Serbia - Background information

Natural history

and culture

Gamzigrad, Zajecar, Serbia by B. Jovanovic, Archive National Tourism Organisation SerbiaThe 3rd- and 4th-century ruins of the Roman fortress of Felix Romuliana at Gamzigrad near Zaječar © B. Jovanovic, Archive National Tourism Organisation Serbia


For Serbs, the failure to hold back the Turkish tide at Kosovo Polje in 1389 was a noble defeat, something which is considered both a tragedy and a source of national pride. 

Early settlement

Lepenski Vir, Serbia by D. Bosnic, Archive National Tourism Organisation SerbiaA protective, all-weather roof was installed over Lepenski Vir in 2010, covering the finds that all date from between 7000BC and 4600BC © D. Bosnic, Archive National Tourism Organisation Serbia

The first evidence of settlement in the area that is now Serbia comes from Lepenski Vir on the Danube, close to the Romanian border. This site, only recently discovered in 1985, is the oldest known Neolithic site in Europe and dates from around the 7th millennium BC.

The region entered the Iron Age when Illyrian tribes from the west colonised the Balkan Peninsula during the 6th century, together with Thracian settlers who came from the east. These groups were followed shortly, in the 4th century BC, by Celts from the north. The Illyrians were skilled manufacturers of iron implements and weapons, and held some degree of trade with the Greek city states further south. The arrival of the Romans resulted in their being subdued by the greater number and superior military power of the new invaders.

The arrival of the Serbs

As the Roman Empire finally disintegrated in the 5th century AD, Barbarian raiders started to appear – Huns, Goths and Avars from the central Asian steppe. It was also about this time that the Slavs started to arrive. Their first appearances in the region were as raiders, but by the beginning of the 7th century they were starting to settle in considerable number.

The first Slavs had been undifferentiated in terms of the ethnic divisions of today, but by the time they started to colonise the Balkans they could be recognised as two distinct groups according to the route of their migration into the region. The Slavs who would later become the Croats, that occupied the western territories, migrated from lands they had established in southern Poland, while the other group, the proto-Serbs, made their home in the lands that lay to the south of the Danube, having moved from an area that is now the Czech Republic where they had been briefly settled.

The first Serbian Kingdom

Stari Ras Fortress, Serbia by D. Bosnic, Archive National Tourism Organisation SerbiaThe remains of the 12th-century fortress at Stari Ras, near Novi Pazar © D. Bosnic, Archive National Tourism Organisation Serbia

The first Serbian kingdom emerged in present-day Montenegro in the early 11th century when Stefan Vojislav set up the vassal state of Duklja and began to bring Serbian tribes under his control after renouncing his allegiance to Constantinople and pronouncing himself in favour of Rome. This state expanded to incorporate much of the territory of present-day Montenegro, Herzegovina and Albania, and in 1077, Zeta, as it had come to be known, became a kingdom under the auspices of Rome, with a Catholic ruler, Constantine Bodin, at the helm.

1389 – The Battle of Kosovo

Although the Battle on the Marica River of 1371 was probably a greater military defeat, and the event that most signifi cantly led the way for Turkish subjugation of the Serbs, it was the events of St Vitus’s Day 1389 at Kosovo Polje in Kosovo that held and still holds the greatest sway on the Serbian psyche. It is hard to think of a parallel European example, in which a specific military defeat is taken as such a defining moment in a nation’s history. For Serbs, the failure to hold back the Turkish tide at Kosovo Polje was a noble defeat, something which is considered both a tragedy and a source of national pride, the misfortune of an overwhelmed nation bravely defending its freedom.

Ottoman rule

A large-scale Serb migration north to Hungary and west to the Adriatic began soon after the defeat at the Battle on the Marica River and continued with the loss at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. An unstable period followed, with a shrinking nation that was ruled jointly by Prince Lazar’s son, Despot Stefan Lazarević, and his cousin, Đurađ Branković, who moved the capital to the new fortified town of Smederevo on the Danube. The final collapse came in 1459, when Smederevo fell into Turkish hands. This resulted in a much larger northern migration. Belgrade itself did not finally succumb until 1521, when it was besieged and burnt down by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It remained in Turkish hands until 1717 when it was conquered once more, by Prince Eugene of Savoy.

World War I

The Serbs fiercely defended their country from the Austrian invasion but after several major victories they were eventually overpowered by the joint forces of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria. The army had to withdraw from its national territory by marching across the Albanian mountains in winter to the Adriatic, suffering dreadful losses along the way. What was left of the army regrouped on the island of Corfu before returning to fight on the Salonica (Thessaloniki) front alongside the other forces of the Entente – Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the United States. Even on the horrific scale normally expected of World War I casualty figures, the Serbian losses were appalling. By the end of the war Serbia had lost 1,264,000 of its men: 28% of its pre-war population of 4,529,000, and 58% of its total male population.

