Meridijani, February 2008

Early in the morning, a loud, rasp sound woke me from my sleep. From the hill that rises above the city of Sinj, cannons called “mačkule” began firing like crazy. Whoever had been still asleep, must have been awake by now. I looked out the window at Sinj’s promenade and realized that I was the only awaken by the “mačkule”. The city had already been up for quite some time! I went down to the street where the city’s official band cheerfully sounded reveilles. The most festive day of the year had begun – the day of the knight’s tournament, the Sinjska Alka.

I remember how, as a young boy, I used to watch the Alka tournament on television and how back then, everything about it seemed a bit boring. As I grew up I started to find the whole story about the Alka even less appealing to me, because of the constant political turmoil that followed this spectacle. But, two years ago my traveling led me to Sinj where I experienced the Alka in a totally different way. I started to love that city, its people and their tradition, their unique mentality, and rich culture.
I went to the promenade for a morning coffee and there I met a gentleman named Joka.

“Are the spears ready?” I asked him.
“Everything is ready; I had a lot of work these days!”
Mister Josip Runje has been making spears for the Alka contestants for 24 years. He shapes them from pinewood and stabilizes them for ease of handling by adding lead to the handles. The spear tips are then sharpened with great care, for precision of aim.

Two girls sat at a table next to mine, excitedly immersed in their conversation:
“Gugić is my favorite!” one of them said, “How he beat Petruška on the ‘Bara’…”
“Oh, get out of here… It’s like you never watched ‘Čoja’ yesterday” the other one interrupted, “The way Zija won the playoff! Who wins the playoff must have the steadiest hand!”

I walked through the city and heard everyone talking about yesterday’s Čoja and the day before yesterday’s Bara, or the last rehearsals for tonight’s Alka… All of them attracted the same interest among the citizens of Sinj. Although they practiced horseback riding throughout the year, the Alka contestants began training on Alka’s battleground just two weeks ago. Numerous people came to watch them, so that they could spend the rest of their day talking about how competitors are holding up, and speculating about who will take all the glory this year.

The day went by quickly and the excitement grew. Every now and then, one could hear “mačkule” firing from the old city, in memory of the great battle of 1715 when the outnumbered citizens of Sinj overcame the large number of Turkish soldiers. All of the citizens of Sinj still believe that Our Lady Mary herself aided them with a miracle that day. From that day on, in the name of that glorious victory, this competition is held, by its character similar to the knight tournaments that were held in the Mediterranean during medieval times.

Two hours before the competition, three drummers and three trumpeters sounded, which was a calling to contestants to gather around the battleground called “Alajčauša” and begin their last preparations. So, I went to the battleground where I met my associate Ivo Delonga, whose house is just behind the festival’s V.I.P. stands. Just as local hospitality is the tradition here, he cheerfully invited me to his home for a meal.

Friends and relatives from every corner of Croatia and the world had gathered in his house. This festivity takes place only once a year, on this day… a large table was covered with figs, fritules, sweet fritters, smoked ham and cheese, coffee, and brandy. “Alka drags like kalamita”, said mister Delonga to me, explaining that “kalamita” means lightning rod. He showed me crowds of people flowing into the stands around the battleground. Sinj has hardly 12,000 inhabitants, and with the surrounding villages the numbers reach to about 25,000. During the days of the Alka and Our Lady, 200,000 people pass through the city! “This is a collective madness!” he said happily.

I rushed to the stands and blended with the crowd. Everybody watched the top of the street, waiting for a festive procession to approach. When it finally came, I remembered the words that a famous writer from Sinj, Dinko Šimunović, wrote about it some 130 years ago: “When looking at the competitors’ procession on their fine horses, you don’t see anything else but glimmering of the velvet and silk, and the shine of gold and silver. And what lads those are, some tall and wide as the mountains, so that the earth beneath them thunders, and the others slim and agile so they could jump across three horses with just one leap. But all of them with strong muscles, fiery eyes and a heroic posture, ready to take on the whole army…”

An old man called a “harambaša” stood at the head of the procession, and behind him followed around 30 Alka men, dressed in grand folk dresses: blue canvas trousers, white shirts, and red vests. Around their belts called “pripašnjača”, they had two antique pistols, kuburas, and a knife, jatagan, while over their shoulders they had a rifle called “kremenjača”. Walking proudly, with a sharp look and thick moustaches, they strongly evoked the heroism of their grand grandfathers.

