Discovering Novi Bečej: Stories, people, history

By the paths of the past: Discover the rich history, interesting events and unforgettable people who have shaped Novi Bečej through time, as we return together to the heart of this beautiful city on the banks of the Tisza.

Discover Novi Bečej's rich history, from medieval fortresses and Turkish rule to Austrian influence. Explore its trade legacy and scenic Tisa River port

Short historical overview of the development of Novi Bečej

It is not precisely known when and how Novi Bečej acquired its name, or who founded it and when. One thing is certain – Bečej, with its fortress, held a significant place on the list of those influencing state politics in the sequence of historical events, sometimes even on a broader territory.

After the decline of the settlement that existed during the Roman era at the location of today's Novi Bečej, little is heard about it, as is the case with all other settlements in Banat. However, during the reign of King Stephen I (997 - 1038), Bečej appears as an inhabited place and soon is mentioned as a village.

During that time or slightly later, but in the period of the introduction of Christianity among the Hungarians, two families from the French tribe, Beche and Gregor, moved to these regions, among others. They played a significant role in the religious sphere in this part of Hungary and gave their names to settled places. The name Beče (Becse) is allegedly the result of a misreading of the name Beche by the Hungarians. Therefore, the first owners and masters of Bečej, from whom it likely got its name, were Beche and Gregor, and later, their descendants.

Claims by some authors that Bečej was located on an island in the Tisza River and that it probably was once a place with today's Bečej in Bačka, are categorically refuted by the assertion that Bečej (referring to today's Novi Bečej) has always been located at its present site. The idea that it might have been on an island is explained by the author stating that the Tisza, before being regulated and enclosed by embankments, changed its course, and for a certain period, it could have bordered the settlement of Bečej from the eastern side.

In the early 13th century, cities in Banat with county seats emerged, including Temišvar, Čanad, Bečej, and Kovin. The most significant city was Temišvar, which served as the capital of Hungary from 1310 to 1323.

During the reign of King Robert, Bečej was declared the first royal free city in 1331. After that, Temišvar (1342), Meze Šomlo (1343), Hodoš, and Lugoš (1371) were also declared.

The defeat of the Serbs by the Turks at the Battle of Maritsa (1371), and especially at Kosovo (1389), forced them to rely on the Hungarians in the further struggle against the Turks. In 1404, an alliance was formed between Despot Stefan Lazarević and the Hungarian King Sigismund, fundamentally altering the position of the Serbs in Hungary. The despot pledged loyalty to Hungary and, in return, received control of cities, including Golubac, Belgrade, the province of Mačva, and many estates in Srem and Banat, among them Bečej and Bečkerek. Simultaneously, he was appointed the county prefect of the Torontal County with Bečej as its seat. The seat of the Torontal County remained in Bečej until the Turkish conquest of these regions in 1551.

Upon Bečej coming under the possession of the Serbian despots, part of the nobility from Serbia, along with the common population, settled in these regions. Thus, in that area, certain members of the high Serbian despotic nobility were owners of large estates.

The Serbian despots settled so many Serbs on their estates in Hungary that in 1439, the Hungarian parliament decided to prohibit further immigration of foreigners.

After the defeat of the Hungarians by the Turks at the Battle of Mohács (1526), when the Turkish army flooded into Bačka among other regions, the city of Bečej remained untouched, confirming that it was located on the other side of the Tisza River in Banat.

For a long time afterward, little is heard about Bečej. Still, the increasingly frequent invasions of the Turks in Banat raised the significance and strategic importance of the Bečej fortress, although no expansion or strengthening is recorded during that period.

Rudolf Šmit provided detailed information about the Bečej fortress in the Journal of the Historical Society (1939), including the data that the fortress was built by the crusaders' convent in Székesfehérvár around 1300-1320. According to him, the fortress was a typical medieval water town, constructed "at the most favorable point on the island," with all parts built simultaneously. Its layout gives the impression that it was primarily built for protection against enemies, as the town was not artistically adorned and did not serve as a showcase of luxury and wealth. It was built very robustly and solidly without any subsequent expansions. The main defensive strength was the Tisza River, and the entire fortress was surrounded by a moat 30 meters wide and 3 meters deep. The town itself, without the front fortification, had an area of 2,231 square meters, of which 440 square meters were built, and 1,981 square meters were unbuilt.

