Hidden Belgrade (63): Finding Vračar and Belgrade’s holiest mound

On May 10 1594, the Ottoman rulers of Belgrade decided to make sure to make the point to their Serbian subjects that any resistance to their rule is futile.

The reason was the first massive uprising against the Ottoman rule in Banat, which erupted in the spring of that year, motivated by the victories of Habsburg forces against the Ottoman army, which 73 years before that, took Belgrade.

The uprising was led by Teodor Nestorović, the Vladika (Bishop in Serbian Orthodox Church) of Vršac, as well as Janko Lugošan Halabura, who got control of the Vršac castle after defeating Arslan Beg, its captain, in a duel, only to die a few days later in another battle.

The banner, under which thousands of Serbs rallied, was the one depicting St Sava, Serbia’s patron saint and founder of the independent Serbian church.

The early successes of the Serbs in taking over swathes of Banat and their willingness to protect the memory of their once powerful Kingdom, made the Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Paşa realised that he had a major the problem on his hands.

In order to crush the rebellion, he asked not only for divine help by bringing with him the Holy Standard of Prophet Mohammed, but also by asking for the miraculous remains of St Sava to be burnt in Belgrade.

The spot that was chosen for the bonfire was the one from which flames could be seen across the Danube in Banat and also the one that can be seen by everybody in Belgrade. The obvious place to be chosen was “Vračar” hill. St Sava’s remains, which lay at Mileševa Monastery and which regularly drew in those of all faiths seeking healing, were put on a huge pile of wood and burnt to ashes, which were scattered two days later.

Stevan Aleksic – Burning of the remains of St Sava

In the months following his reprisal against the rebels, it seemed that Koca Sinan Paşa’s plan worked out: in September 1594, the Banat uprising was defeated with horrific punshiments befalling its leaders like the poor Bishop Teodor Nestorovic who was flayed alive by the Ottomans.

However, the burning of the relics did not stop wither the cult of St Sava, nor did it stop Serbs from seeking independence from the Ottomans.

As luck would have it, and even probably without any real knowledge, the place where Serbia made the greatest stride towards independence, the announcement of the Hatiserif of 1830, which brought autonomy to the Serbian Principality, happened  happened almost at the same spot where St Sava’s remains were burnt: in the vicinity of St Mark’s church in Tašmajdan.

Plaque commemorating Hatiserif of 1830 at Poslednja Šansa cafe

While the location of the burning of the relics was noted as Vračar in contemporary sources, this Belgrade toponym „traveled“ between different places in Belgrade. For example, in 20th century Zvedara and what is now called Vračar exchanged names.

This plasticity of the term was first noticed by Streten L. Popović who challenged the previous claims made by Gligorije Vozarević that St Sava was burnt further away from town, on the spot that is now named Crveni Krst (Red cross) after a cross that Vozarević constructed to mark this important, traumatic event in Serbian history.

After comparing various oral and written accounts, Popović surmised that the site of the bonfire was closer to Tašmajdan cemetery, close the old church of St Mark’s, which was built in 1835 to commemorate the spot of the announcement of the Hatiserif, but did not survive WWII when it was burnt in 1941 and then completely obliterated in 1942.

Although later in 19th century the consensus about the location of the burning of the remains moved to the present day location of the Church of St Sava (so-called Savinac), the historians now lean towards the Tašmajdan location.

The current consensus is that the spot where Sinan Pasa enacted his revenge is somewhere between the popular outdoor gym and Poslednja Šansa café.

Outdoor gym is probably where the Bonfire was

Although current Tašmajdan has nothing marking the spot of the bonfire of 1594, Tašmajdan is more than well equipped with major sacred buildings.

The present day St Marks’ church, constructed in 1940 and designed as an outsized homage to Gračanica Monastery was the largest in Belgrade until St Sava church was consencrated. It currently keeps the remains of Emperor Dušan, Medieval Serbia’s most powerful ruler, which were discovered among the remains of the formerly impressive Holy Archangels’ Monastery by Prizren in 1927 and moved to Belgarde in 1968. The church’s crypt also holds  the graves of the last Obrenović rulers – King Alexander I and Queen Draga – who were deposed in a bloody coup and murdered a few hundred meters away in what used to be the Royal Palace Park. The quirkiest feature of St Mark’s is a huge honeycomb constructed to look like the church which was built by a particularly eager bee-keeper Đorđe Živanović who worked on it from 1935 until 1954.

At last but not the least, Tašmajdan is also the spot of Belgrade’s only Russian church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Built as a compromise solution to appease the spiritual needs of inter-war White Russian emigres and balance them with the autonomy of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the tiny church was is actually the converted mortuary of the old Tašmajdan cemetery. Although unassuming from the outside, apart from its brilliantly blue onion dome, it is wonderfully decorated inside, and is the resting place of the Black Baron Pyotr Wrangel, the leader of the White Russian army.

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