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The history of Belgrade

Looking far back into history, before anything we know, we see the place where Belgrade is now under the great Pannonia sea. This sea, while withdrawing, left the Danube to us. The Danube follows old, long gone naval courses of old Europe. The Danube always invited people to inhabit its banks. The remains from the oldest prehistoric, that is Palaeolithic findings prove just that. They are situated in a mine near Lestane, near Bajloni market, in a cave near Cukarica as well as the remains from Neolithic period found in Vinča, Žarkovo and the Upper town of Belgrade fortress.

The official history of Belgrade started seven thousand years ago, which makes our city one of the oldest cities in Europe. It’s old, very old our Belgrade!

Long before Jesus Christ, a new, powerful people of that time, the Celts or Gales came among quiet, peace loving natives to the Balkan Peninsula and founded Belgrade on the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. In the 4th century B.C. the warrior Celtic tribe Skordisk stepped on the hill above the two rivers and founded a small city-fortress naming it Singidunum. It is the first and the oldest name of Belgrade. The word “dunum” in the old language of the Celts means “fortress”, and this etymology of the name gives our capital a role it is to have through the centuries – to be a barricade, a shield, the place of fights and defence. So Belgrade was founded!

Highlights

The origins of Belgrade

Looking far back into history, before anything we know, we see the place where Belgrade is now under the great Pannonia sea. This sea, while withdrawing, left the Danube to us. The Danube follows old, long gone naval courses of old Europe. The Danube always invited people to inhabit its banks. The remains from the oldest prehistoric, that is Palaeolithic findings prove just that. They are situated in a mine near Lestane, near Bajloni market, in a cave near Cukarica as well as the remains from Neolithic period found in Vinca, Zarkovo and the Upper town of Belgrade fortress.

The official history of Belgrade started seven thousand years ago, which makes our city one of the oldest cities in Europe. It’s old, very old our Belgrade!

Long before Jesus Christ, a new, powerful people of that time, the Celts or Gales came among quiet, peace loving natives to the Balkan Peninsula and founded Belgrade on the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. In the 4th century B.C. the warrior Celtic tribe Skordisk stepped on the hill above the two rivers and founded a small city-fortress naming it Singidunum. It is the first and the oldest name of Belgrade. The word “dunum” in the old language of the Celts means “fortress”, and this etymology of the name gives our capital a role it is to have through the centuries – to be a barricade, a shield, the place of fights and defence. So Belgrade was founded!

Singidunum under Romans

Belgrade was under Roman government from 33 years B.C. till the 6th century, saw the Roman glory, developed from a small Celtic fortification to a big roman town and saw the fall of this great imperia. Nothing is left from the Celtic Belgrade but the old name Singidunum.

The Romans built a fortified camp at the place of the old Celtic fortification, and Belgrade, by its legal position and the architecture, got on the importance and the appearance of other roman towns: it had a forum in the town centre, the Jupiter temple, roman town bath, and the Sava and the Danube accepted many passenger and merchant ships that stopped at the port which could take up to 20 galleys.

Numerous objects from roman Singidunum were dug up: roman graves, sarcophagi, urns with ashes of roman people, old roman vases, jewellery, etc.

The fall of the old Singidunum

The great roman imperium was divided in the year 395 into Western Roman imperia with Rome as its capital, and Eastern Roman imperia (Byzantium) with Constantinople as a capital. Singidumum became a part of Byzantic Emipire, an important traffic and strategic part of the imperia, got ramparts and new fortifications.

In the first half of the 5th century, the Huns, and for them it was said, “Where a Hun’s horse steps, grass no longer grows”, under the leadership of Atila (known as "the god’s whip”) took over Singidunum, but only for a short period of time. The came and disappeared as a hurricane that comes and goes fast, destroys everything, bringing no use to itself or others.

The Saramats took the power over Singidunum, but soon after it was again under power of Byzantium.

Slavic city of Belgrade

At the end of 6th century, under the attack of Avars and Slavs, the town was destroyed and its old name, Singidunum, was replaces by a Slav name Beli grad (the white city). The first appearance of the name Belgrade was in the 9th century (878) in a letter of Pope Johan VIII to Boris Bugarski. From that day on, every nation in touch with Belgrade gave it this name in its own language.

From the IX to the first half of 15th century Bulgaria, Byzantium and Hungary changed power over Belgrade. It was also on the path of the crusaders in the 11th and 12th century.

Hungarian king Stephan II took Belgrade from Byzantium in 1124, destroyed its ramparts and used that material to build Zemun. But Belgrade once more came into power of Byzantium, Zemun was destroyed, the material of the old Belgrade fortress was won over and the fortress was rebuilt after thirty years.

