A visit to Belgrade is almost sure to include a walk to see the view of the Danube from Kalemegdan, Belgrade’s central city park. Kalemegdan is also the old fortress and bears the marks of histories that include the city’s Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Yugoslav pasts, all of which complicate any singular notion of Serbian national identity.
In the words of Rebecca West—whose Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) remains one of the most famous travelogues of the region, written on the verge of the Second World War and aiming to make human a place that was already branded as backward and primitive—Kalemegdan is the “prettiest city park in the world.”1 West wanted to rehabilitate Serbia’s image as part of a civilized Europe, and from Kalemegdan you can see plenty of signs of European culture: 19th-century promenades, formal gardens, and Ivan Meštrović’s statue for the Memorial of Gratitude to France.
For those not familiar with Belgrade, a place that is often overlooked or criticized due to Serbia’s recent history of genocide, the beauty of the natural landscape may come as a surprise. Sitting at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers, the old city is a spectacular place for views. An uncrowded café nestled in the medieval walls is a good place to watch the sun set. On the day of the 2017 eclipse in North America, you could see a flaming red ball go down between two communist-era apartment towers in the distance, across the river.
Like many cities haunted by violent histories, Belgrade’s urban landscape often renders the traumatic as the picturesque. The main pedestrian street is filled with European-style cafes, where you can sit for hours under the shade of an umbrella with a beer or an espresso and admire the faded glory of crumbling but still elegant Austro-Hungarian architecture. Those who feel the pull of Communist or Yugo nostalgia can visit the midcentury Palace of Serbia government building and the Hotel Jugoslavija with their elegant lines or go to the outlandishly Brutalist Western City Gate towers, whose appeal lies partly in their state of semi-abandoned ruin. (This work is being brought to new visibility by Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-80, the exhibition currently on display at MOMA.)
The Museum of Yugoslavia, which honors the country’s former leader, Josip Tito, is a must-see modernist showcase. It included Tito’s collection of gifts from young Yugoslav children and diplomats around the world, the mausoleum that contains his and his wife Yovanka’s remains, and a display of the batons that young people carried across the country for the annual Relay of Youth in celebration of his birthday. The exhibitions feature thoughtful counterhistories, such as a show on Tito in Africa that is an informative survey of the Non-Aligned movement and a reminder of ’60s decolonial chic.
Downhill from the old town, towards the Danube, the neighborhood of Dorcol could be the scene of the next wave of Berlin-style hipster culture, but is not yet polished for prime-time gentrification. For trauma tourism, there are the government buildings bombed by the US in the 1990s, which the Serbs refuse to rebuild so that they will remain an open wound and rebuke to the West, and the tower of an exhibition park built in the 1930s and used as a detention camp for most of the Belgrade Jews who died under Nazi occupation. The city still can’t decide what to do with the abandoned tower, so it remains an unmarked and open squat full of art, junk, makeshift studios, and photogenic views that include the waterfront development being financed by the United Arab Emirates.
For the visitor trying to make sense of so-called “ethnic conflicts” amongst Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnians, it is tempting to look to city’s landscapes and layered histories for insights into the region’s history of violence and its still unsettled past. In fact, Rebecca West, even with her prejudice against Ottoman and Byzantine influences and her desire to claim Serbia for a European West, complicates overly simple guidebook explanations. Her warnings about the precarious unity forged in the Balkans after the First World War remain prescient, especially since the borders of the former Yugoslavia then and now are connected to the other borders drawn after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. These borders define the contested states of modern-day Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, where fundamental questions of union and separation continue to play out in deadly ways.
One strand of submerged history that I have found particularly compelling for explaining Serbia’s deadly nationalisms starts with the Ottoman conquest of Serbia in 1389 in the Battle of Kosovo, a time which is invoked as a period of repression and an incitement to Serbian nationhood. Then and now, the desire to be seen as European in opposition to the Ottoman Turks and Muslims of the East means that Serbia’s Ottoman history has been disavowed and wiped clean. But, if you are looking for it, its signs are present in the mausoleum for Serbian vizier Ali Pasha Dehmed in Kalemegdan, in Belgrade’s coffee culture and in its ćevapčići sausages, and sometimes in its contemporary literature.
A good resource is Vladislav Bajac’s 2008 historical novel Hamam Balkania, which explores the friendship between the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and the vizier Mehmed Pasha Sokolović, who, like many of the important leaders of the period, was Serbian.2 Central to the story is an account of how the two collaborated on a drinking fountain that would bring the architectural wonders of Constantinople to the outer reaches of the Ottoman territory. Bajac thus insists that Ottoman history is integral not just to more obviously Muslim places, such as Bosnia or Kosovo, but to Belgrade, too.3
I had assumed this fountain was long destroyed, if not an absolute fiction. But on my last evening in Belgrade, as I looked out over the ramparts across the Danube and then moved on towards the Victory statue—the sign of Serbian nationalism that crowns the hill—I paused to read the historical sign to the gate in the wall. It is, apparently, Defterdar’s Gate, built by the Ottomans in the 1690s. At this golden hour of sunset, it beckons like a portal into a secret garden, leading downhill towards the flatter shoreline of the river. And also noted on the sign is the ruin of Mehmed’s fountain. It’s right there: tucked away next to the wall, with two sides of the original square structure visible, including the arched niches for the water taps on each side and the cypress-tree decorations.
When I saw the fountain, there was construction fence around it because it was finally being restored, with help from an organization funded by the Turkish government to recover Ottoman-era monuments. Although such support is no doubt problematic in its own way in bolstering Turkish nationalism and aggression, the renewed visibility of the fountain, which was buried until 1938, is an opportunity for different versions of history and the future.
Perhaps Belgrade, as one way of moving forward from the wars and atrocities of the 1990s, will acknowledge, if not embrace, its Ottoman heritage. The complex and blurry relationship between the so-called east and west that has shaped its violent past could be the foundation for a 21st-century cosmopolitanism that eschews nationalisms and rigid separatisms and acknowledges multiple affiliations.
- Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941; Penguin, 1994.) ↩
- Vladislav Bajac, Hamam Balkania: A Novel and Other Stories, translated from the Serbian by Randall A. Major (Geopolitika Publishing, 2009). ↩
- For a lengthier discussion of both Bajac and West, see Ann Cvetkovich, “The Balkan Notebooks,” in Eastern Europe Unmapped: Beyond Borders and Peripheries, edited by Irene Kacandes and Yuliya Komska (Berghahn Books, 2017). ↩