Osijek - Essek - Mursa 

My hometown for more than 74 years

My hometown Osijek accepted his "3 times lost son" during my book's promotion in June 1999. On April 13, 1945 I left Osijek serving as officer in the Croatian Army that had to withdraw under pressure of Marshal Tito's Armies. For the 1st time I believed that I would not be able to return home and my hometown had died in me forever. Miraculously I had returned weakened physically and broken in spirit on June 2nd as a POW. Some years later in November of 1961 I've said goodbye to my parents the 2nd time again accompanied by my wife and daughter (7) we left for Khartoum (Sudan). We had to "burn all bridges behind us" in order to be able to immigrate to Australia.

Then 3 years later I've joined a private company for which I'd set up a design office in Salzburg early 1967. As from 1968 we're visiting our families in Yugoslavia combining them with holidays on the Adriatic Sea. Our last visit to island Hvar was in 1986 after that we decided not to visit Yugoslavia anymore. The political situation was continuously worsening in Yugoslavia after the collapse of the "Iron Curtain" late 1989. We rushed by car from Salzburg to Osijek and drove my mother in her wheelchair to Zagreb on April 20th. A few day's later my mother and sister flew from Zagreb to Split and proceeded to Hvar. The aggression against Croatia started soon after and I never saw mother alive again. She died in July 1992 exiled on an island under siege. I invariably believed that the 3rd time would be the last one in my life leaving Osijek for good and forever. 

Arial view NW on Osijek Upper Town with parish church of St. Paul & Peter.

Now let me try to recapitulate the complex history of Osijek in briefly. You may like to know where my hometown is geographically located. 0SIJEK is the biggest most important town of East Croatia and situated on a raised plateau along River Drava's right bank. City's coordinates are N 45 32' and E 18 44' at 90 m ASL and its center is about 22 km from the confluence of Drava and Danube. Osijek has a geographical and topographic regional position with a long and complex history important for the town's and its districts prosperity and the development of its wider environments too. Each historical period left on Osijek special characteristics as an important strategic center of communication at crossways of continental and water routes. The town was several times destroyed and reconstructed during its over thousand years recorded past of which I'll present a little cross section. 


The wider region of Osijek was inhabited even in the early Neolithic age. Archeological artifacts of incrusted pottery belonging to Vucedol culture and objects of bronze from ancient and earlier Iron Age proving continuity of human presence in this region. The Illyrians, members of Breuta tribe, were the first known inhabitants. In the 3rd century BC, after the invasion and migration of the Celts, a larger Illyrian-Celtic settlement was founded. This Illyrian-Celtic symbiosis developed with neighboring colonies and tribes using natural and water routes for exchange of goods. Discoveries of flinty opsydian and amber grains prove exchange with distant parts of Middle and Southern Europe since Neolithic age. At the end of the 1st century BC during Augustus' ruling Romans had conquered almost the whole Pannonia. Romans established a township named MURSA west of the Illyrian-Celtic settlement at beginning of the 1st century. Town of Mursa was built on foursquare basis and fortified with walls like any of Roman military fortifications and its location was probably at present Osijek Lower Town. In 133 AC during Hadrian's rule Mursa received the status of a specially privileged town of Roman Empire (Colonia Aelia Mursa). Thus Mursa became the seat of the Governor of Lower Pannonia and for a short time the seat of the Prefect of Danube Navy. Next to the town Romans built a bridge of fire-burned bricks (2 by 1 by 0.5-foot size) over river Drava. The bridge had a strategic importance for the defense of Empire's borders and linked East and West Pannonia.

Roman gold coins from 1st to 4th century AD kept in Osijek Historical Museum. 

Mursa owned much to its location on river Drava with several channels through swamps in present Baranja (north of Mursa was the old Drava riverbed linking it to Danube). There was a junction of six roads linking east and west with a wide surrounding of Pannonia flats as well with other towns along the Limes. Romans built a solid road through vast swamps in Baranja facilitating better communication and trading with the province of Upper Pannonia.

