Through the Shadows of Centuries
That symbolically very important city is full of Serbian traces. King Milutin raised the Church of St. John the Forerunner and a hospital for the poor. Despot Đurđe built two towers in the city walls. After the fall of Belgrade in 1521, the population was moved to Constantinople, where the Beligrad-mahala was founded. Ever since those times, the Hospital Gate is called the Beligrad Gate. Very significant were the churches of St. Petka of Serbia and the Virgin of Belgrade. (...) We followed traces

By: Miloje Ž. Nikolić, MA
Photo: Milan Marković and Archives of NR

Serbs have been living in Constantinople ever since its founding in the IV century. During the Middle Ages, or the millennium long duration of the Roman empire, wrongfully and maliciously called Byzantium, Serbian ancestors arrived to the City on the Bosporus with different purposes. Until the late XII century, they were most often brought in processions of prisoners. Stefan Nemanja used to lead one such procession from Niš to Constantinople in the second half of that century. His sons, later offspring and others visited Constantinople as school and university students, painters, businessmen, politicians, statesmen and others. In that period, Serbian queen Simonida, King Milutin’s wife, took a monastic vow as a widow in the Monastery of St. Andrew on Krisei. The remains of the famous monastery were later turned into Zumbul-Pasha’s mosque.
King Milutin raised the Church of St. John the Forerunner in Constantinople, as well as a hospital for the city’s poor citizens. It is unknown whether the church and hospital were preserved until our times. However, the two towers in the city walls, built by Despot Đurđe Branković in 1448 are known. The unfortunate despot had to send a squad of a thousand and a half warriors, who were distributed in the vicinity of the Edirne Gate and the Palaiologos dynasty palace during the seize of Constantinople in April and May 1453. By the way, the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos Dragaš was a Serb from his mother’s side. After the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, despot Đurđe brought a great number of imprisoned citizens of Constantinople, thereby granting them freedom.
From the fall of Constantinople under Ottoman rule to 1459, Serbs used to come to the city as vassals. From 1459 to 1806, many little boys were brought here, intended for future Janissaries, according to the Law on Devshirme. They certainly had to be converted to Islam, but have never forgotten who they were or where they came from. Many of them succeeded in obtaining very high positions in the Ottoman Empire, and several dozens of them were great viziers. Some of were great benefactors to their Orthodox brothers, especially Mehmed-Pasha Sokolović, great vizier, who renewed the Patriarchate of Peć in 1557, bringing his cousin Makarije, former monk in Chilandar – as patriarch. Besides the valuable renewal of the Patriarchate of Peć, Mehmed-Pasha also built the famous Monastery of Piva together with Patriarch Makarije. The donor portrait, in which both Sokolović brothers are depicted as tall and noble people, testifies about it. The descendants of Mehmed-Pasha today live in Constantinople with the surname of Sokoli, not shahin, as the Turks call the hawk (Serbian ”soko”). Besides their heirs, descendants of other Janissaries live in Turkey as well.


