The wealth of Serbian history and culture can be seen through the names of the locations and settlements across its territory. Throughout seven millennia of undiscovered history, various temporary and permanent residents left their trace, making our region an unusual museum in the open. This is a brief reminder of the old names of Serbian cities that are forgotten in modern times for one reason or another.
Romans, Hungarians, Turks and a few Austrians
It all started with the Romans. As the Roman empire spread towards the shores of Danube and Sava rivers at the start of the 1st millennia, the first urban settlements began to form in Serbia. At first, they were military camps, known as 'castra'. These settlements were built in strategic locations such as on sailable rivers or on roads like Via Militaris that spread across the entire Balkan peninsula. It is around this time that Sirminium (Sremska Mitrovica), Akuminikum (Slankamen), Burguak (Novi Banovci), Viminacijum (Kostolac), Kuzum (Petrovaradin), Naisus (Nis), Romulijana (Zajecar), Semendrija (Smederevo), Teranda (Suva Reka), Ulpijana (Lipljan), Horemum Margi (Cuprija) were first founded.
Some of these settlements continue on throughout the centuries to come, changing their names depending on the empire or kingdom whose territories they ended up belonging to. That's why the Roman Taurunum became Mallevilla during the Crusades, then turned into the Austrian Semlin, Hungarian Zimony and finally became the Zemun that we know today.
Sirmium changed its name to Civitas Sancti Demetrii during the Byzantine rule, then became the Hungarian Szávaszentdemeter before getting its modern Serbian name Mitrovica. All three names were dedicated to the protector of the city, St. Demetrius.
Today's Novi Sad has had an equally exciting history - having started from Neoplant to Racko village, Racko town and Racko district, to Petrovaradinski sanac, while the Hungarians called it Újvidék.
The neighboring Zrenjanin is also a town that has had many names. First mentioned in the 14th century as Beckerek, the Turkish travel writer Evliya Çelebi referred to it as Besh Telek, while in the 18th century it almost became New Barcelona. In the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, it had the name Veliki Beckerek, derived from the Hungarian Nagybecskerek while shortly before WWII it was known as Petrovgrad. It got its current name Zrenjanin in 1946, in the memory of the national hero Zarko Zrenjanin.
Then there is Sombor which got its name most likely after the wealthy family Cobor-Sent-Mihalj, so the settlement that formed there mostly out of Slovenian inhabitants got the name Zombora or Sombora. History also remembers it as Samobor, Sambor, Sambir, Sonbor, Sanbur, Zibor and Zombar, while Serbs called it Ravangrad. We should also mention Srbobran, a small town which in Balasevic's song was mentioned by its Hungarian name Szenttamás.
Our brief stroll through Vojvodina can't end without mentioning Subotica which throughout history had its Latin name Zabatska, then was called Sobotka during Ottoman rule and starting from the middle of the 18th century it had the names Sancata Maria and Maria Terziopolis in honor of the Austrian empress Maria Teresia. Already a century later the formal name Subotica is given to the city along with a Hungarian variant Szabadka.
Shall we go to the Zaslon fair?
The areas south of Sava and Danube also had an exciting re-naming history. The last capital of the Serbian medieval state, Smederevo, has throughout history also been known in Latin as Semderija and in Greek as Sphenterom, in Romanian as Semedria, in Hungarian as Szendrő and in Turkish as Smendire. If we travel down Danube, we will find what used to be Novigrad, or Romanian Klaudia, Kladovo town or today's fortification Fetislam. Then there is the former Taliata that became Porec and is known today as Donji Milanovac. Pozarevac once had the Roman name Margus and then Puporace, a name mentioned in Serbian sources from the 14th century.
You can probably guess the answer to the question from the title. Once called Zaslon, this town is known as Sabac today. It's important to note that legends connect this old name to a Serbian settlement on the border while the Turkish name for their settlement was Bugjur Delen, in translation the side piercer. There was once a place called Palez down Sava river, a significant strategic point in the First and Second Serbian Uprising which in 1859 was renamed Obrenovac after the knez Milos Obrenovic.
Turkish remnants also linger in the name of the town Kursumlija which was once called Bela crkva, after numerous temples located near it. Cacak is also a Turkish name for the place that Serbs once knew as Gradac. The Nova Varos town which was once known as Skender-pasha's Palanka, then Jeni Kasaba which still lingers in different forms to this day/
Throughout history, Leskovac was also known as Glubocica and Dubocica and Hisara during the Turkish rule, while many still know Dmitrovgrad as Constantinople. Kraljevo was also known as Rudo Polje and Karanovac and its modern name comes from the time of independence fighting and the renewal of Serbian kingdom at the end of the 19th century.
The oldest city with 15 names
We left the absolute record-holder for the number of ancient names for the end. In addition to being the capital of Serbia and the center of its political and social life, Belgrade is also one of the oldest settlements in the world. The history of Belgrade reaches 7 millennia into the past, to the times of Neolithic cultures that formed on the coast of Danube which we today know as Vinca culture. Since we have yet to decipher the writing of these first 'Belgraders', we don't know what they called their settlement in those days.
But we do know what the Celts called it. They came to the Sava-Danube confluence in the III century A.D. They named their settlement Singidun which is a blend of the words singi - circle and dun - fortification. Their name was accepted by the Roman legions when they constructed their castrum at the start of the 1st millennia on top of an elevation above the confluence and named it Singidunum. This border city would become a point of many conflicts between the Romans and Barbarians who named it Veligradon as well as the settlement of Slavic tribes that called it by its modern name - Belgrade. It is believed that they named it so because of the white walls that bordered the old Roman castrum or the white rocks that could be seen as part of an old reef from the days of the ancient Pannonian sea.
Over the course of Belgrade's history there was also a time when Byzantians called it Alba Graeca then Bulgarians who called it Alba Bugarica. It was Fehervar to the Hungarians, then Nandoralba and Nandofehervar. The word 'white' is what all these names have in common, including the medieval Italian who called the city Kastel bjanko (the white fort).
The Turks also left their trace. They adjusted the Slavic name to Belgrat and their writs also mention it as Dar Al Jihad or 'the house of war'.
In the years that followed Serbia's liberation from the Turkish rule and independence, the name Belgrade is finally established with temporary variations in the works of Vuk Karadzic who called it Bijograd while his contemporaries occasionally called it Biograd on Danube. The last attempt at a name change occurred during WWII when the occupying forces attempted to name the city Prince Eugene Stadt.
It bears mentioning that this is only one part of the story of olden names of towns, cities, settlements and villages in Serbia. The rest will come on another occasion...