Interlude: In summer of 1940 Drava had a rather low water table. A young museum custodian went with few of us to the hidden entrance of a tunnel, which led under Drava's riverbed. The entrance was few hundred meter upriver from present the Water Tower of Tvrdja (= Citadel) in Osijek. We wadded carefully into a rather wide brick lined channel carrying carbide lamps and torches to light up the total darkness. At the beginning there was mud ankle deep. It was very damp inside. We found several fire-clay oil lamps "fibulae" and shreds of artifact that one couldn't recognize properly. Our progress slowed down as the mud layer became higher and as water started seeping through tunnel's ceiling. After a while our guide saw a mud wall that wouldn't allow further penetration. We had to turn back and took measurements of how deep we wadded into the Roman built channel under Drava. Our leader was rather happy about the collected artifacts and the length of penetration that to about the middle of riverbed. One can see very many "fibulae" at the museum of Osijek today. Most probably there some we collected in that summer of 1940.

Bronze fibula used as a lamp from 1st to 4th century. Bronze horse figurine from 1st to 4th century.

Christianity came to Mursa about the beginning of the 2nd century and the town became the seat of bishop's Diocese soon after. When the Aryans appeared in Srijem Pannonia (Pannonia Sirmiensis) Mursa became their important center and Bishop Valens a devoted supporter of and their utmost defender on the Imperial Synods. As early of 3rd century Roman Sever's dynasty constructed public buildings and temples that were adorned with statues. There existed some public baths and an amphitheater and palaces of rich noblemen in Mursa too. After Hadrian's rule Mursa became a battlefield where many bloody battles were fought which were crucial for the entire Roman Empire. In 350 AC Vetranius, an old-aged commander of Illyrian legions, installed himself as a counter-emperor in Mursa. A year later Emperor Costantius led a bloody battle against his opponent Magnus Magnetius before city's walls. Historical sources mention Mursa in year 360 for the last time probably the same year Stilihon left Pannonia Valeria. The Romans destroyed the bridge on Drava because of migrations and attacks of Vizi-Goths and other tribes. River Drava became the Empire's outer border in Pannonia and Mursa's fortification helped keeping intruders away. Mursa's last recollection came from the year 591. From the early 5th century Goths started devastating Mursa settlement to be followed by Huns, Avars and Slavs who destroyed it completely.


The Peoples' Great Migration finished by the end of 7th century when Avars and Slavs of Croat tribe inhabited this region. Croats founded a simple settlement west of Roman Mursa near Drava. However by year 796 the Franks conquered these lands after which the Avar-Slavic State collapsed. A Bulgarian tribe drove out the Franks and occupied whole of Slavonia by 827 for short while. That settlement disappeared during the wars when the Hungarians migrated here by end of 9th century. In the10th century Croats renewed the settlement probably naming it OSIJEK. It was located upriver of the present day Citadel and westwards of the remains of lost Roman Mursa. The Slavic settlement's name was mentioned for the first time in 1196 as "forum ac portus Ezeek" in a document of the Croatian-Hungarian King Emerik . It was a market town that had a harbor in possession of the Cistercian Abbey Cikador (near Bata-Szek in Hungary) and a crossing over Drava.


In the 14th century Osijek had three feudal masters: Cikador Abbey, the Counts Korogi and Gillermus who was the provost of the church in Titel. Korogi family was involved  a century long trial regarding pawn-purchase with Cikador Abbey because of navigation and market taxes, as incomes were rather high at this major crossing between Baranja and Slavonia. Early 15th century Korogis built a castle surrounding their feudal settlement with walls and ditches enlarging the urban area beyond the present-day Citadel's area. Osijek became feudal ruler's seat from which Korogis controled their neighboring estates. Stjepan and Ivan Korogi were the Civil Governors of Macva region along Sava River too. Gaspar Korogi fell in a battle with the Turks in 1472 after that this feudal family died out. 
Afterwards Osijek changed several feudal masters and V1adislav, the King of Hungary and Croatia, resided 1495 in Osijek too.Owing to its geographical position Osijek became the most important center of trade and culture of Slavonia in the Middle Ages. Some young men from Osijek attended Universities in Vienna and Wittenberg between 1460 and 1504. Catholic parish church in Osijek was explicitly mentioned in a tax payers list of 1332 regarding large amounts of church money. One doesn't know much about the Medieval Osijek because all buildings and monuments were destroyed during the Ottoman attacks. However there still exist several royal, aristocratic and clerical documents including a few issued by the town Osijek itself.


