Kalemegdan Fortress Belgrade

Kalemegdan Fortress Belgrade

Belgrade is undoubtedly one of the oldest cities in the world and Europe, given that story of Belgrade dates from more than 7000 years when the first inhabitants settled on the fertile areas around the Sava and the Danube Rivers. From the earliest times which lasts over two millennia Belgrade features rich heritage and turbulent and intriguing past and superior easily defensible location and dominates the beautiful area of important crossroads. Belgrade (Singidunum) is the ancient settlement on the remarkable confluence of Danube and the Sava Rivers, with a long tradition dating back to prehistoric times and wonderful and highly recognizable monuments from all historical period. Based on the archaeological findings at the Upper Town’s plateau of the Belgrade Fortress, the first settlement originates in the Neolithic period.

Present Belgrade was constantly highly strategically important being positioned on the ridge above the powerful inland waterways intersecting with roads connecting north and south. The founding of Singidunum is attributed to the Celtic tribe of the Scordiscs who first came across the Illyrian tribe of Autariati and other Thracian and Illyrian tribes. As a fortified settlement, Singidunum was mentioned for the first time in 279 BC. The presence of the two different ethnic elements is reflected in the town’s name: Singidunum is a compound of Thracian and Dacian tribal word of Singi and Celtic word for town – dunum. After settling down, by the middle of the 2nd century BC the Celts who were great warriors developed agriculture and pottery, and started making coins. Relevant archaeological findings show that Celtic Singidunum was actually situated in the area of what is now Karaburma instead of the area of the Upper Town of the Belgrade Fortress. The castrum -fort- had a rectangular basis, 560 meters long and approximately 350 meters wide. It was situated in the area of today’s Upper Town with a part of Kalemegdan Park up to the Pariska ulica Street. Parts of the Roman ramparts with remains of the four-angled tower have been excavated under the layers of later fortifications and can be seen today at the northwest wall of the Upper Town.

The most important remains of the ancient Belgrade Singidunum today include the vast area of Kalemegdan stronghold and the area covering the inner city core of Belgrade. The further development of Belgrade fortress is connected to the presence of the Romans at the end of the old era who conquered the area in response to repeated attacks of the barbarian tribes against the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers. The Roman Republic succumbed the area in 75 BC and incorporated it into the province of Moesia as the important stronghold of the fortified Roman border – the Danube Limes. The Roman rule in Belgrade lasted for the next four centuries. After the division of the Roman Empire into the Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire in 395, Singidunum or Singidon became a border town of the Byzantine Empire. This new position of the town determined its later fate, for it became not only a linking point of various cultural influences, but, before all, a communication and strategic key of the Byzantine Empire. The stages of the city may be roughly associated with the Celtic settlement, existence of a Roman city and a legionary camp, the medieval city that in the course of history belonged to Byzantium, Hungary, Serbia, Ottoman Turkey and the Austrians. It experienced its hay days at the time of Roman domination when beside the camp of the legion Fourth Flavia (Legio IIII Flavia Felix) a big and rich civilian settlement developed. Owing to its excellent strategic position the city rapidly developed and first got the status of a municipality (municipium), a city with partial autonomy, and later on, even the status of a colony (colonia) or a city with full autonomy and enjoying complete Roman civic rights. It became a municipium at the time of Emperor Hadrian, while it acquired the status of a colonia – colony – at the time of Gordian III, between the years 211 and 287.

Belgrade, though straddling a major strategic crossroads, was less important in ancient times than it is nowadays. Although it achieved the rank of a colony representing the highest rank in the evolution of the provincial town, it was the second or even the third city in the hierarchy behind Sirmium, Viminacium camp and later on, the prosperous and important Iustiniana Prima. The military importance of the ancient Singidunum became even higher in the3rd century, when the emperor Aurelian left Dacia and Upper Moesia and gained new borders along the right bank of the Danube River. In that period, Singidunum was the center of the Christian diocese. Sometime later, in 331 it was the place of birth of the Roman emperor Flavius Jovianus – Flavius Jovianus Augustus. Its favorable position greatly contributed to the development of commerce and crafts, but also attracted barbarian tribes that kept attacking, raiding, conquering and disappearing from the area across the Danube and south Pannonia – present Vojvodina. It was systematically destroyed in barbarian onslaughts of the Huns under leadership of Attila in 441- 443 AD and the Avars in 584 AD. After Attila’s death in 453 the Huns’ state disintegrated, while the area of Singidon was settled by the tribes of Eastern Goths, Gepidaes and Sarmatians. The leader of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric conquered Singidon in the year 471 and ruled for 17 years. The Byzantine emperor Anastasius I allowed the tribe of Heruli to settle the territory of Singidon. By the Slavic name of Beograd – BELI grad the city-fortress is first time mentioned in 878 in the letter of the Pope John VIII to the Bulgarian prince Boris the Slav Sergius was mentioned as the head of the Belgrade episcopate.

