The City That Was a Palace

Split (27 – 31 May 2013)

With a name like that, who can ever forget the city? However I was excited to see Split not because of its name. I wanted to see how a city could incorporate an ancient palace into its urban landscape.

Peristyle of Diocletian’s Palace

Restaurants and shops in the palace

Alley inside palace

Palace underground

The palace was actually Diocletian’s retirement home. After the Romans had abandoned it for some time, people started moving in and built their lives within the palace walls. Today, the palace is fully integrated within the old core of the city and if approaching from the west one can be forgiven for not realising that it was a former palace.

Within the palace compound itself is the Cathedral of St Duje. This is quite an irony of the ages to me, not merely because a Christian cathedral is built right within the retirement home of the person who had persecuted Christians mercilessly and that St Duje was martyred during Diocletian’s persecutions, but also because the main structure of the cathedral was formerly Diocletian’s mausoleum. And seemingly to mock the former emperor even more, the relics of some Christians he had martyred are now enshrined in the cathedral while his body is nowhere to be found. Now that was one of the most remarkable things that I had ever laid eyes on!

Cathedral of St Duje

Cathedral altar

One of the masterpieces in the cathedral

Using a mausoleum to build a church will obviously mean that the church will be quite small. The main part of the cathedral is a little octagonal structure and its choir was added to it only in the 17th century. The bell tower was 12th century but extensively rebuilt in the early 20th century.

In the palace itself, west of the peristyle, was a temple dedicated to Jupiter. The little building is now the Baptistery of St John. Again it is ironic that a pagan temple which a Christian persecutor had worshipped in is now a place where new Christians are formerly initiated into the religion.

Temple of Jupiter now the Baptistery of St John

Baptismal font and statue of St John

As was usual with emperors of that era, Diocletian declared himself to be divine. He claimed that he was the son of Jupiter and that is why his mausoleum was placed on the opposite side of the peristyle facing the temple of his alleged divine father.

Diocletian decorated his retirement home with 12 sphinxes he had brought back from Egypt after he had quelled a rebellion over there. He was of course rather hooked on Egyptian culture. Only 3 sphinxes remain now. One is in the city museum, a second now headless one is in front of the baptistery, and the third is outside the cathedral. These sphinxes are now about 3,500 years old and date back to around the time of Thutmose III.

The famous sphinx of Split

The old vestibule was another interesting structure in the palace. This used to serve as the link between the peristyle and the imperial apartments. It is now an empty structure with a round hole in its roof. Baskers would come here to make use of the brilliant acoustics.

Vestibule roof with the cathedral bell tower peeking in

Home in Split was an apartment at the main square itself. It was right in the thick of the action but yet a few steps away from the noise and crowd. The apartment was a large 2-floor affair and furnished to please. The entrance door opens into the lower floor with the bedrooms and bathroom. The living room and kitchen are in the upper floor and a balcony can be accessed from the living room. I can definitely live in such a place long term except I doubt that rent would be affordable.

I learnt later on a city tour that apartments in Croatia were commonly built in the same layout as our apartment, with the kitchen upstairs and the sleeping area downstairs. Apparently, if I remember correctly, it has something to do with fire safety since if the kitchen catches fire the lower floor may be saved and in any case smoke drifts upwards and escape is easier too with the door on the lower floor.

My visit in Split showed me two very important things. The first one was that old Split was not entirely within a Roman palace. I had initially thought that it was, not sure why, and now I know the palace was only a part of it. The second one was what people could do to preserve their heritage and history. This is significant to me since Singapore is changing so massively and rapidly all the time in its urban and cultural landscape. The implication of this is that the link to our past and how we became who we are can no longer be seen and felt. These changes, together with the astounding rate of immigration, will I am sure threaten our newly developed national identity. I am not sure that a country that is perpetually going through rebirths so absolutely is a healthy one. At the rate we are going, I fear that in time Singapore will become one big business centre that is always being rebuilt and its tenants always changing, and no longer a nation.

Split will look messy to a Singaporean I know but I am confident that there is a way to maintain both aesthetics and heritage. Besides, surely it does not matter what the exterior of a building look as long as the interior can look as good as our apartment here.

Narodni Trg

South side of the palace

Trg Republike

Croatian National Theatre in Split

View from the cathedral’s bell tower

Split harbour

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