The train rolled into a fine large station at ten o’clock on a beautiful night in October, 1901, when we had an opportunity to observe how things are managed in a hotbed of revolutions, for in Servia there is more politics than in Kansas or Nebraska, and the “ins” are always afraid the “outs” are going to raise a rumpus. As a consequence, the country is often compared to a volcano, and the government officials are very cautious about admitting strangers and political exiles into the capital.
An hour or so before we entered the Servian boundaries from Budapest, an officer in a dizzy uniform of scarlet and gold braid collected our passports, and asked a series of questions concerning our residences, birthplaces, religion, professions and “stations in life,” which we answered with accuracy and patience. Then, shortly before we arrived at Belgrade, he returned the documents with the most polite compliments. Alighting from the car, we followed the crowd into a sort of chute upon the station platform, like those used for cattle in stock-yards, at the end of which two more officers stood, and again demanded our passports and railway tickets. Having complied, we passed on into a big room with benches running up and down the center, where our luggage, with that of other arrivals, was arranged.
The customs office did not show us much attention; their inspection of our luggage was over in a minute; but they overhauled that of the native passengers as if they meant to find something. I suppose they were looking for arms, ammunition, incriminating documents or something of that sort, or perhaps only for liquors and tobacco, which are government monopolies; but the examinations were very thorough, and both men and women had to tumble the contents of their bags and boxes out upon the bench in a most exasperating manner. One man, who had ridden with us all the way from Budapest, evidently had been indulging in a little extravagance, and had half a dozen new collars and cuffs. These attracted the attention of the inspector, who counted them three or four times, and then took them into an inner room, where he weighed them, and collected a few coppers in duty. Hot with indignation the owner searched his pockets, slammed the duty down upon the bench and hurled about a bushel of Servian oaths at the inspector, who took it as coolly as possible and went on examining the luggage of other people. The indignant man then began to collect his scattered effects; but between every three or four handfuls he would explode again. I do not know who he was, but if he ever catches that customs inspector in a dark alley there will be a homicide reported in the Servian newspapers.
Our trunks were loaded upon the box of an ancient cab drawn by a pair of diminutive animals, which had more spirit than flesh, and whirled around the corner of the station to a brilliantly lighted office, which the driver told us was the police headquarters, where our passports could be recovered. The officers were very polite, but they wanted to know my profession. There are often reasons why one does not care to advertise himself as a newspaper reporter. It sometimes interferes with the success of a mission. I told them I was a traveler, but they desired something a little more definite. So, for the time being, I concluded to be a gentleman of leisure, and was visiting Servia in pursuit of the picturesque. The chief was extremely deferential and hoped he had not put me to any inconvenience. He insisted upon shaking hands, and bowed us to the door with the grace of a dancing-master.
The big cafe of the hotel to which we were driven was filled with blue smoke. Underneath the cloud we could discern a crowd of men earnestly engaged in a discussion which they kept up until an early hour in the morning, and we learned that the chief occupation of a large portion of the inhabitants was drinking beer, talking politics and smoking cigarettes. The next morning was Sunday, and the cafe was again filled at an early hour, with women as well as men, and every table was occupied all day long, while the cigarette smoke hung over their heads like a blue mist and concealed the ceiling. It was always so as long as we remained in Belgrade. The cafe was crowded when we came downstairs in the morning and when we went to bed at night, and the consumption of beer, wine, coffee and cigarettes must be very large.
Sunday morning the king gave an audience to the Skupsktina, as parliament is called, and it was, therefore, one of the great days of the year. The bishops and the clergy, in their magnificent, embroidered vestments, were even more imposing than the generals in uniforms of blue, scarlet and green, with gold braid. The members of the diplomatic corps in court dress were led by the Turkish minister and his suite. The Austrian and Russian representatives were handsomely decorated and made a fine appearance. They were watched with interest because it is supposed that both are intriguing for the control of the country. The members of the Skupshtina were clad in black evening dress, with embroidered shirt-fronts, white ties and white gloves. A band of music stood in the area beside the palace and played lively airs while the ceremonies were going on, and a battalion of the king’s bodyguard, in brilliant uniforms like those of the Austrian Hussars, was drawn up in two lines, between which everybody had to pass. I looked at those troops with peculiar interest, because upon their loyalty the life of the king depends. Most of them are young men, some mere boys, but they all had intelligent faces and seemed conscious of their responsibility.
