”…never have I seen a view that moved me more. The strange old medieval town, seeming more a memory than a reality, the still sea, the fading light and a beautiful bird-song rising out of the stillness made an impression I shall never forget. Of all towns in Dalmatia there is none, to my taste, more lovely than poor ruined Rab.”
Sir T.G. Jackson
The island of Rab, Croatia, situated in Kvarner Bay at latitude 44° north, belongs to the northern group of the Adriatic islands. The name Rab came about from the Illyrian and Liburnian name Arba. On the Croatian coast, islands and major settlements were often given the same names. Where the town of Rab stands today there was a settlement called Arba in pre-Roman times. The origins of this name are Illyrian and Liburnian and probably mean "darkness", since in ancient times the island was thickly covered with forest.
The name Arba is first-mentioned on a stone tablet dating from the end of the 1st century BC, on which it also says that Caesar Augustus had the town walls and tower built. Rab is one of a small number of Croatian towns with a history dating back to pre-Roman times. There were only a small number of settlements which were able to survive from pre-Roman times, not just in terms of physical survival, but as dominant urban centres. There are only ten or so such towns, one of which is Rab, a unique example of a society in its natural surroundings. Caesar Augustus Octavius (1st century BC) had walls and towers raised for the defence of the town. Thus Rab became a Roman municipum. In the 2nd or 3rd century, Rome presented the town of Rab with an amphora. On it was inscribed "Felix Arba". Felix means lucky, wealthy. This title was bestowed by Rome only when a town needed to be singled out because of its merits, influence or significance. Felix Arba (Happy Rab) was a common name for towns in that day, but it is also a true reflection of its wealth. During this happy time, various buildings, sanctuaries and monuments were raised; it bears witness to the fact that Rab was already a fully developed and civilized at the time, providing amenities such as running water, baths, temples, a theatre, and a network of streets, to mention just a few.
The stormy past and different historical periods have all left their traces here. In Lopar, one of the villages of the island, stone tools of the late Paleolithic are witnessing that humans lived here for thousand of years; superseded later by the more advanced Neolithic man, until the arrival of the Ilyrian Liburns in prehistoric times. Marcus Antonius de Dominis (Markantun de Dominis) - proclaimed a heretic, most famous nobleman and personality in the history of Rab was born in the Dominis Nimira palace. He was a scientist, church writer and physicist and his areas of interest included the natural sciences. Because of a dispute with the Pope over church reform he became a victim of the Inquisition and died in 1624. His body and books were burned. The ash was scattered over the river Tiber and he was pronounced a heretic and condemned to hell and oblivion.
Rab's main claim to fame is a stonecutter called Marin. He settled in Italy and founded the state of San Marino. Rab is also known as a pioneer of naturism after the visit of King Edward VIII and Lady Wallis Simpson. Rab is rich with cultural heritage and cultural-historical monuments what makes it popular vacation and wellness oasis.
Among many noticeable monuments, there's one of particular interest. It is the most isolated historical monument on the island, far from the madding crowd, fallen into oblivion during the centuries, forgotten even by many insulars, and hardly reachable, its most ancient one...
Sveti Damjan (Saint Damien) Rab’s Sacred Mount
Along the northeastern coast of the island, resembling a high stone wall, stretches the towering hill Kamenjak (409 meters above sea level); it protects the rest of the island from the direct influence of harsh continental air and allows it to bask in the warm Mediterranean sun. In the southeastern part of the island, between the villages of Banjol and Barbat, a path up the hill leads to the ruins of the church on “Brdo Svetog Damjana” (Mount St. Damien). The ancient ruins are situated 223 meters above the sea level. Recent research seems to support the theory that there was once a building there with three functions: that of a church sanctuary, a vanguard and watchtower, which was also a refuge from enemy attack. A floor plan of the fortress opens up the possibility that this was the location of the largest Justinian fortress. The central building within the fortress, first mentioned in the 14th century, is the Church of St. Kuzma (Cosmas) and Damjan (Damien). Some historians however seem to argue that the settlement was a Greek military colony of the Ptolemaic dynasty dating back to the 4th century BC. If so, it would mean that the settlement site of Mount St. Damien is one of the most ancient in the whole region. A legend narrates that a big battle had taken place here in the remote past, it says:
“…and the battle persisted for several days… and the blood of the fallen was running down the mountain and stained the sea…”
But the most accredited truth seems to be, at least according to official and historical sources, that the ancient ruins were never researched in depth, nor archaeological excavations or restoration works ever have taken place; many pottery fragments consumed by weather and time, still scattered around in the area, seem to confirm this presumption. Local villagers told me that after World War II, during the early fifties, people found some ancient coins on the location but no one ever here was really interested in “treasure hunt”. Nowadays, only during the summer months some brave tourist dares to scramble up the access path to the ruins, reason why the place and the surrounding landscape preserved a trait of unicity until present times. During the winter period, the location is frequented only by shepherds and some lost explorer; bleating sheep’s are breaking sporadically the surreal silence.
While approaching the ancient ruins from the foots of the small mountain, an intentional architectonic arrangement of the outer fortification walls, aligned from east to west, can be easily noticed; fact and accuracy later confirmed by the compass measurement. The top of the ancient hill fortification provides a breath-taking panorama, while the lunar and solar cycles can be easily observed from here. For his favorable strategic position the small mountain was not only appropriate for military purposes but most probably also for astronomical observations. A palpable silence rules all over and through the ancient ruins, it is the perfect place to escape the everyday complications of life, a place for contemplation and meditation... that emanates sacredness… where heaven and earth collide… for more than two thousand years.