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A brief history of Belgrade Fortress

"I cometh and found the noblest burgh from ancient times, 
the grand town of Belgrade

Despot Stefan Lazarevic (15th c.)

Belgrade is undoubtedly one of the oldest towns in this part of Europe, though its present appearance gives an impression of a completely new city. Nowadays, the only place where the remains of its distant past can be seen is the fortress, situated on the site of the former fortified settlement - the site where Belgrade was founded during the Roman era in the 1st century AD and on which it developed right down to the second half of the 18th century. The fortress we see today was built in mid-18th century, but its walls encircle the old 15th century Acropolis or the Upper Town made when Belgrade was proclaimed for the Serbian capital in 1404.

Roman Singidunum

The Belgrade Fortress, situated on a bluff towering over the confluence of the Rivers Sava and Danube, has exceptionally fine position, easily defended and dominating the area. It is for this that people settled here during pre-historic times. The earliest settlement, judging by the remains discovered on the site, was established in the Neolithic period on the plateau occupied by the present Upper Town or Acropolis. There were very favorable conditions for the development of a settlement here, and it seems that the site was later taken over by the Romans in the early 1st century AD. Then, this area with a legionary camp - castrum called Singidunum (the oldest known name for Belgrade) became part of the Roman Empire, whose northern frontier was demarcated by the Rivers Rhine and Danube. 

Belgrade of the Slavs

It was in the early Middle Ages, when Roman border towns were being destroyed by onslaughts from the north. The remaining inhabitants found refuge in the ruined castrum, which was hastily reinforced with material taken from destroyed buildings. Around this nucleus there grew up a fortified town, with a very mixed population, serving as a frontier post of the Eastern Roman Empire - Byzantium. With the arrival of the Slavs in these regions, it lost its original name Singidunum. From the 9th century onwards, it appears under the Slav name of Beograd (the White town), starting to expand to the level ground beside the Danube. Sturdy walls and towers also protected this lower section of the fortification complex. The castle of the feudal lord was situated at the northwest corner of the Upper Town (some segments have been excavated on the spot).

Belgrade as the center of 'Serbian Renaissance'

Development of Belgrade in the 15th century and its transformation into a fortified mediaeval town took place during the reign of Serbian ruler Stefan Lazarevic. Choosing Belgrade to be the capital of his state, Stefan made it not only a defensive strongpoint of the country, but also its economic and cultural center. Archaeological research offers abundant information on the development of Belgrade in the period 1404-27. A general picture of the town and its fortifications can also be obtained from the notes of Stefan´s biographer, Constantine the Philosopher and a French author Bertrandon de la Broquere. From that superb period of Belgrade's history, one can see today: remains of double ramparts with towers and gates (in 1984 the vestiges of the so-called Little or West gate were discovered by archaeologists and the eastern Despot's gate still is in function), as well as some preserved ruins of the castle's entrance).

Belgrade as 'Antemurale Christianitatis' (The Bastion of Christianity)

Until the death of Stefan Lazarevic in 1427, Belgrade constantly increased in size, augmented by new churches, hospitals, inns and other sizable buildings. But the town's further growth, now again under Hungarian rule, was hampered by the appearance of the Turks, who first besieged it in 1440. They made a further vein attempt to capture it in 1456, and finally succeeded only in 1521. During the time of the Ottoman Turks, the Upper Fortress as a town area gradually disappeared, being inhabited only by the army and representatives of the government. The Lower Fortress continued to be a trade and crafts center, but as time passed, trade too moved outside the walls. In the town beyond the walls, caravansary, inns, baths, fountains, mosques and other buildings have been erected, fundamentally altering the town's appearance. Work on the reconstruction of old fortifications began when the Austrian army headed by Maximillian of Bavaria captured the city in 1688.

Cornaro's reconstruction work

The Austrian occupation lasted only two years, for in 1690 Turks entered Belgrade again. In that brief period, however, various measures were taken to strengthen the defense of the fortress. The Venetian engineer Andrea Cornaro commissioned for this task made use of what was then a quite modern defense technique - bastion wall, and the medieval fortification took on a new appearance, that of an artillery fort. This work was also continued under Turkish rule  for Cornaro, who had been in Austrian service, went over to the Turks and carried on the task. Generally speaking, the Cornaro's project of the fort's reconstruction, based on the model of Old-Dutch fortifications was not an up-to-date solution. A new type of artillery fortresses (introducing a series of bastions and various outworks, so-called Vauban's forts) was being built elsewhere at the time. Why Cornaro, as a good connoisseur of military architecture and its development at the time, did not apply more contemporary principles of fortification construction? Though the question still is an enigma,  we can now only suppose that Cornaro, as a Christian employee of the Turkish army, intentionally worked to the detriment of Turkish military interests. 

Builders in the role of a demolition squad

In 1717 the Austrians, led by Prince Eugene of Savoy, took Belgrade again and held it until 1739. In that period the medieval fortified town definitely disappeared and a modern Baroque artillery fortress was constructed on the same site. The reconstruction project (authored by Austrian Colonel of Swiss origin Nicolaus Doxat de Demoret) was carried out during the next 15 years. For its time that was a sturdy, modern and pretty extensive fortification of Vauban's type, in which high hopes were placed for the defense of Europe against the Turks. But soon, after the Austrian army had suffered several defeats, Austrian Belgrade surrendered to the Ottomans without fighting! Unfortunately, according to a clause of the armistice contract signed on that occasion, Austrians had the right to hand Belgrade over to Turkey under the condition that all new fortifications built after 1717, be destroyed. The demolition of the newly built Austrian fortifications lasted for almost six months.

The final appearance

One of the main tasks of the Turks, who settled once again in the Fortress, was to build a new artillery fortification in the same manner and according to architectural features of the destroyed Austrian fort. The construction works started by the end of 1740 and, with frequent interruptions lasted for almost two decades. Then, around 1760, Belgrade Fortress was given its final form, preserved until this date. The new Turkish fortress represented a restoration of demolished Austrian military structures, but in a very simplified way. Though quite similar to the foregoing fort, the new fortress had been constructed with numerous failings. Outer fortifications, as a crucial support to the defense of the main bastion front, were missed out. However, the defensive role of such fortifications started loosing any significance with the development of new war tactics and when the Serbian army succeeded the Turkish garrison in 1867, Belgrade Fortress was no longer an important strongpoint of defense. 

The Fortress is the major archaeological and historic site in Belgrade today. 

Guided tours of Belgrade fortress
For a private tour of Belgrade fortress (duration: 2 hrs)in English, please contact us: 

 The concept and program of our guided tours are fully harmonized with objectives and principles outlined in the draft of the ICOMOS Charter on the interpretation of cultural heritage sites from August 23, 2004.


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English version published  01/31/00
Last version: 09/01/00 Redesigned: 09/05/04 Last updated: 01/18/06

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