Од Јасенице до Дунава – From Jasenica to the Danube

In a wedge of land bounded by the Danube, Morava, and Sava rivers, many great events of nineteenth and twentieth century Serbian history occurred. The area includes the modern-day capital, Belgrade, and the medieval capital, Smederevo. It was a chunk of geography that kingdoms vied for – Serbia, Byzantium, Hungary, the Ottomans all held it, and for good reason. The land is fertile, the forests rich, and the rivers were numerous. Besides the large, navigable rivers, the area is criss-crossed by seemingly countless smaller tributaries and streams, each creating habitable lowlands between hilly stretches, and each lending its name to local microregions.

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Књажевац – Knjaževac

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.

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Црна Гора – Crna Gora

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.

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Београд и околина – Belgrade district

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.

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У Влашким Крајевима – In the Lands of the Vlachs

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.

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Пафте – Pafte

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.

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Никола Арсеновић – Nikola Arsenović

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

Босанска Крајина – Bosanska Krajina

Bosanska Krajina is a term referring to the northern portion of Bosnia, bounded by the rivers Vrbas and Sava, and the Dinaric alps in the west. It was a region that for centuries represented the frontier of the Ottoman Empire, abutting directly against the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier (Vojna Krajina). The word kraj means the end of something, or a region, and “Krajina” is used to designate a number of districts and micro-regions historically inhabited by Serbs (Timočka Krajina, Bela Krajina, Kninska Krajina etc). It is found in other Slavic languages as well; for example, Ukraine is a toponym derived from the Russian v’krajina, “in the outskirts”. Krajina, when applied to any area, has that connotation of being the outskirts, an outlying or remote area. The mountainous terrain of Bosanska Krajina certainly made it difficult to traverse and settle, and in that sense remained remote for a very long time. Continue reading