Written by: IVAN VIGJEN

Upon visiting Ston today, one can hardly believe that this isolated, peaceful, sleepy little town was once the second most important urban centre of Dubrovinik Republic. Until the first half of 19th century Ston was the economic, religious, political, military and transport hub for the western part of the little „state of Dubrovnik“.
The town itself is the „key“ to Pelješac peninsula. It defends Prevlaka – the piece of land adjoining the peninsula to the main shore – and has always been one of the main targets for various armies, due to its strategic and geographical position.

The first settlements in the area date to prehistoric times (Neolithic age). The Gudnja cave, which is situated above the town, was the centre of people’s existence in this area in those times, and it remains one of the main archaeological sites from that era the South Adriatic region. Numerous stone and bone artefacts were found in it, alongside remains of ceramic dishes which were multi-coloured, painted in the typical style of unnamed locals that once lived in the area. The Gudnja cave was also full of shells (oysters, kunjka i volaka), which could also mean that people have been aware of Ston’s gastronomic treasures for a very long time.

The first inhabitants of the Adriatic coast were Ilirs, whose main activity was cattle breeding. During the last two centuries BC the area was conquered by Romans, who stayed in power for several hundred years. The area around Ston and Pelješac was at the time inhabited by Plereji, one of the smaller local tribes which we know very little about. What they left behind are gomile (piles) - typical graves from their era, which are found everywhere and whose tombstones are made of layered stone slates.

When it comes to Roman times, we know very little about Ston - but there are numerous signs in Latin in the town itself, and archaeological remains can be found everywhere in the area. One of the signs of the Roman presence is centrijacija (the specific way in which the ground is divided into separate sections which is, with a little effort, visible even today). The remains of the buildings - mainly churches - indicate that in those times Ston had already become a big, important town. Its name from that era, Stamnes, is mentioned in the “Kozmografija” by Anonim Ravenjanin, a book from the 7th century. The town is also mentioned in the famous “Tabula Peutingeriana” under the name of Turris Stagno. The famous byzantine writer Constantin VII Porfirogenet calls it Stagnon, while the Chronicles of Dukljanin the Priest mention it under the name of Stantania.
After the demise of the Roman Empire, the Eastern Adriatic region was taken over by Slavs – Croats, and Ston became the central hub of Zahumlje – one of the Slavic states, called sclavinias. It was ruled by local governors and bishops, whose names appear in several 10th century documents from the church congresses which were held in Split.

It is very important to note that Ston of that era was not in the same place where it is today, but further west - under the hill where the Church of St Michael's is today. All the artefacts found in the area point to the conclusion that the house of Višević family, who ruled Ston at the time, was at the top of the hill, next to the royal chapel, and that the town itself was located just below the hill. From that acropolis only the little church of St Michael remains today, and it is one of the most important cultural objects in town and its surroundings.

After the early Middle Ages - and the progress which saw Ston become the central town of Zahumlje, with its own rulesr and bishops - there are many unclear facts. This mainly relates to the 12th and 13th century period. As the state of Raška was rising under the Nemanjić dynasty, Zahumlje became one of its targets and there many dynastical clashes took place around that time. Ston was also hit by an earthquake in 1252.
In the early 14th century. The town became one of the most important elements in the Dubrovnik commune, which was growing strong. The people Dubrovnik seized the moment when internal fights between local aristocrats became very serious, and took military control of Pelješac peninsula in 1326. They lately bought it for cash - in 1333 - from the Bosnian and Serbian rulers.

This is when a well-planned, fast ascent of Ston started: the land was quickly split into separate units and an urban development and building plan was made; it was followed by building of town walls, houses, palaces, fountains, churches and monasteries. Ston quickly became the home of the local count, of numerous lawyers and many of Dubrovnik's official religious, public and military institutions. In the State archives in Dubrovnik there is a total of 346 books of documents which were produced in Ston during this period.

The salt from the town became one of the main export articles for Dubrovnik of those times. It was sold all over the Balkans and earned a fortune for Dubrovnik. The terrible earthquake which hit the region in 1667 had partly hit many of the buildings in Ston. It remained part of Dubrovnik Republic all until its demise, in 1808.
After a short occupation by the French, Ston became part of Austrian emipire, and remained so until 1918.

Although the town was at the time the central spot in the whole municipality, it gradually lost its importance – the bishop's office had moved, and town walls were damaged in the attempt to re-use the stones used for their building for other purposes.
The monumental beauty of Ston got its first recognition in the 20th century, mainly thanks to the famous Dubrovnik historian Lukša Beritić. He started a public initiative to save and renovate the numerous cultural monuments of Ston.

The town was, to some extent, built in a similar manner to Dubrovnik: it has its own Rector’s Palace, the Bishop's Palace, the Main guard, cathedral, Minčeta and its Piazza. It is clear that the rulers of Dubrovnik saw Ston from the very beginning as an authentic urban dwelling , and that's exactly how it was built – and that makes it special and unique today. The incredible picture of Ston’s surrounding walls – which were built as soon as this town became the property of Dubrovnik – is a breathtaking image. They present the longest fortress structure of that kind in Europe.