Balkan Tales – Solitude in Doclea

This piece is the second in a series of recollections, in no particular order, from my travels in the Balkans. You can read the first one, about a peculiar encounter in a Slovenian ghost town, here. I set this story in Montenegro, but it just as easily could have been told elsewhere amongst the myriad of Classical sites scattered across the region.

A fine mist hung about in the air like awkward stragglers outside a bar past closing time. The afternoon thunderstorm had gone as quickly as it had come, but it was still enough to leave me drenching wet and chilled to the bone. So much for the Adriatic summer, I thought, as I stood shivering in the August breeze. What did I do to find myself in such an utterly depressing place?

Crna Gora, perhaps better known as Montenegro, is a tiny country smaller than the New England state of Connecticut tucked along the coast between Croatia and Albania. No matter how you hash it, the name means “black mountain”, an apt description for a country where spectacular mountain ranges seem to stretch boundlessly before abruptly plunging into the warm, turquoise waves of the Adriatic. Tightly hugging the coast on one side and pushed up against the steep cliffs on the other are the country’s main attractions: a string of medieval towns boasting a lively Mediterranean atmosphere, countless resort hotels, and cheap flights connecting it to almost anywhere in Europe.

I, however, wasn’t anywhere close to Budva, Petrovac, Kotor, nor Tivat. Instead, I was right outside the city limits of Podgorica, where the Zeta and Morača rivers converge to give forth a fertile floodplain that is home to the nation’s capital and a third of its population. The value of this location had been understood even in ancient times: on the northern bank of the Morača, directly opposite from where the river cuts off the gloomy, gray scrawl of the planned, Yugoslav city, one can still find the foundations, roads, and walls of ancient Roman Doclea.

Despite its immediate proximity to Montenegro’s largest city, the site of the ancient town center, known as Duklja in the local Slavic tongue, was completely deserted when I arrived. Surrounding the archaeological preserve were wheat fields and farm houses, but they felt like details on a static stage background: no one was outside working, and I couldn’t hear any voices or noises from inside as well. Apart from the occasional car passing by on the access road, I, again, was totally alone.

I closed the gates behind myself as I entered the site. The town, like most Roman settlements, was laid out on a planned, rationalized pattern. I had entered from where the Eastern gate used to stand, and along this main thoroughfare one could find the remains of what would had been the centers of social life: several heated baths, both an earlier pagan temple of Diana and the later Christian basilica, and so forth. At the far end of the site, just before the ruins of the arch of triumph, was most important feature of Doclea: like all Roman cities, its town forum functioned as the political, religious, and economic center of the entire region.

Even though the place was thoroughly deserted, it seemed as if the city itself was exerting some sort of powerful presence onto my very being. The intricately laid stones of the forum were broken only intermittently by tablets and markers that were cemented onto the walls. The Latin inscriptions, looking as fresh as if they were chiseled on only yesterday, called towards me like a merchant hawking his wares. Beating a track through the tall, rain-soaked grass as I approached to have a closer look, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was the one being interrogated. A few laden raindrops fell from the darkening sky. Landing on my back, they ever so slightly tapped me on my right shoulder. Turning around reflexively, my eyes were instantly captivated by the creature that had been watching my every move.

From a triangular pediment gazed back the soulful eyes of a Roman woman, frozen in relief on the stone. Wearing a galea helmet, the woman was instantly recognizable as Bellona, the Roman goddess of war. I froze, and stared back. Behind her, the smoke and flames of a forest fire peeked through the distant hillsides as if war had returned to this contended land. I wanted to ask her what it was like to see the rise and fall of the empires that had subjugated Montenegro. About all the armies, Serbian, Bulgarian, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman, Austrian, Italian, German, and so on that had advanced and retreated under her watchful eyes as they sought conquest, glory, expansion, nation, or whatever was the fancy of the day. By now, daylight was fading fast. The encroaching darkness pulled me from my pensive musings and back to reality.

Bidding farewell to Bellona, I began to follow the remains of the city wall back towards my parked car. The thick grass abruptly halted close to the northeast corner of the fortifications. There, recent rains had swept away the topsoil, exposing older layers of dirt. For a few moments, I fancied myself an amateur archaeologist, carefully sifting through the debris with my eyes as to not disturb the site for any actual researchers. Quickly though, something disturbing caught my eye. A fragment of a lower jaw, complete with a few molars, was lying out on the dirt. I knelt on the edge of the grass to examine it up close. Well, it was certainly sized about right to be human…

Taking a few pictures and sending them to a friend in medical school, a feeling of dread overcame me. I knew from prior research that the remains of the necropolis were supposed to be in the other side of town. Was this an errant burial? The result of a battle by the city walls? Perhaps even a relatively recent murder, covered up with the illusion of ancient history? The piece was thoroughly skeletonized, as if it had been sitting underground for centuries. However, I knew that sometimes even a few months of decay could create the appearance of extreme age.

Not finding any more remains, I returned to my car and headed back to my hostel. As I pulled my car through tight turns and blind corners on the one-lane asphalt, I wondered about what other mysteries have been totally forgotten, buried by time under the canyon walls of the Morača. After a short while, I stumbled into the hostel and pulled out my camera, showing the owner pictures of the jaw. I asked her if we should contact the police. She laughed, saying “sometimes, there are just things that we need to let go of.” I thought about her words for a few minutes, looking out of the bedroom window as rain drops once again sang a mellow song against the glass. What a shame that it was already pitch dark. I should have gone back to ask Bellona if she’d seen anything.

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