Zemun is a historical town and one of the 17 municipalities which constitute the City of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Before 1934, it was a town separate from Belgrade. The development of New Belgrade in the late 20th century joined them together in a continuous urban area. In ancient times, the Celtic and Roman settlement was known as Taurunum. The Frankish chroniclers of the Crusades mentioned it as Mallevila, a toponym from the 9th century. This was also a period when a Slavic name Zemun was recorded for the first time. Believed to be derived from the word zemlja, meaning earth, it was a basis for all other future names of the city: modern Serbian Земун (Cyrillic) or Zemun (Latin), Hungarian Zimony and German Semlin.
The area of Zemun has been inhabited ever since the Neolithic period. Baden culture graves and ceramics like bowls and anthropomorphic urns were found in the town. Bosut culture graves were found in nearby Asfaltna Baza. The first Celtic settlements in Taurunum area originate from the 3rd century BC when the Scordisci occupied several Thracian and Dacian areas of the Danube. The Romans came in the 1st century BC, Taurunum became part of the Roman province of Pannonia around 15 AD. It had a fortress and served as a harbour for the Pannonian (Roman) fleet of Singidunum (Belgrade). The pen of Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) was said to be found in Taurunum. After the Great Migrations the area was under the authority of various peoples and states, including the Byzantine Empire, the Kingdom of the Gepids and the Bulgarian Empire. The town was conquered by the Kingdom of Hungary in the 12th century and in the 15th century it was given as a personal possession to the Serbian despot Đurađ Branković. After the nearby Serbian Despotate fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1459, Zemun became an important military outpost. In 1521, the forces of Kingdom of Hungary, 500 šajkaši crew (led by Croat Marko Skoblić) consisted of Croats and Serbs fought against invading Ottoman army of Suleyman the Magnificent in 1521. Despite hard resistance, Zemun fell on July 12 and Belgrade soon afterwards. In 1541, Zemun was integrated into the Syrmia sanjak of the Budin pashaluk.
Zemun and the southeastern Syrmia were conquered by the Austrian Habsburgs in 1717, after the Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Peterwardein(5 August 1716) and through the Treaty of Požarevac (German: Passarowitz) became a property of the Schönborn family. In 1736, Zemun was the site of a peasant revolt. Its strategic location near the confluence of the Sava and the Danube placed it in the center of the continued border wars between the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires. The Treaty of Belgrade of 1739 finally fixed the border, the Military Frontier was organized in the region in 1746, and the town of Zemun was granted the rights of a military commune in 1749. In 1754, the population of Zemun included 1,900 Orthodox Christians, 600 Catholics, 76 Jews, and about 100 Roma. In 1777, the population of Zemun numbered 1,130 houses with 6,800 residents, half of which were ethnic Serbs, while another half of population was composed of Catholics, Jews, Armenians and Muslims. Among Catholic population, the largest ethnic group were Germans. From this period originates the increased settlement of Germans and Hungarians in the Zemun.
Zemun prospered as an important road intersection and a border city. In 1816 it was greatly expanded by mass resettlement of Germans and Serbs in the new town suburbs of Franzenstal and Gornja Varoš, respectively. In the 19th century, Zemun reached 7,089 residents and 1,310 houses. Zemun also became important in Serbian history as the refuge for Karađorđe in 1813 as well as many other people from the nearby Belgrade and the rest of Karađorđe’s Serbia which fell to the Ottoman rule.
During the Revolution of 1848-1849, Zemun was one of the de facto capitals of Serbian Vojvodina, a Serbian autonomous region within Habsburg Empire, but in 1849, it was returned under the administration of the Military Frontier. With the abolishment of the Military Frontier in 1882, Zemun and the rest of Srem was included into Syrmia County of Croatia-Slavonia, which was an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Hungary and Austria-Hungary. The first railway line that connected it to the west was built in 1883, and the first railway bridge over the Sava followed shortly thereafter in 1884.
During the World War I in 1914, Zemun changed hands between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, finally ending up in Serbia on November 5, 1918. The town became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Kingdom of Yugoslavia). The inter-war period was marked by political struggle between the city gentry (organized into the Radical Party,Democratic Party and the Croatian Peasant Party) and the more socialist parties supported by the ethnic Germans. In 1934 two intra-city bus lines were introduced connecting Zemun with the parts of Belgrade, and the general shift of attention towards this issue was supported by the growing Serbian population of Zemun. The Zemun airbases originally built in 1927 were an important geostrategic objective in the Axis invasion of April 1941. Following the surrender of Yugoslavia that same month, Zemun, along with the rest of Syrmia, was given to the Independent State of Croatia. The city was liberated from Axis occupation in 1944, and since then, it is part of Serbian region known as Central Serbia.
The faculty of agriculture of the Belgrade University is located in Zemun, as well as many other important higher schools (Internal affairs, Economics, Technics and machines, Medicine, Zemun gymnasium) and institutes (Institute for agriculture and forestry, Institute for mining, world famous Institute for corn in Zemun Polje, Institute for livestock, Institute for the implementation of the nuclear energy in agriculture, Institute for physics). Zemun has a Homeland museum and Madlenianum Opera and Theatre.
Two of Belgrade’s major hospitals-clinical centers are located in Zemun: “KBC Zemun” and “KBC Bežanijska Kosa”, so as the retirement home “Bežanijska Kosa”, the largest one in Belgrade. Churches include the Gardoš cemetery church and the Hariš chapel, Saint Nicholas, Saint Archangel Gabriel and two Roman Catholic churches.
Zemun is known for many squares, though almost all of them are small in size: Magistratski, Senjski, Veliki, Branka Radičevića, Karađorđev, Masarikov, etc. On one of them, the Zemun open green market is located. The bank of the Danube is turned into Zemunski Kej, a kilometers long promenade, with various entertainment facilities along it, including barges-cafés, amusement park and especially formerly largest hotel in Belgrade, Hotel Jugoslavija.
The remnants of the old town which existed during battles between Kingdom of Hungary and Byzantine Empire in 12th century are known as Zemunski Grad (Zemun Town).Today visible ruins however are of the medieval fortress (angular towers and parts of the defending wall) of the 1521 Ottoman siege. The Kula Sibinjanin Janka (The tower of Janos Hunyadi) or the Millennium tower was built and officially opened on August 20, 1896 to celebrate a thousand years of Hungarian settlement in the Pannonian plain. The tower was built as a combination of various styles, mostly influenced by the Roman elements. Being a natural lookout, it was used by Zemun’s firemen for decades. Today, the tower is better known after the Janos Hunyadi, who actually died in the old fortress four and a half centuries before the tower was built. In general, Gardoš is today the most recognizable symbol of Zemun. For the most part, the neighborhood preserved its old looks, with narrow, still mostly cobblestoned streets unsuitable for modern vehicles, and individual residential houses.
Photo credits: Milica Nikolić Micikitis and Jovana Marković (Gardos kula).
Dragana Kostica is the Belgrade-based editor in chief and founder of Still in Belgrade art, culture and club scene magazine. She holds a Master of Arts in Cultural Policy and Management in Arts (MA of Arts) and a Bachelor degree in Archaeology.