We’ve made our rounds through former Yugoslavia, and now we’ve finally arrived in Serbia. Once the centre of governance for the region, it’s now forging its own path!
Want to learn more about Serbia?
- Serbian Capital: Belgrade
- Largest City in Serbia: Belgrade
- Serbia Population (2016): 7,076,372 (103rd)
- Total Area of Serbia: 88,361 km² (113th – including Kosovo)
- Official Language of Serbia: Serbian
- Serbia Currency: Serbian dinar (RSD)
History of Serbia
As is the common story with much of the region, Serbia was populated by ancient tribes until the Romans conquered the land in the 2nd century BCE. Prior to this, Serbia marked the northern limit of Alexander the Great’s vast empire. Despite being a far off province in many respects, seventeen different Roman emperors hailed from Serbia – the most of any modern-day country save Italy. After the division of Rome in 395, the Eastern Roman Empire (later the Byzantine Empire) took control of Serbia. The Slavic people also began to settle in the region during this time.
Though a part of the Byzantine Empire, the ‘Slav lands’ were a relatively autonomous region free from foreign governance. During the mid-Middle Ages, Serbia grew to become a regional power, which (independent of Byzantium) took land from the Empire to the East. A Serbian Empire of sorts was founded, reaching its zenith during the early 14th century. However this was not to last. Soon another power moved into the region – the Ottoman Empire. Conflict against the Ottomans lasted for centuries, but following the Ottoman capture of Constantinople the Empire set its sights on Serbia. After steadily losing ground, Belgrade was finally captured in 1521. Though other parts of the country resisted, this essentially meant the end of the Serbian Empire and beginning of the Ottoman’s push into Central Europe.
Ottoman Serbia and Independence
After the Ottoman invasion, Serbia found itself caught between them and the powerful Hapsburgs. In 1717, after a couple centuries of migration and shifting autonomy, a ‘Kingdom of Serbia’ (mostly central Serbia) within the larger Austrian Empire was formed Despite this, the Ottoman Empire still controlled the majority of the country.
Entering the 19th century, we find Serbia in the midst of a full-blown revolution. From 1804-1815, Serbia gained increased autonomy while the struggle of 1835-1867 achieved full independence. In the end Serbia became an independent state within the ever-more complex world of European international politics.
War and Yugoslavia
Two years before the beginning of World War I, Serbia fought multiple wars which resulted in a nearly twofold increase in territory. Unfortunately, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by members of the Young Bosnia organization led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia in 1914. This brought about the widespread ‘Great War’, which saw Serbia beaten back by the Central Powers. Despite this, much of the army went into exile and later came back to the Balkans in 1918 to play a significant role in the Allied victory (despite devastating casualties during the conflict as a whole). Following the war, Serbia joined with nearby countries to form a greater kingdom – eventually renamed Yugoslavia.
In the 1940’s, war once again gripped the Balkans – this time one even more devastating. Despite attempts to stay neutral, the Axis powers invaded Serbia in 1941. Many of the people (especially the Jewish population) suffered greatly at the hands of the Axis powers and the puppet government in Croatia. The genocide committed by the Ustaše killed over 300,000 ethnic Serbs across Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia – though some estimates put the number at 700,000. Eventually the Axis occupation came to an end with a victory by the communist partisans – and a new government took shape led by Josip Broz Tito.
For much of the Cold War period, Yugoslavia was a communist state – albeit one that took a neutral stance and remained independent from Moscow. Despite widespread ethnic differences and tension, Tito is generally credited with keeping a lid on the issues during his decades of rule. The state of autonomous provinces like Kosovo worried the Serbians, as they believed Serbs would be treated as second-class citizens within these bodies. Following Tito’s death in 1980, these problems only became more pronounced, and soon a terrible conflict not seen in decades would grip Yugoslavia.
Breakup and Conflict
In 1989, Slobodan Milošević rose to power in Serbia. His efforts to reduce the power of autonomous regions led to widespread tension and eventually the other members of Yugoslavia began to pull out of the union, resulting in the brutal Yugoslav Wars. The Serb backed Yugoslav army fought many wars against other Balkan members – the most devastating of which were in Croatia and Bosnia. Widespread human rights abuses, genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape, and many more atrocities were committed by all sides in the conflicts.
