The Unbreakable Barrier: Dubrovnik's Walls Through the Ages
Nestled along the rugged Adriatic coast, the walled city of Dubrovnik in Croatia has long been a cultural and economic hub in the region. However, this picturesque city has also seen its fair share of conflict and struggle throughout its history. From medieval sieges to modern-day wars, Dubrovnik’s walls have endured some of the most intense and harrowing events in European history. Despite the challenges, however, the city has emerged stronger and more resilient than ever. Here is the epic story of the walls of Dubrovnik.
The Walls of Dubrovnik Throughout the Ages: Construction and Design
The walls of Dubrovnik as they exist today largely date back to around the 14th century, but their origins are much older. It’s believed that the construction of the first limestone forts around the city began in the Early Middle Ages in the late 8th century AD. From this point onward, the walls of Dubrovnick were repeatedly added to and rebuilt over time as new threats arose.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, walls were built to protect the eastern part of the city. When the Saracens (an Arabic people) attacked in the 9th century, the siege lasted for 15 months, showing that even by this early point the city was well fortified.
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In the 11th century, the sea channel that separated the city from the mainland was filled with earth and the city merged with the settlements on land. This led to the original walls being added to, forming a single wall being built around the entire area.
Work began on the current city walls in the 12th century and consisted of a simple stone rampart with wooden palisades. These relatively simple walls were then continually expanded and reinforced as Dubrovnik grew in importance as a trading center and naval power in the region.
The bulk of construction took place between the 14th and 15th centuries, spurred on by the city gaining full independence from the Venetians. During this time, the walls were expanded to encircle the entire city and various towers and forts were added along its walls. The walls were also heavily reinforced, by being made thicker, and the original wooden palisades were replaced with stone battlements.
Aerial view of the famed Walls of Dubrovnik in Croatia. ( dreamer4787 / Adobe Stock)
Standing the Test of Time: The Enduring Resilience of Dubrovnik's Walls
Throughout their history, the walls have repeatedly proved themselves. They survived the 1667 earthquake intact and survived numerous Ottoman sieges during the 16th and 17th centuries. During these sieges, a slope was added to the outer walls, designed to deflect fire from enemy cannons.
In fact, the walls remained largely intact until the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s when the Serbians shelled the city. The walls saw heavy damage but have since been restored with the damaged sections being rebuilt.
The walls cover an impressive area. They are 1,940 meters (6,364 ft) long and up to 25 meters (82 ft) high. Their thickness varies but is typically anywhere between 4 and 6 meters (13 to 20 ft) thick. They are largely constructed of local limestone and were constructed by skilled local stonemasons.
Alongside the walls themselves, the city's defenses feature several forts built within the walls themselves. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 it became incredibly clear to the people of Dubrovnik (or Ragusa as it was known then) that more defenses were needed. After Bosnia fell in 1463, the locals invited the famous architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo of Florence to come and direct the fortification of their walls.
Fort Bokar was built between 1461 and 1463, while the Mincet Tower was added to the city’s defenses in 1463 along with the St. John Fortress. Several other detached fortresses and walls were also built around the city during this period in the hopes of deterring Ottoman attacks.
12th century illuminated manuscript depicting the Saracen Siege of Dubrovnik in 867. ( Public domain )
Surviving Sieges Thanks to the Walls of Dubrovnik
The earliest iteration of the Walls of Dubrovnik first saw action in 866 AD during the Saracen Siege of 866 to 867 AD . The Arabs were raiding along Dalmatia (the Croatian coast), striking Budva and Kotor before reaching Dubrovnik in 867. Their siege lasted for 15 months.
As the siege raged on, the city asked the Byzantine Emperor, Basil the Macedonian, for help. In response, he sent over 100 hundred ships. The fleet, under the command of Niketas Oryphas, brought an end to the siege, driving the Arab forces back. The Byzantine fleet then sailed along the coast demanding the Dalmatian cities swear loyalty to the Emperor.