Following the battle at Mohacs August 1526 the Turks conquered and partly destroyed Osijek. The Turks recognized town's strategic importance and the restoration began in 1528 when they built a solid fortress. In 1529 Sultan Suleyman Kanuni came to Osijek leading the Ottoman army against Habsburgs in Vienna. Since then almost every Turkish military expedition into Hungary passed through Osijek. Probably since 1529 Osijek became a "Kadiluk", (Kadi's county i.e. oriental civil judge) and temporary seat of Sandjak that was Turkish first military-administrative unit founded in conquered parts of Slavonia. 
Later Osijek became a "Kapetanija" (Captain's county) and "Nahija" (a kind of administrative unit in Ottoman Empire). About 1566 Suleyman II. built the famous bridge over Baranja swamps, which was a road on wooden props leading in curved line from Osijek to village Darda about 8 km far. This facilitated faster economic development of Osijek becoming the most important and probably largest town in Turkish Slavonia. Osijek was divided into three urban units: citadel, town and suburbs. At the widely known markets held tradesman congregated from all parts of the vast Ottoman Empire in times of fairs.

Suleyman's Bridge and Turkish Osijek - 1684 engraving view NW. 

Among most important town's public buildings were Suleyman-Han's Mosque (formerly a church), Kasim-pasha's (1558) and Mustafa- pasha's Mosque (1569), "Mekkema" (courthouse), "Medresa" and "Mekteb" (secondary and primary Moslem schools), Bey's sarai (Bey's court) and "Sahat-kula" (Clock tower). During the Turkish occupation the town was populated by Turks who immigrated after the conquest. In suburbs lived a few dozens of Christian families and a smaller trading colony of the Ragusans. According Evlija Celebija, a travel writer the town consisted of 400 houses and 7 "Mahalas" (watchtowers of the town) where as in suburbs were more than 2000 houses in 1663. The bridge at Osijek was known for a long time as a worldwide wonder and attracted many writers and adventurers from all parts of Europe giving rich inspirations to painters' imagination. In 1664 Nikola Zrinski partly burned this impressive bridge, but the Turks soon restored it.

Plan of Turkish Osijek of 1610.  Engraving of Suleyman's bridge from Osijek to Darda from 17th century. 
After Turks' unsuccessful siege of Vienna of 1683 and their catastrophic defeat at Harkany they left Osijek without a fight September 26, 1687. The Austrian army in ongoing wars destroyed beyond repair this extraordinary bridge. In 1690 Begler-bey Hussein Pasha of Bosnia had tried to reoccupy the town but failed thus ending the existence of Turkish Osijek forever.Personal note: We did not learn in the school anything about the existence of the Turkish Osijek and its bridge through the swamps. We were taught about the existence of a Roman Mursa but at a wrong location though. Neither the Turks nor later the Austrian authorities did leave any parts of Turkish Osijek and its buildings unaltered. The fired clay bricks used as building material for the new fortress mostly came from the old Roman structures like the bridge. These large bricks (size 2ft x 1ft x 0.5ft) could be found everywhere in Osijek Citadel's older buildings even today.


The Austrian authorities reconstructed the Turkish fortress in Osijek temporarily soon after the whole of Slavonia was liberated. The building of a fortress resembling a Dutch fortress of flat type began in August 1712 and was almost completed by 1719. Within its walls the basic urban concept of the former Turkish town was retained. A crown-fort (Kronenwerk) was built on Drava's left bank 1719/21 opposite to the new fortress on the right bank. The new fortress had three gates named "Valpovo" (West), "Water" (North i.e. towards Drava) and "New Gate" (South). In 1783 was opened the fourth one "Imperial Gate" (East) through which a road lead to the Lower Town. The urban construction inside the fortress in Baroque style changing completely the former appearance of an almost oriental town. Builders used as main material salvaged Roman bricks again same way as few ones before. As from 1690 the city administration was being organized. After the Chamber of Estates in Slavonia completed the inventory the Town Osijek was given the City Statute in 1698.

Coat of Arms in Charter of proclaiming Osijek "Royal Borough" in 1809.  St. Trinity Square in Tvrdja with Petrash's Plague Statue 

Some inhabitants of Turkish suburbs started moving westwards of the to-be-build fortress creating the "Upper Town" in 1692. Other moved eastwards down river and founded the "Lower Town" in 1698. At first the Upper Town and the Fortress were one administrative unit. In 1702 the Upper Town obtained a separate parish administration. Osijek was then divided into three separate administrative units: Upper Town, Fortress or Citadel and Lower Town. From 1735 to 1783 Osijek was the seat of the Austrian Army Chief Commander for whole of Slavonia and from 1737 to 1745 the Seat of Country Administration for Slavonia. In 1745 Osijek became the government's seat of restored Virovitica District, which remained so until this District was abolished in 1922(!). 

