An Unexpected Linguistic Find
Zagreb’s Cathedral, Croatia
In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saintly Kings Stephen and Ladislav (wow, that’s quite a mouthful!), is usually just called “the Cathedral” or Katedrala.
Many Croatians are Catholic and this is the country’s main church. It’s a very large imposing Neo-Gothic building, what we see today built a little more than 100 years ago. But, it has a long history, as the first church went up here in 1094 when a diocese was established in Kaptol, one of the two towns that originally made up what is now Zagreb (the other is Gradec, up on the hill). Invading Tartars destroyed the original cathedral in the mid-13th century. The citizens rebuilt it, but an earthquake destroyed it in 1880.
The three main features inside the cathedral are: the main altar with a lovely silver relief of the Holy Family; the grave of Josip Jelacic, a Croatian statesman; and the modern tombstone of Alojzije Stepinac. Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb in World War 11, supported the Ustase (puppet Nazi government in Croatia then), believing it would help gain independence from Serbia. For some Croatians he is a hero and inspiration, but for others he is a villain because of this.
The church also has many lovely paintings, relief carvings, frescoes, beautiful altars, and a memorial plaque to heroes Ivanu Palizni (late 1300s) and Petru Berislavicu (early 1500s).
There is even an informational board inside the church listing the main historical events and sights in the church—both in English and Croatian.
However, for me, there is another feature in the cathedral that is even more interesting. As you face the exit to the church, on the left side is an arched wall between pillars. Most of the wall panel is inscribed with a very different script, some kind of writing that I have never seen before, very bold and very obvious in this setting. We photographed it and then I determined to learn more.
Apparently it is the Glagolitic alphabet (glagoljca). The popular story is that Cyril and
Methodius, Byzantine missionaries in the 9th century, invented it as a way to translate the Bible and church doctrine into Slavic languages. They worked mainly in Moravia (in the eastern Czech Republic today) but it was here in Croatia that it caught on and was used in some places until the 19th century. The name Glagolitic also exists in Macedonian, Serbian, Belarusian, Czech, Slovak, and Ukrainian.
Other ideas are that Glagolitic was created in the 4th century by St. Jerome, and that one is then called Hieronymian, but this seems to be less substantiated. Later, it was adapted in Bulgaria and became part of the Cyrillic alphabet, which Russia and Serbia still use. When Croatia gained independence in 1991 there was some idea of making Glagolitic the official alphabet, but this didn’t happen. Nowadays, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovena use and speak basically the same language: the biggest difference is the writing, as Croatians and Bozniaks use our Roman alphabet, while the Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet.
Linguists are having fun trying to figure out the history, development and use of this strange script, how many letters it had and how the characters were modified and changed.
This web site gives a chart of the alphabet if you are interested,