Drummers and trumpeters walked behind them, followed by a flag bearer and companions with their sabers out. Behind them stepped the bearers of the trophies won in the glorious battle against the Turks: shield bearer, mace bearer and two boys leading the horse called the “edek”. That horse is covered in antique equipment believed to have belonged to Mehmed-Pasha Čelić, a Turkish army leader from the times of the siege of Sinj. The horse they lead without its rider became the symbol of the Turkish defeat at Sinj.

At the end of procession came the heroic knights: Alka horseback riders, dressed in authentic dresses of Sinj’s defenders from the early 18th century: hats made of weasel’s fur, adorned with herons’ feathers, boots with spurs, and trousers and shirts from the finest blue canvas – “čoja”, hand sewn with silver ornaments and buttoned with golden filigree plates. They held long spears in their hands and sabers hung from their waist.

Appearance of the Alka competitors holds the ideal image of men from Sinj. In the softness of the canvas and toughness of the saber, in the calmness and sureness of the rider on a noble and obedient horse, one can see a proud man, open to spirituality and knighthood. Only an honest citizen of Sinj, free from vices and with a clean record, loyal to the duke and the honorable court, faithful to Our Lady and to God, can become an Alka competitor. The times have changed and historical and social circumstances have changed with them, but that ideal, which could be felt not just in the battlefield but also on the stands, has remained the same.

The procession stopped in front of the VIP stands and exchanged a few words with special guests – the president, prime minister, ministers, bishops… Mister Delonga explained to me: “During the whole Alka history, from the Austro-Hungarian king Franz Joseph to Aleksander Karađorđević, President Tito, President Franjo Tuđman, until today, to every statesman it was an honor to make an appearance at the Alka torunament! Countries and rulers changed… but the Alka survived for so long because it adapted to those changes. It kept its traditions but it also respected the others.”

17 Alka contestants lined up at the start of the race track, and everything was ready to begin. When the trumpet sounded, one by one they would race their horses down the 160 meters long track and at full gallop try to hit the alka in its center. The alka is a ring of ironed steel, about 5 inches in diameter, divided into a smaller ring just 1.2 inches in diameter, and three other parts. Who hits the small ring – “srida” gets 3 “punats” (e.g. points), who hits the part over the “srida” gets 2 “punats” and who hits the other two parts gets 1 “punat”. When one of the Alka competitors would hit the “srida”, “mačkula” cannons would immediately fire a shot from the old city. I asked my host how the cannon operators know that the “srida” was hit and he just laughed and said: “We can tell an Alka competitor hit the “srida” just by the sound of the spear hitting the metal. Also, at the same moment, in honor of the Alka competitor, cheerful march music would start to play and cheering and clapping begins that can be heard all the way up the hill!”

Young Tino Radanović didn’t have “mačkula” fire an honor shot for him, but he hit 2 points three times and won this year’s Alka tournament. Even though there were lots of experienced men of which the oldest was 51, the winner was 30 year old Tino, one of the youngest Alka competitors who had his debut just last year! “He really deserved it!” I heard a lady next to me saying to someone else. “He was the only one that spent the whole winter in preparations and came to the track every single day!”

The young victor with a serious, ceremonial face, took grand prizes and honors after which the crowd slowly started to dissipate, passionately commenting tonight’s spectacle. “Let’s go over to the winner’s home, the party starts there in an hour!” Mister Delonga invited me.

When we came to Tino’s home, the table was already packed with authentic specialties from Sinj: fried frogs and boiled crabs, soups, veal with rice… Almost 500 people went through that house that evening and all of them came to congratulate the winner, and to have something to eat and drink. “What do you think, how is it possible for a housewife to make all this food only an hour after it was even known who had won?” someone asked me. I was astounded, that question never came to my mind before, but really… How?
“The victor has the right to come to any restaurant and take whatever is available to eat!”

