History of Belgrade: Scythian Tribes, Romans and World War II

Belgrade, in Serbia, is a city of very tumultuous history, is one of the oldest cities in Europe.

The first human settlements on Belgrade soil developed as far back as 7000 years ago. The area around two great rivers, the Sava and the Danube has been inhabited as early as palaeolithic period. This is borne out by numerous archaeological sites with material evidence, ranging from the culture of the Old Stone Age and other prehistoric cultures, to the Middle Ages.

Vinča near Belgrade comes among the most important settlements and cultural sites of the prehistoric period. Vinča is a prehistoric tell on the very bank of the Danube, with the remnants of the material culture of the prehistoric man (the Neolithic plastics). There were discovered numerous houses, sod houses with the remnants of material culture of the prehistoric man. Each of the settled prehistoric levels, which mark individual stages of life in Vinča (in the period from around 4500 to 3200 BC), contains real treasures of a wide variety of artifacts: implements and weapons made of stones and bones, earthenware for everyday use, elaborately decorated ritual vases, a great number of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines of exceptionally impressive stylization, jewelry made of different kinds of rare and precious materials, and countless other objects and works of art made in the very Vinča or procured from distant regions – from the Central Europe, the Lower Danube river basin or from the Mediterranean.

The discovered artifacts can nowadays be seen in the National Museum in Belgrade, the Belgrade City Museum, and in the Vinča Collection at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade. Around 4000 BC, the Vinča culture stretched over a territory larger than the territory of any other Neolithic culture in Europe. Some of its settlements had exceeded, by their size and population, not only all the contemporary Neolithic settlements, but also the first towns that emanated much later in Mesopotamia, Aegea, and in Egypt.

Ancient Period
In c. 600 B.C. the Thracian-Cimmerian and Scythian tribes moved across this area, while the Celtic tribes crossed this territory in the III century B.C. The founding of Singidunum is attributed to the Celtic tribe, the Scordiscs. As a fortified settlement, Singidunum was mentioned for the first time in 279 B.C. The first part of the word – Singi – means “round” and dunum means “fortress” or “town”. The name of the settlement was preserved throughout the Roman rule. The Romans conquered Belgrade in the beginning of the I century A.D. and it has been under their rule for full four centuries. Singidunum was most prosperous in 86 A.D., when the IV Legion of Flavius arrived. As an important Roman military camp, Singidunum gained municipal rights in the II century A.D. during the rule of emperor Hadrian. Its military importance became even higher in the III century. In that period, Singidunum was the center of the Christian diocese. Some time later, it was the place of birth of the Roman emperor Flavius Jovianus.

After the division of the Roman Empire into the Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire in 395, Singidunum became a border town of the Byzantine Empire. This new position of the town determined its later fate, for it became not only a linking point of various cultural influences, but, before all, a communication and strategic key of the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Empire
The disintegration of the Roman Empire was followed by invasion of barbarian peoples: Eastern Goths, Gepidaes, Sarmatians, Avars, Slavs and others. Because of its advanced position at the border, Belgrade suffered frequent attacks and destructions. The attacks coming from the north, across Pannonia, the Danube and Sava, were so hard that even Singidunum, an important military stronghold, could not resist them. The Huns captured it and completely destroyed it in 441. Singidunum lost its Roman inhabitants then. After the fall of the Huns, the town became a part of the Byzantine Empire once again in 454, but it was soon conquered by the Sarmatians, and later the Eastern Goths. However, already in 488, it became a Byzantine town again. Byzantine emperor Justinian I rebuilt Singidunum in 535, restoring the fortress and city to its former military importance. At the end of the VI century, while the Byzantines were occupied with wars in Africa and Asia, the Mongol tribes of Avars appeared in front of the walls of Singidunum, and after them came the first groups of the Slavs. The name Singidunum disappeared after this barbarian invasion and the destruction of the town and it has never appeared again in the whole history afterwards.

The city would re-emerge later, mentioned as Beograd, a Slavic word meaning “white fortress” (due to the color of the stone it was built from), in a letter written on April 16, 878 by Pope John VIII to Bulgarian prince Boris I Mihail. With its new name, Beograd, would eventually be restored to the same strategic significance it had held throughout its history, but never again would it be mentioned as Singidunum. Several centuries after the first mentioning of Belgrade as a Slavic town, various armies and conquerors control it by turns. The Franks were the first to reach Belgrade and destroy the Avars under the command of Charles the Great. The rule of the Franks was replaced by Bulgarians, and they gave place to Hungarians. Already in 1018, it once again became a border stronghold of the Byzantine Empire. During the XI and XII centuries, the rival forces of Hungary, Byzantine Empire and Bulgaria fought for it. After the Crusades of 1096 and 1147, 190,000 people pass through Belgrade in 1189, led by Frederick Barbarossa. This leader of crusaders saw Belgrade in ruins.

