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.
If you have seen a production of, or listened to the music from, Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”, you actually have some passing knowledge of one of the tiniest but fiercest corners of Serbdom, the Black Mountain – Crna Gora – Montenegro. Disguised with the pseudonym Pontevedro in the operetta, Lehar included elements of Montenegrin life throughout every aspect of the production. Premiering in 1905, the two leads, Mizzi Gunther (playing the eponymous widow, Hanna Glavari, a Pontevedran expatriate in Paris) and Louis Treumann (playing the dashing Prince Danilo), wore stage versions of traditional court costume; characters’ names were reflective of the region and the ruling dynasty, the Petrović-Njegoš family; an aria titled “The Song of the Vila” hearkened to the mythological vile (pl.) of Serb folklore, beautiful but temperamental female fairies who inhabited forests and mountains. The operetta was, in many ways, a Viennese nod to the Slavs of its kingdom, even though Montenegro lay beyond its boundaries. The land of mountains and eagles had never been fully conquered through five centuries of Ottoman presence in the Balkans; little did the Viennese know that in less than a decade, Montenegrin Serbs would be fighting off their armies, too.
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