Belgrade: A “Short” History
There’s a simple reason why history is important to Belgrade – because Belgrade is important to history. According to legend and backed by historical evidence, Belgrade has seen 115 wars and risen from its ashes some 40 times throughout history. The Neolithic Starčevo and Vinča cultures that dominated the region were located in the Belgrade area some 7000 years ago.
That’s just for starters. For over 2200 years, every age and empire has left it’s mark here and Belgrade has preserved them all quite well, in one way or another.
THE BEGINNING – singidun
Sometime in the 3rd century BC, the Thracio-Celtic Scordisci tribe settled on a hilltop overlooking a breathtaking, fertile valley where the Sava and Danube rivers cross paths and make magic. In 279 BC, the fortification’s name is first mentioned – Singidun, meaning “round fort”.
The Scordisci spent the greater part of the 2nd century BC defending their territory from the Roman Empire in the chaos that ruled the region after the death of Alexander the Great. The 1st century BC saw Singidun surrounded by the Romans and in 75 BC, Gaius “Quintus” Scribonius Curio (Roman proconsul of Macedonia) managed to drive out the Scordisci and other tribes from the area. Singidun was left mostly ruined and desolate.
As the millenium came to an end, other nearby Roman settlements like Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica), Viminacium (modern Kostolac), and Taurunum (modern Zemun) overshadow the Romanized Singidunum leaving it as little more than a significant military strategic point and the starting point of the Via Militaris, the lifeline of Roman troups throughout the empire. So end Belgrade’s childhood years.
THE EVOLUTION – singidunum
Almost a century passed before Rome realized Singidunum’s greater potential and sent the Legion IV Flavia Felix in to set up fort in what is today the Upper City of Kalemegdan in 86 AD. They fortified their castrum in stone and built walls, the remains of which can be seen today on the edges of Kalemegdan park.
They built a bridge across the mighty Sava to connect Singidunum and Taurunum (Zemun, today a part of Belgrade) and made the first grid plan of what was to become modern Belgrade. In fact, aside from New Belgrade (built post WW II on the marshlands across the river from old Belgrade and toward Zemun), that remains the only part of the city where the streets are rectilinear. Today’s Studentski Trg (Students’ Square) in downtown Belgrade was a Roman forum, encircled by thermae, the remains of which were uncovered in the 1970’s.
In the 2nd century AD, Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian) proclaimed Singidunum a municipium (second highest class of Roman cities). Singidunum flourished and soon became a full-fledged Roman colonia (highest class of Roman cities) in which Roman Emperor Jovian was born in 331 AD.
While Jovian was the restorer of Christianity, 50 years after his birth, nearby Naissus (today’s Niš in southern Serbia) was blessed with the birth of the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great. These would be both marvelous and harsh times for Singidunum as great Rome began its descent into the annals of history. The city was one of the last major strongholds of the Roman Empire to survive on the Danube.
In 441 AD, Singidunum was conquered by the Huns, who looted and tore the city apart, sold the remainder of its population into slavery, and left the city for dead. Over the next 200 years, Singidunum would would be passed from hand to hand, like an orphan being passed from one neglecting foster family to another: first the Byzantine Empire after the fall of the Huns in 454, then the Sarmatians, the Ostrogoths, the Gepidaes, the Ostrogoths again, and back to the Byzantine Empire in 510.
Singidunum survives this rough adolescence until at last Byzantine emperor Justinian I rebuilds the city in 535, restoring it to its former importance, only to have it raided and burnt to the gound by the Avars in the 7th century. Alas, such is the life of an orphan.
Around the year 630, Slavs, who were dominant in the region by then, settled in the area. They renamed the city Beograd or Beligrad, both meaning “white city”, because of the white limestone that most of houses here were made of. The name is first mentioned by Pope John VIII in a letter written on April 16, 878, addressed to Bulgarian prince Boris I Mihail. The name Singidunum would never be used again.
Over the next 400 years, the city saw a territorial tug-of-war between the Byzantine Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary and the First Bulgarian Empire. The First and Second Crusades (in 1095–1099 and 1147–1149 respectively) saw the city prospering. However, during the Third Crusade, Frederick Barbarossa would pass with his crusaders through a Belgrade in ruins.
