The developmet of Salona was so rapid in 3rd and 4th Centuries that we can’t compare it with other Roman towns that were characterised by rational street grid structure. We know very little about the oldest part of the town, Urbs Quadrata or Urbs Vetus. It was enclosed by the walls, with Cardo and Decumanus streets making the usual Roman streets cross, with Forum as the center of the town. Close to the forum town Theatre was built and its remains are still visible.
Later in its development the town got its wide Eastern (Urbs Orientalis) and Western (Urbs Occidentalis) extensions encircled by wider walls. Big Amphitheatre was built in the western parts of the walls, while large Christian complex was built in Eastern part of the town.
Three Early Christian cemeteries outside the city walls – Manastirine, Marusinac and Kapljuc, are among the best preserved in the World, and are still a valuable source for researchers of these structures, cults of Christian Martyrs and cemeterial basilicas that were built here.
The perimeter of wider Salona measured around 1600 metres in its longest East-West and about 700 metres in its widest North-South axis. The total area surrounded by the walls measures about 72 hectares.
Salona (the word is the root of Croatian name of Solin) was the most important Roman town on the Eastern Adriatic coast, capital of Roman province of Dalmatia. Town was originally Illiryan harbour with strong Greek influence, and was conquered by Romans in the 1st Century BC. Colonia Martia Iulia Salonae was official name of the Roman Colony - originally military centre quickly became cultural, pollitical and commercial centre of the province.
According to some researchers, Salona had around 20,000 inhabitants in its peak of development in 3rd and 4th Centuries AD, the surrounding region counting between 40,000 and 60,000. Roman Emperor Diocletian was born here and it was probably the reason why he built his palace in nearby bay that later became the center of town of Split. The last centuries of Salona were specific in terms of rapid development of Christian community, while Salona’s bishop became the Metropolit of the whole province of Dalmatia.
Salona was destroyed by Avars and Slavs in 614. This year still marks the End of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages in Croatia.
Later developments of center of Croatian kingdom in Solin happened outside the perimeter of the ancient town of Salona. Inhabitants of Salona fled to Diocletian’s Palace and ruins of Salona remained intact under the layers of earth and sand brought by local rivers and streams.
Unlike other Roman towns on the Adriatic that were transformed during the centuries (Zadar, Porec, Pula, …) Salona remained relatively intact by later developments.
Priest Asterius and five soldiers of the Emperor’s Guards – Telius, Antiochianus, Gaianus and Paulinianus were killed in gladiator fights in the nearby amphitheatre in 4th Century and later buried in one of the nearby cemeteries. They started to be worshipped as martyrs and at the cemetery in Kapljuc the cemeterial basilica "of Five Martyrs" was soon built.
Kapljuc is one of the early Christian cemeteries in Salona where cemeterial basilicas were built at the place of worship of the martyrs. It was the way the Church was channeling the worship that sometimes had elements of pagan elements – when they saw that they can’t beat people making ceremonies in such places they decided to build huge cemeterial basilicas and controll the ceremonies turning them into ordinary church prayers and services.
Even if you’re not one of those who are very interested in historic stories, old stones and archaeological presentations, Salona archaeological park still offers excellent views and nice ambients amidst modern Solin and frantic post-industrial area of northern parts of Split metropolitan area.
It is always nice to walk on the paths of the park, and it’s still easily possible to escape from the noise of highways that pass on the edges and to find secluded parts where you can enjoy the scenery and contemplate in total peace.
This is the notice to both non-lovers and lovers of the archaeology. Non lovers: don’t be annoyed by the quantity of “stones”. Lovers: don’t just run from one stone remains to the other with the guidebook in your hands. Take your time to relax and sail somewhere in your minds – either to the past or to the future. And enjoy the present.
Gladiator fights were the big spectacle for citizens of Salona and supposedly up to 18,000 of them could enjoy these spectacular fights between men and animals in the amphitheatre of Salona. It was built inside the Northwestern town walls in 2nd Century AD, at the times when Salona was at one of its peaks of development.
The Amphitheatre had three storeys on its southern side and only one on the northern side since the builders used the difference in levels of the ground. On its eastern side so called Porta Pompae, triumph gates, are still well visible. It was the place where gladiators would enter the arena before the fights.
River Jadro makes many branches in its lower flow and The Island of our Lady is the biggest and most important of them, having lots of symbolic significance even on the national level.
According to many archaeologists, including the Danish Einar Dyggve who did a lot of research in Salona, The Island of Our Lady was the first place of settlement of Croatian tribes when they arrived to these areas in the 7th Century. It was also the place where they came to contact with Christian religion and adopted it as their religion.
On the northern side from today’s church of Our Lady of the Island there was another church, whose remains were found at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was the church of St. Stephen’s, that was used as some sort of the Mausoleum of early Croatian kings.
It was here where the famous sarcophagus of Queen Jelena was found, saying:
Here Lies the Glorious Jelena, the wife to the King Mihajlo and the mother to King Stjepan, and she reigned the Kingdom and died in piece on 8th October, buried here in the year 976 (…).
This inscription is very important in national history since it connects two kings and is the only mention of them and of the period they ruled.
The copy of the sarcophagus is now in the new Church of Our Lady of the Island (crkva Gospe od Otoka).
In the first centuries of Christianity as the new official religion not only children were baptised but rather older people that converted to it. The significance of this process can be seen in a large complex situated north from the Basilica Urbana that consisted of Catechumenon (hall for religious education), Baptistry and the Confirmation hall. The process of “entering” the new religion was usually led by bishop himself at Easter times.
