Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in about 300 AD as his retirement home, what is known as "Diocletian's Palace" in Split, Croatia, is actually a walled city that once housed as many as 9,000 people. The Romans abandoned the city in about the 7th century, and thereafter it was gradually filled with Christians.
Photo from here

Landmarks in the old map below are still visible in the modern city above.
If you get lost, you can check out your location on this model of the city--if you can find it:

We entered through the Silver Gate on the eastern side of the complex and were immediately carried back in time about 1700 years. I love these large stones worn smooth by centuries of pedestrians:

Diocletian's Palace is one of the best preserved and most extensive Roman ruins in existence. The central structure of the palace is Diocletian's Mausoleum, which was "renovated" by the Christians and became the city's cathedral, now known as St. Domnius (aka St. Domnio, St. Dominic, or St. Duje) Cathedral. It is considered to be the oldest cathedral in the world. St. Domnius was one of the victims of Diocletian's persecution of the Christians. The patron saint of Split, he was beheaded along with eight of his converts from this area, and the mausoleum of the man who killed him is now his cathedral.  Wow, that is great revenge! 

The massive bell tower seen below was built next to the mausoleum between 800 and 1100 AD, and then rebuilt in 1908.

 The arched wall in front of the cathedral and bell tower are of Roman origin.
 The bell tower is by far the tallest building in Split, and it drew our gaze and camera lenses over and over.
 The octagonal mausoleum/cathedral is on the left of the bell tower:
Inside the cathedral, an elaborate altar stands in the center of the room, separating the mausoleum from the later addition of a choir room:
 The marblework rivals the best work in Rome in intricacy, design, and preservation:
Gold angels hold up a heavily ornamented frame containing a painting of St. Donmius:
 Corinthian columns support the roof from the inside:
The upper part of this altar was taken from Diocletian's tomb:
This silver reliquary holds the remains of St. Domnius:

On the outside, the cathedral is supported by 24 columns:

 Massive doors are encased in intricately carved stone frames:
 Various sculptures surround the cathedral:
This black sphinx, which was brought with eleven others to Split from Luxor by Diocletian, dates to 15 BC and is the best preserved of the three that remain:
 He keeps an eye on goings-on in the courtyard below:
Maybe this cat-like creature is the reason authorities singled out dogs (or is it just German shepherds?) as unwelcome guests:
The Peristyle (a large courtyard surrounded by columns) in front of the cathedral is a natural gathering place:
The building in the back is the beginning of
Diocletian's personal apartments
Cushions and "tables" are placed at regular intervals on the stone steps and are for paying guests of the bar that faces the cathedral (which we learned when we were very pointedly asked if we were planning on ordering something).
After seeing these two fellows, we heeded the warnings not to occupy these seats unless we bought a beverage from the bar: 
Directly underneath the cathedral is a crypt:
Information on a sign (in English) told us that the well is supplied by groundwater and may have had a role in ancient Roman cult rituals.

The sign also notes, "According to some researchers, the sarcophagus of the Emperor Diocletian was situated in the crypt, since the crypt was the most sacred part of the Roman temple, and it was not accessible to everyone."

 In the Middle Ages, when Christians had possession of this place, the crypt was dedicated to St. Lucy, the protector of eyesight, who, like St. Domnius, died a martyr's death during Diocletian's persecution of Christians.

The cathedral complex includes one more building--what used to be the Temple of Jupiter during Roman rule. The Christians, in true "Nyah, nyah, nyah!" form, made it into a baptistry. Pretty effective adaptation if you ask me. 

The door is guarded by another sphinx, but this time a headless one: 
The interior is dominated by a large cross-shaped stone font presided over by John the Baptist himself: 
Close-ups of carvings:
A sarcophagus of unknown use is pushed against one wall:

The vaulted, coffered ceiling is much like the one in the cathedral:

The best part about the baptistry, however, is not its age or its preservation, but rather the fabulous 20th century sculpture of St. John by Ivan Mestrovic, a Croatian sculptor we had first been introduced to in Serbia:
Mestrovic's John is wild, underfed, lanky, and very expressive, especially his beautiful, bony hands that are perhaps beckoning to Christ or His disciples to come and be baptized:

I also love his knobby knees:

The baptistry forms one side of the Peristyle, the cathedral another, the restaurant/bar the third side, and a fourth side is a round, oculus-topped stone vestibule that serves as the antechamber for the residential part of the palace.
We were fortunate to be there when five young men were practicing some folk songs, drinking their beer, and hoping for a few tips. The shape and size of the vestibule made for some fantastic acoustics.
It reminded us of a similar experience we had in St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow two years before when four men were taking advantage of the acoustics in one of the rooms to sing sacred music and sell their CDs.

It was a true souvenir experience, one I'll always associate with Split.

NEXT: Exploring the rest of Split


  1. I really loved Diocletian's Palace and the mixed history it enjoys. And how ironic that the palace of the greatest persecutor of Christian's becomes a Christian cathedral. Your initial photo is also fantastic, a wonderful aerial view down on the entire complex - much nicer than a model. I do wish we'd seen a little more of Split, and particularly the Mestrovic museum. But none of it beats the wonderful market outside the walls, with its Istrian prsut and roasted pig - that is Heaven.

  2. I love the marble altar. This stop has quite a variety of styles--very interesting!

  3. I look forward to seeing all of this. That bell tower reminds me of the one in Sienna, with its varying arched windows up the tower in tiers. Fun to try and parse out all the Italian influence on these lands a ferry ride away. I'm thinking I should study up on this place, just so I'll know where I'm going! Great post--fascinating!