A few days after that, I found the victor at the race tracks where, as tradition says, he had to arrange a special celebration for Alka competitors only. I was amazed to find him with a cheerful smile instead of the serious face I remembered from a few days back. I asked him how it feels to win the Alka tournament.

“Uff… it’s a great honor! Especially to me, since I am the first to win the Alka with my surname, and also because it was the second time I competed!”
“And when did you first start dabbling in Alka?”
“As all the other boys in Sinj, I followed the Alka with great interest, so I started to learn how to ride a horse. I ended up in equestrian training and gallop races, but at the age of 17 I had to give up due to being too heavy for that discipline, so I turned to the Alka. But for me, the Alka is the hardest of all horse based disciplines, it demands great sacrifices! It is not just a sport, it is a lifestyle, with lots of traveling, and you have to answer each time the duke calls you…”
“But now that you are a winner, you must be popular among the women in Sinj?” He laughed and bowed his head without giving me an answer. His old Alka colleagues started to tease him: “How wouldn’t he be, if he can hit the small alka with a spear so precisely…”

There is only one week between the Alka tournament and the holiday of the Great Lady Mary, Velika Gospa. Even though Sinj was full of people and there was constantly something going on, during midday the whole area fell to a slow, lazy rhythm characteristic for a hot day in the middle of the summer. I reached for a famous work “Alkar” again, and the lines that Dinko Šimunović wrote more than a century ago, revealed to me that some things never even changed since then.
“…Huge Sinj field on the hot summer sun seemed even greater because the bluish mist concealed to the eyes the far away hills. Everything was calm in the midday heat, and the distant, distant mountains of stone became even bluer, peaking still behind that low, thin mist. It seemed as the whole Krajina was in a grand summer sleep, or as it was resting after the angry fight and heroic deeds…” Conditions seemed perfect for me to dive into the shade of Sinj’s museum and the monastery’s library, and to investigate the city’s history.

Sinj settled in the midst of the karsts of Dalmatian Zagora, by the west side of the vast Sinj field which is imbibed by the river Cetina and is therefore fertile and rich. Life developed here in the Neolithic Age, which was made possible by mild geographic conditions and a position that is on the crossroads of the Dalmatian hinterlands and Bosnia, towards the shore from which it is distanced only 30 kilometers. Unhindered settlements in these parts are traceable all the way to the late Bronze Age, some 3000 years ago.

In ancient times, areas around Sinj were home to Roman settlements and villages of the native Dalmat tribe, Osinijata, from where the name Sinj takes its roots. Ornaments with magical character were found on their tombstones, which shows the remains of the old Illyric cults and religions. Ancient discoveries including Heracles’ head and the statue of goddess Diana were found here. It is also known that Sinj was the hometown of a Roman general Sekst Minucius Faustin who destroyed Jerusalem in the year 135 and ended the Jewish uprising.

During the 6th and 7th century, Sinj’s old City held a Byzantine fortress Asinio, and underneath it a few early Christian churches. It is not known precisely when the Croats came to the region of Cetina, but Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porfirogenet mentioned them in the 10th century.

In the year 1345, The Hungarian-Croatian king Ludovik I gave authority over Sinj as a gift, to the Lord Ivan Nelipčić after which the Nelipčić, a respected Croatian aristocrat family, ruled Sinj for a whole century. After them came the Frankopans, then Talovci, and from the second half of the 15th century Sinj was constantly under attack by the forces of the Ottoman empire.

In the year 1516, Turks conquered Sinj and after that the city lost its strategic importance and the domestic population abandoned the area because of poor living conditions and high taxes imposed by the Turks. Venetians freed Sinj from Turkish rule in 1686, and the importance of the period that followed can be felt even today.

