The history and culture of strategically placed Montenegro dates as far back as the beginning of Ancient Greece. Similar to the rest of the Balkan countries, the past is marked by invasions, conflict, wars and more wars, culminating in the agony of the break-up of Yugoslavia. The seemingly endless strife has produced a unique, larger-than-life ethos based on bravery, loyalty and patriotism, somewhat similar to Japan’s medieval Samurai culture.
The history of Montenegro began with the arrival of traders, colonists and potential conquerors as part of the typical movement of people in the ancient Mediterranean world over 2,500 years ago. Greek colonies lined the coast from the 6th century BC and were joined by Celts 200 years later. By the second century BC, the region was part of the Roman Empire. As the empire fragmented, raids by semi-nomadic tribes, including the Goths and Avars in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, became common until the region was finally conquered by the Slavs in the late 6th and early 7th century.
Christianity arrived in the late 6th century, with several 7th century churches still in Montenegro. The end of the medieval era saw the Serbian dukedom in control until the 10th century when a Byzantine invasion and occupation caused the fall of the realm. In 1042, a still-celebrated national hero, Stefan Vojislav, led a successful revolution which forced the Byzantines out and established the Vojislavjevic dynasty. By the early 12th century, the kings were in control of several other Serbian lands.
While the struggles for control were ongoing, the might of Venice had quietly taken over the Dalmatian coast and, by the 14th century, had amassed territory around the Bay of Kotor, finally dominating the entire region from 1420 to 1797. Much of the rest came under Ottoman control from 1498 to 1699, although central Montenegro remained an independent state. The ultra-patriotic Montenegrins made good use of the Great Turkish War in the late 17th century in a partially successful attempt to expel the Turks, although the country wasn’t completely free from Turkish rule until 1878 after two more wars.
Montenegro’s first stab at independence saw fruit in the reign of Nikola I, with international recognition as an independent state in 1878. In 1905, a constitution was born and Nikola I was confirmed as the country’s ruler. Sadly, four years later, WWI broke out and Montenegro took on the might of the Austro-Hungarian armies and the Central Powers, a disastrous decision for the fledgling nation. Subsequent military governors did their best to wreck the country, and political maneuverings resulted in union with Serbia, a move which sparked Christmas Uprisings by most of the population.
Subsequently, radicals and communists gained power, the monarchy was crushed and the economy withered. After the start of WWII, Mussolini’s Italian army occupied the country, the fascist, puppet Kingdom of Montenegro was created and civil war broke out. In 1943, the Italian hold over the country was replaced by German control, intensifying the resistance efforts until 1945 with Montenegro’s incorporation in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a polite name for Communism. Political turmoil, arrests, executions, and riots were the norm until the late 1950s when Montenegro rebuilt its industry and infrastructure, while Yugoslavia was heading for a break-up which finally took place in 1992.
Inter-ethnic conflict and outright war involving Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and the rest of the region broke out in 1991, with even the UN unable to stop the gross human rights violations by all sides. Montenegro became a hub for smugglers and, in the Kosovo War, the country was besieged by ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo. NATO finally intervened, sending troops and conducting bomb raids and, in 2006, Montenegro declared itself independent. Since then, the country has concentrated on its reinvention as a tourist destination.
Montenegro’s diverse culture reflects its geographic location, its diversity of ethnicities and its troubled history over the millennia, drawing from ancient Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Turkey, Venice, Austria-Hungary, and Yugoslavia. This rich mix is represented in its beliefs including bravery and humanity, loyalty and love of the country. The Montenegrin love of traditional dance, music, epic songs, and poems and its social culture revolves around clans and patrilineally-related families with significant tribal identities going back centuries. Its historic cities and famous medieval murals reflect the development of architecture and art in the country.
The first written works were based on legends and folk tales sung by traveling bards a thousand years ago, and are still a favorite part of the country’s heritage. Modern culture favors the visual arts as well as drama and music, and the country has produced a number of highly-regarded artists. Religion is an important aspect in Montenegro, with the major Orthodox Christian holy days taken seriously, and family life is the center of all activities. Traditional festivals are also highly regarded, as most take place to preserve and protect the ancient customs, legends, music, and dance forms of the land.