The royal palace, which is in the center of the city of Belgrade, is in two parts and disconnected. One resembles a French chateau and looks like a comfort- able home, being pleasantly and tastefully fitted up. It is only two stories in height, the lower floor containing the drawing, dining and reception rooms and the upper floor the living apartments. It is large enough for an ordinary family, and would make an acceptable abode for a gentleman of wealth and culture. The other part, which is across an area forty’or fifty feet wide, is a more pretentious structure, which rises next to the street, without grounds, and looks like a public building. It is known as the New Konak, and was built by Milan, the gambler king, for entertaining purposes. The exterior as well as the interior is very pretentious, being of stuccoed brick, with elaborate moldings, four stories high and painted yellow, like nearly all the government buildings and business blocks. Within is a series of magnificent apartments, equal to those in the palaces at Berlin and Vienna, designed by a French architect and finished with tapestries and gilding at a cost that was enormous for the size and wealth of the country. The guards are thick around the palace, which indicates either lack of confidence or a cowardly king. But the precaution is well taken.
Sunday morning everybody goes to market, and the display of fish, meats and vegetables is large and interesting. On one side of the principal square were butchers, hucksters, and dealers in knickknacks from Servia, while everything on the other came from Hungary, across the River Save, and paid duty. The latter and their wares were much better looking, and the venders wore better garments than the Servians, many of them appearing in the Hungarian national costume. Their butter and cheese were more appetizing and were displayed in a neater manner; their vegetables were superior to those of Servian growth, the meat was of a better quality, and it was, therefore, not surprising when we were told that the wealthy class of the population patronized the Hungarians and paid a little more for their supplies. The common people buy food at the Servian end of the market. The fruits were beautiful, especially the grapes and plums. From those plums are made the prunes of commerce, and a large part of our supply comes from Servia. Plums are the largest and most valuable crop of the country. The exports of dried prunes were more than forty thousand tons in 1901, and from thirty to forty thousand tons were used in the distillation of plum brandy.
Servia is an agricultural country, and out of a population of 2,312,000, eighty-seven per cent are engaged in farming, the number of individual farms being 293,421, generally comprising from twenty to thirty acres each. Over 300,000 acres are devoted to plum trees. The next best crops are wheat, grass and corn. Pigs are one of the staple products. After the war with Bulgaria a few years ago, in which Servia was defeated, it was proposed to pay an indemnity of a million and a half of swine instead of cash. There are large flocks of sheep and a good deal of wool is handled, and the ranges are well stocked with cattle. Whenever Servia has a period of peace the flocks and herds increase with great rapidity, and the wealth of the country grows like compound interest. Servia has been extensively advertised as “a poor man’s paradise,” as the soil, climate and other conditions are favorable for people of small means. Farms can be bought for small sums of money, and the ranges for cattle and sheep are usually public lands, which cost nothing except a small tax which is paid into the treasury of the township or commune. Recently several new industries have been established. A German company has built a large beet-sugar factory within sight of Belgrade, and a linen manufactory has been erected by Belgian capital. There are several match factories, flour-mills, tanneries and breweries, and the government is proposing to pay subsidies to encourage the introduction of woolen mills and other mechanical industries in different parts of the country. Servia is prospering. There is plenty of work at good wages, but at the same time considerable emigration to the United States and to the neighboring countries, because of a disinclination among the young men to spend five years of their lives in the military service.
At market we saw a bride in the native dress, who had just come from the church where the marriage ceremony had been performed, and was receiving the congratulations of her friends and neighbors, while her proud husband stood at her side and was envied. She was a buxom damsel of the Swedish type, with blond hair and a clear blue eye. Her head was covered with a peculiar turban, from which hung clusters of silver coins. Long strings of coins were suspended from a necklace and a girdle, and hung over her shoulders and hips, and must have been very heavy. These were her dowry. She had begun to save them during her childhood, and instead of putting them in a savings-bank had strung them together for ornaments and had worn some or all of them on festive occasions to attract the attention of the eligible young men of the neighborhood. They were of different denominations, large and small, and were arranged with a good deal of taste. The custom of the country permits a bride to control her dowry after marriage, and many women are able to preserve their wedding coins and transmit them to their children. Sometimes they are exchanged for a piece of land, a cottage, or cattle, and sometimes the coins are taken, one by one, from the string, to meet emergencies in domestic economy. As a rule, however, the peasants of Servia are well-to-do, and as long as peace can be preserved they are able to live comfortably and save money.
