Ruins are by definition decayed, neglected and abandoned structures. But not in Split. A closer look at Croatia’s second largest city reveals a very unusual scene. Here, life goes on in an ancient Roman palace that has been standing for almost 1700 years. The surviving façade of the palace that overlooks Split’s waterfront bursts with life and local color.
Diocletian’s Palace is the centerpiece of Split, the very place where the city was born. The Roman emperor wanted to spent the last years of his life closer to his birthplace, Salona, so he built a huge walled complex that included streets, reception rooms, a temple, a bath house and extensive gardens. Diocletian spared no expense, importing marble from Italy and Greece and sphinxes from Egypt. The palace complex was of vast proportions covering an area of 7 acres. The walls on the Adriatic side were 72 feet (22 meters) high and 7 feet (2 meters) thick. The fortress had 16 towers (of which only 3 remain) and 4 gates: Porta Aurea (Golden Gate), Porta Argentea (Silver Gate), Porta Ferrea (Iron Gate), and Porta Aenea (Bronze Gate). The Golden Gate (Porta Aurea) was the main entrance to the palace which the emperor used when he entered his new home for the first time in June, 305 AD, after his abdication.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the refugees fleeing the destruction of nearby Salona (the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia) transformed the palace into a town. Over the centuries the original palace was continuously altered giving the structure a fascinating allure.
At the heart of the palace is the monumental courtyard known as the Perystile, which the Emperor used for entertaining his guests. From the Perystile there is a flight of stairs that takes you to an vast network of underground vaults that were used as prisons and torture chambers where Christian were persecuted.
Today some of these vaults have been transformed into a bazaar where you can buy local crafts and souvenirs. On the other side of the Perystile is the Cathedral of St. Domnius. The cathedral which was originally built as Diocletian’s tomb, was later transformed into a Catholic church and serves today as the seat of the Archdiocese of Split. The cathedral was named for the Bishop who was decapitated by Diocletian in the city’s amphitheater. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christians went on to rededicate and demolish more of Diocletian’s constructions. The Cathedral’s crypt was turned into a shrine for St. Lucy, also martyred by Diocletian; also, only one of the Emperor’s collection of Egyptian sphynxes remains un-beheaded today.
Diocletian’s Palace is a intricate mixture of ruins, an interesting combination of ancient history and modern life. A UNESCO Heritage Site since 1979, the Palace is the only ruin in the world where people still live. Within its white stone walls there are not only vestiges of an ancient civilization, but also numerous shops, bars, cafes, hotels and houses. The old Palace is living heart of Split.