From Paganism To Catholicism: What A Long Strange Split It’s Been

I’m moving on and soon away from Split. With fewer kilograms to carry on my bike, I’ll feel peppier, more agile, and free. Right? So, F••k the hooligans who stole my things, it’s time to journey on.

But before I motor on, I want to explore one of the most important and surviving Roman-era buildings on the Adriatic coast. Its location on a small peninsula in the busiest harbor on the Dalmatian coast, Split sits on the same meridian as Rome. Plus, securing the fortress would be easier as the western side of the complex would be accessible only from the Adriatic which the Roman’s controlled at the time.

Roman Emperor Diocletian decided this location would be perfect for his retirement home. The fortress took just ten years to build. Completed in 305 AD, it’s constructed from quality limestone from the nearby island Brac, marble from hills surrounding Dubrovnik, and bricks made in a facility not far away in Krka National Park—where even today bricks are still manufactured.

As I approach one of the four the entrances to Diocletian’s Palace, toward a stark and, looming wall called the “Golden Gate,” I realize the limestone barrier around the gate is much cleaner and whiter—more polished—than elsewhere along the fortress. I wonder if they replaced the stones. No, they are original—1,700 years old. Several years ago, after a laborious three-year process which required that they clean the stones with lasers, the limestone regained its original luster. They had to use lasers because limestone is soft. Sandblasting or using any other abrasive material would damage and further soften the stones.

Once entering the Palace, other than that tall white-washed wall, I barely feel as if I’m entering a palace. Though looking closer, I see a few hints, such as five niches under arches in the wall that once housed five statues. Four dedicated to sculptures of Roman emperors while sitting on the fifth was a carving of an eagle—the symbol of the God of Jupiter, harking back to Rome’s pagan era and Diocletian’s believe he was his mortal son.

The entrance would be more spectacular had the two octagonal towers that once flanked the Golden Gate were still there. These may have given the palace a more grand look and feel, but mortar and fire destroyed them in World War II. By the way, the “golden gate” was named not because it was built or gilded in gold, but rather because gold is the most precious of all metals. The Golden Gate was for the exclusive use of the Emperor. The other gates similarly were named after minerals and relative to the purpose of that gate. The military used the silver gate exclusively, the bronze gate on the Adriatic faced Italy, while the Iron gate as used by residents and slaves.

The walled fortress known as the Dietitian Palace is one the best complete Roman edifications in the world. Though the main entrance “Golden Gate” has been laser cleaned, the rest of the walls show the yellowed color of age in the limestone.

Though, as I walk through the Golden Gate, I feel that the shiny marble lined walkway is rather narrow–too narrow—for an emperor known to refer to himself as a deity, a god on earth, and who demanded residents prostrate when in his presence. No,  this emperor would want to be carried down a wide and grand marble-lined walkway. And he was. Peering through the windows of a tony boutique along the now narrow walkway, I notice the same marble stones on the floor. Many enterprising businesses encroached on the grand promenade by building over it. So, out-of-control development along this pathway and elsewhere inside the walls of this palace diminished much of the Palace’s former grandeur.

The Romans were the first to come up with the idea of concrete and use it in construction by mixing ash and sand.

Since 1979 the crazy development ceased when UNESCO designed the entire fortress as a World Heritage site. UNESCO-imposed restrictions require residents and business owners to leave everything alone. One woman, after waiting three years for an internal-renovation permit from UNESCO, she uncovered part of a Roman column in her living room. This transformed her renovation. Her living room is dominated by a fence around the column with a sofa on one side and a table on the other side. She cannot alter or impinge on the column, fence, or even top it with glass.


There will be no fancy garden, fountain, pool, or jacuzzi at this family’s home inside the palace. No, in their yard many Roman artifacts have been found. They must stay put. They cannot be moved or functionally used. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Trendy cafes sit among 1,700-year-old Roman ruins at Diocletian Palace in Split Croatia.