The city of Belgrade lies upon a narrow, elevated peninsula between the River Save and the Danube. It has improved considerably during the last quarter of a century. The streets are wide and lined with fine buildings after the Austrian style of architecture, with frequent open squares which the public uses for market-places. The older part of the city, nearest to the banks of the rivers, which was built during Turkish domination, is composed of low buildings of adobe, with roofs of red tile, fronting upon narrow and crooked streets and abounding in filth and bad smells. One part is given up to the Jewish population, who are huddled together in narrow quarters called the Ghetto, although many are supposed to be rich and to own large areas of valuable real estate in other sections of the city. There is no persecution of the Jews in Servia. Freedom of worship is granted by the constitution, although the state religion is the Greek orthodox. Out of a total population of 2,312,484 souls 2,281,018 are communicants of that church. The Roman Catholics number 10,411; the Mohammedan gypsies, 11,586; Turks, 2,489; Jews, 5,102; Protestants, 1, 002.
The prevailing prejudice against the Jews is due to their success in business rather than to religious scruples. They are not allowed to hold office, although there is no legal prohibition, and are often hooted at in the streets. In ordinary business transactions the keen rivalry of the Jews is exasperating to their Christian competitors, and their commercial enterprise in all directions has interfered considerably with the prosperity of the natives. In the mercantile trade they have the best shops and undersell the Christians; in brokerage and the commission business they show a shrewdness and prudence which enable them to make money while others lose, and they have thus acquired wealth and commercial influence which make them objects of envy. I did not hear any Christian say a good word of a Jew in Servia, but at the same time I was not able to discover an instance in which a member of that race has failed to fulfill his contracts or has asked more than his due. The persecution of the Jews in the neighboring Kingdom of Roumania, where they form a large portion of the population, is becoming desperate. There the restrictions of the Middle Ages are still in force. Jewish children are not allowed to attend the public schools; Jewish students are not admitted to the technical schools or the university; Jewish operatives cannot be employed in manufacturing establishments; the Jews are prohibited from practicing professions and engaging in certain kinds of commercial business, the object being to drive them out of the country. All this is in violation of the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin, under which the Kingdom of Roumania received the protection of the great Powers, but it is useless for the Jews to appeal because they cannot get a hearing. There is no such trouble in Servia or Bulgaria, and for that reason a considerable emigration from Roumania is moving that way.
Since the time of King Michael, Servia has had an excellent school system and a law making education compulsory. All children between the ages of seven and fourteen must attend school, and since 1865, when only four per cent of the population could read and write, there has been remarkable advancement. There are a number of academies, a school of commerce, an agricultural college, a school of wine-culture and a university with four hundred and thirty-six students, of whom twenty-eight are women. In addition to these there are also twenty-seven hospitens, or guests students who are too poor to pay the matriculation fees, but are allowed to attend the lectures and enjoy the full benefit of the university training without receiving degrees. The university occupies a fine building opposite the principal square, and has a well- selected library of forty thousand volumes. The entire expense of the university is paid by the national treasury, and during the year 1900 was $109,000. There are four faculties law, medicine, science and philosophy.
Some of the school buildings are excellent examples of modern construction and convenience, and they show an educational enterprise that is creditable to the country. The government supports a museum of natural history, a theater for the encouragement of opera and the drama in the native tongue, and a small picture-gallery, which contains an interesting collection of portraits of national characters and several examples of old masters which have been presented from time to time. There are also a number of paintings by native artists. One of them, representing the coronation of an early king of Servia, was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1900, and was purchased by the government as an encouragement to other artists. Nearly all the pictures by native artists relate to historical events warfare, massacres and assassinations, dying women and headless men, for the history of Servia has been a chronicle of horrors.
There are a public park and children’s playground, with swings, merry-go-rounds, toboggan slides and other amusements; a musical garden, where a military band plays two or three times a week; and a botanical collection that promises well. In the parks and public square are a number of statues and monuments to Servian military heroes, poets and literary men.
The Servian language is a mixture of the Russian and Greek and is similar to that of Bulgaria. The cathedral is a commonplace building with a fantastic tower of Byzantine style. It is interesting only because it contains the tombs of Kings Milos and Michael. The epitaph of the latter reads: “Thy memory shall not perish.” Karageorge is buried in the woods in the mountains where he was assassinated. King Milan was buried in Vienna, where he died in 1899.
