The city of Dubrovnik, or as it is called in medieval times the city of Ragusa, is a place rich with history. Founded in the VII century by the surviving citizens of the city of Epidaurum (todays Cavtat, Croatia) left the city running from the Avar’s, who later conquered the city. The city kept its constant development and became an important trading center. In 1191 the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195) established a free trade for the merchants from Dubrovnik. Soon after this, Venice took over the city in 1205 and ruled until 1358, when Luis I of Hungary (1342-1392) forced Venice out of Dalmatia. Luis made a deal with Dubrovnik, giving them independence under his nominal rule.

Dubrovnik in the year 1667

This give freedom to Dubrovnik to establish contact with the Ottomans in 1392. In 1397 Ottomans give permission for free trade in the Balkan. This deal was renewed in 1447 and after that finalized in 1458. With this deal Dubrovnik fell under Ottoman protection for a fee of 1500 ducat. The fee grow to 12 500 ducat in 1481 which stayed the same till the end of the relationship with the Ottomans. But this does not mean that the city fell under Ottoman rule, but the city was still independent. The deal they signed together Ahidnâme was same as all the other documents signed with the vassals. So on paper Dubrovnik was a vassal state of the Ottomans, but this was not the situation in reality. Not only that it was self-governing, but also it could sail under it’s own flag, make deals with other countries and take care of its own people inside or outside of the city territory. For the ottomans it was not very clear what exactly were the people of Dubrovnik, and if they were part of dar al-islam  or dar al-harb.

Drawing of the old port in Dubrovnik c. 1500

The skillful diplomacy of Dubrovnik is one the main reasons why it kept its independents all those years, but it is not the only factor. Equally important factor is the form of governance they use. The ottomans always communicate with individuals ( kings, knyaz, emirs) in their foreign policy. Even when they give some privilege to some local powerful people, they are results of the capability of the individual or a certain family. But the Ottomans didn’t have experience or theoretical concept needed for dealing with a oligarchic republic. As long as they tolerated Dubrovnik they had to accept the republic and to communicate with its senate. Not having a ruler or a person in charge stop the ottomans from controlling the internal politics of the city. The fact that all communications were addressed to beys (senators), which was not a care with the nobleman from Transylvania for example or the boyar’s from the Danube principals, tells us that the ottomans were not able to deal with the concept of a collective ruling body.

Another strange thing in the relationship between Dubrovnik and the Ottoman empire is the status of the people of Dubrovnik that stay on Ottoman soil, that does not fit in to the legal structure of the Ottoman Empire. If Dubrovnik was considered independent, then it’s inhabitants should be foreigners and should be allowed only one year on ottoman territory as visitors, on condition that they have permission. If they stayed longer then one year, then they would lose the visitor status and become subjects of the sultan. But if the city was consider to be part of the Ottoman Empire, then all the inhabitants of Dubrovnik no matter where they are would fall under status as Sultans subjects and have all restrictions and obligations that all the people have in the empire. Obviously none of this two alternatives did not allow Dubrovnik to proceed with its trade as effective as the Ottomans needed them. This special status of Dubrovnik was favorable for both sides. This allowed Dubrovnik to make new settlements with special rights in all the important trade centers in Bosnia and Serbia. This settlements enjoyed wide trade privileges and were freed from paying some of the taxes, they obeyed the laws of their city and are almost self-governing. Settlements from Dubrovnik are found in the main trade centers in Bulgaria and even in Buda and Pest.

A merchant from Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is the only vassal state that had consuls in some of the ottomans cities and also maintained contact with the sultan the same way all the other countries did. They send diplomatic representatives with precise orders every year in Istanbul to discuss and solve all the problems and questions that are of common interest.

The only function of an independent state that Dubrovnik can’t do is to defend it self. Though the position of the city is never endangered after 1420, the fact that everyone knew that the city is under protection from ottoman army, made some aggressors think twice before attacking. Even when the city had problem with pirates, it would always turn to Istanbul for help and almost always would get it.

For return of the special status that Dubrovnik had, the Ottoman Empire needed something in return. Ottomans usually asked for some economical favours, used the city to contest Venice in the Adriatic Sea. Also it was the main source for the much needed import of luxury goods. Also the city was used as a window to the west that the ottomans used to gather information’s. Most of the information, even the intelligence information from sources around Europe came from Dubrovnik to Istanbul. On the end, Ottomans played their card smart, and used the position of Dubrovnik maximum. This special status of Dubrovnik stayed until 1806 when it was occupied by French troops.

Written by:

Hristijan Mihajloski

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