In 1284 Hungarian king Ladislav gave Belgrade to the Serbian king, Ladislav’s brother in law and vassal, Dragutin who built himself a court in the town.

After the death of king Dragutin, the Hungarians again ruled Belgrade, but in 1402 the town came under power of duke Lazar’s son, despot Stefan Lazarevic, and became the capital of medieval Serbia. The town prospered in economy, culture and religion and a Metropolitan church, a new fortress, despot’s court and library were built. Unfortunately, this prosperity didn’t last long, since Djuradj Brankovic gave Belgrade to Hungary and a hundred year Hungarian rule started.

Belgrade under Turks

A new force was born in the east, a new Turkish state that defeated Byzantium and worried the whole cultural world. Its wish was to rule over Belgrade since it was the important point in it’s conquers towards Western Europe.

On August 6, 1456, Christian army led by Hungarian commander János Hunyadi, (Sibinjanin Janko). The fighters of priest Jan Kapistran helped him, and sultan Mohamed’s plan to conquer the cities of Western Europe and take over the old emperor’s throne failed, his forces were defeated and Belgrade was defended. After this Christian fight against the Turks, Belgrade got another attribute: the rampart of Christianity.

In 1490 sultan Bajazit II tried a trick, promising the deputies of Belgrade commander a big reward in exchange for giving away the town. This attempt of treason was discovered and punished – the main actors were put in Belgrade prison were they were starved, forced to kill, impale and eat one another. That high was the price of Belgrade’s freedom.

On 29 August 1521, Sulejman conquered and burns Belgrade, and a Christian town slowly became a Muslim town with oriental characteristics downtown, numerous mosques, (drinking) fountains, turbeh, Turkish baths, stores, market places and developed commercial life. Old courts and towers were destroyed; the glory of aristocratic life was gone since the Serbian aristocracy disappeared, cultural heritage, churches and monasteries damaged, and Serbs from Belgrade were forced to move to Carigrad (Istanbul) were one can even today find the monuments of our past. That was the first migration of Serbs.

Turkish author of travels, Evliya Çelebi describes Belgrade’s reinforced fortress: it had double ramparts, with the total of 11 towers and 5060 cogs, divided into Upper (inner) town - with four lines of ramparts decorated with four iron gates, a fortress surrounded with five “sky-high” towers – and the Lower town.

The end of 13th century was particularly difficult for the Turkish Empire – janissaries (young Christians turned into Muslims, forming the base of the Turkish army) rebelled, robbed Turkish courts and threatened the sultan himself. This weaken empire was attacked by the forces of Holly Association (Austria, Poland and Venice, later on to be accompanied by Russia under the leadership of czar Peter the Great) and this resulted in many robberies and killings of population, and a two-year long Austrian rule over Belgrade that started in 1688. During the second great migration in 1690, Serbian population moved to a far away place on the Danube, to St. Andrea, and it became an important shelter for the Serbian people, its highest church dignitary (the patriarch Arsenije) and relics.

BELGRADE UNDER AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN RULE

After the truce signed in Karlovci in 1699 Belgrade once more came under Turkish power. In March 16,1717 a famous battle under Belgrade took place and the Austrian army, led by Eugene von Savoy took the Belgrade fortress.

The works on altering Belgrade fortress lasted thirteen years, and famous constructor Nikolaus Doksat de Morez made the plan. New gates, bastions were made, military barracks, so called Alexander’s barracks were constructed downtown, and the town got czar Carlo VI gate (this gate still exists); in the Upper town a famous roman well was dug, catholic cathedral and bishop’s residence, a famous palace called "The rice palace” were build, and Belgrade’s coat of arms with three mosques and royal eagle rising was established.

A war between Turkey and Austria started in 1737. Nikolaus Doksat de Morez, the constructor of Belgrade town was executed in 1738 in Belgrade fortress for surrendering the Nais fortress to the Turks. His last words were: “Oh, fortress, I built you and now you are the one to take my life…”. 

After peace made in Belgrade in 1379, Austria lost everything it gained by peace signed in Pozarevac – among other, it lost Serbia and Belgrade. Among the stipulations of the peace contract was the regulation that Austria had to remove all the parts of the fortification from the old town build during the occupation period. Churches ere transformed into mosques, population mostly migrated, and the old town regained old oriental appearance. Entering the town was possible trough four gates: Sava gate, Town gate, Stambol gate and Vidin gate. Pasha’s castle, harem, the great mosque and buildings for Turkish clerks were in the Upper town, while military barracks, shops, mosques and gun powder magazines were in the Lower town. The town formed half-circle around Lower town, and ramparts were up to six meters high and ten to twelve meters wide.

