A century and a half ago, on April 6 1867, the last Ottoman soldiers left the Belgrade fortress, the northernmost post of the sprawling, if crumbling, empire. That day, celebrated with much pomp in Kalemegdan, marked the beginning of modern Belgrade.
Under Ottoman rule, Belgrade was known as Dar al Jihad (House of the Holy War) and in the 17th Century it was one of the most prosperous Ottoman cities in Europe.
By the mid-19th Century, however, it shrunk to about 30,000 souls, due to many wars that tossed it between Habsburg, Ottoman and, ultimately, Serbian hands. For several decades before the Ottoman garrison withdrew, there was an uneasy peace between Serbian city folk and the Ottoman fortress. A skirmish between Serbs and Ottoman soldiers escalated into a full scale bombardment of the city from the fortress in 1862. This incident, in turn, led to a treaty with the Ottomans which directed that the Muslim population, once the majority in the city and concentrated in Dorcol, needed to leave the city or convert.
Even though it started losing most of its Muslim merchants, in 1867, Belgrade was still an oriental town. City life revolved around the colourful market which stood in the area of the current Academic Park (Studentski Park), while dilapidated ramparts built by Ottomans and Austrians choked the old city. The minarets of fifteen mosques, including one on top of the fortress, accentuated the skyline. High walls protected lush gardens and the white townhouses of Dorcol, while countless fountains with Arabic inscriptions dotted its cramped alleyways.
Serbs lived on the other side of Knez Mihailova, around Kosancic square, in increasingly western-looking neoclassical one-storey houses. Although their houses increasingly resembled those across the Sava in Habsburg-ruled Zemun, they were still wearing fezzes and traditional, flowing costumes. Nevertheless, the rising Serbian merchant class was slowly working to establish state institutions modelled on the ones in Western Europe.
Misa Anastasijevic, one of the richest merchants of the time, decided to build Belgrade’s tallest building, which now houses Belgrade University’s main building, and dedicate it to Belgrade’s Higher School, the university’s predecessor.
A sizeable Jewish population lived freely in what is now lower Dorcol, while many Roma lived in small communities outside the city gates. To add to the already cosmopolitan mix in town, there were pockets of catholic and protestant residents who had their churches from the time of the brief Habsburg rule in the 18th Century, as well as Greek and Albanian merchants who brought goods from the Orient. All in all, it was a vibrant small town, in many ways unlike the sooty, booming metropolis that we know and love today.
The keys to the Belgrade fortress were handed to Prince Mihailo Obrenovic, a smooth political operator whose diplomatic and political skills allowed greater autonomy for Serbia. As soon he got full control of Serbia’s capital he planned to reshape it in the mould of Western cities, no matter the cost.
Fortifications were demolished and gave way to squares, boulevards, and public buildings, most famous being the National Theatre. The alleyways and wooded gardens of Dorćol were forced into a grid pattern based on a plan by Emilijan Josimovic, Serbia’s first urban planner.
All minarets and mosques, apart from one, were demolished, often illegally, to accommodate the new plan, until there was only the gleaming spire of the baroque Orthodox Cathedral to signal the city’s spiritual devotion. The old, ruinous Batal mosque, which was considered a masterpiece of 16th Century Ottoman architecture in Europe, was blown to smithereens in the middle of the night by an early mayor of Belgrade to make way for the cattle market (and much later, the Parliament building), in spite of pleas by some Serbian intellectuals who pushed for renovation and conversion into a state archive. Prince Mihailo even promised a (failed) grandiose luxury development on the banks of Sava, just below the fortress.
Although the assassination of Prince Mihailo in 1868 shook the country, modern Belgrade continued to develop according to his vision and moved quickly away from its Ottoman past, while retaining its cosmopolitan, open spirit.
Much of Belgrade’s rising fortunes were due to an inflow of western investors and chancers drawn by the promise of Serbia’s untapped potential.
Czech entrepreneur and founder of one of old Belgrade’s famous breweries, Ignjat Bajloni, initially planned to move to the USA, but was lured to Serbia by his sister, who promised that Serbia offered better investment opportunities.
Bajloni’s main rival, Ignatz Wiefert, brought his brewing knowledge across the Danube from Pancevo and became a patriarch of one of the most influential families in Serbia.
On the other hand, Scottish missionary and teetotaller Francis Mackenzie purchased land around Slavija and developed an elegant quarter for Serbia’s elite, which later became the heart of Vracar. Meanwhile, the Serbo-Turkish wars of the late 1870s drew in foreign volunteers, mostly Russians, drawn by the then popular spirit of Pan-Slavism and aristocratic adventurers from Western Europe keen to gain glory and money in the turmoil.
It was in this era of exuberance that Belgrade’s famous night life developed. Before this, Belgraders were rather tame people who preferred family gatherings, and ladies were scared of being seen in kafanas. It was the foreigners, flush with cash and eager for entertainment, who gave Belgraders a taste for debauchery.
According to Felix Kanitz, an Austro-Hungarian art historian and explorer of the Balkans, in the 1870s Belgrade’s many kafanas were chock-full with revellers who were entertained by French crooners, Hungarian fiddlers, German yodellers and Czech contortionists. After the Serbian victory against the Ottomans in 1868, Kanitz described a parade of dramatically dressed characters from all around Europe partying in kafanas all the way from Kalemegdan to Vracar for several months, until they spent all their money gambling and drinking.
During all this commotion richer Belgraders quickly adopted Western fashions. Well made-up ladies were happily showing off their wares from Paris and Vienna, while the gentlemen, many of whom were educated abroad, did away with the fez and embraced finely cut English suits. Beer became the drink of choice, while soirees, salons and nights at the theatre became the norm.
Eleven years after the withdrawal of the Turkish army, at the Berlin congress, Serbia was declared an independent country. In the space of a bit more than a decade Belgrade morphed into a western-style capital of an ambitious principality, eager to claim its place between established European cultural centres, even if it meant erasing its past.
In the turbulent century and a half that was to follow, Belgrade would expand even more and gain in beauty and prestige from its new residents, from the white Russian diaspora of the 1920s, to all Yugoslav peoples who made it a home while it was a capital of a much larger country. It would also lose its citizens, as well as historical areas, to war, turmoil and neglect.
Although the city has grown and changed beyond recognition since 1867, the restless, alluring and occasionally dangerous spirit that seeks to reshape its features and even history, no matter the cost, is very much alive in Belgrade.
That spirit both explains its selective memory and carelessness, but also keeps its heart open to new people who flock to it, drawn to a vague sense of promise in the air.
I can only hope that the coming centuries will temper Belgrade’s turbulent nature and finally allow it to reach fulfil its potential, without losing its open heart and enthusiasm for novelty.