Besides forced taking of little boys according to the devshirme, Serbs also went to Constantinople to earn their living. A big city, with good chances of earning money, attracted Serbs from Macedonia and the Niš area, as well as from Lower Zeta and the coastal part of present Montenegro, more from the Paštrović clan and less from Boka. People from Boka preferred to go towards Venice, where many were converted into Catholicism. Artisans or young people who learned different crafts most often moved to the Bosporus, while many who went to Venice became seafarers, often ship captains. A few members of the Paštrović clan were engaged in navigation in Turkey. Poor Serbs spontaneously came to Constantinople and settled in Taxim, in the vicinity of the present Greek Church of Holy Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena.
In the late XIX century, the Serbian colony became better organized, certainly with the help of the Kingdom of Serbia. It founded its Elementary School and Gymnasium, and even had its own priests. One of their famous parishioners was monk Varnava, later Patriarch of Serbia. In the late XIX century, they succeeded in erecting a church dedicated to St. Sava.
The Serbian colony founded and published the Constantinople Herald magazine. It was issued every second Thursday, from January 1895 to October 1912. It preserved valuable information about the Serbian colony in Constantinople on the break of two centuries, about Serbs throughout the Ottoman Empire, as well as Serbia and Serbs in the Habsburg Monarchy. For example, we read a detailed report in the Constantinople Herald about the visit of the Serbian Singing Society to the Serbian colony in late 1895. They held several concerts in the Church of St. Sava. They were even guests of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in the Yildiz palace, where he lived.
Orthodox Serbs gradually scattered around the world from Constantinople, but there are still some descendants of Serbian families living in the city, closely connected with Greeks. Professor Ljubomir Durković Jakšić, PhD, told us about a group of people close to generals Dragoljub Mihailović and Milan Nedić, who found sanctuary in Constantinople in July 1944 after fleeing from Serbia. Seven or eight years ago, a letter was found in the Archive of Yugoslavia, sent to Josip Broz by one of the Serbs who fled, through his superior in the KGB in Moscow. He informs him about the arrival of the group to the Bosporus and asks what to do with them. He didn’t miss to mention that they are minding their own business, without saying anything bad about communists. The reply to this letter wasn’t found.


During our first study visit to Constantinople in 2012, we heard that there was a group of Orthodox Serbs living in the vicinity of the Church of St. Petka. We were told that they were so rich that the Turkish economy would suffer serious consequences if only one of them would transfer their capital to another state. We tried to get in contact with them, but in vain. Their cautiousness is so great that they write inscriptions on tombstones of their deceased at Greek cemeteries in German and Turkish.
After its defeat under Vienna in the late XVII century, the Ottoman Empire began weakening and shrinking. The population from the lost areas retreated to the heartland. Thus, for example, the Sijarić bays moved from Buda to the estates of their ancestors in the vicinity of Bijelo Polje. The same was with other Turkish Muslims. The migration of the Muslim population from Serbian lands, begun after Karađorđe’s uprising in 1804, has lasted until recently. Thus there are about ten million people living in Turkey today, whose mother tongue is the same as ours.
Besides such migrations, the Ottomans took away inhabitants of some parts of Serbia after conquering those parts, and settled them throughout the empire. Thus you can find people speaking Serbian not only in Turkey, but also in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia and other parts of the former empire, even Persia. For example, the descendants of Smail-aga Čengić, who haven’t forgotten their language and origin, live in the Iraqi city of Mosul. By the way, the Čengićs are direct descendants of the Kosovo hero Pavle Orlović. The most famous migrations are those from 1521. That year, Sultan Suleiman the Lawmaker finally conquered Belgrade and the Despotate of Srem, thus extinguishing the last spark of the Serbian medieval state.


The enslaved population was taken to the Turkish capital city, where they were separated. Exiles from Srem were settled in a dozen villages near the city of Gallipoli, on the peninsula with the same name. Without any support, in a cruel environment, they preserved their faith, language, customs, legends, songs and national consciousness. After four centuries and several attempts, a minority of them managed to move to Macedonia in 1922.
Sultan Suleiman settled the enslaved citizens of Belgrade in two places. One group remained in the City, behind Theodosius’ Walls, where they founded the Beligrad-mahala. The hospital gate was named the Beligrad Gate after them, and has the same name today.
The second group of Belgrade exiles was taken north-west from the City and settled near the lake, from which Constantinople was supplied with water ever since the time of Emperor Galerius in the IV century. They founded the Beligrad Village and were in charge of maintaining the lake and waterworks. They had their church and cemetery. Today there is not a single trace of all that. Only the forest that surrounded the village is still called the Beligrad Woods, and is located in Bayram-Pasha’s Municipality, in which the majority of the population consists of exiles from Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Belgrade exiles, who founded Beligrad-mahala in 1521, raised a church two years later and called it the Virgin of Belgrade, probably after the miracle-working icon of the Holy Virgin, which they brought with them among other sanctities. The icon is now gone from the church.
It is a spacious, beautiful, single nave on the outside and three nave on the inside basilica, with a separate bell tower and high built fence around the churchyard. The only things left from the Serbian church items are two old altar icons, which are not on the iconostasis. The church was burned in the late 1950s, and Professor Alexander Deroko, PhD, visited it in 1954. He complained that they hardly let him in and forbade him to use a camera. He hadn’t found the miracle-working icon of the Virgin of Belgrade either. We visited the church in 2013, and, luckily, weren’t limited by anything, so we processed it systematically and professionally. The church was renewed in the late 1960s. It was thoroughly renewed in the 1830s as well.
The single preserved memorial plate testifies that works on the church have been done in 1837 and that ”stone was written” by a certain stonemason from the village of Vrba, probably the one near Aranđelovac. Vrba near Aranđelovac was a famous village of stonemasons, who processed the venčac marble for centuries. This information indicates that exiled Serbs had been maintaining their connections with Serbia for centuries.


