Fortress of Kalemegdan

By Dan Shea

SAR does not take political sides when covering museums. Our purpose in reporting on them is to show the readers where they can go to view the historical weapons and displays. Serbia has borne the brunt of the world’s blame for the recent Bosnia-Herzegovina war- and one walk through the museum will show the student of history that in the last thousand or so years, there has been no lack of conflict here. The displays inside the museum cover many conquerors as well as individual conflicts. It is possible to follow the history of Western Man through the archives of weapons found here. The history of Serbia and Montenegro is thoroughly illustrated as well, with many exhibits that cover the desperate battles with the Nazi’s in WWII, and they have their own displays chronicling the atrocities committed against the Serbs in the recent fighting in Bosnia.

Perched high on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, the battlements of the “Fortress of Belgrade” provide a sense of security and history all at once. Countless battles have been fought here, since the Romans had their fortifications on the banks of the river.

I was in Belgrade on business, and the chance to view the museum that has been built inside the old fortress was too much of an opportunity to pass up. (Longtime readers will be aware that getting this writer past a museum full of antique machine guns is similar to pushing a fourteen year old past the peek hole at a carnival girlie show). This display has been closed to most foreigners for much of the century- it was still an active fortress up until World War II, when the conquering Nazi armies used it as a headquarters. After the defeat of the Nazi’s, the new Yugoslavia was a communist country- closed to western eyes. After the fall of the Berlin wall, Eastern Europe was starting to open up, but the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina closed Serbia once again. Now that most of the embargoes have been lifted, it is possible for people to travel there again. The newly formed country of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) is trying to work it’s way out from under the withering effects of four years of economic embargo.

Inside the museum there was a strict “No cameras” rule. I hope to get photos of the inside displays some other time, but a description here should help whet any traveler’s appetite. Displays are set up in a chronological order- the visitor starts with a tour of Roman times. The antique weapons and representations of the original fortifications are quite interesting- however the real story starts with the clash of Rome and Byzantine. The wars were basically religious in nature- Roman Catholic against Orthodox against Muslim. Throw in the territorial disputes and the fact that Belgrade sits on land that borders different regions. Hundreds of battles were fought over the last thousand years, with Belgrade as the frontier between different empires. The five hundred years of Turkish rule colored much of the display area, with sections of a city wall that had a Serb skull embedded every foot, and descriptions of the mass impalings that had gone on covering a gruesome section of the museum.

My guide’s response to the horror there was “It took five hundred years, but we got rid of the Turks”. This attitude is interesting to say the least- and it should provide some insight into the mindset of the Serbs.

Many of the newest innovations in war showed up here in Belgrade, because of the constant conflict. I had the chance to look at some 16th century cannons that had removable breeches, allowing the cannoneer to quickly reload. While this was all very interesting, I wanted very much to see the machine guns. Rounding each corner built my sense of expectancy, and the moment finally came. The shot that launched the “War to End All Wars” was fired by a Serb against the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Serbia was engulfed in that conflict from the start. What this meant to this eager viewer, was that almost every machine gun, rifle, pistol or other small arm that was ever used in the region was here. The displays ran continuously from WWI up until the end of WWII, and the curator had designed some very dynamic displays. The weapons used by the partisans of WWII in their fight with the Nazi overlords, from pitchforks to scythes to smuggled machine guns, were matched against the powerful machines of the Third Reich. There was even a completely home made Chauchat machine gun- it took close examination of it to see all of the handwork. Home made shotguns, pistols and rifles were intermingled in the displays, showing the desperation and innovation of the struggling guerilla fighters.

Outdoors was the only place that I was able to photograph, and some of those photos are here for your perusal. An amazing collection of tanks, field artillery, mortars and anti-aircraft guns were carefully preserved and painted. Each had a plaque describing the piece, but it was in Serbo-Croat, a difficult language for translation unless you have a good military technical background in the language.

If you find yourself in Eastern Europe, and make it into the still mysterious areas in FRY, Kalemegdan is a “Must See”. The peaceful park where women sell their handmade lacework, crafts, and virgin wool sweaters, sits just outside the gates of the old fortress. Dinner in the old Turkish section of town is incredible- the old buildings, cobblestone alleys, street musicians and the aroma of grilled meats filling the air. The truly interesting history of the area is all around you, faded into the patched bullet holes in the walls under new paint- but it is still remarkably well preserved in the Fortress Of Kalemegdan.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N2 (November 1997)
and was posted online on January 26, 2018


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