Following the decisions of the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), all fortifications on the Tisza were demolished. Consequently, in 1701, the Bečej fortress was also destroyed. However, the remaining foundation remnants interfered with normal navigation, leading to their further destruction by mines in 1911.

Now, turning to the role of the Novi Bečej fortress, in 1551, the Ottoman army moved towards Transylvania and, on that route, demanded from Hungary the surrender of the cities of Bečej and Bečkerek, among others. As the Hungarian Parliament rejected this demand, Mehmed Pasha Sokolović besieged Bečej on September 15, 1551. The Bečej fortress, led by Tomaš Sentanaji and Gabriel Frigveši, bravely held its ground, even launching an assault on the Turks and inflicting heavy losses. The battle lasted for four days, and on September 19, between Friday and Saturday, the Turks breached the fortress at dawn, executing all who were inside.

Thus, on September 19, 1551, the Turks conquered the city of Bečej, leaving their garrison, and the next day, they reached Arača. While the battle for Bečej was still ongoing, the Serbs in Arača held a council where they decided to surrender to the Turks without a fight. They informed Mehmed Pasha of their decision through their envoy Đorđe Radovanov. Despite taking Arača without resistance, the Turks burned down the well-fortified church, and its ruins were never rebuilt.

Temporary setbacks for the Turks in capturing Temišvar forced them to withdraw to Bečej, while all other cities, except Bečej and Bečkerek, returned to Hungarian hands. Mehmed Pasha Sokolović spent the entire November and December of 1551 in Bečej and Bečkerek.

Throughout the struggle for Banat, Bečej was crucial for both the Hungarian and Turkish sides, understandable as it was the seat of the Torontal County and had a significant fortress at a strategically important location on the Tisza River.

Studying life in these regions during Turkish rule is quite challenging. The only sources for such studies are travel accounts, and even in those sources, Bečej is often bypassed as global routes historically ran along the Danube. Since Banat is mostly along the Tisza, with vast marshes, there are minimal records about it and its population in travel accounts.

The only account about conditions in Bečej during that time comes from the Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi and the manuscript of the Peć Patriarchate, known as the "katastih." In 1665, Evliya Çelebi described the "Beautiful city of Bečej," but his descriptions are not accurate depictions of life; rather, he aimed to captivate readers with his portrayal. Here is his description:

"DESCRIPTION OF THE BEAUTIFUL TOWN OF BEČEJ

This town was founded by the Transylvanian king, Hero Stephen. The Ottomans captured and lost it multiple times until it was finally conquered by Khoja Mehmed Pasha in 958/1551 during the rule of Sultan Suleiman.
It is now a duchy within the territory of the Čanad Sanjak. God knows best, and it is also a waqf of Mehmed Pasha Visoki. It serves as a subunit (nijabet) of the kadiluk of Bečkerek. It has its own overseer, forty young men of the town garrison, a market supervisor, a commander of the rifle janissaries, a commissioner for the state treasury, appointed by the Temišvar Financial Administration for seven loads of akçe. Additionally, it has a market supervisor for the public baths and a commissioner for taxes.
The fortress is located on the banks of the Tisza River. It is a small but well-fortified structure, built of bricks, with a total circumference of five hundred steps. The Tisza River flows through the city moat. There is one gate leading to the port and another to the road. At the port, there is an inn, fifty warehouses, a fine mosque converted from a church, a madrasa, three elementary schools, a tekke, a public bath, forty shops, and around a hundred houses with roofs made of tiles and reeds. Thanks to the extensive port, the residents are mostly traders in salt and fish. They are very wealthy, hospitable, and friendly to foreigners. Most of them have completed the pilgrimage. They all wear frontier-style hats and clothing. It is a very pleasant and prosperous town (kasaba). There are numerous vineyards and gardens.
After settling the inspection fees for the fortress, I headed east and, after six hours of travel through fields and villages, arrived in Bečkerek."

