Underground of Belgrade Fortress - Tragedy and triumph across civilizations

Underground of Belgrade Fortress – Tragedy and triumph across civilizations

From ancient civilizations to modern psychology, Gunpowder Magazine of Belgrade fortress will feed the curiosity of your inner Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.

View from the entrance into Great Gunpowder Magazine of Belgrade fortress. Source: ocolo.rs

Who are the heroes and antiheroes of our today’s story? We don’t tell you heroes from villains. We’re just telling you a story the historians and archeologists told us. First, you’ll find out who designed this exciting underground structure and how his life ended not far away from it. Followed by a close-up of the first-rate archaeological treasure from the more ancient times, now kept inside. Several myths intertwine on its front, carved in stone, connecting ideas across the ages and civilizations.

Corridor to the main fall of Great Gunpowder Magazine of Belgrade Fortress. Source: ocolo.rs

How long is the timeline of the story then? The original Roman fortress was built in 3rd century and this space was constructed in 18th century. But if we look at the image on the sarcophagus kept here, the story takes us as long as 8000 years back. Read up!

18th century Belgrade as Christian border defense

The Gunpowder Magazine was built c. 1720. Austrian Monarchy took over Belgrade from the Turks, during one of their frequent border conflicts in 17th and 18th centuries. The peace treaty enabled 30 years of prosperity for Belgrade. The Austrians were rebuilding the fortress and the city, as it was a strategic point in their border lands around the Danube.

Engineer and commander of tragic fate

The man who designed the Gunpowder Magazine was Nicolas Doxat de Démoret, a Swiss aristocrat employed as an engineer and officer with the Austrian army. He successfully applied the construction principles of Vauban, whose fortification designs were unrivaled. A large chunk of money for the reconstruction of Belgrade fortress came from a special tax that Popes collected from the clergy from several catholic states, called “Turkish tax”. This was the Christian Europe’s first line of defense from the threatening Turkish Empire.

Nicolas Doxat de Démoret, source Archives d’Etat de Berne – via 011info.com

Demoret’s fate was tragic. In 1737 the Turks stroke again and sieged the fortress of Niš in Southern Serbia, where Demoret was the commanding officer. Having 10 times less soldiers than the Turks, no communication with the central command nor adequate supplies, he decided to forfeit the fortress without battle. This decision proved fatal for Demoret. He was sentenced to death by his employers. The sentence said he acted disproportionately to the threat, that not engaging in battle was an irreparable damage to the Austrian army’s reputation and an encouragement to the arrogance of the Turks.  Demoret was executed near Belgrade Fortress in 1738.

Rare Late Roman – Early Christian sarcophagus in Belgrade

Today, the Magazine displays the Ancient Roman artifacts from the collection of National Museum in Belgrade. They date back to 1st to 4th century. Most of the exhibits are stelae – the vertical stone slabs, mainly of funerary function. They bear inscriptions, ornamental or figurative decoration and even some poetry.

The star of the exhibition is the Sarcophagus of Jonah. There are only 15 sarchophagi with the depiction of Jonah in the world. It’s important as a very early example of Christian iconography in the territory of Serbia, then within the Roman Empire.

The scenes from the Old Testament tale of Jonah and the whale were carved in 4th century. The sarcophagus is of earlier date. Source: National Museum in Belgrade.

The relief is from the 4th century. The sarcophagus was found in the late 19th century not far away from the fortress, in Dorćol, one of the oldest and most loved quarters of Belgrade. Besides two scenes from the Old Testament tale of Jonah, there is a depiction of Christ Good Shepard, the Early Christian type of young Christ looking like ancient Orpheus, carrying a lamb.

Tale of Jonah and the whale

Who was Jonah? Jonah was a man as any other, living in 8th century BCE. God chose Jonah to prophesy his will. Jonah’s task was to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to warn them of punishment if they don’t repent. Jonah deemed he was not up to the task and boarded a ship to flee to another place. The ship was caught in a terrible storm on open sea. Jonah knew that he was the cause and asked the sailors to drop him overboard. A giant fish or a whale swallowed him. Jonah spent three days and three nights inside the whale’s gut, reflecting and repenting. As he decided to accept the task from God, the whale released him onto the shore. Jonah went to Nineveh and prophesied. The lord and the people there listened to him and took his prophesy seriously thus saving themselves from God’s punishment.

Late Roman Jonah sarcophagus in the Great Gunpowder Magazine of Belgrade Fortress draws attention from international archeologists and media. Source: ocolo.rs

On the Belgrade sarcophagus, we see Jonah being thrown from the boat to the jaws of a giant fish and the later scene where the fish releases him.

The original Jewish meaning of Jonah tale is in repenting and being forgiven. The Christianity sees him as the precursor of Christ. Probably the most famous Jonah in the art history is one by Michelangelo, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 16th century, right above the Christ in the Last Judgment. Jonah is also known and important in Islam.

Michelangelo’s Prophet Jonah on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel. His depicted exactly aboveChrist in Last Judgment on the wall below.

Deeper dive into history and present times

What about the Assyrian city of Nineveh? It was located right across the today’s Mosul in Iraq, on the banks of the river Tigris, founded some  6,000 years BC. It was the largest city in the world for approximately fifty years until the year 612 BC when, after a period of civil war in Assyria, it was sacked by a coalition of its former subject peoples. Today’s Mosul was heavily devastated in the previous decade, during the fights between Iraq and IS. Jonah’s grave, that was a site of pilgrimage for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, was destroyed by IS while the archeological site of Nineveh was under their occupation.

Psychology sidebar

What is the Jonah complex? In psychology, this is a kind of fear from being our best-selves, fear of our own greatness, which hinders our ability to self-actualize. Eminent American psychologist Abraham Maslow studied this phenomenon, common to all of us to some extent.

Maslow noted that we often “run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried—in vain—to run away from his fate”. 

Want to know more about Belgrade fortress? Click here. For your private and personal tour of Belgrade fortress click here.