ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Dubrovnik: Citadel of Faith

In the ancient Yugoslav city of Dubrovnik, Catholics preserve their spiritual roots.

Each year, thousands of tourists come from all over the world to vacation along the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia. Many of them travel to Dubrovnik, the most picturesque town of the southern Adriatic, to visit its many historic buildings and museums. Beginning each July, the city hosts a month-long festival of the arts with nightly concerts, theatrical performances, and folk dancing.

A visit here is especially rewarding for Catholics, since Dubrovnik has always been a citadel of the Faith.

The town had its origins in the seventh century, when Avar and Slavic tribes coming from north of the Danube overran the Balkans. Frightened survivors from the inland fled to the coastal cities along the Adriatic, telling the inhabitants of the pillaging of their towns – whole populations extinguished, public buildings and homes left in ashes. Hearing the news and fearing that they too faced imminent destruction, the people of one of the towns, Epidaurus, fled to an easily defensible rocky island to find safety.

The name of the island was Ragusium, and it held only a small village of fishermen. When the Epidaurans arrived, they hastily put up a wooden wall for security. Once the Slavic invaders turned to peaceful pursuits, however, the Ragusans lost their fear and began trading with them. A Slavic settlement called Dubrovnik – from the Slavic word for ‘oak woods’ – grew up on the mainland immediately adjacent to the island, eventually giving the community a double name.

The Ragusans were all Latin Catholics, and soon had priests at work among the Dalmatian Slavs. Other Western missionaries sought conversions from among the Slovenes and Croatians, Slavic peoples to the north. On the other hand, clerics from Constantinople and Greece persuaded the Serbians, Bulgarians, and Macedonians to adopt Eastern Christianity. Since the Balkan Slavs received their faith from both East and West, they became a divided people. Unfortunately, this schism has never healed and still troubles the national identity of modern Yugoslavs.

In the early Middle Ages, Arab invaders attacked Dubrovnik three times, but on each occasion the Christians, invoking the aid of St. Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron, turned them back. These incursions prompted the construction of a fleet and a massive stone wall to protect the town. The wall is still standing, although it has been rebuilt many times.

In the late eleventh century, neither fleet nor wall was sufficiently strong to withstand a Norman invasion from southern Italy. Henceforth, the fortunes of Dubrovnik were often at the mercy of its larger and more powerful neighbors.

During the Middle Ages the merchant aristocrats, who governed the town through a senate, adapted themselves as gracefully as possible to the situation. They paid tribute to the Venetians or Hungarians – whichever nation was the stronger – and in return the citizens of Dubrovnik were left alone.

This policy proved to be wise. Whether recognizing the sovereignty of Venice or Hungary, the citizens of Dubrovnik enjoyed a very high standard of living. The city became a hub of commercial activity, and its merchants were found in every Mediterranean port.

During the period of Venetian control, Dubrovnik’s wealthy merchants welcomed numerous Italian artists and architects to assist in beautifying the town. Over forty churches were constructed, as well as eight convents for nuns. The Franciscans and the Dominicans built large establishments to house their members preparing for missionary work in the East.

Dubrovnik’s predominantly Catholic population was deeply devoted to the Roman Church. Devotion deteriorated into intolerance, however, when laws were enacted forbidding any Eastern Christian church to be located within the city walls. Additional legislation denied both citizenship and residence to anyone not of the Latin rite. Jews, however, were welcomed into the town. A modern street, Zudioska, recalls their presence.

In the fourteenth century, Dubrovnik was the first Catholic city to accommodate itself to the rising power of the Ottoman Turks. Delegates sought out Sultan Bayezit I in 1399 to work out an agreement with him by which Dubrovnik would become his dependency and pay him an annual tribute. The Ottoman sultan, for his part, promised security for the city and freedom for all Dubrovnik merchants to travel and trade at will throughout the length of his empire.

This treaty, subsequently renewed between Dubrovnik and Bayezit’s successors, formed the basis of an extremely advantageous relationship between the city and the sultan. It was unique; no other Christian community ever enjoyed such privileges. Other Western Christian nations, particularly Venice, were filled with anger and envy at Dubrovnik’s special position.

Suddenly, on April 6, 1667, Dubrovnik’s prosperity was shattered by an earthquake which leveled the city. Six thousand people died, and most of the city’s churches and public buildings were destroyed. The cathedral, built with money given by the English monarch Richard the Lion-heart, was reduced to a pile of rubble. Not a single house was left unscathed. The humbled city was forced to send pleas for assistance to the West European capitals.

In a remarkably short time the city was rebuilt, but its past good fortune was never really recovered. Trade was shifting away from the Mediterranean cities to those situated on the Atlantic. The eighteenth century proved to be a time of civil disturbance as Dubrovnik’s economy declined. The old nobility resented the merchants who had become rich after the earthquake. Finally, Dubrovnik fell victim to the expansionist dream of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1808, he annexed the city to the French empire. Seven years later, after Napoleon’s defeat, the victorious allies gathered at Vienna and awarded Dubrovnik to Austria. It remained an Austrian possession until, at the close of World War I, it was incorporated into the Yugoslav state.

Today’s visitors to Dubrovnik will find the number of its churches reduced and the old Franciscan convent converted into a restaurant, but they will also discover that the people of this historic town remain strongly attached to the Catholic faith of their ancestors.

Charles A. Frazee is a professor of Byzantine history at California Sate University, Fullerton.

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