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 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.
What can I say that has not been said about Kosovo? The cradle of Serbian statehood, faith and identity since the arrival of the Slavs, who encountered Romanized populations, remnants of the tribes and colonies of the Roman Empire. Kosovo, which emerged as part of Raška, alongside Zahumlje and Travunija (Hercegovina), Duklja and Zeta (Montenegro) as one of the earliest Serbian principalities, and which became part of the first Serbian Kingdom of Stefan Nemanjić “Prvovenčani” (The First Crowned). Kosovo became the jewel of the Serbian state, with fortresses and monasteries constructed under the order of kings, emperors and patriarchs: Bogorodica Ljeviška, Gračanica, Banjska, Dečani, so many more… prime among them, the Peć Patriarchate, nucleus of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Kosovo was the turning point for Serbian history, too, as Serbian and Ottoman armies met once again, this time on the Field of Blackbirds (kos, Kosovo Polje) and set in motion the events of future centuries, peonies sprouting from the blood of the fallen.
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.
Apologies for my absence. The demands of my job have kept me from posting new things on the blog, but I assure you that good things are coming. I’m actively researching, restoring and taking photos for upcoming posts that I hope you will find interesting.
Jewelry and adornment are as old as humanity, and our species has been very imaginative in creating unique, beautiful and sometimes bizarre ways to enhance our appearance. Often jewelry can be a cultural identifier, such as the neck rings of Padaung women, or the nose piercings of the Indian subcontinent. For the Balkan peninsula, one cultural identifier would have to be pafte, a piece of jewelry that is both beautiful and functional.
I’m often asked why I do the things I do. Why I teach, why I collect, why I’m doing this blog. I can only think of my late kum Rastko Aleksandrov, who was an excellent cardiac surgeon but an even more passionate birdwatcher. He travelled the world photographing bird species, and published a book on the migratory birds of Serbia. Kum Rastko told me once that people devote a different kind of energy to their hobby than to their job, no matter how much they love what they do for a living. This has stuck with me, and it rang true when I began learning more about Nikola Arsenović, one of the most prolific ethnographers to document South Slavic costume, and one of the most obsessed people in his field during his time. Continue reading