During the 9th and 10th century, Belgrade was under Bulgarian rule, and in the 11th and 12th century under the Byzantine. In these turbulent times, Belgrade was destroyed and renewed several times. Numerous different crusader armies passed several times over the territory of present Belgrade. After the crusader’s invasions in 1096 and 1147, in the Third crusade in 1189, Belgrade was the center of Frederick I Barabarossa’s crusader army. Re-establishing the border at the Danube River during the reign of Manuel I Comnenus (1143-1180) the Byzantine Empire showed interest in Belgrade by renewing the town’s fortifications. Several towers and walls were built following the principles of Byzantine military architecture, as well as the deltoid – four angles castle in the Upper town, 135 meters long and 60 meters wide. Except for some smaller interruptions, Belgrade was throughout the 13th century in the hands of Hungarians.

Contrary to the early Byzantine period of administration when Belgrade was reduced to the status of a mere frontier fortification, it regained its importance in 1403 when despot (ruler) Stefan Lazarevic proclaimed it the capital of Medieval Serbia state and defensive strong-point of the country. By wise negotiations and skilled diplomacy Stefan Lazarevic managed to take the city from Hungarians and their most powerful king Sigmund of Luxembourg. This was after the periods of reign of the Nemanjic Dynasty members, particularly King Dragutin who was married to Queen Katarina, the daughter of Hungarian king Stephen V, from whom he in 1284 got Macva area with Belgrade to rule over. In short time of only 23 years of reign of Stefan Lazarevic the city was rebuilt as we can still today see remains of double ramparts with towers and gates, and became prosperous economic, cultural and religious center of medieval Serbia and one of the largest cities in Europe. Then the fortress was strengthened, and the Despot’s palace was built within the old castle. A medieval town grew up within the walls of the lower fort from nearly completely destroyed remains from the early and late middle ages. In the festive charter with golden stamp and the city scope Stefan Lazarevic granted numerous privileges and security to new settlers and entrepreneurs who brought here their businesses here from other parts of Serbia and foreign countries – from Dubrovnik, Hungary, France, Germany, Venetia….  In the eastern part of the city the monumental church dedicated to the Ascension of the Holy Virgin was built for the Metropolitan, adorned with wonderful plants which surrounded the metropolitan residence. There were some 10 churches built in the city of Belgrade, including a Roman-catholic church used by foreign settlers. Such development was possible due to peaceful historical period of the stabile situation of the state and wise ruling policies of Stefan Lazarevic. The city of Belgrade rebuilt by Stefan Lazarevic was so well reinforced and developed that only 3 years after the fall of Constantinople which was center of our civilization, Belgrade withstood fierce and repeated attacks of sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror in the 15th century. Belgrade was finally conquered in 1521 when the Turkish forces took the advancing strategy of conquest by the river fleet in the third campaign of the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent.

In 1456 sultan Mehmed II el Fatih – the Conquerer decided to occupy Belgrade likewise he did 3 years earlier with Tsarigrad. Belgrade was defended also by Sibinjanin Janko – Janosh Hunyadi. This Hungarian hero and his solder companions attacked the Turkish fleet on the spot of the present Saran restaurant and had fully defeated it. The same destiny awaited the Ottomans who were attacking Belgrade. The huge and fierce battle took place on the 22 June 1456 when Sibinjanin Janko – Janosh Hunyadi succeeded to defent the city. Since then by the command of the Pope Calist III the church bells of all the Christian churches ring at noon and invite religious people to pray for defenders of Belgrade. This order has never been suspended, so today bells of all Catholic churches ring at noon. The Hungarian duke Sibinjanin Janko – Janosh Hunyadi was badly wounded in this battle and transferred to Zemun. There he dies from consequences of wounding on 11 August 1456 in one of the Zemun towers, but also from the plaque that spread to numerous corpses loaded in trenches. For centuries the towers of Zemun do not exist any more, but only the Millennial tower remained while churches bells still ring…. 

Belgrade fort became a very important stronghold for Turkish further movement towards the heart of Europe and was named Kalemegdan (kale – town, megdan – field). During the time of the Ottoman Turks, the Upper Fortress as a town area gradually disappeared, being inhabited only by the army and representatives of the government. The Lower Kalemegdan Fortress continued to be a trade and crafts center, but as time passed trade too moved outside the walls. In the town beyond the walls, caravansary, inns, baths, fountains, mosques and other buildings have been erected, fundamentally altering the town’s appearance. From this period, only two of many Turkish buildings at the Belgrade Fortress are preserved: the fountain of Mehmed-pasha Sokolovic (second half of the 16th century) and the tomb (turbeh) of Damad Ali-Pasha (18th century) which are the only remains of the Turkish rule over the Belgrade fortress which lasted almost 2 centuries. The turbeh of pasha on Kalemegdan Fortress is dedicated to the Turkish Great Vizier Damad Ali pasha who was wounded in the Battle of Petrovaradin in 1716 and soon passed away from consequences, and was buried in Kalemegdan as per his wish. Work on the reconstruction of old fortifications began when the Austrian army headed by Maximillian of Bavaria captured the city in 1688. However, the Turks took over the town in 1690. During the siege, a Turkish bomb hit one of the towers in the Lower Town. The fire caught gunpowder storage and the explosion was so strong that it completely destroyed the castle of despot Stefan Lazarevic, with casualties of over one thousand people.

