I fully believe that the more you already know the easier it is to learn other things. I’ve found this out in my professional life: if I can write an app in Objective C, I will learn how to do the same thing in Swift much more quickly than someone starting from scratch. But this is true of travel also. The more places you’ve been, things you’ve seen, and cultures you’ve encountered, the easier it is to understand the historical place and significance of the thing you’re currently looking at.
Know something about Turkish history? That will certainly help you when exploring Serbia or Hungary. Know about the Roman Republic? You’ll have a much more pleasant time among the ruins of Greece. Know about the medieval Arab conquests? It’ll be much easier to contextualize what you’re looking at in Spain.
It is a little rare, however, for so many of our experiences to converge on one particular spot as they did at Klis Fortress. Perched above Split on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, Klis is probably best known these days as a setting for the show Game of Thrones, which is wildly popular but which I still haven’t managed to see.
The fortress site was first occupied by Illyrians who were later conquered by the Romans. An Illyrian revolt was put down by Caesar Augustus, who besieged the fortress and left behind still-extant remains of a Roman military camp. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the fortress passed among Gothic kingdoms, the Byzantines, and the Slavs, before being a focal point of the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. The Venetians took it from the Ottomans and held it for 150 years, up to the point where Napoleon ended Venice as an independent entity. By that point it had lost its strategic importance, but it kicked around the Austro-Hungarian empire for awhile before being abandoned and ending up in the fluid milieu of states that was the 20th century Balkans. And from then on to Game of Thrones, I suppose.
Kris manages to neatly wrap early Croatian (Dalmatian), Roman and Illyrian, Gothic/Germanic, Byzantine, Slavic, Hungarian, Crusader, Mongol, Ottoman Turkish, Venetian, French, Austro-Hungarian, and modern Croatian history, all in one very scenic spot. Aside from being well-traveled by some of history’s leading lights, it seemed like it was designed to integrate the experiences we’ve been having while traveling around eastern Europe.
The list of coincidences and tangential relations would be too great to list, but I should mention a few. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Odoacer became King of Italy, and was displaced by Theodoric the Goth, who held Dalmatia and Klis. What’s so interesting about this Theodoric? Just weeks before visiting Klis, we visited Ravenna in Italy, the seat of Theodoric’s Ostrogothic kingdom. We visited the mausoleum of Theodoric while there, and spent some time inside Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, where there is a famous mosaic of Theodoric’s palace.
Oddly, the mosaic of Theodoric’s palace has had the depictions of the Gothic court removed and replaced by nothing but the bare arches and drapes. Why? Well, Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire sent his general Belisarius to reconquer Ravenna, and when he succeeded, Gothic kings were personae non gratae. Not coincidentally, Klis also fell to the Byzantines in this “reconquest” during the reign of Justinian. What’s so interesting about this Justinian? Oh, he was only the emperor who built the greatest church on earth, the Hagia Sophia, which we visited many times while living in Istanbul just a few months prior.
After some time under the early Slavic kingdoms, Klis passed into the Kingdom of Hungary, which had unified with the crown of Croatia at the time. During the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, Hungarian king Bela IV put up resistance to Qadan (son of Ögedei Khan and grandson of Genghis Khan himself). Bela IV and his armies fought as long as they could, but they ended up fleeing before the furious Mongol onslaught. The Mongols thought they had tracked Bela to Klis and besieged the fortress in 1242. What’s so interesting about this King Bela? Well, he escaped, and he became father to three daughters venerated as saints, including St. Margaret. This Margaret gave her name to Margaret Island on the Danube between Buda and Pest, where we spent a very pleasant day not two months prior. And by the way, Margaret was born at …Klis.
In the 16th century, Klis was held by Croat nobles, but the Ottoman invasion of Europe was in full swing. Petar Kruzic held the fortress for some 25 years against the Ottomans. Kruzic appealed for help to the Hungarians, but none was forthcoming after their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Mohacs. Incidentally, it was Suleiman I “the Magnificent” who led the Ottomans in that battle, and indeed in the most of the conquest of the Balkans. What’s so interesting about this Suleiman? Well, his imperial mosque in Istanbul, Süleymaniye, was where we first heard the adhan sung just hours after arriving in the city. That may be the one particular moment that we can point to as the genesis of our love affair with Istanbul. Süleymaniye was also where we spent our last evening in Istanbul after living there for three months. Anyway, back in the 16th century, troops sent by Suleiman waited out the siege of Klis and the Ottomans took it over. Suleiman died during the battle of Szigetvar in Hungary some years later.
The Venetians next took over the fortress, as part of their long-standing campaigns against the Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean, which encompassed Greece, Crete, and Dalmatia, among other places. The Venetians, whose city we visited about a month before Klis, held the fortress from the mid-17th century until the very end of the 18th century, when it passed to Napoleon. Napoleon extinguished the Venetian state in one stroke, and with it took control of Klis. While in Venice, we took a cruise on the canal and saw where Napoleon stood overlooking the Grand Canal, surveying the seat of the empire he snuffed out.
By the time Napoleon was cutting swaths of destruction across Europe and Russia, warfare had fundamentally changed, and Klis was no longer the strategic centerpiece of the Balkans that it had once been. Its last occupation was by Italian forces during World War II, but thankfully it survived the war intact, and it is well worth a visit from Split.
Even if you don’t find as many coincidences as we did while you’re there, the climb up is probably worth it if just for the view alone. And besides, there simply are not that many places on earth that can claim the kind of varied and luminous history that Klis can.