At the extreme point of the peninsula, at the junction of the Save and the Danube, is a promontory rising between three and four hundred feet, with sheer cliffs at the point and on both sides. Here a fortress was erected by the Romans before the time of Christ. Much of the original wall still remains and the inclosure has been used continuously for military purposes for at least two thousand years. There are two series of fortifications, both protected by moats and double walls, and the citadel must have been impregnable before the invention of heavy artillery. It commands a wide valley, and the view from the point is one of the most attractive in Europe.
The castle is in an excellent state of preservation and the outer walls are used as a prison for all kinds of offenders. The prison is well kept, the inmates are humanely treated and every Sunday morning are allowed to send to the public market articles of their handiwork to be sold for their own benefit. Every prisoner is allowed to prosecute his trade if he has one and enjoy the proceeds of the sale of everything he makes. If he is a shoemaker or a tailor he can continue to work for his customers, and one day of the week he is allowed to receive visitors, who bring him orders and take away goods that are finished. Women prisoners do sewing and embroidery. At the market on Sunday the stand for the sale of prison-made goods is attended by officers of the police, who take the names of purchasers and the prices of the articles purchased. During the last few years the administration of justice has been much improved and the courts are said to be well managed.
Within the walls of the citadel are barracks for a regiment of artillery, residences for the commander of the army and his staff, a school for the education of non-commissioned officers, a church which the soldiers are required to attend, and the headquarters of the military administration. There is also a memorial mosque, which was erected in honor of Hadji Mustapha who governed Servia early in the last century, and, strange to say, was beloved by the people. He was murdered by the Janizaries because he was too just and liberal.
The remains of Roman times are interesting and among the best preserved in Europe. In the center of the citadel is a well containing fifty-five feet of water, on a level with the Danube River, which is reached by descending four hundred and thirty-two steps. The well is surrounded by a brick wall three feet thick. The steps wind around it, and you go down, down, down into the darkness of the bowels of the earth, until the water-level is reached, where there is a chamber of considerable size, evidently intended for storage of ammunition. This well is said to be nearly two thousand years old, yet the brick-work is almost perfect. It was built by the Romans to furnish water for the garrison in case of a siege.
Below the walls of the citadel, upon the banks of the Danube, are two large barracks capable of accommodating twenty-five hundred men, with magazines for the storage of powder, and an old tower called the Nebojsche, or torture-tower, which is supposed to have formerly had an underground connection with the citadel, but it has been filled up and forgotten for centuries. Here prisoners were taken to be tortured and executed, and their bodies were thrown into the Danube.
Military service is compulsory. Every young man of sound body, when he becomes of age, must serve two years in the army, eight years in the reserve, and ten years in the national militia, or second reserve. The active strength of the army in time of peace is 35,640 men, the first reserve 160,751, and the second reserve 126,110, making a total of 322,501 men capable of military service in time of war. The army is organized and uniformed on the Russian plan, and has been trained by Russian officers. Every man who has performed military service is entitled to the right of suffrage, and all others who pay taxes to the extent of fifteen francs a year.
There are no paupers in Servia, and therefore no need of almshouses. There is a free hospital for both military and civilian patients, which is well kept.
Three miles from town, a park called Topschider, reached by a line of electric cars, surrounds a country palace in which King Michael lived much of his time. There is a farm where he conducted experiments in agriculture and horticulture. In the upper rooms of the palace are cases containing his library of agricultural works, many of which are in English; glass jars filled with seeds which he imported from foreign countries for experimental purposes, and glass cases containing wax casts of apples, pears, peaches, grapes and other fruits which he raised. Here he lived the life of a farmer and devoted his time to studying the interests of his people; and here he was assassinated by conspirators who were not allowed to have the share they wanted in the control of the government.
The park is very pretty, and in front of the palace is a group of noble old sycamores, one of which is said to be the largest tree in Europe. Its branches extend over a diameter of more than two hundred feet and are sustained by props. We paced it and made it thirty paces from the trunk to the tip of the outermost branch. The trunk is twenty-two feet in circumference, and the tree is perfectly healthy and symmetrical.
The house, or palace, so called, is rude and uncomfortable. There is nothing attractive about it. The rooms are dark, dismal and ill-furnished, but it was the favorite residence of King Milos and of King Michael who were men of primitive tastes. Milos died in an upper chamber he used to occupy, and everything remains as he left it his bed, his clothing, his slippers and a tattered old dressing-gown hanging on a nail.
Excerpt form The Turk and his lost provinces: Greece, Bulgaria, Servia, Bosnia (1903) by William Eleroy Curtis