Serbia: Consolidation of a People

Consolidation of a People

Serbs settled in the Balkan Peninsula in the 6th and 7th cent. and accepted Christianity in the 9th cent. Their petty principalities were theoretically under a grand zhupan, who usually recognized Byzantine suzerainty. Civil strife and constant warfare with their Bulgarian, Greek, and Magyar neighbors characterized the early history of the Serbs. Rascia, the first organized Serbian state, was probably founded in the early 9th cent. in the Bosnian mountains; it steadily expanded from the 10th cent. Bulgaria, meanwhile, challenged Byzantium for suzerainty over the Serbs.

Stephen Nemanja, whom the Byzantine emperor recognized as grand zhupan of Serbia in 1159, founded a dynasty that ruled for two centuries. His son and successor assumed the title king of all Serbia in 1217 with the pope's blessing. However, the king's brother, Sava, archbishop of Serbia, succeeded in having papal influence eliminated from the kingdom; in 1219 he won recognition from the patriarch of Constantinople of an autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church. The Serbian kingdom was at first overshadowed by the rapid rise of the Bulgarian empire under Ivan II (Ivan Asen), but under Stephen Dušan, who became king in 1331 and czar in 1346, Serbia became the most powerful empire in the Balkan Peninsula, much of which it absorbed. Its might contrasted sharply with the decadent Byzantine Empire.

Even among European states, Serbia was noted for its high economic, social, and cultural level. After Stephen's death in 1355, however, the empire decayed and fell victim to the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks. The Serbs suffered defeat at the Maritsa River in 1371; that same year the last czar, Stephen Urosh V, died without male issue. His successor, Lazar, contented himself with the title prince of Serbia. Lazar was slain in 1389 during the battle of Kosovo Field, in which the cream of Serbian nobility was massacred and the fate of independent Serbia sealed. For Serbs, Kosovo retains its symbolic significance, which contributed to Serbia's opposition in the late 20th cent. to Kosovo's separatist movement.

Lazar's son, Stephen, was allowed to rule (1389–1427) over a diminished and divided Serbia by Sultan Beyazid I, to whom he paid tribute. Although he and his successor, George Brankovich (reigned 1427–56), received the title despots (lords) from the Byzantine Empire, the Turks gradually absorbed their lands. The quarrel over the Brankovich succession facilitated the complete annexation of Serbia by Sultan Muhammad II in 1459. Belgrade, then held by Hungary, fell to the Turks in 1521. During the centuries-long Turkish occupation of Serbia, national traditions and the memory of the Dušan's empire were preserved by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

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