What to visit in Serbia
Lepenski vir, the oldest urban settlement in Europe
The territory of modern Serbia has been settled for almost 10.000 years. Archeological researches have shown that it was occupied by late Paleolithic and Mesolithic civilization of Lepenski vir, dated in period between 11th and 7th millennium B.C. Very progressive at the time, this ancient civilization was settled on the banks of Danube River and belonged to Iron Gate culture family. Lepenski vir is now an archeological site with outdoor and indoor facilities showcasing rich historical and cultural heritage of what is widely considered to be the oldest urban settlement in Europe. It is world-wide famous for the fishlike creature statues made from Danube pebbles and is one of the best preserved prehistoric locations in the world.
17 Roman emperors were born on the territory of today's Serbia
Thousands of years after Lepenski vir, Vinča and Starčevo cultures territory of today Serbia has been settled by Illyrians, Thracians, Dacians and Celts. However, much stronger civilizational trail and impact remained after the Romans, who conquered various parts of today’s Serbian territory in period between 2nd Century B.C. and 1st Century A.D. Romans dominated these lands for almost 600 years by building roads and bridges, fortifications, vineyards and military settlements. Especially in the period of Roman Empire this territory had huge military and strategic importance. At least 17 Roman emperors were born here, making modern-day Serbia second to Italy in this category. The most famous one was of course Constantin the Great, emperor who introduced religious tolerance and later converted Romans to Christianity. Serbia is packed with Roman era archeological sites and findings. Out of them, two locations stand out: Viminacium (near Kostolac), the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior, and Felix Romuliana, now a UNESCO World heritage list site near Zaječar. Both locations contain preserved original structures and museums dedicated to ancient history.
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Serbian Golden age
Slavs, and among them Serbs, settled the Balkan Peninsula in 7th Century. Gradually but steadily Serbs liberated themselves from Byzantine domination and created strong and influential medieval state. Under Nemanjić and Lazarević dynasties medieval Serbia became strong and wealthy country which dominated the region all until the Ottoman conquest. Serbian Golden age happened in late 13th and 14th Century, when Serbs were as numerous as English, and state was spreading from modern-day Croatia in West to Aegean and Ionian Sea in the East. True monument of the era are medieval monasteries, endowments of Serbian princes, kings and emperors, of whom many survived to this very day. Tradition of endowment building started with Prince Stefan Nemanja, founder of Nemanjić dynasty and his Studenica, another UNESCO World heritage list location in Serbia, magnificent monastery built in late 12th and early 13th Century. With outstanding size and beauty, this monastery also has large parts of original frescos inside, making it one of the holiest places in Serbia. Same dynasty built other impressive monasteries, such are Mileševa, Ziča, Sopoćani, Visoki Dečani, Gračanica and others. It was succeeded by Lazarević dynasty, famous for its endowments – monasteries of Ravanica, Ljubostinja and Manasija (Resava). Manasija is one of the greatest and most beautiful examples of late medieval church building in Serbia, it is decorated with frescos painted by greatest masters of the Eastern Christianity, and it is located within partially preserved medieval fortification.
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Serbia under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman conquest in Balkans started in the final quarter of 14th Century and Serbia lost its independence by mid-15th Century. In various parts of Serbia Ottomans (usually perceived by local population as the Turks) remained from 350 to almost 500 years. Their legacy is Islamic population of Serbia, as like as mosques and other oriental structures, since here there was none before their time. Unlike Romans, the Ottomans haven’t done very much to improve overall living conditions of population and build useful and lasting structures. Very few remained to this day and of them one particularly stands out. The Skull Tower in Niš, second largest city in the country, is probably the strongest monument of Ottoman presence in Serbia. It was erected in 1809 after the fierce battle between Ottoman army and Serbian rebels during the First Serbian Uprising. The structure consists of almost 1000 human skulls built into concrete mass. Skulls belonged to Serbian freedom fighters who lost their lives in the battle of Čegar. Niš, a beautiful and historically important place (birthplace of Emperor Constantin the Great) remained under Ottoman rule until 1878 and still has lot of Ottoman heritage in architecture, culture, cuisine and music.
