On August 10 1889, cannons announced the arrival of the teenage King Aleksandar Obrenovic to an empty plot in Dusanova street. Although cleared for years, the spot at which the young king was standing, held the remains of two empires between which the young Kingdom of Serbia was slowly growing. It used to be “Pirinc-han”: the palace of Eugene of Savoy during the Habsburg rule of Belgrade in 18th century, which was, in turn, a converted caravanserai, built during Belgrade’s boom under the Ottoman rule in 16th century.
Surrounded by Belgrade’s merchants and intellectuals, many of whom donated funds or building material to the project, Aleksandar lay the foundation stone of the building which symbolised his Kingdom’s grand ambitions: to expand and encompass all the lands they considered are rightfully Serbian.
When the building was finished a year later, according to the projects of Jovan Ilkic, almost evey inch of its façade boldly signified its intended purpose. The mix of Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Byzantine styles, signified Serbia’s position between the West and the East. The twelve painted coats of arms of lands from Syrmia (Srem) to Albania, taken from baroque era heraldic almanacs, indicated the intended reach of the Society . At the top, below a pyramidal roof which was to be decorated with a two-headed eagle, was the official name of the building: Hall of the St Sava Society (Dom Drustva Sveti Sava).
The St Sava Society was formed only a few years before, in 1886, just after Serbia was led into an ill-conceived war against Bulgaria by Aleksandar’s father Milan. After Milan’s attempts to prevent strengthening of another south Slavic state in the Balkans through force failed, they gave way to a softer approach. Although the idea of creating an organisation tasked with spreading Serbian influence among South Slavs in Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires was proposed almost a decade before by Dubrovnik-born Matija Ban, it was finally created at the insistence of a group of people around Svetomir Nikolajevic, one of Serbia’s foremost intellectuals.
The Society was to prepare the groundwork for future unification through education and culture, like the Italian and German national unification movements did a few decades before them. They wanted to attract all Slavic peoples speaking Serbian, irrespective of their religion as reflected in their official motto: “Brat je mio, koje vere bio” [Brother is dear, no matter the faith], later adopted in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
However, from the start the society was constrained. Given that Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia in 1878 and was a formidable foe, the Society first turned its sights towards the south, and the Orthodox Slavs living there.
Beside exploiting weakness of the crumbling Ottoman empire, the focus on Old Serbia (aka Kosovo) and Macedonia was economic and symbolic. Serbia wanted to obtain access to the sea, so it could trade freely and it looked toward Thessaloniki to achieve that. Furthermore, these regions, populated with a mix of Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Macedonians, Serbs, and Turks, had a symbolic role in imagination of the Serbian elite: Skopje was where Dusan the Magnificent proclaimed himself an emperor, Ohrid is the home of literacy among south Slavs, and Old Serbia was dotted with monasteries built by medieval Serbian kings.
However, the task of charming the local south Slavs was not an easy one: Serbia had a strong contender in Bulgaria, which although still de jure Ottoman, already developed a network of priests and teachers serving the local population and trying to ensure that they feel Bulgarian.
To foster Serbian identity among the Orthodox Slavs, the Society, formally independent but in effect supported by the government, set up a network around Serbia, Old Serbia and Macedonia, as well as two schools and a student’s hall in Belgrade. The primary activities of the Society were to offer Orthodox boys from the “South” education in Belgrade, publish and distribute their journal (“Brastvo”), books and pamphlets with Serbian propaganda. Both of these were made difficult by their both the Ottomans and, especially the Bulgarians who even managed to incite a revolt in one of the St Sava student halls in Belgrade.
Despite these difficulties the Society managed to attract a steady stream of youths from Old Serbia and Macedonia, some of which would go on and fight for Serbian interests as “cetniks” in various inter-ethnic and religious skirmishes during Macedonia’s bloody struggle for independence. Nevertheless, the Society’s many brushes with the Ottoman and Bulgarian authorities, caused a lot of concern in the Serbian government, who decided to out the stop to many of the Society’s activities just after it moved into its gleaming new Hall. Thus, from 1890 onwards, St Sava Society had to take a more passive role in its dealings in the south. Although they continued to offer accommodation and education to students from Old Serbia and Macedonia for another few years, they were increasingly focused on publishing and bringing together intellectuals interested in the “national cause”.
Even after the Society completely stopped its educational activities in early 20th century, its grand building was however always linked to education. Until WWI it housed an Orthodox seminary, a boarding house hearing and speech-impaired students and 1st Belgrade boys’ gymnasium. During the war, it was first a hospital and, then, during the Austro-Hungarian occupation (during which the Society’s archive was burned and coats of arms from the façade were removed) it housed both a school and lodging.
Between the two world wars, it housed 1st Belgrade boys’ gymnasium, and after another floor was added by Petar Bajalovi, it housed 4th Belgrade girls’ gymnasium. Bajalovic also designed an elegant apartment building belonging the Society next door, where the Society headquarters eventually moved. Its eclectic style was intended to conjure opulence of medieval Serbia, however its beautiful balconies look strangely North Indian.
After WWII, St Sava Society was dissolved and the building was used by Teacher Training College until 1987, when Physics Faculty moved in, who still use it. St Sava Society was re-established in 1994, and their main activity is publishing their journal ‘Bratstvo’.