An Afternoon in Split, Croatia

We had a very pleasant morning exploring the town of Omis down the coast from Split and it was a satisfied bunch that sailed during the early hours of the afternoon to our last stop of the cruise at Split, the second largest urban centre in Croatia. While a large city with a lot to possibly see, there was only one site that I wanted to visit in the time available… the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace. The above image shows the vista provided by Split as you arrive in the port. The palace itself runs along the foreshore and the rest of the modern city stretches out into the valley beyond, heading towards the circling mountains.

While the front wall of the palace does not stand out, it is surprising that a non-Roman Bell Tower dominates the image above. To the right of this Romanesque belfry, Diocletian’s original mausoleum still holds its place. The emperor was originally buried here but in the 8th century CE, his sarcophagus and the rest of his emperor’s trappings were cleared out and the Christian community of the empire that Diocletian had persecuted during his reign, took over his last home and turned his mausoleum into a Christian Cathedral.

After we disembarked from our cruise boat and organised our accommodation for the night, we met up again with our travel companions for a guided tour of Diocletian’s palace. There is no ticket shop or fee for entry, the palace is just as much a tourist site as well as basically the centre of the old town of Split with lots of shops and restaurants to provide for the many tourists that visit the city centre. The map of the complex to the left gives a basic idea of our path through the 18 centuries old Roman Palace.

The photo to the left below shows the front, southern entrance to the palace and is probably the least ornate of the four gates providing entrance to the complex. This ‘Bronze gate’ provides entry into the old basement area of the palace and today is filled with craft and souvenir stalls. It leads to a set of stairs that takes the visitor to one of the central parts of the palace, the peristyle, outside Diocletian’s former mausoleum. This courtyard is a major crossing point of the palace.

Apart from being a beautiful area in itself, the Peristyle is the entry point to the key areas of the palace. However there is one highly significant item that sits in this square and can be just seen on the left of the photo below at the far end of this paved area. It is a black granite sphinx that once belonged to King Thutmose, famous ruler of Egypt in the 16th century BCE. In preparing his retirement palace, Diocletian was acutely aware that it would also be his mausoleum and so he gathered (collected, stole?) between 8-12 sphinxes from Egypt to be the holy guardians of his tomb. The one still standing guard in Split today is the only one to have survived intact. When the palace was taken over by Christian refugees in the 7th century, old memories of Diocletian’s actions against their ancestors returned and so the heads of many of these sphinxes were cut off and disposed of. This last surviving trophy of Diocletian is today well over 3000 years old and possibly one of the oldest objects to be found in Split.

After examining the sphinx still standing guard outside Diocletian’s mausoleum, the visitor can turn right and inspect the building that was originally created as a mausoleum, but since 1653, the structure was consecrated as the City’s Christian cathedral. One of the other ironies of history is that the cathedral is named after Saint Domnius (Sveti Dujam), patron saint of Split and the cathedral’s treasury holds relics of the saint. He was one of the third century Christian martyrs who were prosecuted by Diocletian’s emissaries for his Christian faith. Diocletian’s grave/sarcophagus is long gone but if he still had a grave, he would be doing some serious rolling in it over his sacred mausoleum being given over to the enemies of all things Roman.

The inside of the Cathedral today is a beautiful combination of the original Roman architecture and the splendid ornamentation that has been part of the transformation of a Mausoleum into a Christian Church. In the 13/14th century, the tall bell tower was built beside the Cathedral which provided Diocletian’s palace with a landmark and so the building can now be sighted well out to sea.

Returning to the tour map of Diocletian’s Palace from earlier in this blog, you can see the arrows suggest walking back out of the mausoleum area, crossing the peristyle and entering the area of the palace where the Temple to Jupiter was located. It was built between 295-305 CE…the diagram to the right below illustrates what the area originally looked like. Walking these rooms today is a little difficult to picture the original shape of the structures. Like the mausoleum, the Temple to Jupiter was repurposed in the sixth century as a Baptistery. Outside the entrance to the temple is located another of Diocletian’s imported sphinxes, this one unfortunately lost his head with the arrival of the vengeful Christian refugees who took over the palace in the 6th century CE. Some Sphinx heads have been recovered by archaeologists in Split and one is displayed in the local museum.

Drawing on the right above of Temples to Jupiter courtesy of “Restoration of Diocletian’s Mausoleum in Split” …Radoslav Buzancic

When finished with examining the Temple to Jupiter, the visitor can walk back through the peristyle and out into the main ‘street’ of the Diocletian Palace that runs through the centre from East to West. It is called the Decumanus and when we there it was a very busy street with shoppers and tourists exploring the Palace. The Western or Iron Gate can be seen on the left below. The eastern or Silver Gate is on the right below.

The Northern or Golden Gate is to be found at the end of the longitudinal Street (Cordo). It was originally the main gate through which the Emperor entered the Palace complex. It also the exit that led to what was the main Roman town of the region at the time, Salona. It is the gate that enters the northern wall of the Palace which is the most architectural interesting of the palace’s walls.

To finish off this blog, I would like to leave the reader with the fabulous re-creation below of what Diocletian’s Palace looked like in its heyday. Its interesting to note that the four corner towers of the palace hints at Diocletian’s attachment to the legionary forts that he would be so familiar with from his military days. In fact only half the palace was given over to Diocletian’s use, the rest of it was a military garrison. The site of Diocletian’s palace was declared a World heritage Site in 1979.

2016…Croatia Cruise…Split to Split

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