From 1717 to 1739 Austria took over Belgrade and again began new constructions of walls bastions and earthwork. Belgrade Fortress became one of the strongest military strongholds in Europe. However, according to the Belgrade Peace Treaty in 1739, Turkey got the town without fight. Following a clause of this peace treaty, Austria was obliged to destroy all newly built fortifications. Once again Austria succeeded in taking over Belgrade in October 1789. By the Treaty of Svishtov in 1791, Austrians left Belgrade, and the janissaries were forbidden to enter the Belgrade pashalik. At the beginning of the 19th century janissaries controlled the town and the neighboring villages. The terror of janissaries and the events around the ‘Decapitation of the dukes’ led to national awakening and the First Serbian Uprising in 1804, led by Karadjordje Petrovic. The rebels had taken the town in 1806 and the Fortress in 1807. After the debacle of the First Serbian Uprising in 1813, the Turks ruled over the Fortress again until they eventually left Belgrade and until the Turkish commander of Belgrade finally handed over the keys of the town to Prince Mihajlo Obrenovic in ceremonial way at Kalemegdan in April 1867. Serbian soldiers replaced Turkish military guards and after this event the importance of the Belgrade Fortress a the military stronghold decreased. Among numerous monuments of the Kalemegdan fortress today the Memorial of the sculptor Mihailo Paunovic testifies on the event of liberation of Serbia from the Ottoman rule, which was erected in 1967 – on the 100th anniversary. The place of delivery of keys of the Belgrade fortress is few meters away and marked with a small mound surrounded with thujas. The Sultan order on handover of the Ottoman rule over the towns of Serbia was released in ceremony in Belgrade when the Serb flag replaced the Turkish one, and when the Turkish commanded handed the keys of the fortress to Prince Mihailo Obrenovic.

The first works on arranging the town field of Kalemegdan started in 1869 by proposals and efforts of General Jovan Belimarkovic, deputy of Military Minister Milivoje Blaznavac. As the state treasury was empty, General Belimarkovic ordered the army to help in planting the Kalemegdan area by leveling the soil and bringing various plants from the Topcider Park. During March 1891, the pathways were cut through and the trees were planted. In 1903 the Little Staircase was built, based on the project of Jelisaveta Nacic, the first woman architect in Serbia, while the Big Staircase, designed by architect Aleksandar Krstic, was built in 1928. All old buildings were ruined in the First World War, while the Kalemegdan fortifications were considerably damaged. The Kalemegdan park got its present appearance between the two world wars. The promenade along the Sava River bank was constructed together with the Big Staircase on the road to the Kings Gate and the newly built statue of ‘Victor’. The first archaeological excavations and research of the Kalemegdan fortress started in this period and is still ongoing. The Kalemegdan area of the Belgrade Fortress was placed under the state protection in 1946.

The modern settlement of the present-day Belgrade was built immediately above the ruins of the ancient settlement which is direct reason why the appearance and traces of the ancient city is known only fragmentary. Only rare and poorly preserved items and finds, primarily the thermae on the plateau between the Student Square and Knez Mihailova Street witness to the big ancient urban center. The ramparts of the ancient Belgrade castrum can now be seen only in some places like, for example, in the Roman Room of the Belgrade City Library where they are on display together with parts of the water supply system. During the construction of an underground car park in the area between the Belgrade City Hall and the National Assembly, archaeologists explored a Roman necropolis containing 56 tombs…..

Today is Belgrade Fortress of Kalemegdan the most famous symbol of Belgrade, and cultural monument of exceptional importance and the favorite place in all sightseeing tours with its numerous institutions, sites and landmarks – the Military Museum with its rich and impressive collections, Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute of Belgrade, the Roman well, gates, towers, ammunition storage, bunkers, clock towers, but also the Belgrade Zoo, numerous sport terrains and remarkable restaurants and cafes… that all provide enjoyment and admiration of numerous visitors. The Belgrade Fortress of Kalemegdan today carefully preserves unique spatial entity with clearly visible remains of the cultural-historical monument and impressive Fortress divided into Upper and Lower Town, with two distinct styles – elements of medieval architecture combined with dominant Baroque solutions typical for the 18th century, making a prominent venue of various events, concerts, celebrations, festivals in Belgrade…