By most accounts, Emperor Diocletian was a good ruler. He stabilized the Roman Empire after a long period of strife, secured its borders, introduced administrative reforms and actually did something that no Roman emperor had done before him – abdicate the throne willingly and retire. But towards the end of his reign he indulged in the persecution of Christians, said to be the most severe persecution in the Roman Empire, which put a huge black stain on his rule. Hence, it is quite ironical that the building that Diocletian constructed as his final resting place for eternity is a Christian cathedral today.
CATHEDRAL OF ST. DOMNIUS
During the construction of his palace, Diocletian also commissioned a mausoleum for himself right next to the Peristyle. In the 7th century, when the Christians returned to Split, they converted the mausoleum into a cathedral and placed the relics of Bishop Domnius, killed by Diocletian during the persecution, in the building. The Cathedral of St. Domnius holds the distinction of being housed in the second oldest structure among all the Christian cathedrals.
At the entrance of the cathedral we bought a combined ticket that also granted us access to associated religious buildings like the cathedral treasury, bell tower, baptistery and crypt. We started from the treasury which contained relics of saints, religious art, gold artefacts, ancient garments and important books and manuscripts. It took us just a few minutes to go around the treasury as most of the stuff wasn’t of much interest to us and photography was also prohibited.
Next we visited the cathedral which was small but simply magnificent. The paintings were beautiful, the sculptures were exquisite, the carvings, whether on stone or wood, were extremely intricate and stunning, and in the centre of it all was the gleaming gilded main altar. From inside, it was one of the finest churches we had seen in Croatia.
Carved wooden bench-rests from the early 13th century
Beneath the cathedral was the Crypt of St. Lucy which was just an empty chamber apart from a small statue of the saint.
A short distance away from the cathedral, across the Peristyle, was the Baptistery of St. John. Situated on a podium, it was the Temple of Jupiter in the Roman times and has retained its original structure to a large extent. The baptistery contained a 13th century Baptismal font and a statue of St. John while its entrance was guarded by one of the ancient sphinxes that Diocletian had brought from Egypt though this sphinx was missing its head. The most interesting part of the temple was its ceiling which had small sculptures of faces.
After exiting the baptistery, we undertook the most arduous task of the day – climbing the cathedral’s bell tower. The construction of this 60m high bell tower started in the 13th century and lasted for 300 years, but due to erosion of the stone used in the construction, it was reconstructed towards the end of the 19th century. It is not the highest bell tower in Croatia but when viewed from the cramped spaces of the Peristyle, it looked to be reaching for the sky. The climb up the 200 odd steep steps of stone and metal often had us gasping for air but each of those gasps was made worthwhile by the views from the top of the tower. The views of the shimmering blue sea, red tiled roofs and hills that surround the city were absolutely incredible.
After climbing down the tower we explored the rest of Diocletian’s Palace about which have written in our previous blog.
OUTSIDE THE PALACE
The old town of Split, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is comprised of two distinct, almost equal parts. The first part is the Diocletian’s Palace where the city initially developed. In the medieval era, as the population grew, the city started expanding to the west of the palace and today this part, outside the palace, forms the other half of the old town. We spent the second half of our afternoon exploring the lovely streets and squares in this part of the old town.
We started with the Gajo Bulat Square named after a 19th century mayor of Split. Strictly speaking, this square lay just outside the boundary of the old town but we visited it to see the beautiful building of Croatian National Theatre dating from 1893. Next to the theatre was the Monastery and Church of Our Lady of Health which stood out among all the buildings due to its unusual and modern facade. On one side of the square, there was also a fragment of the medieval wall which was built by the Venetians. Most of the wall was torn down to make space for the growing modern city.
From the Gajo Bulat Square we strolled to the People’s Square which was located in the heart of the medieval old town. As suggested by its name, this square, soon after its construction, replaced the Peristyle in Diocletian’s palace as the city’s hub and main meeting point. The square was surrounded by beautiful medieval palaces but the most notable structure was the 15th century town hall which is now used to display exhibitions. Overlooking the square from one end was a clock tower with a unique 24 digit clock.
Next we visited the Square of Radić Brother which was once the site of a bustling fruit market due to which it is popularly known as Fruit Square. The highlights of this beautiful square were a 15th century Venetian tower built to protect the harbour, the splendid Milesi Palace from the 17th century and a statue of Marko Marulić who is considered as the father of the Croatian literature.
At 5:30 p.m. we finally finished our tour of Split at the Republic Square – a large open square surrounded by red buildings on three sides. It was constructed in the mid 19th century along the lines of St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Next to the square was the Church and Monastery of St. Francis which contains tombs of many prominent citizens of Split.
It had taken us almost 7 hours to explore the entire old town of Split. We had two options for the evening – first was climbing the Marjan Hill to see the sunset but all of us were too tired for that, so we went with the second option by calling a cab and going to the Mall of Split for some shopping.
Next morning we left our apartment at 10:30 and took a cab to the Split ferry port. We took one last look at this marvellous 1700 year old city and then boarded the ferry to Hvar.