Serbia’s culture is shaped by centuries of merging between different ethnic groups. Greek, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean influences can be found in several Serbian foods. Each Orthodox Christian family has its own patron saint day. Although Serbians frequently poke fun at their former Yugoslavian neighbors with their black humor, most Serbians are friendly towards foreigners and take every opportunity to practice their English on tourists.
Serbia’s first settlers were the Vinca and Starcevo peoples who lived around present-day Belgrade during the Neolithic Era. The Vinca are said to have created one of the world’s earliest writing systems. The first of Serbia’s many invasions happened around the 11th century B.C., when the community of Kale-Krsevica became the northernmost point of Alexander the Great’s vast empire.
Serbia then became a Roman Empire territory around 167 B. C., with the city of Sirmium being one of the most powerful in the empire. The famous Belgrade Fortress (Terazije 3 / V, 11000 Belgrade) was constructed as a Roman military camp during the first of more than 140 wars, which shook Serbia’s capital over the next 2,000 years.
Most of Serbia’s current population are said to be descended from the Slavs, who arrived in the territory during the 7th century Byzantine Era. The territory’s people converted to Eastern Christianity around 850, and rival chiefs called zupani battled each other for control of the country during the following five centuries.
The independent Kingdom of Serbia was established in 1217; its territory extended as far south as present-day Greece at the peak of its power in 1346. However, the Kingdom fell into Ottoman hands in 1459 following a series of unsuccessful battles against the Turks. Serbia would remain Ottoman Empire territory for over four centuries.
Although there were several Serbian uprisings during the country’s more than 400 years of Ottoman rule, Serbia did not regain its independence until the 1804 and 1815 Serbian revolutions. Fifty-eight skulls of Serbian soldiers stand at the Nis Skull Tower (General Milojka Lešjanina 14, Nis). The men were killed in a deliberate gunpowder depot explosion to avoid surrendering to the Turks in 1809. The tower is one of Serbia’s most brutal reminders of this tumultuous era.
Serbia was not fully recognized as an independent nation until 1878, after the end of the Russo-Turkish War. The most famous event in Serbian history is Archduke Ferdinand’s 1914 assassination, which launched the 1914 Austro-Hungarian invasion of the country that grew into WWI. After the war ended, Serbia and its surrounding Slavic territories merged into a single nation that would eventually become Yugoslavia.
Josip Broz Tito, a WWII field marshal, abolished Yugoslavia’s monarchy and made the country a Communist republic in 1946. Between the end of WWII and the early 1990s collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia was considered one of the area’s most stable and Western-friendly countries. That changed in the early 1990s, when Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina all broke away from Yugoslavia.
Montenegro and Serbia were Yugoslavia’s only two remaining republics by 1992. The territory of Kosovo brought Serbia into further conflict when its Albanian separatists declared their independence from the country in the late 1990s. To this day, Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. Serbia and Montenegro split into two separate countries in 2006, and Serbia’s new era of peace and prosperity has only just begun.
Despite centuries of conflict with their neighbors, the Serbian people are warm and welcoming to visitors, as long as they do not take photographs of recent bomb damage and avoid discussing the controversial topic of Kosovo. Serbs were not allowed to own property, play musical instruments, or even read and write during the country’s four centuries of Ottoman rule, but they have certainly made up for lost time. The most distinct Serbian musical instrument, the one-stringed gusle, was invented in order to get around the strict Ottoman rules about making music. Today, many of Serbia’s best-known pop acts incorporate traditional Serbian sounds into their music.
Serbia now contains more than 30 art galleries, 140 museums, and a unique brand of black humor that has helped the country’s people get through the many ups and downs. Orthodox Christianity is Serbia’s most dominant religion, and each Orthodox family sets aside one special day to celebrate their own patron saint. Traditional Serbian toasts require everyone to look each other in the eye and say ‘Ziveli,’ before sipping on their drinks.