A day with Macedonian archaeology – Demir Kapija

The development of the settlements and fortresses on the entrance of the Demir Kapija gorge

The geography of the Balkan Peninsula is comprised of many river valleys, ravines, uplands and passages with a great number of land routes passing through the region. One of the most important land routes traced form prehistoric times was the Transbalkanic route that leads through the valleys of the rivers Vardar and Morava. The valleys of these two rivers are spreading though the Dinaric region and they represent the shortest longitudinal land route that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Pannonian lowland. A great number of peoples with their conquests have passed through this route in the past. The importance of this section of the road can be confirmed even today with the recent migrations form the Middle East to Europe, it was chosen as the most favorable and shortest possible route by the migrants traveling to their final destination in Central Europe.

In Tabula Peutingeriana a map compiled in the 4th century AD, we can see the exact track of this section of the road. On the map, this section is marked as Via a Hammeo Usquae Ad Thessalonicam. In large part the section moves along the valley of the river Vardar. On the map the road station Stenas is located 33 Roman miles south-east from Stobi and 65 Roman miles north-west from Thessaloniki. This station was strategically placed on the entrance of the Demir Kapija gorge. The name Stenas is of Greek origin and its meaning is a strait/gorge. Although the name has changed throughout history and in the 11th century the fortress in the gorge had a Slavic name – Prosek (meaning slit or crack), and latter a Turkish name – Demir Kapu (literally Iron Gate), the same as today, all these names have a tendency to describe the area and the gorge.

This gorge is the last and longest gorge of the river Vardar to its estuary into the Aegean Sea and thus the last and most difficult obstacle on this road. The Demir Kapija gorge is in fact formed in the north by the massif Juručki Kamen, as an extension of the mountain Konečka, and the massif Krastevec from the south, as an extension of the Mariovo-Meglen Mountains (Kožuv). In the area where the massifs Jurički Kamen and Krastavec are closest to each other, a natural gap was formed in the limestone structure where the river Vardar had made its course. The limestone structure here ascends from the river up to 200 meters in height and leaves no possibility for any road communication. The gorge is a natural border between the region of the Middle Povardarie in the north and Lower Povardarie in the south.

Demir Kapija gorge from west

This position allowed the locals to have control of this road section which, in order to pass through the gorge had to climb the steep hills of Mal and Golem Krastavec or to around them. This contributed to the rise of powerful and rich settlements that could afford the luxury of the more civilized and developed south in the beginning of the 6th and 5th century BC. The entrance of the gorge was densely populated from both sides of the river, and according to some opinions with Athenian colonists. This position and the geographical configuration of the gorge itself was limiting the movement from south to north and vice versa and very early had become a border between the Macedonian Kingdom from the South and Paeonia from the North.

In the 4th century BC, for better control of the land routes through the gorge, two powerful fortresses in the opus quadratum technique were built, one of each side of the river. The archaeological findings in these fortresses indicate that they were part of the Macedonian kingdom and they existed in the period from the second half of the 4th century BC until the plundering raids of the Celts that passed through the Vardar valley in 279 BC. The Macedonian kingdom was weakened from the Wars of the Diadochi who fought for years over the rule of Alexander’s empire and could not oppose these, as Aristotle says, best warriors among the peoples.

The theory that the life in the fortress Markova kula – Korešnica has ended with these intrusions is confirmed with the layer of intense burning on the entrance corridor of the fort dated with coins form the time of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. We have the same situation in all pre-Roman settlements on the entrance of the gorge. The settlements at the sites Varnici and Manastir, as well as the necropolis in the area Bolnica-Demir Kapija, which is on the right side of the river, also at the fortresses Ramnište and Krasavec. On the left side beside the fortress Markova Kula we have the settlements in the area of ​​Crkvište, Kamen and the refugium at Markov Grad. The life in all of these settlements has ended in the first half of the 3rd century BC. In fact, there is a similar situation in a number of other sites along the Vardar River, such as the sites of Isar Marvinci in Valandovo, Gloska Čuka and Vardarski Rid near Gevgelija, Nerezi, Brazda, Varvara and Studenicani near Skopje.

After these raids, the settlements and fortresses in Demir Kapia were completely destroyed, and in the next several centuries, almost no traces of life have been confirmed at the entrance of the gorge, but also in the wider region of the Vardar valley. None of the above-mentioned settlements were restored until the Roman conquests and the reestablishment of a stable government. This situation was probably due to the terrible raids of the Celts, but also the long and exhausting three Macedonian-Roman wars, which led to almost complete depopulation of area.

Traces of life in the gorge appear again in the second half of the 2nd century AD. This period of prosperity, stability and road safety allowed a new settlement to rise at the entrance of the gorge, but this time only on the right side where the river Bošava flows into the river Vardar. The archaeological excavations indicate that a settlement built according to the urban schemes of Roman construction existed here from the second half of the 2nd century until the 4th century AD.

