Croatia Then and Today – Split, Croatia

Croatian tourism is back on its feet after the war a decade ago. One popular gateway to Croatia is the city of Split in Central Dalmatia, the heart of which is synonymous with an incredible Roman palace.

Diocletian, Roman Emperor and a passionate builder, created the vast palace for his own retirement, suitable for a man considering himself the god Jupiter’s representative on Earth. His deceased body disappeared at some point in history, presumably a supernatural act of an immortal half-god: himself. In this particular story, Diocletian reappears to see how his palace in Split has stood up to 1700 years of wear and tear.

On his retina, Diocletian has the image of a glorious rectangular structure measuring 215 by 180 meters, containing imperial apartments, temples, a mausoleum and quarters for servants and soldiers, with 16 fortifications on its defensive walls. His eyes are straining to adjust themselves to today’s patchwork of red-roofed buildings in all shapes and sizes, spreading along the sea onto the green Marjan peninsula in the west and terminated in the background by high-rise blocks against the bluish Dinaric Mountains.

1700 Years Ago
1700 Years Ago

Remains of former glory are very visible. Those who arrive by ferry and then walk to the center have the eastern and southern walls right in front. The south side faces the harbor promenade – the famous Riva, lined with cafés, waving palms and white benches, undisturbed by cars. Diocletian’s private quarters once faced this way. To his amusement, he sees how people made the old arches and columns part of their houses; now framing balconies and hung with washing.

Three elderly gentlemen, so well-dressed that one of them brought a piece of cardboard to sit on, are chatting on a bench. Diocletian joins them to be updated about basic historic facts. He learns that in 615 AD, refugees from nearby Salona, a Roman settlement supposed to be Diocletian’s birthplace, sought protection in the abandoned palace, which gradually developed into a medieval town. Ironically, the first settlers brought with them the bones of St Domnius, former bishop of Salona, whom Diocletian had beheaded for his Christian faith.

Peristyle

Proud that his palace has been appointed a World Heritage site by Unesco, Diocletian rushes to enter it. Crossing the Riva to reach the Bronze Gate, he is faced by an even more precious metal: jewelry in pure gold shining in one shop window after another. That inspires him to look for Roman coins imprinted with his own portrait; they seem to be out of use, though. There is more finery inside where little stalls for handmade souvenirs occupy the low passage to the square of Peristyle.

Peristyle
Peristyle

Diocletian is more attracted by the halls to the left and right, Podrum, referred to as his cellars. Actually, they are the substructure carrying the palace. In the labyrinth of vaulted rooms, Christians were locked up and punished until renouncing their faith and accepting the Emperor as their only deity. Podrum is also frequented by Christians nowadays, organized in tourist groups with guides calling out loudly in French or Italian. Diocletian is tempted to raise his voice to tell the true and painful version of what happened here, but he chooses not to.

The Peristyle, dark with patina, was the central meeting place, both for the residents and for two colonnaded streets, one traversing the palace from south to north, the other from west to east. Diocletian ascends the stairs on the south side, then disappears between the columns into the domed Vestibule, once the entrance to his private quarters. He dwells a minute at the columns, for this is where he made his seldom appearances, dressed in a silk toga and with his worshippers kneeling and prostrating themselves before him. Spectacular performances still occur at the Peristyle, in the form of opera and theater.

A black Egyptian sphinx holds its head high while guarding Diocletian’s Mausoleum on the eastern side, today the Cathedral of Split. They are marking its 1700th anniversary, forgetting that the octagonal building did not become a church until the 7th century, dedicated to the beheaded Bishop Domnius. Diocletian’s body used to rest in the center of its circular interior, surrounded by columns carrying a dome to symbolize his divine nature. To his joy, there are still relief portraits of himself and his wife Prisca beneath the cupola. On the opposite side of the Peristyle, Diocletian finds a temple more suited to his taste; the Temple of Jupiter.

New Disciples

Diocletian turns eastwards to the Silver Gate, beyond which the fruit and vegetable market, Pazar, creates a colorful contrast to the dark Peristyle. It takes him by surprise how complete the eastern palace wall is, and he decides to follow it northwards to the main entrance, Golden Gate in the northern wall, the most monumental of the four gates. Right outside, he is confronted with another bishop, cast in bronze; Gregory of Nin, whose left big toe has become a good luck charm that everybody wants to touch, except Diocletian.

Inside the walls, a sign points to the City Museum, housed in the smaller Papalic Palace, which Diocletian would not mind making his own home. It is built in the Venetian Gothic style with a courtyard surrounded by a loggia and with an outdoor staircase to the first floor, where the lifestyle of the aristocratic Papalic family unveils like it was in the 15th century, although it looks quite modern to Diocletian’s mind.

Pjaca
Pjaca

Back at the Peristyle, the Emperor climbs the Cathedral’s bell tower, and standing 60 meters above the ground, he knows he picked the perfect location for his palace; a beautiful bay protected by mountains and elongated islands. That is of course the reason why it has developed into a modern city of 200,000 inhabitants. He spots a square just outside the western gate, the Iron Gate, crowded with people and canopies in bright colors. It turns out to be Narodni Trg or People’s Square, also known as Pjaca, the most beloved square in Split.

In a fine old coffee house right on the Pjaca, Gradska Kavana, Diocletian contemplates his own near future. The cost of living in Croatia is higher than expected, so he needs to find employment. At the Peristyle, he did notice a place called the Tourist Guides Office. He should perhaps go there to apply for a guide job. After all, he must be top qualified when it comes to making history alive, and it would suit him quite well to stride along followed by a flock of disciples rejoicing in his wisdom.

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