Prizren: The Mosques & Monuments of Ottoman Kosovo

Last Updated on: 27th September 2022, 03:34 pm

Prizren, the cultural capital of Ottoman Kosovo during the centuries-long occupation, remains the country’s most atmospheric city. And despite being Kosovo’s second-largest, Prizren is among the best-preserved Ottoman towns in the Balkans. If it weren’t for all the traffic, a walk through Prizren really would feel like a trip back to the Middle Ages. In the following Prizren guide, we’ll be covering the top things to do and see in town, all of which can easily be explored in a day.

Prizren Fortress

Provided the weather is nice, it would be a good idea to start your day at Prizren Fortress. Not only does it offer clear views of all the other landmarks featured in this Prizren guide, but the history of the fortress is the history of Prizren itself.

Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo

There are actually two ways to get to the top: one via a path from the city center, and another longer path via a park on the eastern side of the hill by the Bistrica River. 

The path starting from the park is largely forested and feels more like a hike, though you should still be able to make it to the top in around 20 minutes.

I ended up trying both ways. After a rainy morning, the sun suddenly appeared for a couple of hours in the afternoon, prompting me to return for a second visit.

Prizren Guide Kosovo

The hill on which the fortress stands was settled as early as the Late Bronze Age, or around 3,000 years ago. The first fortification, however, was built in the early Byzantine era, sometime in the 4th-5th centuries AD.

Following the Byzantines, the fortress was controlled by the Serbian Nemanjić dynasty for much of the 13th and 14th centuries. Then, following a series of feudal rulers vying for control, the Ottomans took over Prizren and the fortress in 1450. 

Much of the surviving structures date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Apparently, throughout the 1900s, stone from the fortress was regularly usurped to build numerous structures around town, including Prizren’s first music school in 1947.

Prizren Guide Kosovo

As such, many of the more impressive structures at Prizren fortress today are actually more recent reconstructions. But some original portions remain intact, including a secret tunnel that was extremely useful during times when the castle was under siege.

Additionally, one can find the foundations of a mosque built in 1808, while the main gate survives in good condition as well.

Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo

Overlooking the town, you can get an excellent view of the Prizren Bistrica, the river which cuts through the city center. And looking over to the left, you can also spot the Church of the Holy Savior, a Serbian Orthodox Church established in the 14th century.

While the church is still active, it’s nearly always locked for tourists, so it’s difficult to get a decent view from close up. The area surrounding the top of the hill, in fact, was once home to Prizren’s Serb population, which had to flee during the war in the ’90s. 

As you walk up from the town center, you’ll pass by numerous abandoned houses along the way, and it’s unclear what the future holds for this part of town.

Prizren's Ottoman Architecture

Similar to the Albanian towns of Berat and Gjirokastër, or Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Mostar, wandering through Prizren gives one an excellent sense of what a thriving city would’ve looked and felt like during Ottoman times. 

The Ottomans controlled Prizren for hundreds of years, constructing a myriad of impressive buildings and monuments in what was considered Kosovo’s intellectual capital.

Prizren Guide Kosovo

In addition to the larger Ottoman mosques (covered below in this Prizren guide), there are also numerous smaller gems to spot around town. Among them is the Stone Bridge, which dates back to the 16th century.

Situated just in front of the Sinan Pasha Mosque, it was destroyed by floods in 1979 and was reconstructed a few years later.

Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo

Not far away, located in the center of a public square within Prizren’s lively bazaar area, is the Shadervani. According to legend, if one drinks water from the fountain, they’re destined to return someday. 

As I did indeed fill up my water bottle here, only time will tell if the legend is true.

Sinan Pasha Mosque

Prizren contains around 40 mosques in total. But out of all of them, the Sinan Pasha Mosque, which overlooks the city center, is the most prominent. Built in 1615, it was named after a local vizier.

Prizren Guide Kosovo

The mosque’s spacious interior stretches out to 14 x 14 m. And much of it has been painted in colorful patterns and Arabic script. In terms of style, the art is reminiscent of the Painted Mosque in Tetovo, North Macedonia, right on the other side of the Shar Mountains.

Sinan Pasha Mosque Prizren
Sinan Pasha Mosque Prizren

Interestingly, the paintings were added in the 19th century, around the same time the Painted Mosque was rebuilt. Sadly, however, some of the original art has been lost due to water leakages. 

As a result, large sections of the walls remain blank white. In the 2010s, the mosque and garden outside were restored with help from the Turkish government.

(Note that for whatever reason, people are only allowed to take photos inside with their cellphones.)

Emin Pasha Mosque

Speaking of colorful mosques, the Emin Pasha Mosque on the other side of the river is also worth a visit.

Established in 1832 in honor of Emin Pasha, governor of Prizren from 1789-1843, it was designed by architect Mehmet Emini. The mosque’s arched facade is adorned with elegant blue and white floral motifs, giving it a unique look for the region.

Prizren Guide Kosovo

The mosque appeared to be closed during my visit. But pictures of the interior reveal even more blue and white geometrical patterns and nature scenery, easily rivaling the artwork of the more famous Sinan Pasha Mosque.

This mosque was also restored with help from the Turkish government as recently as 2016.

Bajrakli Mosque

Yet another significant mosque is the Bajrakli Mosque, also known as the Mosque of Gazi Mehmed Pasha.

Established in 1573, the mosque was part of a larger complex including a madrasa (theological school) and library. And as we’ll cover below, the building now known as the Albanian League of Prizren was originally built by Gazi Mehmed Pasha as well. 

