A place in Belgrade that I’ve never visited before is the Vuk and Dositej Museum. Normally, it’s a place where they take you with school, to learn about two of the most influential Serbs that shaped the language and the culture of the nation, after centuries under the Ottoman rule. But for some reason, I never went there.
In all honesty, I didn’t think much of this museum because it’s in a relatively small building. How much can you exhibit in such a small place? One more question is, what can you see there? I wondered, how can you present the work and the legacy of these two people in a meaningful way?
So, I decided to go there, for the first time ever. But, let me tell you straight away, if you happen to be in Belgrade, go and visit this museum, for two major reasons. You will get a chance to visit a magnificent Ottoman era building and you will also see a collection of outstanding paintings that I will present in this post.
ABOUT THE MUSEUM
Despite the fact that Belgrade was in the Ottoman Empire for centuries, only several Ottoman era buildings and monuments remain now. I’ve already written about the Princess Ljubica’s Residence and some other Ottoman era sites that you can see in the post Belgrade Fortress.
The building that houses the Vuk and Dositej Museum is one of them. Constructed in 1739, it’s also one of the oldest buildings in the city.
I’ve read that, at the time of reconstruction of Belgrade, they considered pulling this building down. Luckily, it remained. It really is one of the most precious early 18th century historical structures. You can imagine that, at that time, the whole city looked like that. After all, Belgrade was a provincial Ottoman city.
The museum is in the part of the building that was used by men in the past. Harem, or the part used by women, is in a section of the building where they now have offices.
In fact, even if you don’t have any interest in Vuk and Dositej, you should visit this museum for the building itself. It’s an outstanding Ottoman style house and it will give you an insight on the living space and the way of life at that time.
Vuk and Dositej Museum was established in 1949. It’s an important cultural institution in the city, dedicated to two of the most prominent Serbs.
But, this post is about the museum and what you can see in it. So, I am not going to write about Vuk and Dositej, although I’ll mention some details about them, in broadest terms.
Perhaps, Vuk Karadžić is the most important for the Serbian language and the culture, after the liberation from the Ottoman rule. You can imagine, during many centuries in which Serbia didn’t really exist because it was within the Ottoman Empire, there wasn’t much culture. Certainly, none of the cultural movements that originated in Italy, such as the Renaissance and Baroque, reached Belgrade.
The population was illiterate, but that was common in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turkish language used the Arabic script, which only educated people knew how to read and write. The Serbian language was a mix of various Orthodox church variants, with different characters and spelling.
Vuk Karadžić reformed the language. It’s because of him that Serbs have a language which is very unique in the whole world. But, let me explain.
The Serbian language, especially its Cyrillic variant, is a fully phonetic language. Every sound has one letter. Also, thanks to Vuk, you write Serbian the way you speak and you read the way it’s written. In other words, you don’t need to learn how to spell Serbian words.
The Serbian language is the only language in the world that uses two alphabets equally – Cyrillic and Latin. But, the Latin version is not fully phonetic, some sounds are composed of two letters. As I mentioned, the Cyrillic version is one sound, one letter.
Admittedly, Serbian is not an easy language to learn, but at least you don’t have to learn how to spell. When you learn a word and the alphabet, you write as you speak, it’s that simple.
I’ve studied other languages and I can say that in both English and French you simply have to learn how to write a word. Italian and Spanish are almost phonetic languages, but you also have to learn some certain spelling and pronunciation rules. There is nothing like that in Serbian.
That’s all thanks to Vuk Karadžić. He was also the author of the first Serbian dictionary in the new, reformed language. Additionally, he translated the New Testament in the reformed, simplified version of the language. He also collected and preserved Serbian folktales.
That’s why a part of the museum is dedicated to him.
Below, you can see the last portrait of Vuk Karadžić, done one year before his death.
In addition to these beautiful portraits, by some of the most eminent Serbian artist, that depict Vuk Karadžić through different phases in his life, you can also see some interesting documents.
In the photo below, you can see Vuk’s first diploma.
The document below is Vuk’s honorary Doctor of Philosophy diploma at the University of Jena in Germany.
The document below is the honorary Citizen of Zagreb diploma issued to Vuk Karadžić by the city of Zagreb, remarkably in the Cyrillic alphabet. For people who don’t know, the Croatian version of the language uses the Latin alphabet exclusively. But, for Vuk, they did it in Cyrillic.
One room within the museum is dedicated to Vuk’s family.
He married the Austrian woman, Ana Kraus, in Vienna. They had thirteen children, but only two of them lived longer than their parents.
One of them was Mina Karadžić. She was a painter and a writer.
In fact, Mina was the second woman painter in the Serbian history of art.
Vuk’s second child, that lived longer than him and his wife, was his son Dimitrije Karadžić. He was a Serbian officer and a professor at the Military Academy in Belgrade. He died in 1883 in Russia.
Together with Vuk Karadžić, Dositej Obradović was the most important person responsible for reformation of the Serbian language and literature. During his life time, he was the best educated Serb.
He was a writer, philosopher, dramatist, translator, linguist, traveller and he was also the first Minister of Education of Serbia, after centuries under the Ottoman rule, right at the beginning of the 19th century.
After all, that’s why one part of this small museum is dedicated to this great personality. But, I wonder how much the new generations know about him and his invaluable contribution to the Serbian literature and overall culture?
It’s really thanks to Dositej that today we use the language that we use, not only in our everyday life, but also in all aspects of education and communication.
Dositej propagated the use of the vernacular language in education of the Serbs.
At the time, there existed three different linguistic areas. The first one was the Russian Church Slavonic language, which was at the same time the language of prestige, spoken and written by a very few people.
The second one was the Slavenoserbski language, a mix of Russian Church Slavonic, Old Church Slavonic, Russian and local Serbian, spoken and written only by educated people.
The third one was the local Serbian vernacular language, spoken by both educated and illiterate people, which really means by everyone.
Dositej introduced the popular version of the language as a literary language. That opened the door for mass education of the population which was, under the centuries long Ottoman rule, basically illiterate.
WHY SHOULD YOU VISIT THE VUK AND DOSITEJ MUSEUM?
Admittedly, these two personalities may not be of great interest to foreigners. You really have to be Serbian to fully understand and appreciate their contribution to the nation.
But, as I’ve already mentioned, go there for the beautiful Ottoman building. You are not going to see many such buildings in this part of Europe, unless of course you go further east towards Turkey. The museum building is a scintillating piece of Ottoman heritage in the heart of Belgrade.
The second reason are the beautiful paintings, which you can see in this post. Some of them were painted by the most prominent Serbian painters. The main photo in this post is also a painting from a museum.
Finally, if you’ve bothered to come to Serbia and Belgrade, perhaps it may be of interest to you to learn a bit more about the Serbian nation and how it was culturally shaped throughout its turbulent history.
Certainly, in addition to many other things that you can see in Belgrade, this precious small museum will add to your better understanding of the city and the Serbs in general.