After Austria's victory over the Ottoman Empire at Senta on September 11, 1697, the Turks withdrew to Banat. Austrian forces, under the command of Prince Eugene of Savoy, continued to pursue them on the left bank of the Tisza towards Belgrade. Thus, Bečej, Bečkerek, and the journey south were liberated, although the eastern part of Banat with Temišvar remained under Turkish control. The peace treaty was concluded in Sremski Karlovci with considerable delay, only in 1699.

According to the provisions of the Treaty of Karlowitz, the Turks abandoned Bačka and the western part of Srem from Slankamen towards Morović, while the eastern part of Srem and the entire Banat remained under Turkish rule.

With the withdrawal of Austrian troops from Banat, it passed into Bačka, which became part of Austria. The few Serbs from Bečej also moved there, establishing Novi Bečej at the site of today's Bečej in Bačka. Not long after the Treaty of Karlowitz, another war erupted between Austria and Turkey (1714-1718). In this war, the Austrians liberated Banat and the eastern part of Srem, capturing Belgrade (1717) and areas south of the Danube and Sava rivers, all the way to Niš. After this defeat for the Turks, the peace was concluded in Požarevac on July 21, 1718, whereby Banat, the entire Srem, the cities of Belgrade, Šabac, Bjeljina, Brčko, and the southern parts of Serbia up to Paraćin, were ceded to Austria.

With the expulsion of the Turks and the annexation of Banat to Austria, the former residents of Bečej returned from Bačka and settled at the original site of Bečej. This settlement was now called Novi Bečej, while the one that remained in Bačka became known as Srpski Bečej and later Stari Bečej.

The term Turkish Bečej began to be used after the Turks' withdrawal, as well as Novi Bečej. At that time, the settlers of Novi Bečej were exclusively Serbs, who had already built a church in 1731.

During Turkish rule, the entire present-day Vojvodina and a part of Srem that belonged to Croatia and Baranja were inhabited by Serbs. On Hungarian geographical maps, these regions were marked as Racorszag.

Not many years after the expulsion of the Turks, Hungarians also settled in Novi Bečej, who already had their chapel made of bricks in 1747. Interestingly, according to the records of the Zrenjanin bishopric, the first Hungarian settlers came from Szeged and Belgrade. It is said that the settlers from Belgrade were craftsmen from various parts of Hungary. According to these sources, in 1764, there were 214 Hungarian believers in Novi Bečej and 13 in Vranjevo."

Later, in 1794, many Hungarians settled in Novi Bečej. These settlers were mainly serfs (kmetovi) who had fled from Hodmezevásárhely and its surroundings due to heavy feudal burdens. The more massive settlement of Hungarians in Novi Bečej occurred in 1820 from the vicinity of Szeged and Hodmezevásárhely.

Hungarians from Jászág and Kunság (provinces in Hungary) settled in the hamlet of Arača in 1826, later dispersing to neighboring municipalities: Vranjevo, Novi Bečej, and Beodra.

The exact year of their settlement is unknown, but according to 1851 data, near Novi Bečej, in Bordoš, there was a Hungarian village with 130 houses and 864 residents of Hungarian nationality engaged in tobacco cultivation.

The settlement of Hungarians in Banat, as industrious agricultural workers, market gardeners, and tobacco growers, significantly contributed to the development of agriculture and the economy in northern and central Banat.

After the expulsion of the Turks from Banat, Austria sought to make it the most advanced part of its southern regions. Consequently, it was not annexed to Hungary but established as a separate crown land directly tied to the court. The land belonged to the court and the royal chamber, but no one truly felt it as their own. Although the land was fertile, Banat's condition, after about forty years of liberation from the Turks, was miserable.

Faced with the unsolvable problem of advancing the economy in Banat, it was decided to sell the land to wealthy merchants, excluding the land that belonged to Veliki Kikinda District and Veliki Bečkerek, as well as the larger part of the estates in the eastern (Romanian) part of Banat.

