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The Bokelj or Bokez (Бокељ, Бокез) people (pl. Бокељи, Bokelji, or Бокези, Bokezi) are the inhabitants of the Boka Kotorska (hence the name) and adjacent regions (near the towns of Kotor, Tivat, Herceg Novi, Risan, Perast). They are an ethnic South Slavic community, many of whom nationally identify as being Montenegrin, Serb or Croat, or others. Most are Eastern Orthodox, while some are Roman Catholics.
The Bokelj designation is regional. While a great part of the Orthodox population as well as some who later converted to Catholisism originate from Montenegro, a part of the Roman Catholic population is ancestral and autochthonous; but they have kept the slava, a typical Serbian tradition.
Slavs inhabited the Bay of Kotor as early as the 5th and centuries, but the greater colonization came in the first half of the 7th century with the coming of White Serbs and Red Croats. There they quickly mixed with the dominant ancestral Romanized Latin population of the Byzantine coastal cities like Kotor and adopted the Latin culture and language. Boka was split amongst the two Principalities, Doclea (which got the greater portion) and Travunia. In 753 the area was taken from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome and influence of the East was restoring. With the Great Schism of 1054 the Bokelji were officially under the jurisdiction of the Papacy. Despite this, the authority of the East prevailed. The survival of Roman Catholicism was supported greatly by the presence of the Benedictine Order; however with the Great Schism, many of their religious structures were taken by the Eastern Orthodox officials - Saint Michael on Tumba-Prevlaka, Saint Peter on Gradac-Bogdasic and Saint Marko on Pin-Tivat. The Benedictines didn't resist, as they were themselves in decline. As part of various Serbian states (especially since the 12th century), the Bokeljs (especially Kotorans) highly influenced the political life of the Serbian realm and sided with the Serbian crown, rather than the Papacy (as occurred in the conflict between Kotor and Bar when the Pope supported Bar and the citizens of Kotor declared King Uros their Pope, in the 13th century). Doclea's full incorporation into the unified Serbian state in the 12th century brought Eastern Orthodoxy into the region.
With the fall of the Serb statehood in the 15th century, Venetians started to expand into the Bay of Kotor. The relative majority of Boka's citizens were Serbian Orthodox, who kept their religion and a strong national feeling thanks to the neighbouring Metropolinate of Cetinje and the birth of the Montenegrin statehood. Venetian rule helped the Catholic element, which remained until recently exclusively to the Venetian root possessions in Boka. This brought in the Italian language and culture in Boka, which was partially accepted by its population. In 1451 the Venetian Doge issued an order to the Bishop of Kotor, and reminded him in 1455, to work on conversion of the Orthodox under his jurisdiction and confiscation of their private ownership. The order was realized by the governor of Kotor in 1672, when he banished all the Orthodox from Bogdashich and Kavchani and committed serious atrocities on Prevlaka. Throughout the Venetian rule, various attempts of national awakening og the Boka Slavic people were attempted, but failed mostly. A number of the Catholics adopted a Serbian national element with the rise of nationalism. Throughout the 20th century Boka's character was considered historically Serbian, Croatian and/or Yugoslav. Kotor's patron saint Tryphon was depicted with the cross of the Serb King Stephen of Dechani, gifted to the Kotorans in the first half of the 14th century. In 1195 Stefan Nemanja and his son Vukan constructed the Church of Saint Luka in Kotor. King Uros built in the city the Church of Saint Paul in 1266 and 1269; although it was recently taken by the Catholics. In 1219 Saint Sava founded the seat of the Episcopate of Zeta on Prevlaka when he founded the Serbian Orthodox Church, which greatly helped the spread of Orthodoxy. The heart of Orthodoxy was in this Church of Saint Michael, which was destroyed by the Venetians in the 15th century. The City of Kotor was under Nemanjić rule from 1186 to 1370. It received a high degree of autonomy and excelled in architecture. The authority in Kotor was previously held by the National Assembly, as with any coastal Adriatic city. However, it was transferred soon to the Great Council (Veliko vijece). Beside this, the "Malo vijece" and "Vijece umoljenih" existed as well. The Head was a "Prior" or "Comes", implaced by the Serb rulers. Each time he was placed, he had to swear an oath of loyalty at the City's square to obey the City Statute. Kotor forged its own money - silver and copper - one side containing an image of the City's patron Saint, Tryphon and the other images of the corresponding Serb rulers. Many citizens of Kotor received high ranks in the Serbian infrastructure. The Bucchia family produced two members: Nikola Bucchia was a protobestiar of Emperor Dushan; his son Ttifun Mihailov Buca was the treasure-keeper of Emperor Uros.