By 1995, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Slovenia were all independent. Despite this, the question of Kosovo remained. In 1998-99 the Kosovo War began between Serbian forces and Kosovar Albanian paramilitary groups. After Western attention turned to the region, NATO began sustained bombing of targets within Serbia to force them to withdraw from Kosovo. The Yugoslav army did so and eventually a de facto independence for Kosovo was reached.
In 2000, Milošević lost his grip on power (and was eventually sent to the Hague) and Yugoslavia (which now consisted primarily of Serbia and Montenegro) ended its international isolation – officially changing its name to Serbia and Montenegro three years later. Three years after this, Montenegro peacefully negotiated independence from Serbia and the two countries went their separate ways. Soon after, Kosovo declared independence officially – though Serbia does not recognize this (along with several other important countries around the world). Today, Serbia is working to resolve their differences with the West and is well on its way to joining the EU as well as working more closely with NATO. Though the scars of the Yugoslav Wars remain, the country (and region) has healed significantly in the last decade and now looks towards the future.
Serbian culture is in a unique case of East meets West thanks to its historical position as a buffer between the two regions. Despite this, Serbia has much in common with other Slavic/Orthodox countries, though Mediterranean and Central European influences are also clearly felt. Serbian culture is also prevalent in other Balkan countries where it is either practiced by sizeable minorities, or has influenced other cultures.
Flag of Serbia
The basic coloration of the Serbian flag is a tricolour with red, blue, and white (starting on the top). The Serbian lesser Coat of arms is found in the left-centre of the flag.
Serbian cuisine has much in common with other Balkan countries while also implementing dishes and flavours from the Mediterranean and Central European countries. The base of Serbian food is relatively well rounded, with bread common in every meal. The custom of bread and salt being offered to guests (Game of Thrones anyone?) is also common throughout Serbia. A few Serbian specialties include ćevapčiči (minced meat sausages), kačamak (corn-flour porridge), and the alcoholic drink rakia (made from fruit).
Sports in Serbia
Sports are very important in Serbian culture, with a wide array of games and activities enjoyed throughout the country. The most popular is soccer, though tennis, volleyball, water polo, handball, and basketball are also followed. The Serbian soccer team is relatively strong, though they have had mixed results as of late. Players such as Nemanja Vidić, Nemanja Matič, and Branislav Ivanović have all had great success on the European club stage. Tennis players such as Novak Djokovic (currently the #1 ranked player in the world) and Ana Ivanovic (winner of the 2008 French Open) are popular around the globe.
Geography of Serbia
Serbia sits right between Central and Southern Europe on the Balkan Peninsula. The country is divided between the Pannonian Plane in the north, a hill covered, river region in the middle known as Šumadija, and mountains throughout the south including the Dinaric Alps and Carpathian Mountains, among others.
Cities in Serbia
The largest city by far in Serbia is the capital, Belgrade. Located where the Sava and Danube rivers meet, it has been a key regional power centre for centuries (even in the days of the Ottoman Empire). Today it is an important global city and will only grow in the coming years.
Facts about Serbia
- More than 30% of the world’s raspberries come from Serbia
- Serbia translates as ‘land of the Serbs’ in Greek
- It is smaller than South Carolina
- ‘Vampire’ is a Serbian word
- In 1918, the Serbian army breached the Thessaloniki front in 18 days – something the French, British, Italians, and Greeks couldn’t do for months
- Inventor Nikola Tesla was a Serb
- Many last names end with ‘-ic’
- The national flag differs from the ‘official flag’ in that it doesn’t have the Coat of arms
We hope you enjoyed this look into Serbian history and culture! Check back later for more on travelling to Serbia as well as its currency of choice.
Check out our Serbia Travel Guide for the best destinations in the country, essential travel info, and more! Check out our Currency Spotlight for info on the Serbian dinar. And don’t forget, with Continental’s Countries you can find information on countries all across the world!
Stay informed. Stay Current.