Less than a hundred years after they had seen off the Saracens, the walls of Dubrovnik were once again sieged during the Venetian Siege of 948 AD . As Byzantium weakened, Venice began to see the city as its next big rival that needed to be brought to heel quickly.
The Venetians attacked in 948 but their attempts ultimately failed. The historical record here is sparse, but the citizens of the city attributed their city to the Christian martyr Saint Blaise. He was said to have protected the city from harm and in doing so became the patron Saint of Dubrovnik.
While this initial attack was a failure, this was only the first of many scuffles between Venice and Dubrovnik over the centuries. Throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, the two cities competed for control of key trading routes and strategic ports along the coast.
The Nemanja Siege of 1185 AD
The Walls of Dubrovnik faced their next big challenge in 1185 when war broke out between Stefan Nemanja, Grand Prince of Raska (a rival Serbian state), and the city of Dubrovnik after a series of territorial disputes. Nemanja attacked the city in the summer and the siege lasted for several months.
Unfortunately for him, the city had learned from previous attacks and was well-fortified. The walls of Dubrovnik were thick and its defenders were well-trained. The city managed to launch several successful counterattacks, heavily damaging the Serbian forces.
Nemanja was stubborn, however, and continued laying siege. In the fall of 1185, his forces finally managed to breach the city walls and make their way into the city. Here the historical record splits into two.
Some sources state that the citizens put up fierce resistance, culminating in a counterattack that drove the Serbian forces out. Others state that the citizens put up a fierce fight but lost anyway and were ultimately forced to surrender. According to this second group of sources, the city only survived after negotiating favorable terms which allowed it a significant degree of autonomy.
Depiction of the Siege of Zadar by Andrea Vicentino. ( Public domain )
Siege by the Venetians and Fourth Crusade in 1205 AD
Dubrovnik faced yet another attack less than twenty years later. This time it was the Republic of Venice and the forces of the Fourth Crusade. The plan had originally been for the forces to head for Jerusalem, but they were diverted to Constantinople, then the capital of the Byzantine Empire .
In their attempt to establish control of the region, the Venetians and their crusaders attacked several cities in the area, including Dubrovnik and Zadar. The Venetians attacked in the summer of 1205 and the siege lasted for several months.
Ultimately Dubrovnik was forced to pay tribute to Venice and became a source of supplies for the fourth crusade. The city’s leaders felt this was a better outcome than what had befallen Zadar during the siege of Zadar. This new status quo lasted until the 14th century when the region liberated itself from Venetian supremacy. After this, extensive work was done to the city walls to ensure Dubrovnik’s future liberty from any more potential oppressors.
After the Venetians, Came the 1451 AD Seige of Stjepan Vukčić Kosača
Not long after Dubrovnik had rid itself of the Venetians another foreign power reared its head. In 1451 the powerful Bosnian Lord Herzeg Stjepan Vukčić Kosača laid siege to the city. He had previously been made a nobleman of the city and so after his attack, the city’s government proclaimed him a traitor.
A reward of 15000 ducats, a palace, and a hefty annual income was offered to anyone who managed to kill the traitorous lord. This monster of a bounty was so hefty that it terrified Stjepan to the point where he canceled his own siege and retreated.
Repeated Ottoman Sieges Repelled by the Walls of Dubrovnik
The Ottomans attacked Dubrovnik several times throughout history. The first attack came in 1148 when Ottoman forces attempted to conquer the city but ultimately failed. They returned in 1462, after capturing the neighboring region of Herzegovina, which gave them a foothold in the region and made Dubrovnik more vulnerable.
They once again launched a massive attack in 1498, but the defenders held off the attack and prevented Dubrovnik from falling. The Ottomans did not give up however and carried out a series of attacks and sieges on the city throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
The largest of these came in 1537 with an Ottoman siege that last several months and saw repeated attacks on the city’s defenses. Ultimately, the Ottoman attacks proved fruitless. Dubrovnik managed to maintain its independence from Ottoman rule and kept its autonomy for several more centuries.
