Who really built Singidunum, modern day Belgrade?
The oldest recorded name of ancient Belgrade is Singidun, apparently first attested in the 3rd century BC. Before that, we know that the area itself was inhabited continuously since Paleolithic trough Vinca culture and recorded migrations of Thracians and Schytians in the 6th century BC. However, it is believed that these two tribes, being nomadic, did not have permanent settlements. So a few centuries later, when Celts first arrived on Balkans, they founded Singidunum, and these nomads were faced with the choice to go roam somewhere else or assimilate into Celtic society. This is the official version of the history of Belgrade, few safe lines on prehistory and then a quick jump to the firmer ground of Roman era.
However, it is important to point out that even though on the territory of Belgrade we have material traces of all above mentioned cultures, the credits for the foundation of the first settlement go to Celts. The reasoning behind this lies solely on the etymology of the name, because “dunum” means “hill” in Celtic. BUT “dunum” means “hill” in Thracian too! It is well attested, and also, they were here first.
So what about the first part, “Singi” then, will Celtic be of any help? Well, actually no. I mean no theory is officially accepted yet. Few options we have for the word “singi” are: 1. “round”, (therefore round-hill) 2. a name of a Thracian tribe (therefore Thracian words, not Celtic) and even 3. sin-gui, from Gaelic “old prayer” (don’t really know what to say about this one…)
Ok, so if the hill is not round, who are the Singi, and what does it mean?
A quick look at the Wiktionary options leads to the word Singh – meaning “lion”.
This word comes from Sanskrit, the root of all IE languages, so let’s give it a shot. In this case we get “Lion-hill”. Why does this name sound familiar? Oh yes, Singapore. It also means “lion-hill”. But wait, “pura” means “settlement, village” in Thracian, and it is also attested in Linear B!
Also, Herodotus mentions a Thracian city of Singus in Sithonia, although he does not explain what this word means.
SINGUS (Σίγγος, Hdt. 7.122; Thuc. 5.18; Böckh, Corp. Inscr. vol. i. p. 304; Ptol. 3.13.11; Steph. B. sub voce Plin. Nat. 4.17: Eth. Σιγγαῖοι), a town of Sithonia in Macedonia, upon the gulf to which it gave its name, SINGITICUS SINUS (Σιγγιτικὸς κόλπος, Ptol. l.c.: Gulf of Ághion Oros), identified with Sykía, probably a corrupted form of the old name. (Leake, Northern Greece, vol. iii. p. 153.)
Even though Herodotus does not give us the etymology of a name Singus, only a couple of sentences later he states that in this area lions could be seen until the time of Xerxes.
“In these parts there are many lions and wild oxen, whose horns are those very long ones which are brought into Hellas. The boundary of the lions’ country is the river Nestus which flows through Abdera and the river Achelous which flows through Acarnania” – Hdt. 7,126
So, could it be that it means “lion-hill”? Are there any other toponyms like that closer than Singapore? Yes, there are. And they are Thracian. For example this one, called “lion’s head”, a Thracian sanctuary above the Ropotamo river on the coasts of Black sea.
So “lion hills” do exist, but if so, how did such an old, Sanskrit word ended up on Balkans?
There can be a very interesting reason for this. Singh is also a title of a warrior caste in India. Extremely popular on the Indian subcontinent.
Could it be that the Aryans who set up the cast system have something to do with Balkans? Are there any historical proofs of those connections? Well yes, we all know that Alexander the Great went as far as India with his army, and he surely did like to portray himself as a lion.
Alexander the Great on a coin
But even before Alexander, it is very well attested in Greek mythology that Dionysus was the first to conquer India.
Dionysus coming back from India, ancient mosaic
Hmmm, could this explain why Balkans have the highest density of gypsies in the world, who undoubtedly come from North India, where Aryans once thrived? Are they the remainders of an ancient caste system, that was in the end destroyed by the Roman war machine? Hard to tell, but interesting topic to think about.
Back to Belgrade, where is this lion hill today? Was there a lion shaped stone of some sort on Kalemegdan fortress or was it just a name of the tribe as most people claim? This is difficult to say as the landscape was drastically changed over the two and a half millennia of wars and continuous settlement.
However, there is one other very important hill, that could be lion shaped with just a little imagination. The hill of Avala.
Avala hill is located 16,5 km south from Belgrade and even today stands like a Sphinx, marking the entrance to Belgrade area on the M1 highway, built on the exact route of an ancient Roman road. It was inhabited since ancient times and few Roman mines are still visible today on its slopes. In the middle ages on top of it was a Slavic fortress of Zrnov, but unfortunately in 1934. the whole area was destroyed with dynamite and flattened to the ground, under excuse to build a (masonic) monument to an unknown hero.
Drawing of Zrnov by Felix Kanc, XIX century
Not that the monument itself is not interesting. Its purpose was to “commemorate a fallen Serbian hero”, but it is modeled based on a tomb of a Persian (Aryan) emperor Cyrus the Great, whose empire stretched from Balkans to the Indus river.
So what lies under the monument of Avala? Maybe we will never know. But what we do know is that on one XVII century map Belgrade and Singidunum are shown as two different cities, Singidunum being very close to the hill of Avala.
Map by Anselmo Maria Banduri (1675-1743)