View of Tvrdja western part in the Osijek Citadel. View of Tvrdja eastern part in the Osijek Citadel.

For many years the three urban units of Osijek were developing quite separately only to be incorporated into one City parish in December 1786. This partition made strong impact for the town that is still felt up today. In 1792 German colonists started to inhabit thetown's southern territory where another district developed know as the "New Town" now-a-days. Many calamities struck Osijek and its inhabitants of which the epidemic of plague was the hardest. The widow of General Petrash donated funds to erect a Plague Statue at the center of Citadel's quadrangular main square. It is a lasting memento of devastations caused by the plague. This statue is one of most beautiful Baroque monuments in Osijek now. 


By the end of 18th century Osijek has become the military, political, administrative, economic and cultural center of Slavonia. The Imperial Chamber and the Army were a heavy burden for Osijek so citizens wanted to free themselves from their direct influence. Finally Osijek gained its freedom when it was proclaimed a free and royal town, a "Royal Borough",  in 1809. The Upper Town had obtained the privilege for two fairs a year in 1712 already. Later Empress Maria Theresia ratified annual fairs on St. George's and St. Elias' Day too to be held in the Citadel for 3 days as from 1747. The visiting tradesmen were coming from Hungary, Bosnia, Carinthia, Styria and other regions of the Monarchy.

General plan of Osijek Town as per 1893. 

The real impetus to Osijek's economic development came when a solid road over Baranja swamps was constructed after several interventions of King Joseph II. It became an important link between Middle and Western Europe that was cut of for about a century after the destruction of Suleyman's bridge. Regular mail services were established from Osijek via Budapest to Vienna soon thereafter. Silk manufacturing started in Osijek in 1774 and it remained Monarchy's center of sericulture until 1850. The economic progress improved with the setting up the Trade & Craft Chamber for Slavonia in 1853. New banks, trade and crafts enterprises were incorporated and permanent backwater navigation started on Drava too. The town was firmly connected to its rich agricultural surroundings particularly with the arrival of first railways in 1869 as parts of Alfoeld's Line Subotica - Dalj - Osijek and Osijek - Villany. 

The local railways of Slavonia opened to traffic the line Osijek ­ Nasice - Kapela in 1884. Soon started operating other lines from Osijek to Vrpolje (1905) and Vinkovci (1910) establishing links with Zagreb, Rijeka, Vienna and Belgrade. Town's population counted almost 9.000 inhabitants at the turn of centuries.The horse-drawn streetcar traffic began in 1882 to be replaced by electric streetcar in 1926. Public Telephone Company had 43 subscribers in 1884 already. A Swedish match factory and a brewery started productions in 1856; various enterprises produced agricultural machines (1864) and furniture (1892). Manufacture of leather started (1873), of flax (1901), of sugar 1905, of candy and chocolate products (1907) and brushes (1920), soap produce works opened (1921) etc. The steam and electric mills commenced functioning in 1879 and 1911 respectively, an iron foundry worked since 1912. The electric power plant started operating in 1926 and electric light installations spread throughout the town. Osijek was the largest and industrially most developed town in Croatia in first decades of the 20th century. At first it developed into length as it was squeezed longitudinally between the river and railway lines. 


The spiritual life started early in 18th century with the arrival of Jesuits who made Osijek their headquarter. Jesuits were in charge of the new parish where they established a small church in the Citadel on top of the late mosque foundations. Later they built the two-tiered church of St. Michael on its place. Jesuits founded the first primary school in 1712, then opened another one in the Lower Town (1723) and some years later in Upper Town too. A small secondary grammar school followed (1729) and a bigger one of classic stream opened in 1765. Jesuits' significant spiritual activities had been abruptly stopped by their expulsion in 1773. They would return to Osijek after some 160 years later. 
Concurrently with Jesuits came Franciscans and Capuchins establishing their monasteries in Osijek too. Franciscans instituted first a Secondary school and starting a College of higher education offering studies in philosophy and theology later. Primary and Trade schools opened as well as a Secondary grammar school in 1870. A Teacher training college and a High Commercial school were founded in 1893 and the first Secondary grammar school for girls in 1917 at last. Franciscans opened the first printing house in Slavonia 1735. Almost every book written in Slavonia was printed there. These works of Katancic, Kanizlic, Relkovic, Pavic, Cevapovic, Filipovic, Ivanosic et Al. 

