without binding material, which suggests it was built by the Illyrians.”

According to Mustafa, time and people have destroyed the church and the surrounding area. Rinea Isufi, who lives in the nearby village Stroc, said that in her lifetime the area has never been known as Gjytet, only as Guri i Kishes. According to her, everyone still visits for St. George’s Day on 6 May. “I used to love going to Guri. When I was in primary school me and my friends would spend all of our free time there,” she said.

Stroc resident Anita Jashari, who also visited the area as a child, remembers the stories of her 74-year-old grandfather, who used to tell her about the rites that were practiced there. On St. George’s Day, children were brushed over and cleaned using nettles and apple leaves, a practice intended to help them to become stronger and healthier. 

Her grandfather told her they would bring painted wooden pegs to attach to the trees in the area.  “Before tying the knot to the branches of the tree, you are supposed to make a wish for the future,” said Jashari.

Across from the Rock where the Church once stood, there is a spring which was said to cure fever. According to legend, people who were ill were told to drink that water to recover, while healthy people were told that if they drink the water, they would become as strong as the Church Stone itself. “They still drink the water today, but it doesn’t cure the fever,” said Mustafa.

Photo: Antigone Isufi/BIRN.

Vushtrri, the city closest to Gjytet, is well-known for its old cobbled streets. But unlike the small stones that pave through this city, the cobblestones of Gjytet were much larger in size. However, today, none of them remain, and the town’s foundations have slowly been picked apart. 

According to Mustafa, in 1874, many of the stones were taken to pave the railway tracks that run between Mitrovica and Skopje. A few years ago, a resident of the village destroyed the entranceway of the town  and used the stones to build his own home. 

In addition, Mustafa said, important archaeological discoveries have been made in the area, with traces of work tools, copper hammers and stones that bear the footprints of bare feet imprinted on them all having been identified there over the years. 

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, villagers from nearby Stroc began selling some of the historical artifacts that had been discovered in Gjytet to a Serbian history professor, said Mustafa, including coins, engraved stones, a set of scales and several tools. While these were on show before the war in the National Museum of Kosovo, he added, they were not rediscovered after the war ended.

One of folktales surrounding the Church Stone almost resulted in the Stone itself being destroyed: many years ago one of the residents was convinced that there was gold hidden under the Church stone. 

Digging up much of the area to find the treasure, a significant part of the rock became destroyed. Later, the same area was used as a shelter for the sheep from the nearby villages. Now, the visitors that frequent the area built a bench there for those who climb the to rest.

Photo: Antigone Isufi/BIRN.

The city falls under the category of archaeological heritage, and has been listed as a protected site as a ‘heritage site under temporary protection’ by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. However, in October 2019, along with 1,595 other objects and sites of cultural heritage, the Gjytet area lost its official protected status, as the list of temporary protected heritage usually updated by the Ministry of Culture was not renewed last year. 

A few notes to prospective visitors: one bottle of water is enough to keep you going from Stroc to Gjytet. However, if you are planning to climb to the top of the Church Stone, which is over 25 metres high, you will need more than that. 

The route up is not secured with ropes along the rockface, so you’ll need a stick to hold onto. Stroc residents who did this as kids say that this can be done quite safely. You can also clamber to the top by holding onto the long trees that stand beside the Stone. 

You most likely won’t run into people on your visit, the area is not very well-populated – watch out for the wild dogs, respect the area and enjoy the beautiful nature safely!

12 June 2020 - 13:08

Stroc, Vushtrri

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