Hidden Belgrade (41): Occult Belgrade

Given Belgrade’s long and bloody history it is almost a wonder that there is not a larger number of stories of hauntings and other occult occurrences. This is even more remarkable considering that Serbia has a long association with and interest in the occult – from being connected with vampire crazes since 18th century (we invented the word after all), to its prominent role in the mildly entertaining Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet.

The Dark Well

Probably the most feared and storied place in Belgrade’s collective consciousness is the “Roman well” inside the Belgrade fortress. Dark and located inside a cavernous hall, this ancient well oozes mystery and gloom, even without knowing its dark history. The most recent incident happened in 1954 when a man threw his mistress inside the well and her body only surfaced a few days later. There are additional stories of divers who died looking for gold below its murky waters and prisoners who were kept in in its dark depths, and there is a rumoured passageway that link it to the other side of the Sava, maybe going all the way to Gardoš in Zemun.

All these dark tales have led a military group of psychics during 1990s (yes, really) to conclude that the well is a major source of evil, which can be stopped only by human sacrifice of a Western officials (George H. Bush was a considered a suitable offering). Alas, nothing came of that and the well still intrigues and fascinates many visitors to the Belgrade fortress…

Sceptic’s view: First of all the “Roman” well is not Roman at all, but was actually during the Habsburg reconstruction of the Belgrade fortress in 18th century. There is no evidence of it being linked to the other side of the river, and the 1954 murder was an isolated case of an actual crime by the well.

The Magical Spring

Spurting from the hill on which the Belgrade fortress is located, St Petka (Parascheva)’s is dedicated to one of the most revered saints from the Balkans. Popular with the Balkan people since her death in 11th century and burial in the ancient Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo, St Petka became especially revered in Belgrade as her holy relics were transferred to Belgrade at the insistence of Princess Milica Hrebeljanović in 1395, during her son’s reign over the city. They were placed inside a church that was raided when the Ottomans took the city in 1521, and St Petka’s relics were transferred to Constantinople (and later to Iasi in Romania).

Even after the church was converted to a mosque (and later destroyed by the Habsburgs), the spring was thought to heal many ailments, from blindness to psychological problems, and was popular with Belgraders. Its magical nature was further confirmed during WWI, when its waters allegedly stopped flowing during the Austro-Hungarian occupation of the city.

After the war, a new chapel was constructed by Momir Korunovic, enshrining two of St Petka’s fingers, and the spring’s water is available to worshippers every day, but is especially popular on the feat of Epiphany (19 January) when Orthodox Serbs traditionally gather holy water.

Sceptic’s view: Springs are highly revered in Serbia and pretty much every major monastery has a miraculous spring which is often blessed by the church. Health benefits of St Petka’s spring have never been medically tested to my knowledge, but the water is eminently potable. The whole WWI story sounds fishy though…

The Cursed Bridge

One of the most famous episodes of mass violence in Belgrade happened in 1862, when an Ottoman soldier, stationed in the city, killed a Serbian child by Čukur česma – one of the city’s water fountains. The incident caused a major confrontation between the City’s Orthodox  and Muslim citizens, with the latter fleeing into the Ottoman controlled fortress, from which the Ottomans started bombarding the city. During the ensuing havoc (wonderfully described by the Austro-Hungarian Balkanologist Felix Kanitz), Serbs started attacking Ottoman vestiges in the city, from the city’s gates to its numerous mosques. One of the places of fierce confrontation was Liman mosque, located by the Sava port. That faithful day in 1862, Liman mosque was used a shelter by innocent Muslim merchants who lived in what is now Savamala, and was at one point surrounded by an angry mob, which decided to burn it to the ground, killing everybody inside.

For almost seventy years later, Liman mosque lay in ruins until it was completely demolished in 1930 to make way for the new bridge and one its two monumental towers was built on its spot. The construction finished four years later, a few months after King Alexander I Karađorđević’s assassination in Marseille, and it bore his name until 1941, when it was destroyed in the first days of WWII in Yugoslavia.

The bridge was rebuilt  after the war as „Brotherhood and Unity“ bridge, although it is popularly known as Branko’s bridge after the street it connects to.  The dark past continued haunting it even in its socialist iteration, as it attracted many suicides, most famously including Branko Ćopić, a famous writer. The word on the street is that the innocent victims of the Liman mosque fire demand justice and ask for sacrifices.

Fact: There is another version of the story of the Liman mosque in which there were no Muslim casualties and in which the mosque was just left to decay after the majority of Muslims left the city during the 19th century. In any case, popularity of this bridge as a suicide spot is hardly surprising given it height and easy access (still, please don’t kill yourself – I will miss you and there is help available).  