The city walls of Dubrovnik. (Miroslav.vajdic / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Walls of Dubrovnik Finally Give in - The Russian Siege of 1806 AD
All winning streaks come to an end eventually. In 1806 a Russian fleet arrived in the Adriatic and upon reaching Dubrovnik demanded that the city allow the Russian ships to use the harbor for repairs and to resupply. At the time the Russians were at war with the French, and fearing French retaliation, Dubrovnik refused.
The Russians disliked taking no for an answer and so, launched a siege on Dubrovnik instead. They blockaded the harbor and bombarded the city walls, firing over 3,000 cannonballs that caused significant damage to the city.
The Russians eventually managed to breach the city walls, plundering its wealth, and imposing harsh conditions on its citizens. The citizens responded by turning to the French for help. The French quickly ended the Russian siege, and the city was saved. The French army, led by Napoleon Bonaparte , entered the city in 1806.
The French rescue was a double-edged sword. In 1808 Marshal Auguste de Marmot abolished the Republic of Ragusa and brought it into the French Illyrian provinces, making himself the “Duke of Ragusa” in the process. Dubrovnik would stay under French control for the next few years.
Anglo-Austrian Siege of Dubrovnick in 1814
Unfortunately for the people of Dubrovnik, other European powers had the tendency of declaring war on France. Austria (who was Allied with Britain) did exactly this in 1813. France struggled to stand up to the combined forces of the British and Austrians and by the autumn of 1814, the Royal Navy had complete dominion over the Adriatic Sea.
French ports in the region fell one by one until only Ragusa (Dubrovnik) was left. In the December of 1814, the HMS Bacchante and the HMS Saracen arrived at Ragusa which had already been blockaded by pro-Austrian Croat forces. The combined British and Austrian forces bombarded the city until the French general, Joseph de Montrichard, was forced to surrender.
The walls of Dubrovnik are still visible, even today. ( Public domain )
The Walls of Dubrovnik in Modern Times – The Yugoslav Siege of 1991 to 1992
The most recent attack on the walls of Dubrovnik came during the Croatian War of Independence. The siege began in October 1991 when the Yugoslav People’s Army (the JNA) launched a massive assault on Dubrovnik. With the help of Serbian paramilitary forces, the JNA hoped to capture the city and take control of what was a strategically important region of Dalmatia.
The defenders (mainly Croatian soldiers and local volunteers) put up a fierce fight but found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. The siege lasted for several months and the city walls experienced heavy bombardment and shelling. Many of the city’s historic buildings such as the famous Old Town were either badly damaged or completely destroyed. Even worse, many civilians were either killed or injured in the attacks.
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Ultimately, despite the odds, the defenders managed to put an end to the siege and a Croatian counterattack lifted the siege and liberated the area in mid-1992. The international community condemned the attacks and called for an end to any more violence.
The Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments, with UNESCO, announced that 68% of historic buildings in Dubrovnik had been shelled to some extent or another. It was estimated that it would cost around $10 million to repair the damage and by the end of 1999, $7 million had been spent on restoration. It is a testament to the old walls of Dubrovnik that they managed so well against constant bombardment by modern weaponry.
Throughout its history, the walls of Dubrovnik have withstood numerous sieges and attacks, each one testing the city's resilience and determination. From Venetian invasions to Ottoman sieges, and from Russian bombardments to Yugoslav assaults, Dubrovnik has endured some of the most challenging and traumatic events in European history.
However, through it all, the city has remained standing, a symbol of strength and perseverance. Today, Dubrovnik is a vibrant and thriving city and its walls represent the enduring spirit of its people and the power of human resilience.
Top image: Section of the impressive walls of Dubrovnik. Source: Siegfried Schnepf / Adobe Stock
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 23 December 2022. “Dubrovnik” in Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Dubrovnik
Harris. R. 2003 . Dubrovnik, A History . Saqi Books
Jelavich. B. 1983. History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries . Cambridge University Press.