The word monastery (manastir in Serbian) comes from a Greek word monasterion, a lone fort. Monos in Greek means one, alone and the verb stirizo, to fortify. Maybe it would be more correct to use monastir in Serbian, which was once in use, but the word manastir is now in common use. The first Dictionary by Vuk Karadžić has an even more erroneously used word namastir, meaning a settlement of a group of monks, a brotherhood.

A monastery is a place where one lives a monastic life – in bravery, fasting, praying, in virtue, obedience and poverty.

The first places where those who were leaving this regular life in order to be fully committed to prayer were inaccessible caves and deserted places where one could be alone to worship. The number of those who wanted to serve God in this way gradually increased. Besides the experienced monks, a number of newcomers used to gather, so it was necessary to build a church where they could pray together and serve the Divine Liturgy. Also the monastic cells had to be added. The church was usually in the centre and the residential quarters were built around it. The buildings were surrounded by walls, serving as protection against pirates, looters, gangs and others.

Monasteries could be either for women or men, there were no mixed ones. Besides fasting, praying, everyday service in the temple and worship rules in their cells (the daily set of prayers a monk had to say), the monks living in monasteries also had their duties, going about the farming, various crafts, painting and creating icons.

On the Balkan Peninsula there were monasteries even before the coming of the Serbs. When they accepted Christianity, the Serbs also accepted the monasteries, so the old Byzantine ones were renovated and new ones built.

Serbian rulers and noblemen were quite generous in putting money and effort in building monasteries and in arranging them to be fresco painted and decorated.

Most of the Serbian monasteries (those built by the rulers) had their real estates in forms of hamlets, villages and even larger regions. Some monasteries housed up to several hundred monks. The reputation of such monasteries grew also because former rulers or noblemen used to live there as monks.

In the Middle Ages, particularly in times of the Turkish rule, monasteries for the Serbs were centres of spiritual and cultural life, of learning and literacy. They were centres of worship, schools and hospitals, but also centres of people gatherings on major holidays, or even for making significant resolutions.

Serbian monasteries have been and still are the destination of pilgrimage of many a traveller.

Zbor zborila gospoda hrišćanska
Kod bijele crkve Gračanice:
„Bože mili, čuda velikoga!
Kud se đede car-Nemanje blago,
Sedam kula groša i dukata?“
Tu se desi Nemanjiću Savo,
Pa govori gospodi hrišćanskoj:
„Oj Boga vam, gospodo hrišćanska!
Ne govor’te o mom roditelju,
Ne govor’te, ne griješ’te duše:
Nije babo raskovao blago
Na nadžake, ni na buzdovane,
Ni na sablje, ni na bojna koplja,
Ni dobrijem konjma na rahtove;
Već je babo potrošio blago
Na tri slavna srpska manastira:
– Jednu babo sagradio crkvu:
B’jel Vilindar nasred Gore svete,
Krasnu slavnu sebe zadužbinu,
Vječnu kuću na onome sv’jetu,
Da se njemu poje leturđija
Onog sv’jeta kao i ovoga;
– Drugu babo sagradio crkvu:
Studenicu na Vlahu Starome,
Krasnu slavnu majci zadu-binu,
Svojoj majci carici Jeleni,
Vječnu kuću na onome sv’jetu,
Da s’ njojzi poje leturđija
Onog sv’jeta kao i ovoga;
– Treću babo sagradio crkvu:
Milješevku na Hercegovini,
Krasnu slavnu Savi zadužbinu,
Vječnu kuću na onome sv’jetu,
Da s’ i njemu poje leturđija
Onog sv’jeta kao i ovoga.“

Iz srpske narodne pesme Sveti Savo

An excerpt from a Serbian epic song St Savo