Academic journal article Serbian Studies

Belgrade: Transformations and Confluences

Academic journal article Serbian Studies

Belgrade: Transformations and Confluences

Article excerpt

   White bone amongst the clouds
   You arise out of your pyre
   Out of your ploughed-up barrows

   You arise out of your disappearance

   The sun keeps you
   In its golden reliquary
   High above the yapping of centuries

   And beats you to the Marriage
   Of the fourth river of Paradise
   With the thirty-sixth river of Earth

   White bone among the clouds
   Bone of our bones (1)

This poetic epigraph defines a historical experience of triumphs and tragedies to capture the essence of a city that has held a pivotal role over centuries. This article posits the view of Belgrade as a crossroads, a place of geographic, historical, and cultural confluence from its earliest settlements in the Neolithic Age to the nineteenth century. It points to a singular pattern of settlement, foreign conquest, destruction, defense, and rebuilding of a city that supports Alfred Toynbee's premise that civilizations arise out of challenges to develop their unique character. For Belgrade that conclusive achievement came in the nineteenth century with the recognition of full national independence and the embrace of the challenges of Western modernity. The article addresses the transformative developments, which by the end of the nineteenth century gave Belgrade a level of equivalency with other European cities and recognition as an urban center.

The city's site with its fortress-like limestone formation was strategically ideal for the construction of fortifications while the Sava and Danube Rivers below the city met commercial and agricultural needs of a succession of populations. The significance, especially the military value of a place where East and West converged, was recognized early. Descriptions of Belgrade over centuries make special mention of the location and its strategic and physical appeal. "Perched on a hill, at the foot of which [the] Sava joins the Danube, it commands westwards [sic] a wonderful expanse of sky and stream and willows, with a pale mauve distance of Servian [sic] mountains, while opposite lie the rich plains of Hungary ... for sheer beauty of outlook Belgrade is not easy to surpass." (2)

Belgrade's earliest inhabitants, dating to the third millennium, were of the Vincha culture. By the third century BC a pattern of migration, conquest, and settlement was already engrained when the Celts established their stronghold, calling it Singidunum. (3) In the first century AD Singidunum came under control of the Romans, who also recognized the value of its strategic location with respect to defense and commerce. Replicating the typical Roman plan, (4) the town that emerged south of the military garrison and fortifications appears to have been economically and culturally prosperous. Its ethnically diverse population with full rights of Roman citizenship was protected both by the legions and the fleet stationed in Singidunum. By 395 the area was under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e., Byzantium.

From the end of the fourth century to the seventh century a succession of Barbarian tribes invaded the area. The destruction of the upper town by the Huns in 441 marked the beginning of a pattern of conquest, destruction, and rebuilding. By 539 the city and surrounding territories were once again under Byzantium, only to fall in 584 to the Avars, who nine years earlier had entered the area along with Slavic tribes. In turn, the Avar settlement was destroyed by the Bulgarians. Belgrade became part of the First Bulgarian Empire in 829. (5) That at the time the Slavic presence was substantial is supported by the fact that the city's new name, Beograd, was Slavic in origin. (6) For the next four hundred years Belgrade was the target for control by the Kingdom of Hungary and the Bulgarian and Byzantine Empires. The city's location placed it directly in the path of three Crusades (1096-99; 1144-55; 1187-92).

By the thirteenth century control of Belgrade had shifted from the Hungarians to the Serbs, ushering in the rule of the Nemanjic dynasty under King Stefan Dragutin in 1284. …

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