Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In the warm Ragusan sun

We just got back from an amazing trip to Croatia. The sun was shining, the Adriatic was warm and the hospitality came in bucketfuls.

But as you might imagine it was the history and the politics that fascinated me. Dubrovnik, the city on the far southern coast of Dalmatia where we spent most of our time was known as the City State of Ragusa. Ragusa maintained its independence for hundreds of years by shrewdly playing powerful rivals against each other and balancing the trading empires of Venice and the Ottomans.

In fact, the City State of Ragusa paid tribute to the Ottoman empire to avoid being conquered by them at the height of their power. The Ottomans had a great system. Every city state that paid them tribute had to send their gold to Constantinople along with a troop of the wealthiest and most prominent citizens. The Ottomans thought they were securing the loyalty of their vassal states by basically holding some of the most important residents as de facto hostages until the next year’s tribute arrived with a new batch of nobles. Pretty clever.

The Ragusans took advantage of this situation by learning all they could about the mysterious empire that scared the crap out of Christian Europe. After learning the Ottoman ways, they eventually secured exclusive trading rights for the entire Ottoman empire which made them a very wealthy city state.

The Ragusans maintained their tenuous independence until they surrendered to Napoleon’s oncoming troops in 1808. So with the Russian and Montenegrin fleets blockading the city and lobbing 3000 cannonballs at the city, they had a choice to make. Surrender the City that no longer had protection from the Hapsburg empire to Napoleon or risk being attacked by the Russians and their Montenegrin and Serbian Allies.

Needless to say, the Ragusans chose to be occupied by Napoleon’s army. The French even built an awesome fort to defend the city.

This fort unfortunately would eventually be needed to defend Dubrovnik from the Serbians during what is referred to as the “Homeland War” when Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991 and Slobodan Milosevic decided he would try to retake most of if not all of the former Yugoslavia for himself and Serbia.

Dubrovnik was shelled for 7 months and most of the roofs in the city were destroyed. The Bosnian war was terrible and despite it having ended only 16 years ago, Americans know surprisingly little about this war that brought concentration camps back to Europe.

We were lucky enough to hire Pepo as our tour guide and driver to Split. Naturally, I chewed his ear off about the war. It turns out Pepo had fought and defended the city of Dubrovnik from Serbian attack during the siege.

He gave us a first hand account of the war. It was amazing and we thank him profusely for his insight and for making the trip one we will never forget.

So to thank him, you should follow him on Twitter! And yes he is on Twitter and has more than 2,000 followers.

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