World War II

WWII monument, Šumarice Memorial Park, Kragujevac, Serbia by Bojan Milinkov, ShutterstockThe Šumarice Memorial Park just outside Kragujevac has a series of monuments dedicated to those who died during the Second World War © Bojan Milinkov, Shutterstock

At the outbreak of World War II, Yugoslavia found itself surrounded by hostile countries. Hitler was pressuring Yugoslavia to join the Axis powers so, after a brief period of neutrality, the regent, Prince Pavle, decided to align his government with the Nazis. This prompted rebellion from many quarters, with massive protests in Belgrade on 27 March 1941. A group of air force officers, supported by the communists, arrested Prince Pavle and replaced him on the throne with Prince Petar, who was still a teenager. The reaction from Berlin was to bomb Belgrade, which the Nazis carried out with great ferocity on 6 April 1941. This was followed by a land invasion of both German and Italian forces. Petar, now King Petar II, fled with his government to exile in London. Belgrade was occupied just a few days later on 12 April.

Two very different resistance groups emerged. One of these was the Chetniks, who were pro-Serbian but devoutly royalist and anti-communist, and headed by Colonel Dragoljub ‘Draža’ Mihailović. The Chetniks were supported by King Petar’s government in exile in London. The other resistance group – the Partisans – was pro-communist and led by Josip Broz Tito. Many non-communists joined the struggle on the Partisan side once it became clear that their opposition was more effective than that of the Chetniks. The Partisan and Chetnik leaderships met up several times in the early years of the war but on each occasion Mihailović rejected any idea of joint resistance. Inevitably, this led to an armed struggle between the two resistance armies: a Chetnik–Partisan civil war broke out between the two factions in November 1941 and lasted until liberation in October 1944.

Tito’s Yugoslavia

Having rejected Stalin’s hard-line and inflexible brand of communism, Tito went it alone with his own vision of socialism. He instigated a federal system, which gave each of the constituent republics individual autonomy for its internal affairs. Another innovation, introduced in 1950, was the introduction of self-managing workers’ councils in industry, with producers’ councils operating on a regional level. Although Tito himself was no stranger to odd bouts of autocracy, especially during his early years in power, his brand of socialism was generally far more democratic than that practised throughout the rest of eastern Europe. Tito felt that he had much to offer other non-aligned countries that did not embrace the full-on communism of the Soviet Union. In 1961, the First Conference of Non-aligned Countries was hosted by Belgrade. With continued reforms, and a determinedly non-aligned approach, Tito steered Yugoslavia into becoming a reasonably prosperous and liberal state, which reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s.

Slobodan Milošević

Slobodan Milošević’s rise to power coincided with the growth of nationalism that followed the collapse of communism throughout eastern Europe. In Yugoslavia, part of this nationalism could, no doubt, be attributed to Milošević’s centralist tendencies that created a fear of Serb domination in the other republics. When Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (along with Slovenia and Macedonia) seceded from the federation, the Serb minorities in both of these former Yugoslav republics called for self-determination to remain part of what was, by now, a Yugoslavia with a mainly Serb population. Civil war soon broke out in both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Serb cause was supported politically and militarily by the Yugoslav government during this period and Milošević sent Yugoslav Federal Army troops into action in both countries to assist the Serb militias fighting to unite their portions of Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia to form a ‘Greater Serbia’.

Following its loss of autonomy in 1990, the situation in Kosovo deteriorated throughout the 1990s as Albanian separatists sought independence in the face of increasing state repression. In February 1998, Milošević ordered Yugoslav military forces into Kosovo to join local Serbian police as part of a hard-line crackdown on the separatists. A succession of violent encounters between Serbian police and Albanian Kosovars culminated in full-scale civil war in the province. Hundreds of ethnic Albanians were killed and hundreds of thousands more left the province as refugees to Albania, Montenegro or Macedonia. In the brutal cycle of war, the Kosovo Serb population continued to suffer too as reprisals were taken out against them.

On 27 May 1999, Milošević was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo. Following the elections in September 2000, Milošević’s rejection of a first-round opposition victory led to mass demonstrations in Belgrade on 5 October and the complete collapse of his authority as opposition leader, Vojislav Koštunica, took office as Yugoslav president the following day. Slobodan Milošević’s death in March 2006 and his subsequent burial at his home town of Požarevac caused another stir but in many ways it brought closure and signalled the end of an era.

Natural history

Morava river, Serbia by D. Bosnic, Archive National Tourism Organisation SerbiaForested mountains in central Serbia along the banks of the Morava © D. Bosnic, Archive National Tourism Organisation Serbia

With a wide range of habitats, Serbia offers more ecological diversity than other similar-sized countries in the region such as Hungary or Bulgaria. For such a small country, there is an unusually large number of species, some of which are endemic to Serbia. Broadly speaking, Serbia has six main habitat-zones that can be categorised as high montane rocky areas, coniferous forests, sub-Mediterranean and southern European forest (mainly deciduous), upland Mediterranean vegetation, steppe and wooded steppe.

