The Timok region is one of mountains, rich forests, and abundant water, especially mountain springs and streams. It is these waters that in many ways define which hills and valleys belong to Timok. Settlements always arise where there is abundant water, and Knjaževac is one of these. It is located in the valley of the Beli Timok (White Timok), which together with the waters of the rivulets Svrljiški Timok and Trgoviški Timok join the Crni Timok (Black Timok) river at Zaječar, forming the Great Timok (Veliki Timok, or simply Timok). The valley of the Beli Timok is conducive to agriculture and viticulture, while the surrounding mountains are ideal for the farming of sheep and goats, as well as for walnut groves. The mountains offered protection, but also created isolation.
In a corner bounded by the Sava and the Danube, three centuries before the common era, Celts found the abandoned settlement of a Thracian tribe, the Singi. Recognizing its strategic advantages and abundance of resources, they settled there. A fortress arose, in Celtic dun, and Singidunum was born. It was home to Celts, Romans and Byzantines for a millenium before the Slavs arrived. Seeing the pale limestone palisades in the distance, they called it the White City – Beo Grad. It became part of the kingdom of King Dragutin Nemanjić in the 13th century, and flourished under Stefan Lazarević in 15th century. It fell into Hungarian hands, setting into play a back-and-forth struggle between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire that went on for centuries. In 1594 as a reprisal for a Serbian uprising, Albanian Ottoman vezier Sinan Paša ordered the public burning of St. Sava’s relics on Vračar hill. The warring continued until Karađorđe liberated it on St. Andrew’s day 1807. The failed first rebellion led to notable migration of Serbs out of the region in 1813, and it took decades for the city to earn its place as capital of the Principality and Kingdom of Serbia.
Niš, in the south central part of Serbia, has its greatest claim to fame as the birthplace of Constantine, the first Byzantine emperor. Located near the confluence of the Nišava and Morava rivers, the valleys have always made for a natural thoroughfare since ancient times. By Constantine’s time, the Via Militaris or Carigradski Drum was a well travelled route for both trade and conquest. Continue reading
The Kumanovo district is one that has attracted a lot of attention from folklore ensembles lately, with mixed results when it comes to costume. The region is complex, with two distinct costume forms found locally among Serbian and Macedonian populations. Ethnic Bulgarian and Turkish populations dwindled but their influence remained as well. Moreover, the district experienced rapid changes in costume from the beginning of the twentieth century, something spurred by the preponderance of migrant work (pečalba, gurbet) among the men of the region; returning, they brought home new fabrics and western-style garments that were incorporated into, and eventually replaced, the folk costume. All of these things have led to a bizarre spectacle on the stages of Serbian folklore ensembles: costumes from wildly different time periods, side by side in the same choreography; multiple dancers wearing the heavy bridal headdress abandoned by WWI, even when not presenting wedding customs; and bizarre innovations borrowed from neighbouring regions and cultures. I hope that by sharing some of the costumes from my collection, I can at least sufficiently educate blog readers to spot these anomalies when they encounter them. Let’s make Kumanovo great again, people!
The Tree of Life is known throughout Indo-European cultures, with ancient roots. Slavic cultures are no exception; the Tree of Life had robust meaning in both Pagan and Christian culture. Alongside its ritual and religious use, this symbol entered every aspect of Slavic and Serbian decorative art, from stone and wood carving to weaving and embroidery.
The term Vlah is from Old Slavonic, believed to share a common root with volkh, volkhov (magician, magus) and the pagan deity Volos, Veles (ancient slavic deity, protector of Livestock). The volkhov connection may seem strange, but it is proposed that the word was also used to designate the unknown, or strangers. This could arise from the distinctly different Vlach language which would have been unintelligible to the Slavs, or from the mystical ritual folk life of Vlasi (pl). The Vlachs were overwhelmingly pastoralists, and their lifestyle so closely tied to their flocks and herds that the etymology from Volos or Veles may have some basis there. With the adoption of Christianity, St. Blaise (Sv. Vlasije, Sv. Vlaho) took on the role of Veles, and is considered patron of domestic animals.
The German geographer Johann Georg Kohl travelled through Dalmatia in the period between 1850 – 1852. Traversing the Dinaric alps, he stopped in Vrlika, which he described in his published notes as “a mouse hole”. Harsh, perhaps, from his well-travelled perspective, but it certainly is not a metropolis. Yet, talk to people who originate from Vrlika and you would think it could rival New York.
Wine is arguably the single-most important substance in the history of Europe. Evidence of early winemaking during the Neolithic exists abundantly, not only in Europe but throughout the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean world. It is mentioned in the Bible 233 times, and has permeated the literature of every Indo-European language. Serbian folk songs celebrate it, folk belief venerates it, and it follows a Serb through every moment of life.
If someone ever asks you to give them a lesson in the complexities of Balkan history, diversity of Balkan ethnography, and fluidity of Balkan linguistics, just point them to Vlasina and Krajište. It’s got it all.