Great Migrations of the Serbs
During the centuries under the Ottoman rule Serbs tried to preserve their national identity and culture. At the same time, whenever Christian countries (Habsburg Empire, Venetia and Russia) were at war against the Ottomans, Serbs would make rebellions and tried to aid to the Christian cause. One such episode had a huge price: in 1690 Ottomans decided to punish Serbs for taking part in war against them and launched a huge punitive operation in modern-day territory of Kosovo, south central Serbia and northern Montenegro. In order to save as much people as possible, Serbian Patriarch Aresenius III led the huge migration, taking as much as 40.000 families north to Habsburg Empire. Clergy was migrating with people and entire monastery brotherhoods relocated to the territory of Fruška Gora Mountain. There has already been some Serbian churches and monasteries there, but after the great migration under Arsenius, some 30 monasteries were active in 18th and 19th Century. This territory became a Serbian Holy land, a place where national identity, spirituality and culture were nurtured and preserved. Although some of the monasteries suffered damages and destruction in 20th Century many of them are still active. Built in peaceful natural surroundings, these mostly baroque styled churches are witness of an era and hardships that fell upon Serbian nation. Small town of Sremski Karlovci was a spiritual center and the seat of archbishops and patriarchs. It has a short but beautiful pedestrian area situated between 18th and 19th century churches and buildings. It is quite famous for numerous family wineries and kugloffs (local cakes), as like as for the oldest Serbian high school still active today.
Serbian Uprising against the Turks
Serbian modern history starts with 19th Century uprisings and national revolution which lead to liberation from Ottoman rule and state building process. Two local dynasties emerged and ruled Serbia (and Yugoslavia) from 1804 till 1945. In Topola, beautiful area in the heart of Serbia and just some 80 minute drive from Belgrade, you can visit the complex memorizing Serbian Uprisings and St George’s church, a royal mausoleum of Karadjordjević dynasty. This area is also famous for its vineyards and cellars, and some of the Serbia’s best are located just couple of minutes from the historical complex in Topola.
The Great War (WW1)
After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo (summer of 1914) world went crazy and full-scale war involving majority of European countries lasted for 4 years. Serbia played prominent role in it, being one of the Entante members. In this war Serbia lost more than 25% of its overall population but won, creating a new state – Yugoslavia, with Belgrade as capital. First major battle in this war was waged in Western Serbia, in area of Suvobor Mountain and Drina River. Beautiful wild nature still marks large parts of this area, providing excellent conditions for rafting, fishing, hiking, recreation. Town of Loznica is worthwhile visiting with local museums and monuments mostly being dedicated to hard but glorious days of the Great War.
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World War Two (WW2)
In April 1941 Kingdom of Yugoslavia has been attacked by Nazi Germany and Axis countries. Soon the country was occupied and divided, which made a stage for huge war crimes, genocide, Holocaust and bloody civil war to take place. Nazi armies were ruthless and molested the civilians. In territory of modern-day Croatia and Bosnia a fascist puppet-state has been established, under the regime of notorious war criminal Ante Pavelić. Huge scale Holocaust took place and almost 90% of Yugoslav Jews were killed. Croatian authorities persecuted local Serbs to the level of genocide and some of the worst war crimes took place there. On the territory of Serbia two resistance movements emerged: royalist one, under General Draza Mihailovic, and communist one under Josip Broz Tito. After joint struggle against the Nazis they engaged in bloody civil war and revolution. These events still affect general population and are have created deep divisions within Serbian society. Royalist still visit Ravna Gora, a plateau in West Serbia where Mihailovic started his uprising, while the center of communist resistance was in nearby town of Uzice. WW2 is one of the central points in identity of every family in Serbia even today.
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During the WW2 a revolution took place in Yugoslavia making it completely communist after 1945. Tito’s regime had many similarities with ones of Stalin and Mao’s, but also many differences. In 1948 a clash happened with USSR and Yugoslavia, under Tito’s firm control, decided to take “an independent path to Communism”. This meant huge internal migrations to cities, building of tens of thousands buildings for accommodation, industrialization, introduction of massive healthcare and cheap, if not free, education. Millions of citizen, especially after 1960s, lived the Yugoslav dream: a comfortable 8 hours working time, long cheap vacations on the seaside, education, health and social care, even a consumerism and certain liberties no other socialist country was offering. Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) with its oldest parts is a true monument of this dream and the best place to understand the huge civilizational step forward Yugoslavia made under the rule of communists (having the repression and all other negative sides of the story in mind!). It can clarify why so many older people today are feeling nostalgic for Yugoslavia and the days of Tito’s rule.
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