Dominating Belgrade's cityscape - and being the city’s most monumental and well-known building – is the rather grand Temple of Saint Sava. This is a Serbian Orthodox church and is the largest Orthodox church in the Balkans; ranking among the largest church buildings in the world.
The church is dedicated to Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and an important figure in medieval Serbia. It is built on the Vračar plateau, on the location where the Saint's remains were burned in 1595 by the governing Ottoman Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha.
Saint Sava known as The Enlightener, was a Serbian prince and Orthodox monk, the first Archbishop of the free Serbian Church, the founder of Serbian law, and a diplomat. He was the youngest son of Serbian Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, and ruled the lands of Hum briefly in 1190–92. He then left for Mount Athos where he became a monk, with the name Sava (Sabbas). At Athos, he established the monastery of Hilandar, which became one of the most important cultural and religious centres of the Serbian people. In 1219 he was recognized as the first Serbian Archbishop by the Patriarchate, and in the same year he authored the oldest known constitution of Serbia, Zakonopravilo, thus securing full independence; both religious and political for Serbia. Sava is regarded the founder of Serbian medieval literature.
In 1594, Serbs rose up against Ottoman rule in Banat, during the Long War (1591–1606) which was fought at the Austrian-Ottoman border in the Balkans. The Serbian church and rebels had established relations with foreign states, and had in a short time captured several towns, although the uprising was quickly suppressed. During the uprising, the rebels had carried war flags with the icon of Saint Sava.
The war banners had been consecrated by Patriarch John I Kantul, whom the Ottoman government later had hanged in Istanbul. Ottoman Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha ordered that the sarcophagus and relics of Saint Sava located in the Mileševa monastery be brought by military convoy to Belgrade. Along the way, the Ottoman convoy had people killed in their path so that the rebels in the woods would hear of it. Once in Belgrade and in the hands of the Ottomans the relics were publicly incinerated on a pyre on the Vračar plateau, and the ashes scattered, on 27 April 1595.
In 1895, three hundred years after the burning of Saint Sava's remains, the Society for the Construction of the Church of Saint Sava on Vračar was founded in Belgrade. Its goal was to build a temple on the place of the burning. A small church was built at the future place of the temple, and it was later moved so the construction of the temple could begin. In 1905, a public contest was launched to design the church; all five applications received were rejected as not being grand enough. Soon, the breakout of the First Balkan War in 1912, and subsequent Second Balkan War and First World War stopped all activities on the construction of the church.
After the war, in 1919, the Society was re-established. New appeals for designs were made in 1926; this time, it received 22 submissions. Though the first and third prize were not awarded, the second-place submission by architect Aleksandar Deroko was selected.
Forty years after the initial idea, construction of the church began on 10 May 1935, 340 years after the burning of Saint Sava's remains. The cornerstone was laid by Metropolitan Gavrilo of Montenegro, and the work lasted until the Second World War Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941.
The church's foundation had been completed, and the walls erected to the height of 7 and 11 meters. After the 1941 bombing of Belgrade, work ceased altogether. The occupying German army used the unfinished church as a parking lot, while in 1944 the partisans and the Red Army used it with the same purpose. Later, it was used for storage by various companies. The Society for Building of the Church ceased to exist and has not been revived.
In 1958, Serbian Patriarch German II renewed the idea of building the church. After many requests for continuation of the building, permission for finishing the building was granted in 1984, and architect Branko Pešić was selected as new architect of the church. He remade the original projects to make better use of new materials and building techniques. Construction of the building began again on 12 August 1985. The walls were erected to full height of 40 meters.
The greatest achievement of the construction process was lifting of the 4,000 ton central dome, which was built on the ground, together with the copper plate and the cross, and later lifted onto the walls. The lifting, which took forty days, was finished on 26 June 1989. As of 2009, the church is mostly complete. The bells and windows had been installed, and the facade completed. However, work on the internal decoration of the building is still in progress.
Wandering around the massive interior of this unfinished building was quite awe-inspiring enough – however the bare concrete walls void of any decoration were a little disappointing – but then I noticed way over in a far corner - ignored by the crowd - a shiny marble balustrade, and there almost hidden from view was a set of illuminated marble steps leading down …
With no guards nor ropes barring the way, my sense of adventure took hold of my legs and down I went - not knowing what to expect – and certainly not expecting to find what I found …!!! ...
The two flights of marble stairs led down into the basement crypt and the very extraordinary and almost deserted Grave Church of Saint Lazar the Martyr ... and I'll let the images do all the talking ...
What a discovery ... and considering this has all been put in place over the past 30-odd years - mosaics, frescoes, gold leafing, marble - the lot ...
And so with my eyes starting to ache from the glare off the gold and my camera exhausted from trying to focus in all that glitter, it was back up the stairs to the grey reality of everyday life …
The facade is in white marble and granite and, when finished, the inner decorations will be of mosaics. The central dome will contain a mosaic of Christ. To give a sense of the monumental scale, the eyes will each be about 4 meters wide.
The dome is 70 m high, while the main gold plated cross is another 12 m high, which gives a total of 82 m to the height Church of Saint Sava. The peak is 134 m above the sea level (64 m above the Sava river); therefore the church holds a dominant position in Belgrade and is visible from all approaches to the city.