THE REVOLUTIONS- old belgrade
In 1284, Belgrade would see its first Serbian King, Stefan Dragutin (King of Syrmia), who received it as a wedding gift from his father-in-law, Hungarian King István V. By this time, the Ottoman Empire was well on its way to conquering most of Southeastern Europe. While the south of Serbia was lost in the Battle of Marica (1371) and the Battle of Kosovo (1389), the Serbian Despotate (Central Serbia), had Belgrade as its capital, first under Prince Lazar and then his heir Stefan Lazarević, who successfully resisted the Ottomans.
Lazarević refortified the old city and built a castle on the spot, adding a citadel and towers, parts of which still stand today. In 1427, Belgrade lost its status as capital when Stefan’s successor, Đurađ Branković, returned the city to the Hungarians for the sake of the city’s protection from Ottoman forces.
In July of 1456, the Ottomans gathered over one hundred thousand soldiers and launched the Siege of Belgrade. The Christian army, lead by Ioannes Corvinus, ruler of Transylvania (Hungary, defended the city from the Ottomans in one of Europe’s greatest battles that has been said to have “decided the fate of Christendom”.
Pope Callixtus III ordered Christian churches to ring their bells at noon in prayer for the defenders of the city and then in celebration of their victory. Thus, the ringing of the “noon bell” remains a common daily practice in most Christian churches to this day.
In the summer of 1521 Belgrade is finally captured by Sultan Suleyman. The city is pillaged and burnt to the ground once again and its Christian citizens shipped out and displaced in Constantinople. Belgrade becomes the seat of the district and, over the next 150 years, would grow to be the second largest city of the Ottoman Empire in Europe (the largest being Constantinople).
A major rebellion was attempted by the Serbs and quickly crushed in 1594, after which, the Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha, had the relics of the greatest Serbian Orthodox saint, St. Sava, burned on the Vračar plateau. Today, St. Sava Temple, the largest Christian Orthodox temple in the world, stands allegiant on that very plateu in today’s downtown Belgrade.
Over the next two centuries, with the Ottoman rule of Southern and Central Serbia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire pressing from the north, Belgrade was, again, the prized object in a tug-of-war between the two empires.
With the First Serbian Uprising beginning in 1804, Serb leaders finally regained control of the city piece by piece. Today, the city’s second largest municipality, Voždovac, is named in honor of vožd (duke) Karađorđe Petrović who lead the liberation of Belgrade in 1806. The Church of the Holy Emperor Constantine and Helena was erected in the early 20th century on the very spot from which Karađorđe and his troops began their operation.
Freedom lasted less than a decade and the city was recaptured by the Ottomans. The Serb leaders quickly regrouped for the Second Serbian Uprising in 1815. This time around, the Ottoman High Porte had no choice but to grant the city autonomic rule. Serbia regained full independence as a Principality in 1878, became the Kingdom of Serbia just four years later, and Belgrade once again developed into one of the most influencial cities in the Balkans.
The first ever projection of a motion picture in the Eastern and Central Europe was held in Belgrade in the summer of 1896, in a tavern where today’s high-end retail stores stand on Terazije Square.
THE RESOLUTION – modern belgrade
In the decades to come, Belgrade, like most of Europe, would feel the rampage of WWI and WWII, with little time for recovery in between. Belgrade was once again occupied, torched, bombed by enemies and allies alike, liberated and rebuilt.
In 1945, with the unification of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro, Marshal Josip Broz Tito proclaimed the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia and Belgrade its new capital. The country later became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (after the fall of socialism and the individual separation of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia) and shortly thereafter as the Union of Serbia and Montenegro. Belgrade remained the capital.
It has been said that two lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to get to know old Singidunum. Through the ages, this very characteristic city has learned to be both welcoming and harsh, to open itself up or camouflage itself in accordance with necessity and current events. It has seen protests and uprisings, dictators and democratic monarchs, and has stood steadfast throughout.
Most who live in it, who are born in it or those who merely pass through it fail to merit the opportunity that Belgrade offers – to walk through history and leave one’s mark. Yet the city will generously offer just that opportunity to any and all. So, if you should have the chance to walk down its streets and riverbanks, paved with the ghosts of heroes and fools, remember – “Belgrade is the World”*.
* “Belgrade is the World” is a common phrase uttered by Belgraders and often used by protesters in anti-government protests during the 20th and 21st centuries, as a reminder that, while governments and empires have come and gone, Belgrade has survived and built a diverse culture of its own.