In the museum of the Cetina region I came upon the curator Anita Librenjak, whom I asked to explain details from that particular time of Sinj’s history. “By the end of 17th century the region of Cetina was losing its population so Venetians tried to lure people from west Bosnia and Herzegovina to come and settle here. And they succeeded. In the year 1687, the biggest rise in population happened. People from Rama, Poljica, Livno and Duvno, came to Sinj, led by the monks, and brought everything they owned with them. While leaving Rama, the guardian monk Stipan Matić burned down the local church and monastery in Rama with great sadness, so the Ottoman army wouldn’t use it as a standing point. The people already worshiped the miraculous picture of the Mother of Grace, a work by an unknown Venetian master from the 16th century, so the monks took that painting with them as well.”

”But even after this population move, Turks continued to threaten the city. In the autumn of 1698, Padishah Daltaban plundered all around the Cetina region and in the village of Čitluk, he killed seven monks with his sword. He left monk Pavlo Vučković alive because he spoke to him in Turkish. He was taken to captivity all the way to Baghdad, but managed to escape a few years later and return to Sinj, where he built a large church that would hold the painting of Our Lady.”

“In 1715, Padishah Mehmed Čelić attacked Sinj with 60,000 soldiers,” Mrs. Librenjak continued, “Monk Pavao Vučković and his fellowship took the people inside the city’s walls and took the painting of the Lady with them. There were merely 700 of Sinj’s defenders but they didn’t agree to surrender the city, and instead decided to defend it to the very end.”

As the story goes, Turkish soldiers sieged the city for a few days and the victory seemed to be at hand. But during the night of the 14th to 15th of August, Turkish soldiers saw a white lady floating above the city walls like a ghost, filling them with fear. That same night troops were hit with an unexplained outbreak of fear among them, along with dysentery from which they immediately started dying. Surviving troops ran away in panic, leaving 10,000 dead soldiers behind along with huge loot. The Turks never attacked Sinj after that.

“It seems the Turkish army overlooked something,” Mrs. Librenjak, an archaeologist and curator, explained. “They thought Sinj would be easy to conquer, so they left their cannons in Livno. They might even have not sent the whole number of troops to the battle from those reported by historians. Nevertheless, that defense was unbelievable! Even though I’m a scientist and we don’t believe in miracles, I think that in this case without a miracle this couldn’t have happened!”

People recognized the Lady Mary as their protector and started to pray and vow to her. They immediately gathered their golden jewelry from which Venetians made a crown and crowned the Lady’s painting ceremonially in the year 1716. It was then that Sinj’s knights revived the by-then almost forgotten game of Alka and decided to play it every year in the glory of the Lady and in the memory of the glorious battle.”

During the next century Sinj was hit with numerous disasters: wars between Austria and Napoleon’s France, two earthquakes, a plague, cholera, famine… I was surprised that the cult of Our Lady continued during that time so I searched for clues in the Franciscan monastery. There, in the rich library that holds about 40,000 books and works all the way from the 15th and 16th century, 14 precious incunabula and many important documents not yet fully historically investigated, I met with monk Mirko Marić who explained: “In the 18th century, a plague killed a large number of Sinj’s population, but according to our data, almost all of the ones that pledged themselves to the Lady were spared. One earthquake demolished the church but the altar with the Lady’s picture stood intact! People noticed those things so they believe that the picture is miraculous! We don’t test the miracles with scientific methods as it is not necessary. Who believes in it – believes, and who doesn’t – doesn’t!”

At the start of the 19th century, the people of Sinj, as well as the rest of the Croatian population, didn’t have a national consciousness, they didn’t think of themselves as Croats. It was Sinj’s Franciscans that played a major role in the Illyric movement which was awakening the national spirit. Their monastery became the center of the movement for entire Dalmatia. They founded Dalmatia’s first gymnasium in 1854 with classes in Croatian language. Six years later they also founded Croatia’s fourth museum of archeology, which today holds over a thousand precious items from ancient history until recent times. Franciscans were top class among Sinj’s intellectuals and they worked and improved on many very important cultural and scientific values. They wrote scientific and literary texts, and also did archeological and paleonthological work, gathering historical documents, ethnographic materials, numismatic, philatelic and medallion collections, and so on.

