A vibrant city for itself for much of its history, Zemun is chock-full of history and quirky places, from its underground tunnels to a rather eerie stairway made of gravestones.
Although settled since pre-history, it first entered recorded history as Taurunum when it was founded by the same Celtic tribe which founded Belgrade, Scordisci in 2nd BC. It was settled due to its great strategic location on a large loess plateau overlooking the confluence of the Sava and the Danube.
Although it was one of the important military camps on the Roman Empire’s Danube border, Zemun made a dramatic entry into the European history as Malevilla during the early Middle Ages when it was ruled by the Hungarians and became the first city “conquered” in the Crusades, more precisely, the People’s crusade, led by Peter the Hermit in 1096.
While the official crusade was led by the European nobility and knights, the People’s crusade was mostly comprised of pious villagers and the adventurous poor, which at one point numbered 40,000, and was ingloriously defeated by the Seljuks at Civetot.
Before their defeat, however, they first led to one of the largest pogroms of Jews by the Rhine, and once one of the contingents, led by Walter Sans Avoir, reached Zemun they immediately got into trouble with the Zemunians, who allegedly stole some of their meagre armaments. While the first group engaged in a skirmish in Zemun and, later Belgrade, it was only when the main group arrived with Peter the Hermit, that Zemun was properly attacked and 4000 of its citizens were slaughtered. The merry gang then proceeded to sack Byzantine-controlled Belgrade and drive its citizens away, before making their way to their ultimate doom via Niš.
One of the few remains of Medieval Zemun is its square fortress whose recently reconstructed outer walls and towers (dating from 14th or 15th century) are still visible at Gardoš.
The Tavern and the Churches
After the long Hungarian rule, Zemun fell into the Ottoman hands who used their camp there to successfully attack Belgrade in 1521. The city remained in their possession until it was taken by the Habsburgs in 1717. The only remnant of the Ottoman Zemun is the White Bear tavern, which is thought to date to mid 17th century, and hosted Eugene of Savoy as he led his armies against to conquer Belgrade and much of central Serbia. The popular tavern was open until 1960s, but is now sadly closed and derelict, although there are plans to bring it to former glory.
Another remnant of the Habsburg-Ottoman wars is the Laudon’s trench, part of fortifications devised by Ernst Gideon von Laudon, which cuts between Zemun and Bežanija, and is now a shanty-town.
Habsburg rule led to the return of the Christian population to the city, and it is thanks to this that Zemun has the distinction of housing the longest surviving Christian churches on the territory of Belgrade.
The wonderful baroque Orthodox church of St Nicholas (Nikolajevska crkva) was built in 1745, and is famous in equal measure for its ornate steeple, as well as its richly decorated iconostasis from 1761, a masterpiece of Serbian 18th century art.
In 1750, the Franciscans returned to Zemun and founded the only functioning Catholic monastery and the oldest catholic church in Belgrade, dedicated to St John the Baptist, which still stands on the border of what used to be Zemun’s quarantine which is now the City park.
Between 1739 and 1918, Zemun was the main border crossing between the Habsburg Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire, and, later, Serbia, which shaped the city’s character and look.
The hulking, crumbling Carinarnica (customs building), which dates from 1781, served to receive goods traded between east and west, while the more recent building of Kapetanija (built in 1908), was a steamship terminal for those travelling on the Danube.
In order to prevent the spread of disease in the Habsburg empire, there was a quarantine – Kontumac – built in 1730. for the travellers and merchants in what is now the city park. If you wanted to travel from Belgrade to Zemun, you would have to receive a check up and stay for 52 days in a camp. The quarantine survived until 1872, and was a city within a city, with two churches dedicated to St Rocco and Archangel Gabriel (both appropriately associated with fighting plagues) which survive to this day.
The intense trade attracted many merchants whose majestic houses grace Zemun’s winding streets to this day. Karamata family, originally of Greek extraction and which gave many great Zemunians, still live in their palatial neo-classical home which dates from 18th century, while the striking neo-gothic home of the Cincar (Aromanian) Spirta family, now serves as Zemun city museum (to be finally reopened in 2021).
Many merchants who lived around Gardoš and Klavarija dug into the easily malleable loess soils and built tunnels which served as storerooms and well as passages in times of crisis, which remain and intrigue Zemunians to this day.
The city also had a significant Jewish quarter with many beautiful old homes, including one particularly striking example of orientalist art-nouveau which allegedly belonged to the relatives of Theodore Herzl.
Zemun’s burgeoning trade attracted settlers throughout Europe, most notably Germans from Lorraine, who founded the suburb of Franztal in 18th century and built the neo-gothic church of St Wendelin in 1880s. To add to the diversity of communities Zemun also had a striking Evangelical rotunda (built in 1928) designed by Hugo Ehrlich, as the multi-ethnic Zemun thrived after it became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes/Yugoslavia in 1918, and later incorporated into Belgrade in 1934.
The early Yugoslav saw Zemun become the centre of the country’s aerospace industry: both civilian and military, as evidenced by the bombed out, but still imposing Art Deco masterpiece in its centre which housed the Yugoslav Airforce command. Those days of quick growth are evidenced by the old town’s modernist expansion towards Zemun’s old train station (demolished in 1970s).
Unfortunately, Nazi attack on Yugoslavia in WWII and the subsequent occupation by the Independent state of Croatia tore Zemun’s multicultural fibre to shreds. While Gestapo-operated Staro Sajmište/Semiln concertation camp gathered Jews and Serbs, the privileged status of Zemun’s ethnic Germans, and the close ties of Yugoslav German minority’s official representatives in the Kulturbund with the Nazi Party and, later, the infamous SS Prinz Eugen division, broke Zemun’s multicultural harmony.
After the war, much of the German population left or was made to leave Zemun, and much of Franztal, including its church, was demolished to make way for socialist developments. Some of the masonry, including the remains of the Franztal cemetery, were used to construct the stairway in Kalvarija park, making it a rather eerie site. On the other hand, the victims of Sajmište camp are interred close to the Jewish part of Zemun’s old cemetery.
Zemun’s mercantine spirit best survives in its amazing green market, arguably the best in Belgrade, with great stores like Dalija or places to grab a quick snack like Koordinata street food, or other stalls selling fired fish.
Zemun’s old town and Danube Bank probably has the best concentration of great restaurants in Belgrade. My favourites are Naja, Galeb, Ćiribućiriba and Paša, while for more infromal dining you chould check out the great Sarajevo ćevap shop in town or the Balkan pie shop in Prvomajska. While at the time of writing, COVID restrictions make all partying seem like a distant memory, Zemun’s kafanas are famous for great music, with Reka being the wildest, and nearby Kajak being a hidden gem.
Zemun rules, or as it is said in local patois, Munze-konza.