At the door of freedom

A great battle to free Belgrade from Turks was fought in 1789 under the leadership general Laudan. It resulted in great destruction of the town – the towers and the city walls were demolished, almost all buildings were burned, only the fortress walls were untouched and the town was under Austrian government. But that lasted only for two years because under the stipulations of the peace contract signed in 1791, Belgrade was once more under Turkish government. This government was difficult for Serbian people since it meant violence and oppression of janissaries and the terror and in 1801 four Turkish governors arrived: Mehmed-aga Focic, Mula Jusuf-aga, Kučuk Alija and Aganlija. The governors decided not to allow the omen to come true (that was “read” from the sky to them by khoja) and to kill all Serbian dukes, the aristocracy and leave the people without leaders. This famous “slaughter of the dukes” and the rage it provoked, were put into an epic poem called “The beginning of the Revolt against the Dahijas”:

"God in Heaven! The stupendous wonder!
When 'twas time throughout the land of Serbia
That a mighty change should be accomplished
And new ways of ruling be established,
Then the knezes welcomed not the quarrel,
Neither were the Turkish tyrants joyful;
Only then rejoiced the orphan rayah,
Which could pay no longer fines and taxes,
Neither suffer more the Turkish tyrants;
With them, too, the saints were filled with gladness,
For the blood of innocents had bubbled
From the earth; the time was come for battle,
For the Holy Cross to shed one's life-blood;
Every man should now avenge his forebears."

čorđe Petrović, Kara-čorđ (“The Black George”) led the apprising of the Serbian people that started in Orašac village in 1804. Serbian haiduks were not like the commanders our city had seen till then, but were trained in Serbian hills and forests. Belgrade was liberated on 30 November 1806 by haiduks, and it became, in political and educational sense, a centre for all the Serbs. Next year, in 1807, Belgrade fortress was won, and in 1808 Belgrade got its first “Great school” and became a home for outstanding persons of the time: Vuk Karadzic (reformer of Serbian language and alphabet), Dositej Obradovic and Ivan Jugovic.

In 1813 the Turks return to the empty Belgrade since its inhabitants moved away under the attack of great Turkish force.

In 1815 under the lead of Milos Obrenovic the second Serbian rebellion was organized. Milos Obrenovic was not only a great commander, but also a diplomat. On 30 November 1830, on the Russian request, Sultan’s edict the right on autonomy of Serbian people was recognized and proclaimed, the right given by a peace agreement signed in Bucharest in 1815 and by oral agreement with duke Miloš. Duke Miloš built St. Marko’s church not far from the hillock where Sultan’s edict with 24 stipulations had been read, Saborna church (the shrine of Serbian spirituality), duchess Ljubica’s palace, the place complex in Topčider. The first newspaper “Novine srpske” were published and the Seminary and the Grammar school was established.

But in Belgrade, the political and cultural centre, beside Serbian government and Serbian duke, the Turkish pasha governs from the old Belgrade town (today’s Kalemegdan fortress).

The killing of a Serbian boy at the čŒukur fountain, let to bombardment of Belgrade in 1862, and on 6 April 1867 the last Turkish commander in Belgrade, Ali-Riza pasha gave the town and the fortress keys to duke Mihailo. That symbolic act was the beginning of the Serbian government over free Belgrade.

The independance of Serbia

In 1876 the Turkish flag was taken down from rampart of the old Belgrade town and all bound with the Turkish imperia were cut. Soon after, Serbia, Montenegro, and Russia join in the war against Turkey, and in January 1878 Turkish imperia proclaims independence of Serbia with enlarged territory, independence of Romania, enlarging the territory of Montenegro, forming new Bulgarian principality and the autonomy of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In 1882 Serbia becomes the kingdom, Mihailo Obrenović the king, Belgrade kingdom’s capital, and in the following years it gets first telephone lines, train station, plumbing, electric street lights, tramway, and in 1903, after the assassination of Alexander Obrenov, a new king – Peter I Karađorđević.

BELGRADE IN TWO WORLD WARS

Belgrade, tortured by wars and destructions, had more troubles coming. After the assassination of prince Franc Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Austria declared war to Serbia that joined the Antanta Powers (England, France and Russia) against the Axis Powers (Austria, Hungary and Germany). On the first day of war, 28 July 1914, the railroad bridge over the Sava was blown up and by this the connection between Serbian Belgrade and Austrian Zemun was broken, and in the coming days the city was under heavy cannon fire. In the first year of war Belgrade was under Austrian government only for fifteen days (from 18 November, till 2 December), but in September 1915 united German Austro-Hungarian army led by feldmarshal Mekenzen and assisted by Bulgarian troupes, conquers Belgrade one more.

