The Serbian Despotate was the last Serbian medieval state. It succeeded the Serbian Empire, the most powerful 14th century Balkan state, that existed between 1346 and 1371. The Empire covered the area from Danube in the north to the Gulf of Corinth in the south. But the Empire didn’t last, because when the Emperor Stefan Dušan died in 1355, his son Stefan Uroš V was too weak to rule and the Empire fragmented into smaller feudal territories.
At that same time, the Ottoman Empire was also rapidly expanding. Sultan Murad I conquered Adrianople in 1363, renamed it in Edirne and moved the Ottoman capital from Bursa. In the end, it was the Ottoman Empire that dominated the region for more than 500 years.
The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 effectively marked the beginning of the end of the Serbian state. The Serbian Despotate, established in 1402, lasted until the definitive conquest of the Smederevo Fortress by Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1459, just 6 years after he conquered Constantinople.
Serbia disappeared from the map of Europe, to re-emerge 400 years later. Some parts of today’s Serbia were under the Ottoman rule for 500 years. It’s strange when you think that, after the fall of the Smederevo Fortress, the Orthodox Serbs lived in the Islamic Caliphate and that Belgrade was in the same state as Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and Jerusalem for a long time.
In 1427, after the death of Despot Stefan Lazarević, Belgrade went to the Hungarians. His successor, Despot Đurađ Branković, needed a new capital city and that’s when they constructed this fortress at the confluence of the Jezava and Danube rivers.
The castle or the “Small Town” was completed in 1430 and the rest of the fortress or the “Big Town” in subsequent years.
The fortress is included in the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. So, whether or not it’ll become a World Heritage Site, it depends on what happens with the fortress in the future. We will have a look at the state of the fortress at the moment and what needs to be done to secure this prestigious accolade for what I think is one of the most important symbols of the Serbian glorious past.
There is so much written about the fortress already, so I’m not going to copy and paste here. If you want to learn about the fortress in more detail, you can easily search for the relevant information on the internet. However, here is just one small excerpt from the UNESCO website, that perfectly illustrates the fortress’ significance:
The Smederevo Fortress is one of the largest fortifications in the south-east Europe. As a defence system, it is an extraordinary example of a cold weapons defence fortification and the best creation in the mediaeval military architecture. Its special feature is reflected in a choice of this particular location. Unlike the steep, inaccessible land areas, which found its use in the Middle Ages, here a flat plateau along the river bank was chosen.
MY TOUR OF THE FORTRESS
I started my tour of the fortress on its eastern side, which you can see in the photo above. It’s one of the best preserved and restored parts of the complex and it looks exactly as you would imagine a medieval fortress. It’s big, much bigger than I expected to be.
To enter the fortress, I passed through the Jezava Gate – one of only several gates that lead into the fortress. It certainly made sense at the time to reduce the number of possible entry points. Plus, it’s only a very small gate for a really huge fortress. But it made it easier to defend.
What you see in the next photo are the walls and towers of the “Small Town”, the inner city which was the first constructed part of the fortress.
Basically, it was a court, where the ruler of Serbia lived with his family. Clearly, it had to be the most secure, unconquerable part of the fortress. To further secure it, they built a moat which prevented easy access to that section of the fortress, even in case the outer walls were breached.
Undoubtedly, this part of the fortress is the most interesting to see. It’s best preserved and that’s also where you get the real glimpse in the way of life of people that resided there. The entrance to what used to be the royal court looks like what we’ve all seen in films. A proper entrance to the medieval palace.
As soon as you enter, you’ll see the Audience Hall. However, if you pay attention, you will notice that the current building is not the original structure.
First of all, the remains of the former building are still there, you can see them in the photo below. Secondly, you can also see the double-arched windows behind the current building. Certainly, in the past, they were inside of the original structure. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have made any sense to make windows in the fortress without any access to them or without any purpose.
So, while it’s a good thing that they reconstructed the Audience Hall, I wonder why they haven’t done it the way it used to be in the past. They just had to follow the remains on the ground. The windows would’ve marked the height of the building.
