Uncovering the centuries in Split

Venture beyond the Roman highlights to discover one of Croatia’s oldest Jewish communities


I'm exploring the cavernous empty space under the city streets of Split, its walls white bare and unadorned, when — to my surprise — I stumble across an outline of a menorah, scratched into the stone blocks supporting the huge weight of what was once Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace above.

There are a few more to find, evidence of the early presence of Jews in the city, who used these eastern vaults as a place of worship.

Like many visitors to Croatia, I’ve never stayed in Split, just passed through on the way to the country’s lovely islands, but of course that’s been my mistake.

After all, it’s Croatia’s second city and of great historical importance, having grown out of a Roman palace built by Emperor Diocletian in 295CE.

It was meant as his retirement home, but he died not long after he moved in. Other Roman rulers used it over the years afterwards, but in the 7th century, people fleeing from nearby Salona, including Jews, sought protection behind its massive walls.

They never left. Now, packed inside its narrow streets are more than 200 buildings including churches, chapels, cafés and restaurants, while the palace’s southern wall became Split’s attractive seafront Riva, lined with palm trees.

Here, the Bronze Gate is the main entrance and this gives access to the vaulted palace basement where goods were stored. These days it’s a huge empty space exactly mirroring the imperial living quarters that stood above.

In the 5th century, Christians destroyed the Emperor’s sarcophagus and converted his tomb into the octagonal Cathedral of Saint Domnius.

It’s named after one of Diocletian’s Christian martyrs and still preserves its original Roman dimensions. The Temple of Jupiter became the cathedral’s baptistry and retains the barrel-vaulted ceiling and decorative frieze of the original building, although a bronze John the Baptist has replaced the statue of Jupiter.

The city’s earliest Jewish inhabitants constructed a synagogue in the southern part of the palace and, until the 16th century, that part of the city was known simply as Synagogue. It was destroyed by a fire in 1507, but a replacement was built into the western wall of the palace a few years later by Jews escaping the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.

Spanning the second floor of two medieval houses, it has been recently restored and is the world’s second-oldest Sephardic synagogue still functioning (the oldest one is in Dubrovnik).

In 1573, a Jewish cemetery was approved and built on Marjan Hill, which overlooks the city. It contains around 700 tombstones, some with Sephardic script and more recent ones in Italian. The last graves date from the start of the Second World War. The cemetery entrance is located beside a house that once functioned as a mikve, transformed today into a café.

These days the Jewish community numbers around 100 people and although the synagogue does not have a permanent rabbi, religious and social events are held regularly.

It seems that wherever you turn in Split, you’re confronted with history — not only its Jewish past but the chance to discover other chapters from a past spanning over two millennia.

You can easily spend a few days wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere and visiting the city’s many cafés, bars and restaurants. At every turn you’re faced with fragments of antique architecture, rescued and repurposed.

But it’s also worth venturing out in the surrounding area. High on a rocky outcrop at 360 metres up, around seven miles north-east of the city, Klis Fortress has guarded the Dalmatian frontier for more than 2,000 years.

Built by the ancient Illyrian Dalmatae tribe, it was taken over and enlarged by the Romans. After the fall of the empire it became a royal castle, seat of many Croatian kings, before passing between Ottomans, Venetians and finally Austrians — then, most recently, becoming a location for Game of Thrones, where it was used to depict the fictional city of Meereen.

Cobbled walkways lead you up to the defensive positions, where there are glorious views over to the sea and the countryside behind. One remnant of the Turkish occupation is the mosque, topped by a dome, which is now a Catholic church. Inside is a small museum, with displays of arms and uniforms, and a display detailing the history of the castle.

The extensive ruins of Salona are scattered on a hillside below. Originally a Greek settlement, it was occupied by the Romans in 78BCE and they made it their capital of Dalmatia.

It grew to become the fourth-largest city in the Roman Empire with a population of around 60,000. Churches were built here, after Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity, but in 614CE it was attacked by Slavs and Avars and gradually abandoned.

Numerous archaeological finds testify to the Jewish presence in Salona, including a Jewish pendant, ceramic oil lamps and a fragment of a Jewish sarcophagus now displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Split.

Further excavations also suggest the existence of a synagogue dating back to the time of Diocletian, but it’s a sprawling site and only a fraction has so far been excavated.

You can still walk on sections of the old city above the field and olive groves, with highlights including Manastirine, a necropolis for Christian martyrs, clustered around the ruins of a 5th-century basilica, the public baths and an aqueduct. There’s also an amphitheatre, built in the 2nd century to seat 60,000 spectators.

Around 17 miles from Split, along the coast near the airport, is the Unesco World Heritage-listed, perfectly preserved medieval town of Trogir. Originally founded by the Greeks in the 3rd century BCE, it was taken over by the Romans but flourished under Venetian rule. It sits on an oval island, surrounded by water on all sides, which allowed it to maintain a degree of autonomy over the centuries.

The best way of getting here is by a short boat ride from Split itself. Inside the walls, a labyrinth of cobbled alleys, crammed with palaces, leads to a central square dominated by the Cathedral of St Lawrence.

It was built between the 13th and 15th centuries and it’s well worth climbing the bell tower to get an overview of the old town. Opposite is the 15th-century town hall, complete with clock tower and classical columns.

If you fancy more island hopping, Hvar is only an hour from Split by fast ferry too. The island’s capital is one of the most glamorous of the Adriatic’s historic towns: these days luxury yachts disgorge the rich and famous, although in medieval times, it was a refuge for pirates until the Venetians took it over in 1240.

The historic centre is pedestrianised with a long promenade winding around the sea front, while above the town sits the Venetian fortress, gazing out over the ancient stone houses around the marina and to the Pakleni islands beyond.

Stari Grad, the original capital on the north coast, is an unassuming little place and often overlooked but it’s one of Croatia’s oldest towns, dating back to around 385 BCE when it started out as a Greek colony called Faros. With its low stone houses clustered around small squares, it’s here that you’ll find an authentic taste of local life.

And while the Greeks, Romans, Turks, Venetians and Austrians are long since gone, it’s not hard to understand why so many have coveted this lovely corner of Europe over the millennia — and why you should follow in their footsteps.

Getting There

Flights from Heathrow to Split cost from around £180 with Croatia Airlines.

For more information about the city and places to stay, go to

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