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Feature 09 Nov 12

Nis Prepares To Shine in Jubilee Year

Commemorations of the Edict of Milan from 313AD will put Nis in the spotlight as the birthplace of Emperor Constantine.

Nemanja Cabric
Nis is the birthplace of Emperor Constantine the Great.

In 2013 the City of Nis will join the cities of Milan (Italy), York (England) and Treves (France) on the map of important cultural heritage sites connected to Rome’s first Christian emperor in an important Christian jubilee that will be marked with numerous festivities across the globe.

The whole of next year will be dedicated to the Edict of Milan, when the Roman Empire granted Christianity equal status alongside other faiths.

Located some 250 kilometres south of Belgrade, Nis is the birthplace of the man who, according to many, is most responsible for the influence Christianity has enjoyed in the world: Emperor Constantine the Great.

Although one of the main events will take place in Nis in October next year, the city’s folk have spent years preparing for these festivities and Nis has much to offer tourists in the meantime.

Constantine's residence, Mediana, the Ottoman “Skull tower” (Cele kula), as well as the fortress that dominates the old town of Nis – these are some of the highlights for the growing number of tourists expected in the city.

Crossroad of civilisations:

For centuries Nis has been an important crossroads in trade and ideas and a border between nations.

For centuries Nis has been an important crossroads in trade and ideas and a border between nations, which is one reason many of its conquerors called it “a gateway between east and west”.

The roads that meet in Nis are ancient travel routes connecting Europe, the Middle East, the Black Sea region and the Mediterranean. The Via Militaris, a 924-kilometre-long Roman road that once ran through Nis, was built in the 1st century AD to connect Singidunum, today's Belgrade, and Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.

The remnants of the Via Militaris, excavated during the construction of Pan-European Corridor X through Serbia, show that the road was eight-metres wide, constructed from large blocks of stone, and had two lanes.

However, the history of Nis long predates the Roman conquest, and many traces of various epochs fill the stores and exhibition areas of the city's museums.

One such object is an axe-hammer made of basalt rock, found by a soldier in 1878, as well as many other objects dating from around 4000 BC, which can be seen at the Nis Archaeological Museum.

In the 8th century BC the area became a border zone between Illyrian and Thracian tribes. Five centuries later the Illyrians were conquered by the Celts, who named the city Naissus, meaning “Fairy Town”.

In 75 BC the Celts were conquered by the Romans, during the so-called Dardania Wars, and Naissus became the centre and the most important part of the region.

In the Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, which dates from the middle of the 2nd century AD, Nis is mentioned as one of the four largest cities in the Roman province of Dardania.

Over the ages the city became an important military base that served to defend the borders of the Roman Empire from barbarian attacks. In these turbulent times, the future Emperor Constantine was born in 247AD.

Amidst civil wars and barbarian attacks, Constantine managed to become a powerful emperor, ruling from 306-337AD, and he used his power to shape the centuries to come.

One of his first moves was to annul all repressive measures against Christians and allow them rights and property.

Still, the money that he coined on his territories in the cities of Treves, London and Arles depicted pagan gods.

In 313AD, together with his co-Emperor, Licinius, he issued the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed tolerance of all religions throughout the Empire.

Constantine also built a new imperial residence at Byzantium, naming it New Rome. However, in Constantine's honour, people called it Constantinople, and it would later be the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for over a thousand years. Because of this, he is considered the founder of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Constantine was allegedly baptised on his deathbed in the suburb of Nicomedia on his way to Constantinople.

The majestic residence that Constantine built in one of the luxurious suburbs of ancient Naissus, where he often resided and attended to state affairs, remains an important archaeological site from the late Roman period.

Excavations near Nis have revealed a villa with peristyle, thermae, a granary and a water tower.

Historical records testify that it was in Naissus that Constantine passed several laws in 315, 319, 324, and 334AD.

After Constantine's death in 337AD, the imperial residence in Mediana was used by other emperors as a place of rest on their long journeys or during preparations for war.

The residence was abandoned after Naissus was devastated by Attila's hordes in 442AD.

The Slavs, in their campaign against Byzantium, conquered Nis and settled there in the middle of the 6th century, keeping the city for 400 years until it was taken by Bulgarians.

In the following centuries the city was conquered by Byzantium, Bulgaria and Serbia, until it was finally taken by the Ottomans in 1448 and remained under their rule for the next 245 years.

Ottoman heritage:

Mediana, Constantine's residence.

The most interesting heritage sites connected with the Ottomans in the Nis area are the so-called Skull Tower and the fortress built in the 18th century by the Ottomans in place of former fortifications.

During the period of Ottoman rule Nis was one of the centres of their military and civil administration.

During the First Serbian Uprising, the liberation of Nis was attempted in 1809 when the Battle of Cegar took place.

After the defeat of the Serbian rebels, the Turkish commander of Nis ordered around 1,000 heads of the slaughtered Serbs to be built into a tower, as a warning.

The tower known as Skull Tower, Cele Kula, still has around 50 skulls in its walls.

Nis was finally liberated in 1877 during the war with the Ottomans. The battle started on December 29th 1877 and the Serbian Army entered Nis victoriously on January 11th 1878.

Today the fortress and Skull Tower are the most important tourist sites in Nis and will certainly be must-sees for all those coming to take part in the celebrations marking the Edict of Milan, as well as for the whole year of events connected to its staging in Nis.

Those that are not into religion and war stories may also find Nis an interesting city for nightlife and partying.

There is also a spa town some nine kilometres to the south, called Niska banja, where the warm water is thought to heal coronary and blood vessel disorders.

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