It is worth mentioning that miracle-working chains used to exist next to the Church of the Virgin of Belgrade until World War II, where people who lost their mind were chained. They would complain at first. For most of them, it was enough just to spend the night in chains, but in some cases, they spent three to four days in chains, in all kinds of weather, until they would get rid of their serious illness. The news spread far, so Đorđe Bukilica, reporter of the Belgrade Vreme daily, traveled to Constantinople and wrote a remarkable news report about it in 1938. Bukilica wrote that the chains were placed near the church door. Greeks, Turks and Serbs found miraculous recoveries, as well as other nations from Persia and Egypt, regardless of their confession. The church dedicated to the Virgin’s Nativity became very famous due to those chains, and Turks cared about it more than Serbs. After the mysterious disappearance of the miracle-working chains, the Church of the Virgin of Belgrade lost its popularity.
After the peaceful ending of the uprising in 1815, Master Miloš Obrenović sent a deputation to Constantinople to negotiate with the High Porte about autonomy for Serbs. Since the negotiations took long, delegations were being replaced, so a new deputation was sent to Turkey in 1820, led by Archimandrite Samuilo, prior of the Kalenić Monastery. The delegation with prior Samuilo arrived to Constantinople at the end of the year, and already on March 25 the following year, 1821, the Greek uprising broke out. Immediately after the breaking out of the uprising, the Turkish authorities incarcerated our deputation in the Zindan Tower.
They explained the arrest to Duke Miloš with safety reasons and they were not lying. The Ottomans knew well that Serbs were leaders of the Greek uprising, including Čučuk-Stana, second wife of Hayduk-Veljko, now with her second husband, Yorgos the Greek, called captain Jorgać in Karađorđe’s time. Besides, there were warriors from the Principality of Serbia and all Serbian lands. Serbs have performed unimaginable heroic deeds in those battles. The Turks suspected that the new Serbian delegation was involved in the Greek uprising, so they arrested them and held them in the horrible Zindan Tower for four and a half years. Luckily for the delegates, Prince Miloš, thoughtful and wise, didn’t interfere in the Greek uprising. If he did have any role in it, there were no written traces about it. Master Miloš helped the Greeks in another way. When they founded the University of Athens, he gave a rich gift, which hasn’t been surpassed till the very day.
Archimandrite Samuilo, due to poor health and old age, died in imprisonment in August 1824. With the blessing of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, he was buried in the churchyard of the Church of St. Petka, Serbian saint from Epibates. Her relics are kept in Romania today, in the city of Jassy.
The prior’s grave is in the form of a sarcophagus with a corresponding epitaph, all made at the expense of Serbia. Savka, born in 1826 and died in Constantinople in 1844 is buried on Archimandrite Samuilo’s left side. Besides her is Mara Radišić, buried at the age of twenty, with her nine months-old daughter, who died ten days before her unfortunate mother. Mara was the wife of Vuk Radišić, the first Serbian new age translator of ancient Greek dramas. Her epitaph was written in reformed Cyrillic alphabet, which indicates that Vuk Radišić was a follower of Vuk Karadžić. Little Anka Teodorović was buried next to Mara in 1844, at the age of eight, daughter of Serbian diplomatic representative in Turkey Lazar Teodorović. Her father, Lazar Teodorović, who passed away in 1846, was buried next to his young daughter. Lazar’s colleague, diplomatic emissary Avram Petronijević, who passed away in 1852, is resting next to him. Stojan Novaković and others who were engaged in Constantinople testify that the famous Tatar or postman Indze was buried here as well, but we couldn’t find his grave, probably because the inscription faded. Avram Petronijević is the last Serb buried in this churchyard.
The Church of St. Petka is an ancient Roman church, destroyed in the earthquake in 1690, and renewed the following year by the rich Wallachian Prince Constantine Brankovanu. The Patriarchate of Constantinople loaned this church to the Romanian community.


