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After problems at Athos with Latin bishops and Boniface of Montferrat following the Fourth Crusade, Sava returned to Serbia in the winter of 1205–06 or 1206–07, with the remains of his father which he relocated to his father's endowment, the Studenica monastery, and then reconciled his quarreling brothers.
He used the general chaos in which the Byzantine Empire found itself after the siege of Constantinople (1204) into the hands of the Crusaders, and the strained relations between the Despotate of Epirus (where the Archbishopric of Ohrid was seated, which the Serbian Church was subordinated to) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Nicaea, into his advantage.
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.
At the assembly in Žiča in 1219, Sava "chose, from his pupils, God-understanding and God-fearing and honorable men, who were able in managing by divine laws and by tradition of the Holy Apostles, and keep the apparitions of the holy God-bearing fathers.
And he consecrated them and made them bishops" (Domentijan). The following bishoprics were under his administration: Zeta (Zetska), seated at Monastery of Holy Archangel Michael in Prevlaka near Kotor; Hum (Humska), seated at Monastery of the Holy Mother of God in Ston; Dabar-Bosna, seated at Monastery of St.
Conditions in Serbia for autocephaly were largely met at the time, with a notable number of learned monks, regulated monastic life, stable church hierarchy, thus "its autocephaly, in a way, was only a question of time".
On 15 August 1219, during the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, Sava was consecrated by Patriarch Manuel I of Constantinople in Nicaea as the first Archbishop of the autocephalous (independent) Serbian Church.
The Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade is dedicated to him, built where the Ottomans burnt his remains in 1594 during an uprising in which the Serbs used icons of Sava as their war flags; the church is one of the largest church buildings in the world. As the youngest son of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja and Ana, he was part of the first generation of the Nemanjić dynasty, alongside his brothers Vukan and Stefan.Sava is regarded the founder of Serbian medieval literature.