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Within the Adriatic fortress of Dubrovnik, cafés, churches and palaces reflect 1,000 years of turbulent history

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Dubrovnik was not only a sanctuary for exiles but also a repository for Central European history. “The parchment and inks produced here have not faded in 800 years,” said Stjepan Cosic, a 37-year-old research associate with the Institute for History and Science. “This paper is bright white because it contains no wood-pulp cellulose; it was made from cotton fabric. The inks, based on a mixture of iron, ashes and acorns, remain as vivid as the day they were put to paper.”

 

If history seems alive to Cosic, perhaps it’s because he works in a 1526 waterfront palace with 18-foot ceilings, rooms filled with more than 100,000 manuscripts and a boathouse sized to accommodate a trading vessel. “Croatia is a small country with only 4,000,000 people. Dubrovnik’s population is only 46,000. But the essence of our country’s history and culture resides in Dubrovnik,” he says.

 

For centuries, Ragusa survived plague, coexisted with Ottomans and kept papal intrigues at arm’s length, but there was no escape from nature. On the Saturday before Easter in 1667, a massive earthquake reduced the city to rubble. Gone in an instant were most of the Gothic monasteries, the Romanesque cathedral and many of the Renaissance palaces. Towering waves poured in through an enormous fissure in the city wall, flooding a portion of the town, while fire ravaged what remained. Of the city’s 6,000 residents, at least 3,500 were killed, many of them nobility.

 

The aristocracy rebuilt their city. Alittle more than a century later, at the close of the American Revolutionary War, Ragusan carracks even called at ports as distant as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. But the power of Mediterranean city-states was waning. Though Ragusa remained the capital of an independent republic for another quarter century, its thousand years of freedom ended in 1808, when Napoléon, moving inexorably eastward, annexed Dalmatia.

 

After the defeat of Napoléon, the Congress of Vienna incorporated Ragusa and the rest of Dalmatia into the Austro- Hungarian Empire, where it remained for a century. In June 1914, a young Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo. At the conclusion of World War I, Princip’s dreams were realized when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes—later renamed Yugoslavia—was created. After World War II, Yugoslavia became a communist republic under the leadership of Josip Broz, a Croat known as Tito.

 

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