WARNING: Don’t read this post if you are sensitive to the sight of blood or if you are offended by the slaughtering of animals. Keep in mind that this is a culturally significant tradition dating back hundreds of years.
On Friday, May 6th my host family told me they wanted to take me to a nearby village called Babaj Bokes for the day. They said there was an important festival taking place. In typical Peace Corps fashion, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but said yes and brought my camera along just in case.
The festival is known as the Feast of Saint George (or Đurđevdan) and it is an interfaith holiday that has been celebrated for the past four hundred years. The holiday was traditionally Christian and is especially important in Eastern Orthodoxy, but it has been adopted and altered by several Muslim countries.
St. George’s Day is especially significant in Albania and Kosovo because it has been combined with two other traditional holidays, one which honors the end of winter and the official start of summer. It is one of the major holiday for the Roma community. It is also a celebration of the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, whose birthday happens to fall on May 6th.
When we arrived at the village we climbed up to the temple or tyrbja on the hill overlooking Babaj Bokes. There we found pens with hundreds of sheep.
We entered the small mosque/temple, known as a Tyrbja, where we donated money, stepped through a large loop of prayer beads three times, and then prayed. Before leaving we were given pieces of blessed fabric to carry with us for luck.
The day involves ritual animal sacrifices and the distribution of the meat to the poor. I wasn’t sure how many animals would be sacrificed, but in my mind I thought maybe 50 sheep and a few dozen chickens.
Nope. One-thousand sheep were sacrificed. ONE THOUSAND. All in just one day in this tiny village.
I had never witnessed animal sacrifices before. And it was something I will not forget.
The sheep were killed in groups of 50 and then skinned and butchered immediately. The sheep are carried alive one-by-one to the temple, where their throats are slit and the blood is sprayed on the walls. Many locals also bring chickens from home to sacrifice at the tyrbja.
Although it was sad (and gruesome) to see the sheep slaughtered, it was also fascinating. So many people eat meat daily and yet have never seen an animal killed or butchered. Animal sacrifices are also an element of many religions and cultures, so it was interesting to see tradition come to life.
As I was taking pictures I was getting lots of stares, which is understandable given the fact that I was crouching down in pools of blood next to dying sheep. When I began taking pictures of the skinning/gutting process one of the butchers asked me if I wanted to help.
In typical Peace Corps fashion, I said why not!
I was surprised by how warm the body of the sheep was when I grabbed hold of it. With several butchers and locals looking on, I grabbed a knife and got to work. I tried recalling good skinning technique from my high school anatomy class, where we skinned and dissected a cat. The butchers were great teachers and encouraged me in Albanian while I worked. Definitely a Peace Corps experience I won’t be forgetting.
I saved the more grisly parts of the gutting process to the professionals.
As another 50 sheep were sacrificed, the butchers continued to work, skinning the sheep with expert speed and precision. One of my favorite moments was when the butchers were brought their lunch of, you guessed it, sheep. Some of them continued to work with a knife and carcass in one hand and a sheep sandwich in the other.
They also offered me some of the sheep meat, including a cooked sheep lung. Although I regretted not bringing any hand sanitizer, having just handled and skinned a sheep carcass, I decided to follow the men’s example and just go for it. So I stood in a puddle of blood, surrounded by dead sheep, and ate sheep lungs.
After a few minutes I moved away from the butchering site to enjoy my lunch with my host mother.
After being skinned and gutted the meat is brought to a large feasting tent, where crowds of people gather to visit and eat. Typically all food preparation in Kosovo is done by women, but this day is the exception. Men do all of the cooking and serving of the food.
It was amazing to see large groups of men working together to serve hundreds of families from the region. The meat that is not cooked is distributed for free to people in the surrounding villages who need it.
I walked away from the Feast of St. George feeling privileged to have taken part in such a culturally rich tradition. Although animal sacrifices may sound shocking to many Americans, the feast is an amazing example of Albanian generosity and hospitality. The day was also a beautiful and rare display of unification in a Kosovar community, because it is celebrated by the Serbian, Albanian, and Roma communities.
It was a day I will not soon forget. I just hope I stop having nightmares about sheep sometime soon…