Hidden Belgrade (58): Boosting Belgrade’s Economy, Ottoman Style

Although the idea of building malls and hotels to boost Belgrade’s economy seems very contemporary, however it has a long pre-history.

A bit more than fifty years after Belgrade was conquered by Suleiman the Magnificent, between 1572 and 1578, the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha (known in Serbia as Mehmed-paša Sokolović), who was immortalised in Ivo Andrić’s “the Bridge over Drina” decided to boost Belgrade’s economic appeal by building a large caravanserai for travelling caravans to stay in as well as a major covered market or bedesten (here called bezistan) next to it to show the wares from all over the world.

The impressive buildings were made of stone, which, according to a contemporary nobleman and traveller from Vicenza, Marc’Antiono Pigafetta, was taken from two churches and a synagogue which Sokollu Mehmed Pasha ordered to be torn down. Sadly this was a common practice in the Ottoman empire and similar fate befell medieval Serbia’s grandest monastery, Holy Archangel’s, by Prizren a century before, while Belgrade’s pre-conquest population were mostly sent into slavery in Istanbul after 1521.

3D reconstruction of the caravanserai and bezistan by the best subject metter expert Vladimir Božinović and Viktor Popović

The complex was located just outside of the slopes of Belgrade’s fortress and the medieval old town (located in present-day lower Kalemegdan park), on one of the city’s main streets which, centuries later became Dušanova street. According to Željko Škalemara, this complex was one of the largest structures in the city and was located around the space now occupied by houses in Strahinjića Bana (more precisely between houses at numbers 1-7) and Dušanova (2-6), but also extending towards Tadeuša Košćuška.

These two were not the only structures he bequeathed to Belgrade during his rule: he also constructed a large hammam (Turkish bath) as well as a (recently restored) large fountain inside Belgrade fortress, next to Sultan Suleiman the Great mosque which dominated the city’s silhouette.

The caravenserai and bezistan accepted merchants for more than a century and were operation until 1688 Habsburg conquest of Belgrade. During the longest period of Habsburg rule in 17th century, although both structures were planned for demolition to make way for new baroque town they both more or less persisted. The covered market was slowly degrading, apparently damaged from 1691, while the caravanserai was used by the new authorities.

Both structures seem to have stagnated after Ottomans recaptured the city in 1739, but they suffered great damage during Austrian conquest of the city in 1789 as this part of the city was heavily bombarded.

After that time, the ruins of these once grand structured, were used by merchants of used wares and sunk into further decay. Thankfully, it was around this time that the only drawings of Belgrade’s “first mall” were made, which depict it as a structure very similar to Sarajevo’s Gazi Husrev Bey bezistan.

Eventually, through 19th century, both buildings were destroyed. Belgrade got new inns and hotels for merchants and visitors to stay in and merchants opened European-style shops and even department stores closer to Knez Mihailova.

Interestingly, however, the location of the old bezistan maintained some of its commercial role, as it was there that Jovičić merchant family set up their wine shop and built the city’s largest wine cellar (taken over by NAVIP company after WWII).

It took around two centuries for Belgrade to get another fancy covered merchant area Nikola Spasić’s passage (constructed in 1913) in Knez Mihailova, but it was modelled more after grand European Belle Epoque galleries, than Ottoman bazaars.

Finally, Bezistan also remained as a toponym in Belgrade, however much further away. It now refers to the always messy modernist covered square next to the old Kozara cinema, rather than Grand Vizier’s ambitious construction which was to make Belgrade rich.



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