Hidden Belgrade (9): The forgotten golden age of Belgrade

In 16th century Belgrade was considered the only city that lay between Ottomans and Western Europe. Located at the very edge of the Hungarian kingdom, the city’s fortress protected the Pannonian plains from the Turkish assault and was often attacked by the Ottoman armies from the nearby Turkish-held fortifications that were as close to the city as Avala, where the Ottomans held the town of Žrnovo (destroyed in 1920s to make way for the Monument to the Unknown Solider). Although the Hungarian kingdom invested heavily in protecting the city, these assaults put a check on the city’s development.

The famous and improbable victory of the Hungarian noble Janos Hunyadi and the crusade preaching monk, John of Capistrano, against the Ottomans in 1456, left the city in ruins, as the defenders had to resort to torching most of the city that lay below the fortress (in contemporary lower Kalemegdan). The following decades saw intermittent attacks from the Ottomans, until Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the city in 1521. Suleiman launched the attack at night from Zemun and the Great War Island, and benefited from the years of chaos that prevented the Hungarians from protecting the city better. The victory spelled doom for Hungarians, whose loss in 1526 Battle of Mohacs meant the end of their feudal state.

Although its Serbian population suffered the terrible fate of being exiled to Istanbul (to the area known as the Belgrade forest), Hungarian loss, paradoxically, allowed Belgrade to flourish from an unstable border town into a booming oriental metropolis and one of the main cities in the European Ottoman empire. Major building works began as soon as Suleiman conquered the city, and the city received two imperial mosques, one in lower town and the other at the top of the Belgrade fortress. Although the city until the end of the Ottoman rule had about 90 mosques, it was the trade buildings that shaped this Ottoman-Serbian metropolis the most. Bezistan, a covered square was rapidly constructed from remains of an orthodox church and a synagogue.  Several bazars were built in today’s Dorćol and there was a majestic caravanserai receiving travellers from the silk road built by Sokollu Mehmed Pasha (of The Bridge over Drina fame) which stood at the corner of the contemporary Dušanova and Kralja Petra.

The increased importance of  the city quickly drew in the Jewish and Ragusan (Dubrovnik) tradesmen and the city started growing rapidly. Soon it was called the Cairo of Europe and reached population level of between 70,000 and 100,000, a number that will only be surpassed in 20th century and which made it the 2nd Ottoman city by size in Europe. Culture flourished with many islamic centres of learning opening and with a printing press serving the Christian population. Ottoman calligraphers, poets and Dervishes flocked to the city. Beside many mosques, there were several Orthodox churches, one Catholic church, and few synagogues serving the mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. The joint life was not always peaceful though: in 1594 the Ottomans burned the remains of Saint Sava in retaliation for a Serbian rebellion, while the Ragusans and other catholic merchants constantly bickered over privileges and control of the church.

Ruins of Batal mosque
Ruins of Batal mosque by Felix Kanitz. It was located at the spot of the Serbian Parliament.
For all the problems, the city back then a was a sight to behold. Batal mosque, destroyed first by the Austrians in 18th century and then blown up by mayor Blaznavac for building material in 19th century,  was considered the most beautiful piece of Ottoman architecture in the Balkans. Travellers wrote praises about the rich bazaars and beautiful gardens of Dorćol. British physician Edward Brown, who visited in 1669, described the impressive cathedral-like covered markets filled with fineries from the Orient and dozens of lovely hammams. Evliya Çelebi, the 17th century Ottoman explorer who travelled the length of the Ottoman empire, was taken by the city’s many minarets piercing the sky above Terazija ridge.

Ottoman house
19th century Dorćol house by Felix Kanitz
However, Belgrade’s fortunes were to change again after it was taken by the Habsburg forces in 1688. This was the beginning of the period of instability that marked the following two centuries. The siege once again laid wreck to the once prosperous city, however it was the city’s retaking by the Ottomans in 1690 that scarred it as the medieval keep built by Prince Stefan Lazarevic blew up as gunpowder storerooms below it were hit by a missile.

The remains of the Ottoman Golden age slowly disappeared once the city again changed hands in 1717. Belgrade and its fortress were remodelled in the Baroque fashion by the Austrians, who removed many of the Ottoman features, only to be forced to destroy even their own new structures in 1739 when they had to give it up to the Ottomans once again. Modernisation of Belgrade in 19th century, almost completely eviscerated the Ottoman mosques from the 16th century, leaving only Bajarakli mosque standing. Although not showy at all, Bajrakli mosque is thus the oldest religious object currently in use in Belgrade. The building only stopped being a mosque during the Austrian rule in 17th century when it was converted into a catholic church.

Bajrakli mosque: now and in 19th century (drawing by Felix Kanitz)
Illustration by Felix Kanitz
The only other memento from 160 years of Belgarde’s Ottoman boom is the fountain built by Sokollu Mehmed Pasha in the Belgrade fortress. Described by Evliya Çelebi, as a a fountain which transports the drinker to heaven, it used to serve those attending services at the now vanished imperial mosque nearby. It was buried by the Austrians and was rediscovered at the end of WWII. Despite neglect, hiding in the shade of an old tree, its elegant ornaments still evoke its glorious past. Thankfully it is set to be restored to drinking condition by TIKA, and will hopefully once again allow a thirsty traveller to freshen up while taking in the most beautiful view from the Belgrade fortress, through the gate leading to the lower city and beyond to the endless flatlands of Pannonia.

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