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Visit Sinjska alka - modern day representation of medieval knight tournaments

Visit Sinjska alka - modern day representation of medieval knight tournaments

A symbol of honour and freedom

Croatia is a small country, but rich in history and cultural heritage. 10 Croatian sites are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and 15 sites on the tentative list. I am sure you have already heard of or visited Dubrovnik, Plitvice Lakes National Park or the Diocletian Palace in Split (if you have not heard, you can check out our other articles, if you have heard, but have not visited them yet, you should start packing your bags :).

In this article I’m going to present something quite unique, the Sinjska Alka, an equestrian competition held in the town of Sinj, in which various horsemen riding at full gallop aim their lances at a hanging metal ring and are awarded points according to the part of the ring they were able to hit.

Sinj is located in the heart of the Dalmatian hinterland; an area known by the name “Cetinska krajina”. The town lies between 4 mountains (Svilaja, Dinara, Kamesnica and Visoka), which “create” a specific climate (the summers are hotter than average, and the winters are colder than average).
The town of Sinj grew around an ancient fortress and the Franciscan monastery. It was seized by the Ottomans in the 16th century, who maintained control until 1686, when it was taken into possession by the Venetians.

The remains of the old fortress and burning fire over the city of Sinj

The competition Sinjska Alka is being held every first Sunday in August since 1715, in commemoration of the Croatian victory over the Ottomans. Around 700 Croats, with the help of a smaller number of Venetians, successfully defended their town against 60.000 Ottoman soldiers. Looking at the number of soldiers on both sides, you can understand why the people of Sinj believe, that the victory was a miracle and that the Lady of Sinj drove the Ottomans away (apparently, a woman in white was seen walking on the walls of Sinj).

The name “alka” is derived from the details of the stirrup bottom from the saddle of a horse, seized from the Ottoman army commander Pasha Celic. It is made out of two concentric rings, connected with 3 bars. The central circle, the smallest one being 35 millimetres, is worth three points (punat). The upper field is worth two points, and the two lower fields one point each. The knight (the alkar) aims at the alka in full gallop with an iron-topped wooden lance. The winner is the one who collects the highest number of points in three races. In case more contestants have the same number of points, they race again until one of them collects more points than the other(s). This is called pripetavanje (tiebreaker).

A full-galloping Alkar in the "hunt for the Alka ring" during Sinjska alka

The Alka ceremony lasts for three days. The contest starts on Friday - this is called Bara, whereas the Saturday contest is called Coja. The rules for Bara, Coja and Alka are the same; the only difference is, that the contestants of Bara and Coja race in civilian clothing. In the Alkars’ procession there are: the Duke, the troop of Alkars, the troop of squires and an escort. The Duke does not participate in the competitions. The procession is led by the “harambasa” and the squires (a remark for the ladies, the squires are broad- shouldered and well-built). The Alkari troop (11-17 of them), who ride double-rowed, is led by the bearer with a henchman and the Tournament Duke (alkarski vojvoda), the commander of the procession. The “alajcaus”, who is the vice-duke, rides at the end of the procession. All the participants are dressed in rich national costumes and armed with old weapons. The horses are also richly decorated.

An Alkar has to be born in the Cetinska Krajina Region, be an honourable and honest man, with hawk eyed vision and with a strong right hand. A moustache was once mandatory, but this tradition has slowly died out. Being such an honour, practically every kid in the area wants to be an Alkar, so there is also a children’s version of the event. The costumes are the same, but the young alkars do not ride horses. The most successful alkar in history is Nikola Cerinic - he won the tournament 12 times.

The preserved Alka heritage in the Alka multimedia museum in Sinj

The tournament originated at the time when there were many similar knight tournaments throughout Europe. Today, it is the only one, which makes it really unique. UNESCO recognised it’s value; the Alka is a part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List since 2010. If you are in this area in August, spending your vacation in one of our lovely villas, do not miss the chance to see this spectacular even or  visit the the Sinjska alka museum!

Text: Sanja Varovic
Photos: VAD archive 

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