Dubrovnik: Citadel of Faith

by Charles A. Frazee
photos: Editorial Photocolor Archives

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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.

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Tags: Catholic Historical site/city Tourism Yugoslavia