Geographical position of Belgrade which has always represented the gates of Balkans determined its fate during the 11th and 12th century. Hungary was attempting to breach into the Balkan peninsula which was the last thing that Byzantium wanted. Over the course of a whole century Belgrade was the end goal fiercely competed for by two powerful forces of that time and the city was destroyed and renewed several times. In addition, Belgrade of that time found itself the target of countless hordes of Crusaders and other attacks.
Rebellion against the Greek church
The Slovenian empire of emperor Samuil saw its final breakdown with the fall of Sirminium under Byzantine control. The emperor Basil II entrusted one of his best military commanders Constantine Diogenes with organizing the authorities there. Instead of Samuil’s patriarch, the Belgrade episcopal polity was under the jurisdiction of the Ohrid archepiscope.
Dissatisfied with the growing influence of the Greek church and introducing taxes in money rather than trade goods, the slav citizens rebelled against Byzantium.
The uprising in 1040 was led by Petar Deljan who claimed to be emperor Samuil’s grandsom which greatly helped him garner supporters. The center of the uprising was Belgrade where Deljan declared himself the new emperor. From there the rebels made their way through the Morava river valley and took over Nis and Skoplje without any combat. The main conflict moved towards the center of the empire so Belgrade was left in the sidelines and lost importance.
Seeing how the uprising was quickly snuffed out, Belgrade went back under Byzantium rule already next year.
Hungarian siege of Belgrade
In the second half of the 11th century Hungaria became increasingly aggressive and continued to conquer one Byzantine territory after another. The first target was the area of Sirmium.
Under emperor Solomon in 968 Belgrade was briefly held by Hungarians but the Byzantines quickly re-took it under their control.
In the last decades of the 11th century, Belgrade was run by Duke Nikota or Nikita who was also referred as Princeps Bulgarorum, representing a relic from the age of Bulgarian rule. Back then, Belgrade was called Albae Bulgarie.
By the end of 1071 Byzantium was fighting fierce battles against the Seljuk Turks who won a historical victory over emperor Diognes Roman at Manzikert. The vulnerability of the empire was used by Hungary led by emperor Solomon to launch a fierce attack on Belgrade.
The siege lasted for almost three months. The defenders led by duke Nikota fought bravely and resisted assaults for as long as the ramparts held on. When the enemy army pushed through the walls of the burning city, the exhausted defenders had no other choice except surrender.
Carrying the silver icon of St. Mary, the duke Nikota led the liberators to their captivity. After the city was fully taken over, the Hungarian army left it in ruins.
Soon peace was negotiated and the brave defenders of Belgrade were freed.
Judging by all, the Hungarian rule of Belgrade didn’t last long but it’s not known when and how it came back under Byzantine rule.
The arrival of the Crusaders
When Pope Urban II called the faithful to fight against the conquerors of the grave of Christ at the Clermont Council, Zemun was under Hungarian control and Belgrade was held by Byzantium. Both cities were targets for crusaders’ robbing and pillaging.
During 1096 three groups of Crusaders passed through Belgrade. First there was an infantry division led by a certain Walter known to have no land. In Hungary the crusaders had the permission to purchase food so they didn’t steal from the locals. However, as one group caused heavy incidents in Zemun, the Commander of Zemun didn’t want this to happen again and he forbade the Crusaders from entering the city. There was still bloodshed in the surrounding area because the Crusaders attempted to steal cattle from the local farmers who picked up weapons to resist.
Just when they got rid of Walter’s troops, Peter the Hermit’s squadrons appeared on the horizon. They immediately launched a fierce attack on Zemun. An interesting fact is that the duke Nikota – as much as he was able – assisted the Hungarian commander of Zemun during the attacks.
Realizing the severity of the situation and that he had no means to oppose that kind of force, Nikota ordered the city to be evacuated. The townsfolk with cattle mostly scattered in the mountains while the army retreated to Nis.
The Crusaders found a deserted Belgrade and moved on towards South where they continued to pillage.
Around fall 1096 Zemun and Belgrade had a visit from yet another crusader army, but this one wasn’t like the ones before. It was a massive, organized and disciplined army consisting of the highest elite French knights and led by Godefroy of Bullion. Tens of thousands of warriors passed through Belgrade without a single incident.
In the 12th century the relations between Hungary and Byzantium became tense again. The denizens of Branicevo attacked and harassed Hungarian traders which the Hungarian king Stefan II used as excuse for a sudden attack on Belgrade in 1127, destroying it to the ground. The Hungarian king obviously hadn’t planned on holding onto the city, so he ordered his army to destroy it and carry the remaining stone over the river to construct Zemun.
As he got news of the attack emperor Jovan Komnin gathered his land army and river fleet and launched an offensive against Hungary, completely defeating it, conquering Zemun and Srem. After these fights Byzantium managed to maintain a border on Danube and defend its important cities – Branicevo and Belgrade.
During 1147 crusading armies of German king Conrad III and the French king Luis VII passed through Belgrade. According to one source there were more soldiers than grains of sand in the sea, but they just peacefully passed through Belgrade.
From Manuel to Barbarossa
Hungary and Byzantium relations were especially tense during Manuel I Komnenos who launched an offensive in 1151 towards Srem from Belgrade and conquered Zemun.
On that occasion the stones from Zemun was returned to Belgrade to help reconstruct it. In the following years, the military usually set off from Belgrade but combat took place outside its territories too. However, it was then that there were certain changes in management.
Emperor Manuel appointed his close relative Andronikos Komnenos as the duke of this important area. He strived to usurp the emperor’s throne and sought the power of his enemies to do it. In exchange for support in the fight for the throne, Andronikos Konin made an attempt at the emperor’s life and was arrested for it. However, during his management of Belgrade a certain number of Belgrade denizens developed animosity towards the emperor Manuel, there was an uprising and an attempt to emancipate Belgrade from Byzantium. The emperor heard of this uprising and immediately stifled it.
New conflicts emerged in 1164 when emperor Manuel launched an offensive against Srem. During three years of combat Hungary was forced on the defensive more often. There were wars in Srem and Belgrade was an important strategic point for the Byzantium military. After a long and exhausting struggle in 1165, emperor Manuel conquered Zemun as well, which determined the rest of the war. Peace was signed in 1167 and with the conquering of Srem and pushing the Byzantium border further north, Belgrade could finally rest easy.
After the death of emperor Manuel, the exiled Andronikos Komnenos occupied the throne which caused a divide among the military commanders. The Emperor Bela III didn’t wait long and immediately launched an offensive and in a fierce assault in 1182 he conquered and destroyed Belgrade. However, three years later Bela gave it to the Byzantium emperor Isaac II Angelos who married his daughter Margaret. The rule of Isaac II Angelos are the last death throes of Byzantine rule. When Fredrich I Barbarossa in 1189 made it to Belgrade, he found a demolished city that Byzantium wasn’t able to rebuild.