Secret Societies and Mystical Temples

Through most of its history, Belgrade was watched over from Žrnov fortress located on top of Avala mountain. By the end of the Ottoman rule massive medieval walls of Žrnov fell into disrepair, until in 1934 it was blown up to make way for a the Monument to the Unknown Hero, designed by Ivan Meštrović, a sculptor/architect beloved by the Yugoslav court, who was made famous for his monumental somewhat mystical projects.

The foundation stone for the new imposing monument was laid by King Alexander I, who curiously held a silver hammer during the official ceremony on St Vitus Day 1934. This hammer, as well as the mysterious, dark, look of the monument prompted many to speculate that, the new black building was not just a way of memorialising Serbian dead in WWI, but actually a Masonic temple built to house some ancient secret that Žrnov protected.

Further proof of its occult role was Meštrović’s other famous Belgrade monument, the Victor, which allegedly serves as its mystical counterpart. The Victor is male and set on a white column, while the Avala monument features representations of women from all parts of Yugoslavia and is black. Additional credence to the Masonic temple theory was provided by the design of the nearby Hotel Avala, which prominently features sphinxes, another symbol of Freemasonry. 

Masonic, occult presence in Belgrade was also to be seen in many buildings in the city’s centre, the most prominent of which is the old Ministry of Post in Palmotićeva street. This neo-Serbo-Byzantine palace from 1930, was built by Momir Korunović (another friend of the Karađorđević dynasty) features almost every concievable masonic symbol, most notably squares and compasses in its upper frieze. Other famous pre-WWII masonic symbols in Belgrade are found on a residental buildings by Slavija square (whose portal displays two women below an all see-ing eye) and in Novopazarska (sphinxes). More recently, freemasons have made their mark in teh city with a pyramidal mile-stone placed in front to the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Knez Mihailova (which looks a bit like the tomb of Branislav Nušić, one of Serbia’s most popular writers and another alleged Freemason).  

These symbols go to show the secret role of Freemasons in shaping Serbian politics and making Belgrade a city to their liking.  

Sceptic’s view: While Freemasonry was popular among the rich and powerful in Yugoslavia, its role was overstated due to the anti-masonic propaganda in 1940s in general turn towards the occult in 1990s. Good explanation of why all the speculation about Žrnov is presented in Dejan Ristić’s book about historic myths in Serbia: The locations of the the Victor and Avala Monuments of not indicate their symbolic link, and it is worth noting that the Victor was supposed to be part of a monumental fountain at Terazije (Nušić opposed the destruction of Žrnov). But of course this is what the Freemasons and Illuminati want you to think…

The Blind (Zemun-educated) Seer

Vangeliya Pandeva was born at the cusp of Balkan Wars in Strumica (present day Northern Maceonia) in 1911, into a family of ardent VMRO milita-man Pando Surchev. She was a healthy girl with no special abilities, and her family’s fortunes grew as Strumica was held by the Bulgarian Kingdom until the end of WWII, but became part of Yugoslavia in 1919. That spelled the beginning of many calamities that would mark her life, as her father was prosecuted for his pro-Bulgarian beliefs (he also fought as a Bulgarian soldier during WWI) and the family became impoverished. Four years later, Vangeliya was caught in a storm and lost her sight during the injuries she sustained.

Two years later, In 1925, she was sent to Serbia’s oldest school for the visually impaired in Zemun, which was founded by Veljko Ramadanović in 1917 for injured Serbian soldiers in Tunisia. She spent three years in Zemun, learning Braille and receiving basic education, however she had to go back to help her family after the death of her step-mother.

In 1939, poor Vangeliya was again struck by almost lethal illness, but miraculously recovered and became a clairvoyant in 1939. Her soothsaying skills grew, and “Baba Vanga” (as she was best known) became very popular during WWII. In 1942, she was visited by the Bulgarian tzar Boris III (who annexed Macedonia) and she foretold his death.

This was the beginning of her clairvoyant stardom, and until her death in 1996 she was visited by throngs of Bulgarian and foreign celebrities and politicians, who sought her council. She even built a non-canonical church dedicated to St Petka, which still attracts her faithful, while her prophecies and mystical pronouncements – which allegedly included premonitions about September 11 attacks and the end of the USA after its 45th president – are still being considered.

Although she is popular in Serbia (mostly for foretelling the death of Bosnian/Yugoslav pop-star Silvana Armenulić in 1976) there is nothing to mark her formative years in Belgrade.

Sceptic’s view: Although I am unfamiliar with her opus, Baba Vanga’s appeal stems from the mix of the archetypal idea of the visually impaired as paranormally precocious and the need for some stability and spirituality in dicey times of WWII, Communism and post-communist transition.

Not scared enough? Follow the link for some horrific, mystical places in Serbia.

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