The History of Belgrade Fortress
With impressive views over the Danube and Sava rivers, the Belgrade Fortress and the Kalemegdan Park together represent a cultural monument of exceptional importance, the area where various sport, cultural and arts events take place, and are fun and joy for all generations of Belgraders and numerous visitors of the city.

The Belgrade Fortress has not developed continuously over the course of its long history. Applied defence systems from various periods intertwine, emerging on the remnants of older fortifications; newer construction at times adjusted to older structures, but sometimes subverted them. The old fort contains various styles of European military architecture, covering a span of over two millennia.

The Belgrade Fortress was erected on the hill above the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers at the end of the 1st Century as the permanent camp of the Roman Legion Flavia Felix. Attacked and conquered several times throughout the centuries, the old Roman fortress was finally destroyed in the early 7th century in attacks staged by the Avars and Slavs.

The first Slavic settlement emerged on the ruins of this ancient fortress, which by the end of the 9* century was already known to contemporaries as Beograd (Belgrade). In that early medieval period, ancient ramparts were used for defence, rather than constructing new ones. Only in the middle of the 12th century, the Byzantine Czar Manuel Comnenus erected a new castle upon the Roman ruins.

The Belgrade Fortress’s further development was conditioned by the efforts of Serbian rulers to secure their state’s borders on the banks of the Sava and Danube rivers. As a new center of Serbia, under the rule of Despot Stefan Lazarević, Belgrade has been fortified with wide forts of Upper and Lower Towns. At the old castle, despot’s palace has been built, and a war port has been built on the Sava. Within the walls, a prosperous mediaeval town has been developed. The new fortifications were supposed to defend the ruler’s seat and prevent a Turkish breakthrough towards the centre of Europe.

Serbian military architecture reached its zenith in the construction of Belgrade’s fortifications. This venture and latter construction in the 15″ century are seen in Despot’s Gate, the Coiner Tower of Upper Town, Zindon Cote with its cannon positions, among the oldest in Europe, the Eastern Suburb and especially the famous NebojSa Tower at the former entrance to the Belgrade Pier.

A new period began with the Austrian-Turkish war. Having been the key fortress in the center of war actions during the 18th century, it has been reconstructed three times. The old castle has been demolished, and a large part of mediaeval walls was covered by new fortifications. Under the Austrian rule, from 1717 to 1739, after the construction of new, modern forts, the Belgrade Fortress became one of the strongest military fortifications in Europe. The latest solutions in European military architecture of those times were applied in the defence system of Belgrade. Unfortunately, the great piece built according to the design of Nicholas Doxat de Morez was thoroughly destroyed, and its remaining fragments are just some of the Baroque facade towers of the Fortress.

By the end of the 18″ century, the Belgrade Fortress got its final shape, but this coincided with its loss in military and strategic importance. At the time of the final handover of the city to the Serbian army in 1867, the fortress no longer played a crucial role in the city’s defence.

Middle Ages
Belgrade 15th century
The Serbian rule over Belgrade began in 1284, when the Serbian king Dragutin, son-in-law and vassal of the Hungarian king Ladislav IV was given rule over Belgrade. It was a period of intensive settling of Serbian population and increasing influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church. After Dragutin’s death, his brother Milutin came to the throne, but he has ruled over Belgrade for a short time, for in 1319 it was captured and totally destroyed by the Hungarians. Demolished and abandoned town became a border foothold of Hungarian resistance to expansion of the Serbian state from the south, in the time of Czar Dušan. In that condition Belgrade enters the XV century, when the Turks, a new conquering force, appeared on the historical stage of Europe.

In strong desire to get as prepared as possible to resist Turkish invasion and to have a powerful stronghold on the Sava and Danube, the Hungarians allowed construction of Belgrade during the rule of Despot Stefan Lazarević. He ruled over Belgrade from 1403 until 1427 and that was the time of a real prosperity of this town. Belgrade was not only the capital of the Serbian state, but also the most important economic, cultural and religious center. Belgrade is supposed to have had about 40-50,000 inhabitants in that period. The Despot’s successor Đurađ Branković was forced to surrender the town to the Hungarians. During the hundred years of Hungarian rule the whole population structure was changed as well as shape of the very town.

Turkish Conquest
The Turks knew that Belgrade was the greatest obstacle in their campaigns towards Central Europe. After the fall of Smederevo in 1440 the Belgrade fortress was under siege by the Turkish army with over 100,000 soldiers. For almost a century Belgrade has resisted Turkish attacks. Finally, under the command of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, on August 28, 1521, the Turks managed to conquer Belgrade – the rampart of Christianity and the key of defense of whole Hungary. The town was demolished and burnt down, and the way to Western Europe open. With the moving of border to the north, the strategic position of Belgrade also changes, and in the next 150 years, it was relatively peaceful town with a more significant commercial and communication function.

