Old Town Stjepan Grad in Blagaj: Witness of turbulent times of Zachlumia

Stjepa-grad FOTO: VELIJA HASANBEGOVIĆ

The Old Town Blagaj (Stjepangrad) is one of the most valuable national monuments of B&H, whose history testifies to the turbulent times of these areas. It was built on a high and hardly accessible karst hill, above the river Buna. The archaeological material scattered along the slopes of Blagaj Hill witnesses the existence of settlements in prehistoric and Roman period.

At the northeastern peak there are remains of the Roman or late antique fortress, known as the Mala Gradina, and at the southeastern tip are the contours of the prehistoric hill. At the southwestern tip are the remains of today’s Stjepangrad, a medieval town, or a city from the Ottoman period.

Political Life

The short sides of triangle are limited by the canyon that once used to flow through the river, and on the longest and only accessible side, the remains of solid and massive ramparts, which enclosed a fortification-urban complex on more than two hectares of land, are identified.

The first indirect written sources about cities of Zachlumia (Zahumlje), and therefore Blagaj, originate from the “De Administrando Imperio“ by the Byzantine emperor and writer Constantine Porphyrogenitus, written between 948 and 952, in which two cities are mentioned – Bona and Hum.

And after the 10th century Blagaj played a major role in development of Hum. Its development and significance was influenced by the proximity of an important road that connected the Neretva Valley to the Adriatic Sea with the Bosnian hinterland (“via Narenti”). Turbulent political life, especially after the 10th century, did not significantly affect the economic development of this suburb. Duke Miroslav resided in Blagaj, and during his era the Church of St. Cosmas and Damian has been built.

A plaque with a Cyrillic inscription speaks of the construction of the church. The plaque was discovered in 1912 near the ruins of the old castle Bišće and the Vrača site. The plate is now in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian rulers in Blagaj, since the time of King Tvrtko, issue charters, and in May 1404, Blagaj became one of the headquarters of the Duke Sandalj Hranić, and then Herceg Stjepan Vukčić Kosača, after which the city was named Stjepangrad.

The first written source in which it is mentioned is the Peace Treaty between Duke Sandalj Hranić and Venetians from November 1, 1423, issued “in our city Blagaj”. In the 15th century, it is mentioned in all three charters of the Aragonese-Napoleonic King Alfonso V. The Ottomans took over  Blagaj in 1465, and in 1473, the Blagaj qadi (Muslim judge) was mentioned.

The city was repaired twice – in 1699, when the west tower was restored, and then in 1827. The crew stayed here until 1835, although Mostar took over the strategic role long ago. The entrance to the fortified city was protected by a predicament that is now hard to see, the lobby and the tower as the last obstacle when the attackers enter the city. Towards the end of the 14th and early 15th century, the walls of the ramparts are reinforced and bold with the inclinations narrowing from the base to the top. A further 10 meters from the city, another wall has been erected, so the interior space looks like a tunnel. The east wall was particularly devastated in the 18th or early 19th century, when a large amount of gunpowder exploded in the middle tower.

The repair was performed badly and negligently, so that its original appearance was substantially altered. On the west side, a square tower was built. Stone stairs lead up to its peak, from where a beautiful and wide view of the surrounding area is provided. Among the discovered architectural objects are the most important remains of the palace. The interior of the building has been made from the wood, which is concluded from large quantities of carbonated beams and semi-baked clay.

Illyrian ceramics

Based on building characteristics, archaeological material and corresponding analogies, it is concluded that the palace was founded at the end of 14th and beginning of 15th century, at the time of Duke Sandalj Hranić. The central space occupies a building with a built-in circular tank. It was built most probably during the Ottoman period. At that time, the mosque and one small residential building were built, but they were relatively shortly used, since the Ottoman crew preferred to stay in the settlement below the city.

In a 1664 travelogue, Evliya Çelebi mentions the iron gate, 15 empty houses, a small mosque, two tanks and two cannons, and about the the city itself he says “seems to have just emerged from the hand of a neimar (builder)”.

In 1965 a systematic archaeological excavation was conducted under the supervision of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, when about 1,000 square meters of the area was surveyed, which is slightly more than one-third of the area surrounded by city walls. In the medieval layer, ceramic and small iron objects, remains of glass and carbonated cereals were found. Large amounts of lead were found in the ruins of the palace, about 700 kilograms.

In the archaeological layer from the Ottoman period only remains of ceramics and small objects of building iron were found. As a result of the excavation it turned out that in Blagaj there are no remains of antique and early medieval architecture, and there is no small archaeological material of that time.

Several fragments of Illyrian ceramics and only a few fragments of the Roman roof tile speak of the former presence of Illyrians in this prominent position. Below the city, near the road, there is an old Muslim cemetery known as Šehitluk. Its monuments are almost completely destroyed, although the contours of many graves and eight, mostly damaged, tomb stones from the left and right of the stream and access road are still visible. Among the preserved tombstones, one pair of white limestone stands out. This is probably the oldest necropolis in Blagaj.

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