Finally, a short story about the military cemetery near Edirne. It is known that the Serbian Second Army, commanded by General Stepa Stepanović, fought near Edirne during the First Balkan War, together with the Bulgarian allied army. Serbian warriors were in trenches and marches near Edirne from November 1912 until the end of the war, June 1913. They brought honor to Serbian weapons and heroism, causing crucial losses to the enemy. Eight hundred young Serbian men died in the battles and from illnesses. Before returning to their homeland, General Stepanović, together with his officers, attended the requiem at the cemetery.
There is a preserved photo of that event, which, with the help of now passed away colleague Mustafa Bereketli, citizen of Constantinople, took us to the spot in 2012.
The cemetery was lacking any marks or signs. A century has passed and local peasants were cultivating land on it. It is located near the Greek border and a former railway station, now moved closer to the city due to the vicinity of the state border. We could see the cemetery, because we climbed up to the locomotive of the former simplon express, now exhibit. The building of the former railway station now hosts the Rectory of the Turkish State University.
After our visit to the cemetery, we were received by valia (governor) of Edirne and Thrace. As he was informed about our military cemetery, he promised to help us to explore and process it archeologically and then added: ”Then everything is up to Serbia, whether you will renew it and maintain it, as with your cemetery in Salonika, or exhume and transfer the bones of warriors to the Motherland.” We thanked him for his attentiveness, and promised that we will try to come with an appropriate team. Unfortunately, we didn’t succeed, despite our persistent attempts to collect money for preliminary archeological explorations.
Our following visit to the cemetery was in 2014. In the meantime, it began growing into weeds, which indicated that the owners of the land, obviously pious, stopped cultivating the graveyard. We visited the same place in 2017 as well. The cemetery continued growing into acacia and willow woods.
The mentioned field work in Turkey was performed thanks to the understanding and financial support of the Serbian Ministry of Culture and Information.

(The author is a historian, expert from the Institute
for Protecting Cultural Monuments in Valjevo)


Reputable Serbian Families
The Serbian community had several reputable and rich patriotic families, including the most remarkable Zelić family. Besides it, the Zenović, Dabković, Džamanja, Balić, Zambelić, Anđus, Perazić, Drakulić, Petrović, Medigović, Đurašević, Ljubiša and other families were also remarkable for their reputation and wealth. The Ljubiša family is most probably related to the famous writer Stjepan Mitrov Ljubiša, who spent his youth in Venice. It is unknown where the descendants of those families live today and what language they speak.


When we exited the Church of the Virgin of Belgrade churchyard, after all our explorations, we saw a group of tall, dark-haired people on the other side of the narrow street. They were standing and watching us silently, while tears were running from their blue eyes.


Đorđe Bukilica speaks in ”Vreme” from 1938, that he found people in the Beligrad-mahala who spoke Greek and claimed they were Greeks. He tried to prove to them that they were descendants of Serbs brought from Belgrade a few centuries ago, but all in vain. Or they had a reason for hiding behind oblivion.


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