Despots are very misunderstood people. Mainly, it turns out, because modern usage of the word has been corrupted from its former meaning. During the Byzantine Empire it meant ‘Lord’ and was an official title used. Serbia was part of Byzantium and Serb rulers became known as despots.
I looked this up after visiting the Despot Stefan Tower in Belgrade’s magnificent Kalemegdan Fortress. Despot Stefan was a model despot, regarded as one of finest military leaders of his time, he was a political and economic moderniser who was also a prolific patron of the arts and a highly regarded writer. Despot Stefan made Belgrade Serbia’s capital in 1403 and rebuilt much of the Kalemegdan Fortress.
Situated high above the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, the Kalemegdan Fortress literally dominates the the city of Belgrade. It is a massive structure, with layer upon layer of defensive walls and ditches, its huge size hinting Belgrade’s former importance. The history of Kalemegdan is the history of Belgrade and Serbia.
As well as being one of Serbia’s most historic sites, and providing impressive views over the Danube and Sava Rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress has the distinction of being the largest park in Belgrade. Serbs would also add that it’s free. I walked around the walls, taking in the dramatic views and enjoying the holiday atmosphere as Serbs in their hundreds visited the park.
It’s a great place to spend a morning wandering around and, while it’s full of interesting things to see, it’s the spectacular views over the confluence of the Danube and Sava that steal the show. From high up in the Kalemegdan Fortress, a place that has been fortified for over 2000 years, you can see that the Danube is a mighty river.
Sail south and you arrive at the Back Sea with access to the Mediterranean. Sail north and Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, The Netherlands and the North Sea await. Rivers connected Belgrade with trade routes north, south, east and west. No wonder it’s been fought over and destroyed so many times throughout history.
It’s a history with more plot twists than a Raymond Chandler novel. Prehistoric tribes lived here before a flourishing Celtic culture took root around 300BC; the Roman Empire conquered the region; when that split in two it was replaced by Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire. Attila the Hun dropped by and ravaged the region in the 5th Century.
The first written record of the name Belgrade came in 878AD. Armies of Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land stopped here. By the time the Third Crusade passed by, Belgrade was in ruins and Byzantium was in chronic decline. The arrival of the Middle Ages saw the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which would come to dominate Serbia and Belgrade for over 400 years.
Ottoman rule was occasionally swapped for Austrian as the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarian Empire fought for dominance. When Serbia gained independence in 1882, Belgrade became its capital. Austro-Hungary’s attack on Serbia in 1914 kick-started the First World War, and Belgrade was destroyed by the fighting. Yet in 1918, it became capital of a united Yugoslavia.
Things calmed down until 1941 when Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact, entering into a defensive agreement with Germany, Italy and Japan. This sparked a revolt against the government and Germany invaded. Once again Belgrade was destroyed. The Allies destroyed the city again in 1944. It was eventually captured by the Red Army, never a good thing to happen to a city.
Tito’s communists took control for the next 46 years until the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. This sparked a regional conflict throughout the 1990s, culminating in the Bosnian War, widespread human rights abuses and genocide against Bosnian muslims. Most war crimes were carried out by ethnic Serbs. Renewed fighting in 1999 over Kosovo resulted in NATO bombing Belgrade, the scars of which still remain.
Serb history is a roller coaster ride, and you can feel the weight of that history when stood in the Kalemegdan Fortress.