When the palace was under state control during the Yugoslavia years after the second world war, the government gave residential rights to poor people. After the Balkan war in the 1990s when all state-owned property was privatized, the government gave those residents the option to buy the property for about $2,000. It was during this time that the government could have converted the palace into a museum. A museum would be protected and supported by tourist entrance fees and regulated concessions. However, the new government was cash-strapped, and preservation would be costly. So today residents and business owners live among thousand-year ruins and must follow strict rules.

Plenty has changed over the last 1,700 years.

I get a sense that among the mishmash of ruins, antiquities, and tourist traffic, there is more to unearth and learn about in this massive archaeological wonderland. While everyone is milling about and perhaps looking down at the polished marble stones, I look up and notice that on either side of the windows of many of the second and third floors apartments are protruding stones with holes bored through them. A local tour guide tells me that during the sweltering hot summers residents enhanced ventilation by hanging large water-soaked fabrics on poles threaded through these holes. As the breezes of the Adriatic blew down the alleys of the palace, they would hit the drenched fabrics and cool the apartments. A smart and resourceful approach to air-conditioning in medieval times.

Just inside the Silver Gate, outside the what was once Diocletian’s mausoleum, I notice a Sphinx-like marble sculpture. Turns out that of the four emperors ruling over the Roman empire, Diocletian ruled over the Southeastern part of the territory that included Egypt. Marveled and fascinated by Egyptian Pharaohs, Diocletian saw himself as a Pharaoh and had twelve of these Sphinx sculptures shipped from Egypt so, like the grand pyramids of Giza where the Sphinx protects the Pharaoh’s tomb, Diocletian set these to protect his octagonal mausoleum. Today only one Sphinx remains.

No, I’m not in Egypt, but the Roman emperor Diocletian fancied himself a Pharoah and a king on earth, so he had a dozen Sphinx shipped from Egypt to Split in Croatia to guard his mausoleum.

At the time, Christianity was yet to be an official religion. Seeing himself as a god, a son of Jupiter, Diocletian had a distaste for Christians—Catholics. Not because of faith or religion, but because they didn’t follow the rules. They refused to bow to him during the daily prostration held in the Royal Square outside the mausoleum. This insulted the emperor. So he made life hard for the Christians by levying higher taxes, trotting and ultimately killing some 20,000 of them.

Diocletian, in the act of defiance to the Christians, hung the Patron Saint of Split, Saint Domnius and threw his body into the Adriatic. Centuries later the Diocletian’s endless persecutions, the Christians took revenge by converting his mausoleum into a cathedral, renaming after his victims Saint Domnius, and tossing his sarcophagus into the Adriatic. They have never found it.

I walk around the corner and into a courtyard which once marked the entrance from the Royal part of the city to the residential section. This is also where visitors were greeted when invited to the palace.

The circular courtyard, the vestibule, sits below a tall domed ceiling. This ceiling above it, once tiled in beautiful mosaic, has a large circular opening to the sky. It’s much like the ceiling in the Pantheon in Rome. Looking up through it, I get a glimpse of the Saint Domnius gothic-style bell tower. Not from the original palace, they added the belltower to the cathedral in the 14th century. It collapsed centuries later, and in 1908 they rebuilt it.

Above and through the opening in the domed ceiling of the vestibule in Diocletian’s palace I see the 13th-century Gothic tower that now dominates the sky above the palace and Saint Dominus cathedral.

I want to climb the tower, wander the crypt, and explore what the oldest Catholic and only octagonal cathedral in the world is. But I’m still nursing my wounds, and I’m thirsty and hungry.

Tomorrow, it’s the islands. So in an impulsive and irrational requital to Split, I refuse to buy the ticket for entrance to the cathedral and instead find a place to sit, drink, and eat — one way to nurse those wounds.

So I wander to Bokeria, a wine bar, and bistro within the walls of the palace. Here I meet Marco, one of the partners. He pours me some great wine, gives me tips on who to meet as I travel north, and went out of his way to share his time and knowledge and make sure I’m comfortable. Ahhh, you see, it’s coming back.

Goodbye Split. It’s time to go.

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