Castle Hunting: Smederevo

Smederevo Fortress was the end of the line.  When the Ottomans captured it, in 1459, after decades of trying, it marked the fall of the medieval Sebian state – the country wouldn’t exist again for four and a half centuries, the region would remain tightly within the grip of Istanbul.
After the Battle of Blackbird's Field in 1389, Serbs began a slow drift to the north.  Uprooted from their historic homeland by the Ottomans, they pushed into unfamiliar territory, creeping right to the edge of the great Mittel-European plains.
In the year 1428, after thirty years of instability, the Serb leader Đurađ Branković began work on a new capital and stronghold on the northern edge of what had ever been considered Serbian land, right up against the Danube.  The fortress was his country’s last hope.
Visiting Smederevo is a terrific experience.  Not because there’s much to see – there are no narrow passages or elaborate gatehouses, nothing remains of the residences, the castle grounds are filled with sycamores and a bumper-car tent.  It’s interesting only because of how solid and massive it is.  Through years of bitter siege by the Ottomans, the fortress was hardly dented.  It survived entirely intact until 1941, when a German ammunition store blew up near the south wall – the adjoining town was almost completely destroyed in the blast, debris traveled as far as ten kilometers away.  Amazingly, the castle wasn’t damaged much – there’s a big hole in the wall, but that’s about it.
The Ottomans certainly knew how strong these walls are.  It took them four attempts, huge batteries of canons, hundreds of thousands of men and years to take Smederevo.
Sitting at the crux of two rivers – the Danube and the Jezava – the walls form a rough triangle.  The third side was also once protected by water, after a moat was dug along the walls there, and the inner keep has a separate moat.  The walls – they’re about a mile long, altogether – enclosed a small city and palace, and were anchored by large defense towers.  Because the land here is flat, the fortifications had to be very tall to create any kind of height advantage.  Because they were built specifically to defend against the Turkish gunpowder weapons, they needed to be extremely sturdy; the walls themselves are about ten feet thick.
The crenelations have begun to shift in some places, and some of the towers have adopted a drunken lean.  The land underneath the foundations isn’t very firm, and the walls relied more on breadth than depth to “float” in the riverside earth, but inevitably some tipping has begun.
The Danube was both a border for the Serbs and a last resort.  Đurađ Branković was afraid that the Ottoman army would gain control of the waterway and be able to push their way up and around his diminishing territories (which eventually happened).  Hoping to retain a connection with central Europe and the Black Sea, and to hold the gateway westward, he decided to build his new capital where the sultans would have to either capture it or travel overland to the north.  Also, the position made it more difficult for the Hungarians to travel eastward, which made the Ottomans happy and probably held off an attack for some time.
Amazingly, the entire fortress was built in just over two years.  Branković and (in particular) his wife gained a tyrannical reputation, working and taxing their remaining subjects mercilessly to complete the project.
A tenuous calm began in 1434, just after the castle was completed and before it had been tested.  Branković agreed to marry his eldest daughter to Sultan Murad II to guarantee that the Ottomans wouldn’t invade – but the peace lasted only five years.  In 1429, Murad led 130,000 troops up along the Danube, determined to wipe out the Serbs and reopen direct confrontation with the Hungarians.
Smederevo withstood the initial assault, but three months of siege and starvation eventually made the defenders give in – a period of complicated negotiations involving the Hungarians returned the castle to Branković a year later, though.  Mehmed II himself, fresh off his conquering of Istanbul, tried to recapture the fortress in 1453 and 1456, but was repelled both times, even though he had many more men than the Serbs.
Though the Sultan couldn't topple Branković's castle, the rest of Serbia was devastated by the raids, with over fifty thousand people killed or taken prisoner. At this point, Smederevo sat almost completely alone – all the other castles and fortresses of Serbia had fallen and the country existed only symbolically, reduced to nothing more than a tiny force in a big fort.
The modern town of Smederevo has encroached right up to the walls – there’s a railway station on one side, the Jezava has been redirected and only a concrete inlet borders the castle on the east.  Men and boys fish here, or sit with their girlfriends to kiss. A huge crane stands sentinel off the southwestern tip, part of a barge loading station.  Like most castles, it wasn’t until recently that the citizens of town began to appreciate what they have.  Renovation work has begun, hoping to shore up the more damaged walls and prop up some of the towers, but (in contrast with the two year long construction) it’s going slowly. There’s not much money for projects like this in Serbia.
We stayed in a little pension not far from the walls and were able to walk around the castle both at dusk and dawn.  Barges pass by all day, cutting smoothly and silently through the brown water.  There’s a rough track around the inner perimeter, and joggers and walkers circle slowly.  It gave some sense of scale – even the swiftest runners took a long time to make the loop.  Wandering, we could feel somewhat alone.  The leaves and branches thickened away from the center, it felt almost wild.  The walls are high and wide enough to block out the sounds of town.
The twenty-five towers are probably the most impressive part about the castle.  Each stands about seventy feet tall, though up close that figure is hard to believe.  So heavyset and broad, their bigness actually makes them seem shorter until given some perspective.  Climbing up the stairs of the keep takes a long time, the view out over the river and the town is surprising – we felt very high up all of a sudden.
Reduced to a few thousand men, the Serb forces huddled in their stronghold until 1459, when the Ottomans finally captured it for good.  When Smederevo finally fell, there was nowhere else to go.  Serbia became only a vague region within the empire.  Mehmed II fixed up the walls a little and the sultans kept the fortress operational for a while, but the frontier had pushed eastward rapidly and the castle didn’t remain important for long.  It sat unused for centuries, but didn’t deteriorate much – it was too well built, too thick to collapse.
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