In 1848, when the numerous revolutions sparked in the Austrian Empire, an Assembly of the Gulf of Kotor was held sponsored by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš of Montenegro, to decide on the proposition of Boka's unification with Croatia. The Assembly brought the decision that "The Gulf of Kotor, according to its location, history, language and tribal majority belongs to Serb nationality". Stefan Mitrov Ljubiša wrote in the name of the Assembly to the Croatian Parliament in Zagreb and to Njegos how they refused the option to join Croatia, stating that they would rather first await the national unification of Serbs and then that of all South Slavs. He also stated that "The people of Boka Kotorska are pure Serbs"
In 1838 was in Kotor constructed the "Thumb of Serbian Gathering", a three-store house. In 1839 the Serb Singing Society "Unity" was founded in Kotor. It celebrated its 100 years of existence in 1939. In Kotor was also founded the same year the Serb Reading-room; although it was renamed to "Slavic" in 1849 so that it could gather Kotor's Croats, Slovenes and Czechs as well. The City received in 1848 the "Serbian National School under the tutelage of the Church, the "Serb Music School" in 1854 and the famous "Serb National Guard of Kotor" in 1862, which held all major influences in the Bay of Kotor and celebrated its 50 years of existence with the Kingdom of Montenegro in 1912. In 1868 Kotor received the "Serb national benefaction society Saint George", the Orthodox Serb Study-room in 1869 and the Serb Orthodox Episcopate in 1870. In 1874 the annual yearbook of the Serb-Orthodox Boka-Dubrovnik Eparchy's printing started in the city. The "Croatian Home" was founded in the City in 1893. Kotor gained the "Serb Female Elementary School" in 1893, the "Serb tamburitza Zbor" in 1895, the "Serb Music" in 1897, the "Serb Workers' Zadruga" in 1899, the "Serb Credit Zadruga" in 1901 and the "Serb Sokol Society" in 1910. In 1903 the "Unity" singing society formed "The Alliance of Serbian Singing Societies". In 1916, during World War II, the Croatian brotherhood "Bokelj marine" conquered Lovcen in the name of the Central Powers during the capitulation of Montenegro.
Fra Andrija Kačić wrote "Boko od Kotora, diko od Hrvata". Russian traveller Tolstoi claimed after his travels in 1690 through Boka that it is inhabited by Croats "...from Herzegnovi further on...". Tolstoi wrote about Kotor:The municipality of Kotor, the City of Saint Tryphon, Catholic Archbishopric of old, ancient Croat ornamentics, monument of Tomislav(built in 1928), croatian cultural societies. There is also the outer settlement of Shkaljari - before the turn-over of 1918 Croats had always had the kotor municipality, and always demanded union with Croatia. Numerous national songs were made, like "Dubrovnice, jabuko od zlata, oj ti Boko, hrvatska odoro".
After the assassination of King Alexander in Marseilles and aligning of Yugoslavia towards the Axis forces, talks of inner Croatian regional autonomy have started. The Croatian Banate was to include 8 municipalities in Boka that had an ethnic Croat majority; however, since those municipalities were too far away from the central core the Croat politicians demanded that the whole of the Bay of Kotor was included into the Banate of Croatia. The idea was propagated for the first time in the "Primorje" papers in Sušak in an article "What is still not in the Banate of Croatia?" It called upon numerous historical Captains and navalmen from Boka of Croat nationality. On 15 October 1940 an anonymous Bokelj announced in the "Hrvatska Gruda" paper that the symbol of Croatdom of Boka are the numerous Catholic Churches - which are, according to him, the strong proof of Boka's original Croatdom and opted for Boka's joining with the Croatian Banate. Then, a little below a quarter of the Boka population were self-styled Croats. The general viewpoint was that all of Boka's Catholics were ethnic Croats.
According to the 1931 Royal Yugoslav population census; the eight small Croatian municipalities in Boka (the Catholics have majorily adpoted a Croat national identity) had 9,701 Croat-Catholics and 3,880 Orthodox Serbs (40%):
- Kotor - 3,006 Roman Catholics and 2,090 Orthodox
- Dobrota - 675 Roman Catholics and 575 Orthodox
- Muo - 483 Roman Catholics and 97 Orthodox
- Prčanj - 584 Roman Catholics and 169 Orthodox
- Stoliv - 312 (mostly Catholic Christians)
- Lastva - Roman Catholic Christians in majority
- Tivat - 2,726 Roman Catholics and 482 Orthodox
- Perast - 1,103 Roman Catholics and 322 Orthodox
In a decade's time (1930s-1940s) the number and percentage of Orthodox Serbs in the Croat municipalities greatly increased.