In 1848 appeared the first newspapers in German "Der Volksredner", "Esseker Lokalblatt und Landbote" (1864), "Die Drau" (1868) and "Slavonische Presse" (1885), then in Croatian "Dan" (The Day, 1902), "Narodna obrana" (People's Defence, 1902), "Jug" (The South, 1918), "Hrvatski list" (Croatian Press, 1920), etc. A modern printing house was founded in 1902 facilitating the development of journalism in national language. Musical life in Osijek started with a "Tambura" band in 1847 and some years later a choral society "Lipa" (The Linden, 1876) which is still in existence. A number of famous musicians worked in Osijek: the first Croatian musicologist Franjo Kuhac, world wide renown violin-players Franjo Krezma and Lujo Svecenski, who later became the President of High Music School in Boston. 
Croation National Theater at Osijek in Zupanijska Street. Sculpture by Vanja Radaus of famous musician Franjo Krezma. 
At the beginning of 19th century a drawing-school started to work which latr became a school of Painting Art first of its kind in Croatia. Hugo Conrad Hetzendorf and Adolf Waldinger were their representatives and their works remained constant values in Croatian Arts. In 1877 the City Museum and in 1909 the Croatian Writers' Club were established. The Croatian National Theatre opened in 1907 that was the second permanent theatre in Croatia at that time. 

Epilogue:I remember regular fairs held in empty fields between the Upper Town and the Citadel. City's four parts were still far apart from each other during my childhood time and it took a good hour with the electric streetcar to get from town's West end at Retfala to its East end at Zeleno Polje. The World War I. obstructed further development and progress of Osijek particularly after the disintegration of Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy late 1918. Osijek entered into the new state the Kingdom of Yugoslavia with a remarkable basis in economy and industry, administration and cultural organizations. Further progress was impeded after King's proclamation of dictatorship and the economic crisis of 1930's. In 1931 Osijek township covered an area of 57sq.km and had about 40.000 inhabitants.Osijek it declined steadily in comparisson to other towns' rapid progress in the Croatian Counties in the Kingdom  of Yugoslavia. 

Citadel's northern Water Gate opening to Drava River. Tower next Drava River at Citadel's northwestern corner.

The present day Osijek changed significantly and one shouldn't wonder after the three major seizures in the 20th century. The town's populations changed very much during the past 70 years  and there are few old families still living in Osijek now-a-days. The younger generations cannot speak or even understand the old indigenous "esseker" language at all. Esseker colloquialism used a mix of words from different languages like German, Croatian, Hungarian and Turkish. The population seizures started as from the Kingdom's dictatorial regime to be followed by major losses and migrations caused by 2nd World War (1941/5) aftermath. The particular change came as the result of upheavals during the Home War (1991/5). In 1991 the town had 171sq.km and the population grew to some 104.500 before the Home War started. 

There is one token of my hometown that had not changed yet: the mosquitoes. Just go out through the Citadel's Water Gate near Drava and anybody would meet Osijek' s mosquitoes there for sure! At last, visit Osijek spending a weekend taking a boot from the Winter harbor and go for fishing or swimming on sandbanks of river Drava. Also, do not miss tasting few of local cuisine specialties in one of the many places one really enjoys meals and drinks. Wish you very good times in my hometown!

Early morning view westwards onto Drava River and the winter harbor. Smoke-dried specialties by IMPEX Osijek: ham, bacon, sausages and kulen.

Literature and picture sources: 
1. Ive Mazuran: OSIJEK, Copyright by "Litokarton" Osijek, 1971. 
2. Jasenka Jurasek-Denin: UVIJEK OSIJEK, Izdavacki centar Otvorenog sveucilista Osijek 1992. 
3. Ive Mazuran: SREDNJOVJEKOVNI I TURSKI OSIJEK, HAZU Osijek 1994, ISBN 953-154-040-3. 
4. Dario Topic: OSIJEK I OKOLICA - Posebno izdanje, IV., "OSJECKA RIJEC" Osijek - "RIJEC" d.o.o. Vinkovci 1998.5. CROATIA AIRLINES IN FLIGHT MAGAZINE summer 1999.

DISCLAIMER : On URL: http://www.cosy.sbg.ac.at/~zzspri/ published pages are originals and authorized by copyright of Zvonko Z. Springer, Salzburg 1999.