Baptistry is an octagonal building with central well, surrounded by rich marble columns that were specially imported from one foreign workshop for such an important building.
In the 4th century, when Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, churches started to be built in Roman towns and Salona was no exception. Large Church centre was built in North-western corner of Eastern urban extension, probably at the place where Christians used to gather illegally in some private home during the earlier times.
Being a new religion, there were many people that wanted (and had) to be converted to Christianity. The church complex in Salona is an interesting example of the new role Church was getting, consisting of two large churches – Town Basilica (Basilica Urbana) and a younger Honorius Basilica. They were connected by a single corridor on western side that also led to Baptistery and a place for the Confirmation.
Both ceremonies were usually performed at the time of Easter when procession would first go to the Baptisterium, then to the Confirmation room which had direct link to the Basilica Urbana where new members of the religion would attend the Mass for the first time.
Porta Caesarea (The Imperial Gates) were the oldest and the biggest gates leading to the old part of Salona (Urbs vetus) from the east. They remained rather intact even after the eastern extension of the town, probably because – like the eastern wall – they had an important role in town’s water supply system.
There’s a central passage for carriages (pay attention to the still visible tracks in old stone pavements!) and passenger passages on both sides. The gates were guarded by two monumental octagonal towers whose basis are still visible, especially if you climb up the walls.
The famous emblem of the town, Tyche with inscriptions “Martia Iulia Valeria Salonae Felix” was found here. Porta Caesarea are the best preserved town gates of Salona.
Locals often refer to Salona as to Croatian Pompeii, and although the comparision might seem a little bit exaggerated it is true that this is the best preserved archaeological site of Roman towns in Croatia. Mainly due to the fact that town was destroyed (not by the natural cause, like Pompeii, but by Avarian and Slavic tribes in 614 AD) and abandoned. Later urban developments happenned outside the perimeters of Salona’s walls leaving it covered with layers of earth and sand.
Archaeological excavations started in 18th Century, while the biggest research was done in late 19th and early 20th Century. Important buildings - like Theatre, Amphitheatre, main Basilicas etc are conservated, preserved and presented to the public while many others were researched and again covered with earth, waiting for some better times with more money for their conservation and presentation.
Large portions of town are still uncovered, and hide many secrets under fields of figs trees, vineyards and other agricultural land. Lots of tourist pass the Adriatic highway that was built above Salona in 1980s without even noticing that a large Roman town once stood here.
Even if you're not one of those who are interested in historic stories and old stones the Island of Our Lady is worth visiting. It is the center of new urban park that was created along the central flow of Jadro river. With many branches of Jadro around you, this space offers possibilites for walks, sitting or children play.
Religious ceremonies are occasionaly held here, especially on the occasion of the celebration of Our Lady. It was here where the Pope met with the youth of Croatia during his visit in 1998.
The space is rather bare since archaeologists have lots of expectations and no money for the excavations which means that nothing is alowed to be built (or even planted) here untill detailed research is done.
In front of the Church of Our Lady of the Island there’s a natural well called Our Lady’s Well. It was the place that always had fresh water, and the place where sellers would fill their tanks in the 17th and 18th Century and selling it in Split that had no water supply system at that time.
Local custom says that you should make a wish and throw a coin inside over your shoulder. Always worth trying – can’t hurt :-)
The second church on the island, close to St. Stephen’s, is mentioned in scriptures dating from 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, and if you go to the National Library in Zagreb you’ll find one shelf full of discussions amongst the researchers whether there was another church, and if the was, where it was situated on this small island. Solin still keeps many secrets underneath…
But is is not secret that there was an old church of Our Lady build in the 17th century that burned down in 1875. Today’s church of Our Lady of the Island (crkva Gospe od Otoka) was built in 1880 which makes it almost new compared to centuries of urban development below.
Worth seeing inside are the copy of the Sarcophagus of Queen Jelena, altar painting by Zasso from the late 19th Century and many fragments from Salona that are used as altar, preaching point and the baptistry basin.
On the eastern corner of ancient Salona an unusual church was built in Justinian times in the first half of 6th Century. The church had a central plan, characteristic for that time and was attributed to Our Lady, which was taken by Croats later and the worship of Madonna still holds a special place in Croatia and especially in Solin.
In 16th Century a fortress was built around the church in order to defense the area from the Ottomans. The fortress is situated on the shores of river Jadro, and although with strong walls it was conquered by Ottomans like the rest of the area.
At this time the church was probably turned into a mosque. The popular legend says that legendary Mihri Mah, wife of the Ottoman ruler of Solin, was buried here and appears from time to time. Most of the people of Solin aren’t afraid of her ghost picture and in the summer nights enjoy in open air performances staged within the fortress of Gradina.
The history of Roman city of Salona brutally ended in the 7th Century when it was destroyed by Avar and Slavic tribes. Salona was never reconstructed, but Croatian tribes that soon arrived settled themselves in the proximity of destroyed Roman town.
From now on we can speak of Solin, which holds an important place in national history and, according to some historians, was the place of the first settlemet of Croats and the place where they received Christianity as their religion.
The Church of Ss. Peter and Moses, better known as the “Hollow Church” stands near the river Jadro on the northern part of today’s centre of Solin. From what is known so far, this is the largest Early Romanesque church built by Croats in the 11th Century. It had three naves and a monumental “Westwerk”.
It was in this church where Croatian King Zvonimir was corronated in 1075. The sculpture that was found in the Hollow Church shows this occasion by showing Zvonimir as the largest figure with royal insignia. Today, this sculpture stands in St. John’s baptistery (Jupiter’s temple) in Split.