This settlement probably developed from the Station Stenas, marked on the Tabula Peutingeriana. This unnamed settlement was flourishing until the second half of the 3rd century when again it experienced the fate of the terrible devastation, this time from the great Gothic raids. During the great crisis in the Empire, the population withdrew to safer locations on the hills on the edge of the gorge, and some of them occupied the fortresses and refugiums that existed here in the past. After the crisis, this unnamed settlement / station Stenas continued to live for a short period with reduced intensity, before completely dying out in the first half of the 4th century, at the expense of the surrounding settlements.

After the previous events, during the 4th century AD and with the strengthening of Thessaloniki as an administrative and capital city of the Diocese of Macedonia, later elevated to the rank of the capital of the prefecture Illiricum, serious efforts were undertaken for the restoration and strengthening of the fortresses and settlements on the entrance of the gorge, and also some new fortresses were built. Taught from the great crises in the recent past, in this period, new fortresses were built hastily, transversely through the gorge, where an “inner limes” was formed that included a system of seven fortresses and one cloister, which completely blocked the passage through the gorge, that is, the transition from the Middle to the Lower Povardarie.

In this construction project, two fortresses and a refugium were built on the left side and four(?) fortresses on the right side of the river Vardar. From the left side, starting from north to south, are the fortresses: Markova Kula and Kula, as well as the refugium Markov Grad all in the vicinity of the village Korešnica. The line of fortifications transversely through the gorge continues on the sites on the right side of the river Vardar. Four fortresses and one barrier wall were recorded here. Starting from north to south, they are: the fortresses of Kula Podstralec, Ramnište and Gorni Krastevec near Demir Kapija and Kaluđerska Čuka, near the village Dren.

Markova Kula

The restored and the newly built fortresses and the refugium on the left side of the river Vardar in the 4th century, as the last defensive line of the passage from Middle to Lower Povardarie, set the foundations for the defensive system of the gorge. These, with certain reparations, modifications and additions, will comprise the defense system throughout the entire 5th and partly in the 6th century.

With the Avaro-Slavic incursions the refugium Markov Grad, although high on the mountain was the first on the line, and was not safe enough. That is why during the time of Justinian I a new refugium was built on the site Kale-Strezov Grad in the village Čelevec, secluded and well hidden in the gorge and separated from Juručki Kamen by the deep canyon of the river Čelevečka. This refugium was well protected from the incursions from the north and was more successful in the defense. In a short while the refugium grew into a fortress with a suburb and a separated acropolis. At the entrance of the fortress an early Christian church was built with an adjacent necropolis. During this period the fortresses on the sites Markova Kula and Kula-Korešnica served as a defensive line of the main fortress on the site Strezov Grad- village Čelevec.

Sterzov Grad

While the center of gravity in 6th century falls on the fortresses on the left side of the river Vardar, the fortresses on the right side offer no evidence of activity after the 4th century. The movable archaeological material from all these archaeological sites that was collected and processed so far, gives us no indication that the fortresses were used throughout the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages only the area of the site Crkvište-Demir Kapija was active, where an early Christian basilica was built in the late 4th-5th century and where there are still some traces of life until the 15th century.

From the end of the 6th until the 12th century there were no traces of activity in these fortresses and the refugium. Only in the fortress of Kale – Strezov Grad, after the last findings from the 6th century, traces of life in the 10th century were documented, with two coins of the Byzantine emperor Romanos Lekapenos. Unlike the fortresses, on the plain east of the gorge, on the left side of the river Vardar, small settlements appear on the river  terraces, with necropolises which date to the 11th and 12th century. In the middle of the 12th century these necropolises were no longer used for burial, and at the same time the activity of the fortresses on the left side of Vardar increased. This situation was also documented in the written sources from the end of the 12th-13th century and it was due to the great political, financial and military crisis that this area fell into in the 12th century, when it was under the Byzantium rule.

This was also confirmed with the archaeological material, primarily from the fortress of Kale-Strezov Grad, but also from Markova Kula, Kula and Markov Grad. The recorded archaeological material speaks of their intense activity toward the end of 12th and 13th century.

According to the data we have for the existence of the fortresses and settlements in the gorge, the activity in the fortresses was significantly increased during the turbulent periods. Such is the case at the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd century BC, the second half of the 3rd and the first half of the 4th century AD, which also continued in the 5th and especially in the 6th century AD. Lastly, the fortresses were again in function in the late 12th and 13th century, and few of them remained active until the 15th century. The placement of the fortresses and their orientation towards the Middle Povardarie opposite, the area in the gorge, indicates that they were intended for protection against the danger that comes from the west, i.e. the north. Such increased activity in these periods points to the significance of the gorge and the fortresses built at the entrance for control and safety of the roads and the passage to Lower Povardarie.

Ordance Petrov, MA, assistant-researcher

Institute for Old Slavic culture