“Through our gymnasium, we formed people’s intelligence”, explained Father Mirko to me. “Many people that finished our gymnasium and seminary became respected scientists and artists, and also many of them committed themselves and stayed within the Church! People here are very religious! Most Croatians profess themselves as Catholics but according to some estimates only 12% of them practice it. In Sinj, the situation is a little different. Here, over 20% of the people practice their religion, and almost all of them profess as Catholics! Although families don’t have as many children as they used to, natural increase of population is still positive. Also, we are not experiencing shortage of monastic callings as are the other parts of Croatia. Every year about 7 or 8 new seminarians get ordained. Nevertheless, a neighboring place Otok still outmatches us in the number of ordained people with statistically the highest number of Church serving people in Croatia. On the population of 4000 people, come over 30 monks and 150 nuns!”

As the holiday of the Great Lady was getting close, I asked him how the attendance is changing. “According to the number of wafers we give out during the days of the holiday of the Great Lady (Velika Gospa), we can assess the number of people that come to Sinj from all over the country. From year to year it is constantly increasing, which is probably due to increased mobility, which allows them to pilgrimage more easily. We expect at least 150,000 people, which is the number of people that came last year!”

The night before the holiday of the Great Lady, a holiday in honor of Blessed Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven, thousands of pilgrims walked through the fields that lead to Sinj. People headed to Sinj from Split, Klis, Trilj, Vrlika and even Rama, Livno and Duvno – on foot! They walked in line for the whole night and at dawn they gathered at the top of the hill overlooking Sinj at the Old City where, as they believe, the Lady miraculously appeared in front of Turkish soldiers, filling them with fear and chasing them away, saving Sinj and its people. They all watched the magical sunrise over Sinj’s vast field, where the mighty river Cetina flows, with its drops of water entangling the whole area in the morning mist from which rise the great mountains Dinara, Kamešnica and Biokovo.

Then they all went to the Lady’s shrine, a church in the centre of Sinj to attend the festive holy mass. After that the monks took the famous picture of the Lady, crowned with gold from her followers, down from the altar, put it on the pedestal and started the long procession. As soon as they left the church and entered the square, four shoulders of Alka knights took over carrying the picture, the first one of them was from the proud victor Tino Radanović. They walked the streets of Sinj slowly and ceremoniously until another four pairs of shoulders took over their glorious duty. Little by little, all of the ones that had earned this privilege with their honorable life, took turns carrying the Lady on their shoulders: clerics, laics, men, women, the young and the old… Obviously touched, the assembly pushed their way toward the picture, trying to touch it for good luck. From windows and balconies overlooking the parade, people were throwing hundreds of rose petals towards the picture as it moved by. Many women’s eyes were filled with tears and every now and then one could hear excited cries: “Oh my Lady…”. As the procession went through the street all of the people would join the crowd and follow the picture. The river of Sinj’s humble people stretched out endlessly.

After witnessing the very point of the living culture of Sinj my story was finished and complete. I looked for Mister Ivo Delonga to say goodbye before I left. We sat in one of the coffee houses on the main square, where I noticed that a lot of people were wearing heavy make-up, as if they were ready for a night’s out and not the Lady’s holiday.

“You see…” he said to me, “a lot of people come here for Our Lady’s holiday just to show their face in the main square, without even attending the mass. As father Mirko would say: ‘Don’t trust the Turks around the mosque and Sinj’s people around the square!’”

“The Lady wasn’t kept alive by the politicians nor by those howling and wailing at the Alka, it was kept alive by ordinary people, the ones far away from the square.”

“Did you know that during the medieval times Alka tournaments were played everywhere… In Makarska, Split, Zadar, Istria and even outside of Croatia, all over the Mediterranean! But it was kept alive only here, and do you know why? Because of the Lady! Because of the unbreakable bond between the Alka and Our Lady! And that is sacred here in Sinj! You can talk about and criticize anything, gossip anyone, but don’t touch the Alka or Our Lady! That is sacred!”