It is noted that while there are Serbs the most in Boka, they don't hold absolute majority, but rather form a mixture with Montenegrins. By ethnicity, according to the 2011 Montenegrin population census, Boka had 41.89% Serbs, 34.68% Montenegrins and 7.61% Croats:
- Budva - 19,218:
- Herceg Novi - 30,864:
- Kotor - 23,481:
- Tivat - 13,991:
The Bay of Kotor's population are mainly adherents of the Serbian Orthodox Church; while there is a minority of adherents of the Roman Catholic Church and Islam. The common characteristic of all three religious entities is that all celebrate the slava, in accordance to old Serbian traditions. The four counties of Boka Kotorska have a total population of 71,443 which has about 76% Orthodox Christians and 11% Catholic Christians:
- 78% Orthodox Christians
- 13% Roman Catholic
- Tivat - 13,991:
- 23% Roman Catholic
- Herceg-Novi - 33,971:
- 84.28% Orthodox Christians
- 4% Roman Catholic
History & Monuments made by Bokeljs
The Boka region has a long naval tradition—ever since the Middle Ages the Bokeljs had a very strong fleet, which counted as many as 300 ships in the 18th century. Boka was a rival to Dubrovnik and Venice.
The Bokelj Marine 809 (Bokeljska mornarica 809) is a confraternity founded in the 19th century whose aim was to promote nationalism among the inhabitants. In 809 the remains of St Tripun were brought by Bokelj mariners from Asia Minor to Kotor. The Cathedral of St. Tripun in Kotor is the oldest cathedral in Boka, built in 1166.
There are two beautiful churches on two islets in Boka bay created by the Bokeljs. Both were built in the first half of the 17th century. The two churches are called Sveti Đurađ and Gospa od Škrpjela near the town of Perast.
It is interesting that the Church of Gospa od Skrpjela is built on an artificial island. Each year a procession of Bokeljs encircle in numerous fishing boats and pilgrims throw pebbles around it. These was a tradition that was done for some 100 years to create it.
An important monument, showing uninterrupted presence of the Bokeljs in Boka kotorska during many centuries, is the cathedral of St. Tripun in the town of Kotor, built as early as 1166. It represents the oldest known Bokelj cathedral. Its ciborium is decorated with a beautiful interlace pattern which is even older than the church itself, and of the same type as numerous exotic interlace patterns found in many pre-Romanesque churches along the Adriatic coast.
The town of Kotor has a surrounding wall which is about 5 km long. This wall was built to protect the capital of Boka.
The Benedictine order has been present in the region of Boka kotorska since the 9th century. Today this region has about a hundred of Catholic churches and chapels. However there are more than twice as many Orthodox churches and chapels, and the only monasteries in the area are Montenegrin.
The town of Perast had extremely difficult moments in 1654 when the attacks of the Turks were especially dangerous, they were doing this because the Bokeljs sank an Ottoman ship. The brave and successful defence of Perast and Boka by Bokeljs received attention all over Europe. This was the reason of the arrival of Petar Zrinski, a famous statesman in Europe who also had numerous dramatic battles with the Turks. During his three day sojourn in Perast he presented his legendary sword to the town, as the sign of his recognition to their efforts to defend their homeland, and to stop the approach of the Ottoman Empire to Middle Europe. However close to half the defenders were Montenegrin, who have had sizable numbers in the area for a long time.
- Matej Zmajević - shipbuilder
- Grgur of Bar - archbishop
- Nikola Buća - treasurer
- Tripun Kotoran - goldsmith
- Andrija Paltašić - typographer
- Nikola Modruški - bishop
- Krsto Čorko - naval captain
- Petar Želalić - naval captain
- Krsto Mazarević - balloonist
- Ivan Visin - sailor
- Stjepan Mitrov Ljubiša - politician
- Mirko Komnenović - politician
- Luka Brajnović - professor
- Antun Luković - engineer
- Rambo Amadeus - singer
There have been three people from Boka who have become saints or been blessed by the Vatican, and they are:
- St. Leopold Bogdan Mandić (1866-1942),
- blessed Ozana Kotorka (also known as Katarina Kosić, 1493-1565),
- blessed Gracija iz Mula (1438-1508)
Pope Sixtus V was also allegedly of Bokelj background.
- Boka Kotorska - Census 2003.
- The Bay of Boka Kotorska
- Dubrovnik, Konavle, Boka kotorska
- Academician Pecaric on the state of Boka kotorska in history and today
- Foundation for Culture and Tradition of Boka Kotorska "Project Rastko-Boka"
- Foundation Rastko-Boka News
- Serbian voice of Boka (in Serbian)
- Serb Land of Montenegro - Boka kotorska