October/November 2017

Tubravić- a tiny village in the Northern part of Serbia. Here one may find the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, also known as Vljevska Gračanica, the place of worship for deeply religious local people. The Orthodox Church was utterly flooded in March, 2016 due to the Rovna dam which was built despite many protests. Polish divers resolved to reach its interior. 

I heard about the Church for the first time from Jarek Kur, a polish instructor who conducted cave diving course for local divers in Serbia. They told him about the possibility of diving inside the Church in which there are still Saints’ icons hanging on the walls, and the chandelier hanging on the ceiling. They did make one dive there themselves and shot a few GoPro camera shots. The material was fascinating and one had to go there as soon as possible. 

Before leaving Poland, together with our two colleagues Jacek Kapczuk and Lukasz Piorewicz we prepared ourselves properly. Matija Petkovic, a local Serbian diver helped us a lot. His experience and knowledge of local people proved to be invaluable. We gathered a lot of information not only about the Church itself but also about the moods of local people which as we heard did not seem to be quite positive towards us- strangers. Searching for the information about the Church it turned out that there are 10 Churches flooded in Europe. All of them were flooded exactly in the same way. One decided to build a dam which was retaining water successfully flooding the area in front of the dam. However, only the Church in Valjew looked under water as it did before flooding. 

Let’s hit the road!

With great enthusiasm we set off by car tightly packed with diving equipment. We were driving with hope that we would really manage to take photographs of the Church and to record it thoroughly. Fearing that local people will neither let us into the dam nor dive, it turned out to be the exact opposite. National Geographic patronage helped us a lot. We were perceived as scientists who study the object, not as divers who dive for pleasure. 

The locals were certain that after one and a half year under water the object had collapsed. We knew that this was not a case and that objects might preserve for many years. Its uniqueness is that the country bought that Orthodox Church from The Eastern Orthodox Church, repaid all liabilities and allowed to build a Church in a different place. From a formal side, it was possible to overflood whole valley but with ongoing construction and with a view that the entire village would have been flooded, emotions took over. Even though everything was legal, the residents put up a fence t around the whole Church and started to place new equipment inside, hang crosses and icons on the walls, bring pews and so on. The Church began to exist again.  However, the process of water raising had already become. Water had been raising by several centimeters a day so that in autumn 2019 it flooded the entire valley completely.

27 meters under water  

We reached Valjev in October, 2017- just one and a half year after the lake formation took place and none of us could have predicted what visibility would be there. We were driving for almost two days from Poland. Theoretically, there was a chance that everything would be fine as it had not been raining for two days in the area. The chances that water would be visible enough were high.  Terminated full of hope, we prepared the equipment and jumped into the water.

At first, we saw a cross on a roof- it looked quite good but with every meter down the visibility was getting worse so that at the depth of 7 metres it changed into a milk-like suspension. We did not see out flares or even our own hands, not to mention the possibility of photo taking. We were really disappointed as we had hopes for better visibility below a certain depth. We came down along the wall knowing the topography of the Church very well. At around 27 metres deep we felt the roofing and windows. We even managed to reach the entry which was really narrow and law. I almost managed to swim there but it was not better. Nothing was visible and it was getting really dangerous. We retreated. The next day, we tried to dive again, however it was not any better. 

Imagination awaken

We were prepared for a several- day stay in the area and even though the visibility was not high, we decided to get to know the history. To our amazement and against all odds, the local people turned out to be pretty friendly. Our interest in the Church was a really nice thing for the residents. They were willing to tell stories of that place. Everybody knows one another there and they used to treat the Church as their own. We listened to the stories about roof repairs or fence building and about the miracles which had happened here since XV century. Paradoxically, the Church liquidation increased the interest of this slightly forgotten object. 

Now, although the Church is completely under water, it is still a place of cult- the local people built a provisional bench which one can light candles on. On the surface, just above the flooded Church there is a Styrofoam buoy floating with a cross which is wrapped around with LED lights coming up after dark. It looks a bit tawdy, unconventionally for sure but it totally reflects the atmosphere of the place.

I think we should come back there. I have a strong desire to take photographs of the interior. Due to the local people stories we now now that there are ornaments, pews, dorsers kept... This time we did not succeed due to poor visibility but in a year maybe? Water is a great preservative. 

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