Directly opposite the Audience Hall, also reconstructed, you will see the palace. That’s where the Serbian Despot, Đurađ Branković, lived with his family. I don’t know how authentic the reconstructed palace is and what kind of plans they followed. Although, the building certainly looks like a structure from that era and it perfectly fits in the space.
UPPER PART OF THE FORTRESS
From there, I went to see the upper part of the fortress. As you will see in the photos, they built thick walls with a pathway on top, where they kept guard and defended the fortress. The Water Tower is in the photo below. You can also see the river Danube and the excellent location that they chose for the capital city of the Serbian Despotate.
Below, you can see how big the “Small Town” is and also the Audience Hall.
The next photo gives you a good idea of the strength of the towers and why it was almost impossible to conquer this fortress.
In the next photo, you can see the pathway that I mentioned earlier. They made it wide enough so that more than one person could easily walk there, but that also tells you that the walls of the fortress are very thick.
I wonder how many people went through this passageway in the past, how many people died on these walls, defending the fortress. The same as them, I also went through, but as a tourist. Do you think that, at that time in the 15th century, anyone could’ve imagined that tourists would walk in that same place?
The big, fortified tower that you can see in the photo below was the Keep. They built is as the refuge of last resort, for the royal family and nobility to stay in case the rest of the castle fell to the invaders. Unfortunately, it was closed and I couldn’t see it inside, but I hope that they will fully restore it in the future.
I would’ve liked to see the space where they would’ve had to live, possibly for a long time. Although, the whole concept doesn’t make much sense in case the conquest was definitive. What would’ve they done? Would’ve they stayed locked inside of that tower forever? Would’ve they had enough food and water? Perhaps, they also had secret tunnels that would’ve taken them to safety.
Close to the entrance, you can see a ram, used to break fortified doors.
Finally, the main entrance seen from inside of the castle and very steep stairs leading to the top of the fortress.
The urban settlement, within the fortress walls, was the “Big Town”. I assume that, at that time, that was all that was there. Living outside the walls would’ve been risky. Unfortunately, nothing remains today and that part of the fortress is a big park now. You can find remains of the church that existed in the past and also of the Turkish bath, but there is really nothing to see.
I went for a walk around the park. But as you can see below, that part of the fortress is in a much worse state, with crumbling towers.
I know that a lot of restoration work has already been done. However, considering its significance, I hope that the Serbian government will invest more effort in restoring this historic place to its full former glory. I’ve already mentioned that it’s in the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but to gain that status, everything in and around the fortress has to be perfect.
WILL SMEDEREVO FORTRESS BECOME UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE?
Well, it’s easier said than done. The fortress endured many centuries relatively unscathed. But in the Second World War, a huge explosion destroyed a part of the southern wall. The occupying Nazis used the fortress as an ammunition storage. Sadly, that part of the fortress is a ruin.
Then, there is also a rail that cuts the fortress off from the city. In fact, the rail cuts off the whole city from the river. It’s very unfortunate that they built the railway so close to the fortress, it’s ugly and it completely ruins the context in which the Smederevo Fortress exists.
But to dismantle the rail and move it to another place, I don’t think that it’ll ever happen. I can only hope that they will fully restore the fortress.
In these two photos, you can see the engines used by the Serbian Rail. The Serbian railway network is one more attraction that you can no longer see in the Western European countries. Serbian trains travel at a relaxed speed of between 30km/h to 50km/h. In other words, the network is in a catastrophic state, in desperate need of total reconstruction. But, this is a topic for another time. These two engines were right in front of the ruined southern part of the Smederevo Fortress.
I’m very glad that I visited this historic place. I’ve learnt a lot of things that I didn’t know before. It’s a truly magnificent medieval fortress. Fortresses in Belgrade and Novi Sad are equally beautiful and important, but neither of them was the last capital city of the Serbian medieval state.
And that’s precisely what makes this fortress unique and special.