However, it was affected by a major Serb rebellion in 1594, which was crushed by the Turks, who burned churches and the relics (mortal remains) of Saint Sava on the Vračar plateau, an event the Temple of Saint Sava was built to commemorate in more recent times. Its highest progress under the Turks Belgrade makes in the XVII century, when it counts population of 100,000 and becomes the second-largest town, right after Istanbul.

After the Turkish defeat under the walls of Vienna in September 1688, the Austrians conquered Belgrade. Two years later, the Turks regained control over it, but these conflicts left Belgrade destroyed and its population killed, persecuted and robbed because of its cooperation with Austrians. Occupied by Austria three times (1688–1690, 1717–1739, 1789–1791), it was quickly recaptured and substantially razed each time by the Ottomans.

After signing the peace treaty of Svishtov in 1791, the Austrians retreated to Zemun, and the janissaries were forbidden entrance to the Belgrade Pashalik (district). After Moustapha-pasha was killed in 1801, the janissaries established their own rule over the town and surrounding villages. That was a period of total anarchy, violence and robberies made by the janissaries. It was finished by the notorious slaughter of the Serbian knezes and other famous Serbs, which was the cause for organizing the insurrection.

Liberation of Belgrade
Awakening of national consciousness and events related to the slaughter of the knezes led to organization of the First Serbian Insurrection in 1804. The insurrection led by Karađorđe from the very beginning was also aimed at liberation of Belgrade. After two years of fight, the town was conquered on January 8, 1806. It became the capital of recently liberated part of Serbia and a symbol of freedom-loving tradition of its population. After renewal it also became an important economic, trade and cultural center. The dynamic development of Belgrade was interrupted by Turkish conquest in 1813, and the repressions which followed led to the insurrection in 1815. The leader of the insurrection, Knez Miloš Obrenović, managed to introduce more of diplomacy into relations with the Turks. Granting certain privileges, he moves Serbian population from the south to Belgrade, causing the Turks to sell their land and houses at prices far below real value. After 346 years of rule, the Turks left Belgrade for good on April 18, 1867, and Knez Mihailo Obrenović moved the capital from Kragujevac to Belgrade. That was a new stimulus to faster economic and cultural development of the town. In the second half of the XIX century it was brought closer to Europe in the aspect of city planning etc. The Kneza Mihaila Street had the central position and it was the shortest connection between the fortress and the town. It soon became the most important trade and business center of Belgrade and it has kept that role until today.

World War I
The intensive development of Belgrade which started after its final liberation from the Turks continued in the first years of the XX century. However, the further development of the city was hindered by a fact that Belgrade was a border city and an obstacle to Austrian expansionistic policy against Balkan. In planning of Austrian and German expansion to Balkan, an excuse was sought to attack Serbian by military force. It was found in the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian crown-prince Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo.

World War I started with the ultimatum, and later the attack on Serbia. During World War I, Serbia lost 28% of its whole population, while Belgrade was the most destroyed town in Serbia. Immediately after the liberation, Belgrade became the capital of the newly-created Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which gave it even stronger impulse for faster development. Numerous buildings were constructed in the old city center, which gave Belgrade the shape of a European city.

In the year 1936 Belgrade was proclaimed for a tourist resort. It had 23 hotels, 33 restaurants, 433 guest houses, 427 taverns, 197 bistros, 412 national dining room and 318 inns. In those years a short movie on Belgrade was also shot, a tourist promotion poster of Belgrade made and Belgrade Guide (Vođ kroz Beograd) printed.

World War II
The city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe on April 6, 1941, killing thousands of people. Yugoslavia was invaded by German, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian forces and the western suburbs were incorporated into a Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia. During the summer and fall of 1941, in reprisal to guerrilla attacks, the Germans carried out several massacres of citzens from Belgrade; in particular, members of Belgrade’s Jewish community were subject to mass shootings at the order of General Franz Böhme, the German Military Governor of Serbia. Böhme rigorously enforced the rule that for every German killed, 100 Serbs or Jews would be shot. Following the Nazi example, the Independent State of Croatia established extermination camps and perpetrated an atrocious genocide killing over 750.000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. This holocaust set the historical and political backdrop for the civil war that broke out fifty years later in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992.

The city was bombed by the Allies as well, on April 16, 1944, killing about 1,600 people. Both bombings happened to fall on Orthodox Christian Easter. Most of the city remained under German occupation until October 20, 1944, when it was liberated by Communist Yugoslav Partisans and the Red Army. On November 29, 1945, Marshal Josip Broz Tito proclaimed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in Belgrade. In the post-war period Belgrade grew rapidly as the capital of the renewed Yugoslavia, developing as a major industrial centre.