There is a timeless desolation – and a desolate timelessness – enshrouding the high plateau of Banije west of Stolac in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Lizards and an occasional curious poskok – horned viper, Vipera ammodytes – are pretty much the only creatures that enjoy this place, scattered thorny shrubs and feral pomegranate trees fight for their life over the stony karst terrain. There is a profound feel of nothing when one stands above the precipitous drop into the dry valley of Radimlja – yet a couple of thousand years ago all this desolation was everything but …
Some histories are well known, and some remain fragmented, unclear; a bunch of tantalising glimpses of an archaeological find here, a crumbling wall there, an almost illegible report of a report of a long lost memoir scribbled on a small piece of torn parchment.
Such is the case of the ancient peoples of the Balkan peninsula and the eastern Adriatic shores … a fistful of coins, an incomplete war history written by the conquerors, a couple of legends, hastily restored walls – all trying to tell us a magnificent story of their history, but unable to find the words, stammering, trying to speak in languages unknown to us, their tales broken with lacunae and silence …
The obverse of an old bronze coin features a head of a ruler wearing a typical Illyrian headgear, a pileus-style helmet. On the reverse we see a ship and some worn-out Greek letters:
Coins like this one, a brief and one-sided history of the Roman conquest of Illyria, and crumbling yet still magnificent fortifications of a destroyed acropolis of a huge city – that is all. All that remains of the almost-mythical Δαορσών – Daorson, the capital of Daorsi, the Illyrian people living and dying here on Banija plateau over two millennia ago.
Daorson, desolate and timeless.
Daorsi are first attested in the fourth century BC, inhabiting the valley of Neretva and its hinterland. They were soon hellenised – under the influence of Greek colonists of Pharos (Hvar), Korkyra Melaina (Korčula), Apollonia and Epidaurum – that’s why they stylized their capital in Greek letters. The ship motif on their coins tells us they were roaming both the river Neretva and the sea, engaging in trade and piracy (or so their slandering enemies described their endeavours). Fiercely independent they insisted on minting their own currency – even as they were allied with other Illyrians to the southwest in a pseudo-state of Ardiaeia during the reign of king Ballaios. It’s those coins that tell us most of the story of Daorsi today.
Their mortal enemies were another Illyrian nation, the Delmatae, who gave the name to Dalmatia. Daorsi even sided with the expanding Roman republic against them, fighting viciously in all three Illyro-Roman wars (in 229-228 BC, in 220-219 BC, and in 169-167 BC that ended with the destruction of the Ardiaei kingdom and with the Romans occupying Daorson).
The fall of Daorson came about during the last stand of the Delmatae against the Romans in 44 BC … The powerful navy of Daorsi helped proconsul Publius Vatinius attack the Delmatae, who in turn conquered Daorson with a swift overland strike, razing it to the ground. The Romans were ultimately successful: the piracy on the Adriatic was no more – as there were no more Delmatae, or Daorsi, or Daorson … all that was left were these magnificent ruins that still bear witness to the Vae victis! screams (or whatever they sounded in Illyrian language) as if it all happened yesterday, not two millennia ago.
At its peak, Daorson was huge. Some two to three thousand people were living here on the edge of Banija. The Acropolis was built on the site of a Bronze Age hillfort, protected on three sides by sheer cliffs, and by a cyclopean wall facing the plateau. The walls, dating to 4th century BC, were guarding not only the sacred tumulus – a burial site of someone important – and the dwellings of the powerful, but something even more essential: a large cistern, the only source of water on the dry Karst plateau.
The town grew outwards and downwards; Daorsi built their houses outside the acropolis walls and on the terraces carved from the slopes descending towards Radimlja. They planned a town square – agora – and a covered portico, a stoa, where they met and debated. Soon another cistern was needed, filled by the fit young men who walked down to the river and back up (over 200 m of relative elevation!) carrying water in the searing sun.
Between the megalithic wall and the cliffs a foundation and some pieces of a huge statue were found – it depicted the first Greek hero, the pre-herculanean Kadmos, founder of Boeotian Thebes, and his wife Harmonia.
Kadmos is an intriguing Greek legendary character. He was a Phoenician, brother of Europa. After the abduction of his sister (by philandering Zeus, of course) he wandered across the Greek world searching reluctantly for her, visiting Samothrace and Delphi and whatnot, and founding Thebes. As the king of Thebes he married Harmonia, daughter of Hephaestus and Aphrodite, and all the gods attended the wedding, bearing cool gifts – except Hephaestus who for some reason gave a really uncool necklace to his daughter, a necklace that was to bring misfortune to everyone who wore it.
The necklace worked: Thebes were soon embroiled in a civic unrest and Kadmos and Harmonia had to flee. They went north to Illyria, where they founded numerous cities including Daorson (or at least the Daorsi believed that). The legend says that Kadmos and Harmonia turned into snakes (either before or after before they died), and that snakes still guard their tombs. Since poskoki, those ubiquitious and dangerous horned vipers of Banija, still perform their sacred duty around Daorson, maybe the tumulus on the acropolis of Daorson is actually the final resting place of the hero and his harmonious wife!
Maybe the curse of the Necklace of Harmonia (the curse of Hephaestus, for Aphrodite was having an affair with Ares and Harmonia was actually Ares’ daughter!) destroyed Daorson and Daorsi, and brought the utter, timeless desolation upon Banija plateau.
Daorson – what’s left of it – doesn’t get many visitors, and it feels like the dead city doesn’t even want them. The plateau is extremely inhospitable, the walls are silent, the wind – unpredictable and moody.
That’s why our kite aerial photography session was very intense – cursed, even – the kite going berserk, the camera swinging wildly, crashing in the end on the stones of the sacred tumulus, the photos out of focus, blurred, shaken; fragmented, unclear, showing but a few tantalising glimpses of what remains and of what has been lost.
As if the curse of Hephaestus still works to keep Daorson not just destroyed, but forever forgotten.
All kite aerial photos shot with Canon A810 on The Spark rokkaku kite, under the supervision of master Viktor.