Hidden Belgrade (54): A death and a riot which changed Belgrade’s history

Back in 1862, Zerek, was a warren of streets and gardens in still very much Ottoman Belgrade. Hugging the fortress which still held an Ottoman garrison lorded over an Ottoman Pasha, it was the home of the remnants of the Muslim Ottoman population, nestled within the crumbling city walls above one of the main cross roads at Dorćol and the Jewish quarter of Jalija and across the town from the increasingly prosperous Christian part of the city which looked over the Sava river. It was a pleasant place which was also romantically referred to as “Bulbulder” – garden of swallows.

Although Serbia had effective autonomy from the Ottoman empire, its independence was still conditional on the decisions from Istanbul, and thus its westernising society bore traces on the divisions of the Ottoman millet system where communities lived along-side one another, but with an understood hierarchy with the affluent Muslim merchant, military and administrative class on top, and the poor Christians on the bottom. However, with the ascendant and increasingly autonomous Serbia, these hierarches started fraying and Felix Kanitz, a Habsburg traveller through the Balkans, noted that the Ottoman authorities were very anxious about the slippage of the old order.

It was this class hierarchy and anxiety that led to a pivotal moment in Belgrade’s history on one hot June afternoon that year, by a badly functioning sulphurous water fountain in Zerek. Sava Petković, a young Orthodox s apprentice got into an argument with the Ottoman soldiers from the garrison over who is going to fill their pot as the water pressure was low and filling pots took too long. During the argument one of the soldier’s pots was smashed and Sava was badly hurt by the soldiers: one account says that he was hit in the head with a pot and the other claims that we was stabbed with a bayonet, the sources also differ on whether he died on the spot or died later.

The scuffle between the soldiers and other citizens erupted and Sima Nešić, the official go-between the Ottoman and Serb authorities was dispatched by the head of the police to try and stop it from escalating. The Serbian police arrested the Ottoman soldiers, however this made the situation even worse.

As Nešić was taking the arrested soldier to the Serbian police station, the soldier tried to run away to the Ottoman authorities, which ultimately led to Sima Nešić being shot by the Ottomans. This led to an eruption of havoc all around the city.

The main market square (on the spot of present day Academic park) became a war zone with Serbs and Ottomans shooting at each other. Kapetan Miša’s edifice which was still under construction and kafanas served as a makeshift fortification for the Serbs, while the Ottomans fired from their administrative buildings and  mosques. In the scuffle, which happened at night while a storm was raging, the Serbs took over the city gates and attacked one of the mosques by the Sava where many of the Ottoman population took refuge and continued shooting while praying. The attack on the mosque ended in many casualties, including that of its imam, and heralded the temporary end of violence, as described by one of Kanitz’s friends, a local Catholic priest:

“The storm stopped, full moon appeared in the sky and lit up the ghostly file of Turkish women who were leaving imam’s house, where they gathered and fired from their rifles alongside the soldiers. Wrapped in their white clothes, they were followed by the crowd to the police station in eerie order and silence, in stark contrast with raging fight to death which happened only a few moments ago”.

Belgrade from the Sava

Although most of the Ottoman civilians took refuge in the Belgrade fortress, some men remained to protect their houses, while the Ottoman soldiers who were responsiple for Sava’s death remained boarded up in the Ottoman police headquarters.

Local diplomats and Ilija Garašanin, the PM at the time, managed to agree a truce with Achir-pasha who ruled over the Belgrade garrison and all the remaining Ottoman soldiers were allowed to leave the city and enter the fortress.

The order returned and a grand funeral was organized for the Serbian dead, including Sima Nešić. However, on the morning of the funeral on 17 July, 56 cannons from the fortress started firing on the city. The funeral procession scrambled to find the refuge and the caskets were left on the street. The tower of the Orthodox Cathedral was damaged and the bombing lasted for seven hours, while Serbs tried to put up resistance. In the end there were over 50 casualties, the city was badly damaged and many citizens tried to escape to the safety of Habsburg empire across the river in Zemun.  

Belgarde’s Sephardic Jews leaving Belgrade after bombardment

The bombardment, which depending on the source was either instigated by Achir-pasha’s trigger happy paranoia or several shots fired on the fortress, caused a massive diplomatic scandal as it endangered the pre-agreed terms of Serbian autonomy.

In July the same year, representatives Serbia and the Ottoman empire negotiated the future terms of Serbia’s greater independence with the presence of France, England, Russia and Austria. It was agreed that 8,000 Ottoman citizens were to leave Serbia that year and that the Ottomans will start handing over fortifications in Serbia. Five years later, in 1867, the Ottoman garrison left the Belgrade fortress, making Serbia’s full independence all but inevitable.

Bombing of Belgrade on 18 June 1862

The events of these three days in June, remain etched in Belgrade’s memory. The warren of streets that made Zerek, was straightened and old Ottoman merchant houses and gardens disappeared. One of the streets was named after Sima Nešović and in 1931 young, unlucky Sava Petković received a monumental fountain on the spot of the old “Čukur česma” in Dobračina.

The fountain is graced with a sculpture of a naked youth with a jug, made by Simeon Roksandić. Although beloved by Belgraders, the monument has one quirk: the date of the Čukur fountain incident is wrong. It was also a victim of vandalism when the bronze statue was cut up and almost sold as scrap metal in 2010, but is now fully restored.

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