On 22 October 1918 German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish troupes were defeated. For bravery shown in war, the city was awarded the French order of the highest rank, the Foreign Legion order, as well as the Czechoslovakian War cross.

The same year, in 1918, since satisfying the military, national and political, economic, industrial and commercial requirements, Belgrade becomes the capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, and Zemun becomes its integral part.

The period of intellectual, social and economic prosperity of “brotherly” nations lasted just around twenty years, since, dissatisfied by the conditions determined after the end of the World War I, Germany start its occupation programme.

Under the motto “Better grave than slave”, “Better war than alliance”, on 27 March 1941 the people of Belgrade raises to demonstrate against joining Tripartite alliance. On 6 April 1941, provoked by these demonstrations, Germany bombards Belgrade, and occupies it in only six days. The occupation of Belgrade lasted four years. During that period, Germans, but also by allied aviation, bombed Belgrade several times. On 20 October 1945 People’s army of Yugoslavia, with the help of the Red army, liberated Belgrade.

Yugoslavia had a historic opportunity; during the World War II it joined people’s freedom movement with the socialistic revolution. Due to this, on 29 November, 1945, the constitutional parliament abolished the monarchy, proclaimed The Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia with “comrade” Josip Broz Tito as a president. In the coming years Belgrade experienced fast industrial and cultural progress, became the centre of international political, economic, cultural and sports manifestations, got television programme Belgrade, the “Gazela” bridge, BITEF, FEST (see “Cultural and sport events in Belgrade), but, unfortunately, sees some of its inhabitants taken away to “Goli otok”.

Modern history

The historical science does not allow judging according to values, but requires scientific objectivity that can, according to general opinion, be achieved only by time distance. Since this requirement we haven’t satisfied, but are the living witnesses of what happened form the 90’s till now, the only satisfying way is to name the events.

1991 – the fall of SFRJ and the beginning of civil war. 1992 – Belgrade became the capital of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On 30 May same year The Security Council of the United Nations enforced financial sanctions against FR Yugoslavia and this led to the highest hyperinflation in the history of mankind and many Belgrade inhabitants hardly survived. You needed banknotes with huge numbers printed on them just to buy milk or oil, and, of course, if you could find them in the shop outside which you had spent hour waiting in line. 1994 – a new convertible dinar appeared, known as “grandpa Avram’s dinar”.

From November 1996 till February 1997 - student and civil demonstrations took place. Forging the results of local elections caused them. 1197 – after more than fifty years, the first non-communist government in Belgrade.

24 March, 1999 – 78 days long bombardment of Belgrade and Serbia started. Once again Belgrade was attacked, this time with the latest modern technology, with so-called “smart” bombs, but also with bombs with depleted uranium. Beside military targets, civil targets were also bombed, but also the targets in the city centre – Clinic and hospital centre “Dragisa Misovic” in Dedinje, Radio-television of Serbia building in Abardareva street, “Usce” business centre, Chinese embassy in New Belgrade, the building of the Ministry of Justice in Nemanjina street, the buildings of republic and federal Ministry of Internal affairs in Knez Milos street, the building of General staff of Yugoslav army, etc. 5 October, 2000 – mass demonstrations take place in the centre of Belgrade, again caused by forging the election results. In these demonstrations the buildings of the Federal Parliament and the Radio-television of Serbia were taken over. 2001 – the sanctions were suspended. 2002 – the ratification of the constitutional charter of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. 

2008. With support of the USA and some of the EU countries, Albanians from Kosovo and Metohija province of Serbia declare independence from Serbia. The international community is still divided over this issue - some countries have recognised Kosovo independence, some are against it. Serbian leaderhip does not want an armed conflict and is striving to prevent the secession of its province throught diplomatic and political means. Massive protests are staged throughout Serbia. Around 500 000 people are gathered in Belgrade at peaceful demonstrations and prayer against Kosovo independence.

It is old, very old our Belgrade, but at the same time it is true when we say: “Belgrade, Belgrade, for you the time does not pass, you are always young at your heart”. During its long history it had glorious and inglorious, but certainly important moments, saw the important and the cruel, but also the wise and humane military leaders and statesmen, had different names, survived the attacks of many military forces, and was the capital of many states, but it was always like the phoenix, reborn from the ashes. It is as if even the last historical events are far behind us, clear only in our memory, books, historical documents and news, since Belgrade streets show no sign of them. Belgrade is a true European metropolis with lots of hotels, restaurants, Belgrade inns, important institutions, cultural and sport events, and, of course, famous beautiful Belgrade women.

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