Serbia is home to 4,300 species of plant, 2% of the world’s total number (while only having 0.035% of the total global land mass), and of these 400 are endemic. These include rare Balkan trees such as the pines munika and molika, and the endemic spruce omorika (Serbian spruce) that was discovered only 100 years ago by the Serbian botanist Josif Pančić. Many of the plants that grow wild in Serbia are valued for their medicinal properties and are still widely used by some rural communities.

Serbia’s fauna is similarly rich. Over 90 species of mammals are present, with several mammals that are scarce elsewhere in Europe finding a haven here. There are at least 110 species of freshwater fish, with 14 subspecies that are found only in the region; seven fish species are listed on Europe’s Red List. Compared with Britain, which has only 12 different species of reptile and amphibian, Serbia has 70 species of reptile alone, a much greater number than in either Romania or Bulgaria.

Over 356 different species of bird have been recorded in Serbia, a large number of which pass through on passage to their breeding grounds in northern Europe. Many others (239 species) find suitable habitat for summer breeding in the country, while some species migrate from the north to winter in Serbia. Among the breeding birds, there are 103 species that are considered to be of European Conservation Concern (SPECs) and this includes five species that are of global concern: ferruginous duck, imperial eagle, lesser kestrel, great bustard and corncrake. Serbia also has a significant proportion of the European populations of relatively scarce birds such as saker falcon, little bittern, purple heron, scops owl, and middle-spotted and Syrian woodpeckers.

For more on wildlife in Serbia check out Bradt’s Central and Eastern European Wildlife.

People and culture

Reaping, Mount Rajac, Serbia by D. Bosnic, Archive National Tourism Organisation SerbiaMen reaping grass in the traditional way near the village of Rajac © D. Bosnic, Archive National Tourism Organisation Serbia

The population of Serbia is surprisingly varied in its ethnicity. Even the briefest look at the country’s demography reveals that Serbia today is anything but a homogeneous population, with Serbs, according to the last census, representing a little over 83% of the total population, Hungarians 4% and a diverse mix of Romanians, Croats, Bulgarians, Bosniaks, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Vlachs, Roma and others making up the remaining 13%.

To understand what constitutes the Serbian character, it is probably best to consider the way that Serbs see themselves. Proud, generous, strong-willed and brave are all adjectives that few Serbs would find argument with and it is undeniable that the Serbian character is strongly individualistic with an enormous love for home, family and nation. As for racial stereotypes, the so-called ‘victim’ mentality that Serbs are said to suffer from is undoubtedly more the result of years of isolation than any generic, deeply embedded psychological trait.

National folklore

There are many facets of Orthodox religious practice that are central to Serbian culture even for individuals who are not especially religious. One of the most important of these is the custom of celebrating slava. This might best be translated as meaning ‘praise’ or ‘glory’, is the celebration of a patron saint. Each family celebrates its own saint, who is considered to be its protector. A particular slava is inherited from father to son and the occasion brings families together as each household, in sharing the same slava, is obliged to celebrate the event together. In special cases, such as migration abroad, family members may stage the event separately but as a rule it takes place under one roof, that of the family patriarch.

During a slava the family home is open to anyone who wishes to drop by. It is considered untraditional to actually invite guests outside the family, but visitors are welcomed if they come of their own free will. To be turned away from a Serbian home during a slava is unheard of as this would bring disgrace to the household. The Krsna slava ritual involves the breaking of bread and the lighting of a candle by a priest. A prayer is said over the koljivo – ground cooked wheat – the third of the three ingredients central to the slava ceremony (the Serbs have a thing about the number three). Incense is burned and everyone present is blessed with holy water before the priest blesses and cuts the bread in the sign of the cross. The bread is then rotated by the family patriarch, his godfather and the priest before everyone assembled sits down for a meal. Of the various saints’ days, the most commonly celebrated are those of St Nicholas (Nikoljdan) on 19 December, St George (Đurđevdan) on 6 May, St John the Baptist (Jovanjdan) on 20 January and St Archangel Michael (Aranđelovdan) on 21 November.


Since the time of the defeat at Kosovo Polje in 1389, Serbian heroic poetry has been an oral tradition in which epic poems are memorised and handed down from one generation to the next. This remained an oral tradition until Vuk Karadžić, the great Serbian philologist and scholar, collected many of the epic poems and transcribed them to paper in the 19th century. The rich and lyrical works collected by Karadžić soon attracted considerable attention from devotees of the Romantic movement. Serbian epic poetry was translated into English, French and German, and both Goethe and Walter Scott were sufficiently enthused to translate the same classic work called Hasanaginica.

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