Port of Split
Review and History

The Port of Split is a seaport and resort and the major city in Dalmatia, Croatia. Located on the Adriatic Sea side of a peninsula in southern Croatia, the Port of Split offers a natural deep-water, sheltered harbor. Famous for being the site of the Palace of Diocletian, it contains many historic structures that led UNESCO to designate the palace a World Heritage Site in 1979.

The second biggest urban center in Croatia, Port of Split is the county seat of Split-Dalmatia. Before the modern transformation to a market economy, the city was an important economic center with a strong industrial base in ship-building, food processing, and manufacture of plastics, chemicals, textiles, and paper. Since privatization and the introduction of a market-driven economy, many factories have closed or declined.

The modern port of Split is focusing on developing commerce and service sectors, and unemployment for former factory workers is high. The economy today is centered on trade and tourism. Some local industries have begun to revive (fishing, olives, wine production, paper, chemicals, and concrete). In the past few years, foreign investment and a trade surplus have brought new growth and jobs to the city. In 2001, over 188 thousand people lived in the Port of Split.

Port History

The Port of Split is one of the region’s oldest cities. Archaeological evidence suggests a relationship to the 6th Century Greek colony of Aspalathos, a trade center for Illyrian tribes that lived in the ancient metropolis of Salona.

During the Roman Republic, the Romans conquered the Illyrians in 219 BC, establishing the province of Dalmatia and changing Aspalathos’ name to Spalatum. When Roman Emperor Diocletian decided to retire, he started work in 293 AD on a retirement palace near his hometown of Dioclea (near Salona). Choosing Spalatum as the site, he built more a fortress than a home.

Facing the sea, its walls were 200 meters long and up to 20 meters tall. They enclosed a 38 thousand square meter area. The emperor created parks and recreation areas at Marjan Hill for the nearby population of as many as 10 thousand people. Emperor Diocletian, the first emperor to voluntarily leave office, retired in 305 AD after 21 years of rule, refusing to return even when asked to do so by Roman Senators. Today, the city’s “old town” lies within the palace area. Three of the original 16 towers remain, and four of the palace gates still stand.

In the early 7th Century, Avars sacked Salona, and its residents sought refuge in the palace, naming their new settlement Spalatum. Building their homes within the palace compound, they incorporated its pillars and walls into their new city. The palace grounds at the Port of Split have been inhabited continuously since it was first occupied by Diocletian.

Today, Port of Split residents still think of it as a living city center, not a museum. The baptistery and cathedral are still used, the court is a meeting place, the Roman arcades now house shops, and the city’s main market is just outside the east gate. The city streets still hold architectural remains of all periods from Rome to modern times.

With a central Adriatic location and solid road and rail connections to northern Croatia, the Port of Split is an important commercial and trade center. In addition to its shipyard and local industry, it supports several island ferries and an international airport.

After 476 AD, the Port of Split was an important city to the Byzantine Empire, and it grew slowly as a suburb of the larger Salona. Avars and Slavs razed Salona in 639 AD, and the population fled to nearby islands in the Adriatic, returning only after the Byzantines came back, and returning to the palace in Spatalum to make their homes.

In the 7th Century, the Croats arrived, occupying the hinterland and the islands and greatly influencing the town of Spatalum. Over the next centuries, the Port of Split became increasingly more Croatian in character, including its architecture, and the city’s Roman population mixed with the Croats and Slavs.

In 1105, the Port of Split came under the control of Hungary-Croatia. In 1420, it was conquered by Venice. By the 14th Century, the population was largely Croatian, but the common language was Italian. During Venetian rule, the Port of Split became an important seaport with trade routes throughout the Ottoman interior. Culture flourished, too, and the first modern Croatian literature was published here in 1521 despite the high illiteracy rate in the common people.

Austria ruled the Port of Split from 1797 to 1918. After World War I, Dalmatia and Split became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes which became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. Because the Croat ports of Zadar and Rijeka were annexed into Italy, the Port of Split became Yugoslavia’s most important seaport.

In 1941 after Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia, Italy occupied and annexed the Port of Split. Resident Croats opposed Fascist rule passionately. When Italy fell in 1943, Yugoslav forced liberated the city, and thousands of residents joined the Partisans. Unfortunately, the Partisans were forced from the city, and a Nazi puppet regime was installed by the Germans. 

Sadly, both German and Allied bombs seriously damaged the Port of Split, killing hundreds. The Partisans finally liberated the city in 1944, and the Port of Split became the provisional capital of Croatia. After the war, the Port of Split was part of the Socialist Republic of Croatia under the control of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Soviet period was the Port of Split’s boom era. New factories and companies were founded there, and the population increased by three times. Its economic influence went far beyond Croatia, and thousands of immigrants from the countryside found jobs.

The Port of Split’s ship-building industry made Yugoslavia one of the world’s leading ship-building nations. The city also grew as a military and passenger port. It was the center of the Yugoslav People’s Army Coastal Military District and headquarters of the Yugoslav War Navy. By 1990, the Port of Split covered the whole peninsula. During that period, the city’s economy reached its peak, far beyond its present economy.

Croatia declared independence in 1991, bringing conflict and violence to the Port of Split. In November, the Yugoslav War Navy’s frigate Split fired shells at the city, bombing the old city center, the airport, and the nearby hills. This was the only time in recorded world history that a city was bombed by a vessel with its own name. When Yugoslavian forces evacuated the city in 1992, the Port of Split’s economic decline began.

In 1995, the Port of Split celebrated the 1700th anniversary of the beginning of construction of Diocletian’s palace.

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