The impressive mosque features a square base and an elegant wooden roof over its entrance facade.

Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo

Gazi Mehmed Pasha Hammam

Also part of the massive Bajrakli Mosque complex was the Gazi Mehmed Pasha Hammam, or bathhouse. Incredibly, it’s considered to be one of the biggest Ottoman hammams in all of the Balkans.

Prizren Guide Kosovo

While it previously functioned as a museum and cultural space, entry was prohibited at the time of my visit. The exterior seems to have been recently restored, so it’s possible that something new is being worked on within.

Even More

Just down the street from the hammam is a mysterious, lone minaret. It was previously part of the Arasta Mosque, originally built in 1594. Obviously, nothing but this minaret survives – but why?

Infuriatingly, the historic structure was demolished by the local government in the 1960s in order to make room for the new post office nearby.

Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo

Prizren is also home to numerous historic tekkes, or dervish lodges. In a peaceful spot along the river, not far from the Albanian League of Prizren, you’ll spot a small structure which dates back to the 16th century. 

While I didn’t step inside, it may actually be a turbe, or tomb of a dervish saint.

Historic Churches

Prizren happens to be home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, but few visitors would realize it. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Ljeviš, a Serbian Orthodox church, is surrounded by barbed wire and under the constant watch of a local policeman. 

Today, few visitors get the opportunity to enter without special permission.

The church was constructed in the 14th century by Serbian king Stefan Milutin, who was also responsible for Gračanica Monastery outside of Pristina. Converted to a mosque during Ottoman times, it was changed back to a church in the 20th century. 

Prizren Guide Kosovo
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Ljeviš
Prizren Guide Kosovo

Unfortunately, however, the church was damaged during ethnic tensions in 2004. And it’s largely remained off-limits ever since.

Our Lady of Ljeviš is renowned for its frescoes, and those traveling to Belgrade can see a large fragment on display at the National Museum of Serbia.

National Museum of Serbia Prizren
A 14th-century fresco of Jesus healing a blind man, on display in Belgrade

Prizren is also home to a few other Serbian Orthodox Churches, including the Church of the Holy Savior, visible from Prizren Fortress (see above). In the town center, meanwhile, is the impressive Church of Saint George, though photography is prohibited there.

Additionally, you can also find the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Succour, constructed in the year 1870.

Prizren Guide Kosovo
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Succour
Prizren Guide Kosovo
A small Orthodox Church

The Albanian League of Prizren

One of the few attractions of this Prizren guide that’s not a religious monument is the building that housed the Albanian League of Prizren, formed on June 10, 1878.

The League’s initial purpose was to unite four Ottoman districts that had majority ethnic Albanian populations. Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Ottomans’ grip on the Balkans was weakening, and nations like Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece began expanding their territories. 

The League, therefore, was determined to protect what they deemed as Albanian land.

Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo
Prizren Guide Kosovo

Originally, the League intended to stay loyal to the Ottoman Empire in return for protection and greater autonomy. But after the Ottomans rejected many of the Albanians’ demands, the League, comprised of 30,000 armed men, turned against Constantinople and declared all-out war.

While the Albanians were able to maintain control over the geographical region of Epirus, they lost control of Albanian-majority Ulcinj to Montenegro. And ultimately, the League was crushed in 1881, three years after its founding.

The Albanian League of Prizren may have not been tremendously impactful politically, but it helped shape Albanian national identity in addition to promoting Albanian language education.

Prizren Guide Kosovo

As mentioned, the building complex was originally constructed in the 16th century as part of the nearby Bajrakli Mosque.

For a small entrance fee, visitors can walk through the halls to see an interesting museum that’s part historical, part art gallery and part ethnographic.

The small building closest to the road, meanwhile, was supposedly where many of the most important meetings took place. It was actually destroyed by Serbian forces in 1999, along with the statues of the League’s founders. Obviously, they’ve been subsequently rebuilt.

Additional Info

As Kosovo’s second-largest city, Prizren is well-connected by bus. The journey from either Pristina or Peja lasts around 2 hours. There are also direct buses connecting it with Tirana, Albania, Ulcinj, Montenegro, Skopje, North Macedonia and even Istanbul, Turkey.

Additionally, there are numerous direct buses between Prizren and various cities in Serbia.

Note: If you’re visiting Kosovo first and then plan to visit Serbia later, you must enter and exit Kosovo via a third country and then enter Serbia directly. As Serbia considers Kosovo to be part of its territory, there is no passport check when traveling from Kosovo to Serbia. Thus, when leaving Serbia, your passport will be lacking an entry stamp which can get you into trouble at the border.

You can, however, enter Kosovo from Serbia and then go back into Serbia again.

Kosovo has an organized and well-functioning bus system. Buses leave on a set schedule, and most buses in Kosovo are larger coach buses as opposed to cramped minivans.

Prizren’s bus station is easily walkable from the city center and all the locations featured in this Prizren guide.

Prizren has plenty of hotels to choose from, and the city is small enough that location isn’t particularly important. All of the locations in the Prizren guide above should be accessible on foot as long as you’re relatively close to center.

I enjoyed my stay at Zani Hostel, just a few minutes away from the bus station but also an easy walk to the attractions of the Old Town.

My room was spacious and the Wifi was fast. Furthermore, the owner was incredibly helpful with arranging my onward bus trip to Shkodër, Albania, as online info about the journey was very hard to come by.

The only downside was the bathroom situation. The main shared bathroom lacked a mirror for some reason, with it being placed out in the hallway instead.

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