The spahi Novi Bečej was bought by Pavle Hadžimihajlo, a merchant of Cincar origin, for the price of 120,000 forints. This purchase was made in 1782.

Pavle Hadžimihajlo came to these areas from the Macedonian town of Saste. He arrived in Novi Bečej with his wife Agnes and son Jovan-Pavle, who married the Greek Klara Papapolizo. They were married until Jovan's death in 1800. Thus, the twenty-six-year-old widow Klara raised eight children (sons Pavle and Nikola and daughters Agnes, Eržebet, Konstantina, Marija, Anastazija, and Jelisaveta). Klara adopted the surname Šišanji from her ancestors, who had that surname in Greece a long time ago.

By the confirmation of King Franz II on March 29, 1799, the family of Pavle Hadžimihajlo Šišanji, his son Jovan-Pavle, and the entire family, including their descendants, were recognized with the title of nobility.

Klara was a generous benefactor to the Orthodox Church, where she was also buried. She also contributed to the construction of the Catholic church in Novi Bečej.

The last direct descendants of the Hadžimihajlo family were three granddaughters: Elizabeta married to Count and General of the Austrian Army Karolj Leiningen, the second married to Colonel Lipot Rohonci, and the third married to the wealthy landowner Đula Urban. Leiningen and Rohonci (Rohnoci came from Veszprém) were prominent figures in the Hungarian army during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848–1849. Rohonci gained fame in the Battle of Novi Bečej on October 13, 1848.

The Hadžimihajlo-Šišanji castle, with auxiliary buildings and a park, was located where the current Health Center and residential houses next to it up to Svetozar Miletić Street stand. This area also included a section of Žarko Zrenjanin Street where residential buildings and the Municipal Court building are today, from Svetozar Miletić Street to Freedom Square. The castle was demolished in 1908.

Rohonci Lipot, son-in-law of the Šišanji family, built a house at the location where part of the administration building of Biserno Ostrvo stands today – at the corner. Across from Rohonci, near the embankment where the Health Center is today, one of the descendants of the Šišanji family through the female line built a castle, Šojmoš Elemer, a descendant of Urban. The castle was demolished in 1986/87, and in its place, the Health Center was built.

Thanks to its exceptional position on the Tisa River, Novi Bečej experienced rapid trade development. From the late 18th century until the second half of the 19th century (before the construction of the railway), it served as the main port for transporting grain. Fenves Elek wrote about it in the Geographic Dictionary of Hungary in 1851:

"Novi Bečej, a town in Torontal County and the largest place for grain trade in the entire monarchy on the left bank of the Tisa, north of Veliki Bečkerek four, and south of Szeged ten miles (one Hungarian mile is 8.38 kilometers - L.M.). The towers of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and tall grain warehouses, built of solid material, give the town a very beautiful appearance. The streets are paved with stone brought from Srem County. In front of the mansion of the large landowner on the high embankment on the bank of the Tisa, alleys and promenades delight the eyes. The Tisa Quay and the surroundings of the ferry crossing are adorned with walls built of natural broken stone... Three annual fairs are held, and every Wednesday is a weekly fair. Annual fairs do not deserve much attention, but the grain trade is more important. Traders come from Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and significant cities - ports of the Mediterranean, sometimes up to a hundred. The ships leaving loaded with grain count up to three hundred ships annually, the smallest with a carrying capacity of a thousand, medium-sized two to three thousand, and large three to six thousand centi of goods (one cent is fifty-six kilograms L.M.), so that more than one million Pozun measures (one measure is 0.6 hectoliters - L.M.) are exported annually, mainly to Pest, Györ, Vienna, less to Croatia, Sisak, and Karlovac, and from there by land to Rijeka, and even less towards Ljubljana. After the grain trade, there is the tobacco trade, but also a smaller trade in cattle and wine (cattle). In the vineyards of Novi Bečej, so much grapes are harvested annually that about two thousand akovs (one akov is 0.54 hectoliters - L.M.) of weak wine are produced. It is also important that in this area, an exceptionally large amount of medicinal herbs grows, especially good quality chamomile."

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