Zagreb skyline Croatia hand drawn vector sketch
© gropgrop

Zagreb, the phoenix-like city

Written by
Lara Rasin

Two months have passed since an earthquake, measuring 5.4 on the Richter Scale, hit Zagreb hard. Thanks to emergency responders' diligence, medical and construction efforts, strong community support, and the city's undying spirit, Zagreb is on its way to recovery. 

Zagreb is no stranger to hardships - but from a visit to the equal-parts-lively-and-lovely city, you wouldn't know it. 

Let's, then, honour this resilient city and explore its recent history of natural disasters to see how it's risen out of each struggle ever stronger.

The Zagreb Fire of May 30-31, 1731

Fighting off years of foreign invasion and emerging victorious, the once-town of Gradec (today a Zagreb neighbourhood) was proclaimed free by King Béla IV of Hungary in 1242. The King issued Gradec an official edict (today carefully kept in the Croatian State Archives) which made it a self-governing city.

The 'Golden Bull' edict of 1242.
The 'Golden Bull' edict of 1242, currently held in the Croatian State ArchivesFrom the Croatian State Archives

Citizens celebrated and reinforced this achievement by building, in the 1260s, a series of fortifications (pictured below) comprised of walls and gates - including what is today known as the Stone Gate. Located in the modern-day Gornji grad (Upper Town), this gate stood as a symbol of the importance of independence to the people of Gradec.

Modern-day Zagreb was once two towns - Gradec and Kaptol.
Modern-day Zagreb was once two separate towns - Gradec and Kaptol.© Zagreb city schools
Ivan Standl captures buildings damages by the 1880 Zagreb earthquake.
Gradec town sits above Kaptol town. Depiction of the towns from the 18th century before they were united into one city - Zagreb.From

On May 30 of 1731, a terrible fire broke out across the city, most of which was built from wood. Much of Gradec was damaged, including the Stone Gate.

According to legend, however, a painting of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus was found among the ashes - fully intact. The find was soon proclaimed a miracle. 

The painting (whose artist remains anonymous to this day) currently resides in a chapel in the much-visited Stone Gate, today considered a holy site.

Stone Gate
Many visit the Stone Gate to light a candle and pray.© Paul Prescott

On May 31, 1991 Archbishop of Zagreb Franjo Kuharić (1919-2002) proclaimed Our Lady of the Stone Gate the patron saint of Zagreb. She is celebrated on May 31, which is also the day of the city of Zagreb itself.

This relic remains a symbol of the city's perseverance to this day. 

Old Fortress Gate, Zagreb
The 21-century Stone Gate of Upper Town Zagreb.© Borislav Marinic

The Zagreb Earthquake of November 9, 1880

On November 9, 1880 at 7:33 AM, the growing metropolis of Zagreb was rattled by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, the strongest one to hit the city to date. The severity of the earthquake resulted in 29 serious injuries, one death, and damaged almost 2000 buildings.

The city's damages and renovations were famously documented by award-winning Croatian photographer Ivan Standl (1832-1897).

Following the 1880 earthquake, the Zagreb Cathedral underwent a 26-year restoration until its completion in 1906. 

A photograph of the Zagreb Cathedral following the 1880 earthquake by Ivan Standl.
A photograph of the Zagreb Cathedral following the 1880 earthquake by Ivan Standl.© The Digital Collections of the Zagreb City Libraries

According to official records, 3,800 train tickets were sold as some citizens fled to the nearby cities of Graz, Vienna, and Ljubljana. In the cold and dark winter weeks to follow, citizens lived in fear of the frequent and dangerous aftershocks which continued to strike Zagreb.

During the turbulent time, the people of Zagreb leaned on their family, friends, and neighbours for both help and comfort.

Ivan Standl captures buildings damaged by the 1880 Zagreb earthquake.
Ivan Standl captures buildings damaged by the 1880 Zagreb earthquake.© The Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia

When the final aftershocks subsided by Christmas of 1880, the city had regained its confidence.

Zagreb was reminded of all the effort citizens and non-citizens alike put into rebuilding its cracked streets, which had witnessed the beauty and frenzy of city life for centuries. Its fallen chimneys, which had provided heat to the city's residents. Its caved-in houses, which had provided shelter and security.

The city slowly but surely built itself up again in the years to follow.

Damages sustained by the Upper Town led to an expansion of the city southwards from Mount Medvednica and with the increase in space came a population boost of 30,000 to 40,000 people.

The Zagreb Flood of October 25-26, 1964

The Sava river is an iconic landmark of Zagreb, splitting the city into two. 

An aerial view of Zagreb - and the Sava river - before 1968.
An aerial view of Zagreb - and the Sava river - before 1968.©

Novi Zagreb (meaning, New Zagreb) was initially a series of smaller settlements, constructed after WWII, located south of the river.

Unfortunately, in 1964, a natural disaster struck both sides of the Sava again when the river's embankment cracked and water flooded the city. A third of Zagreb was soon underwater. 17 people passed away and 40,000 were left without homes. 

Once again, Zagrepčani (Zagreb residents) were united in trying times and the city found new ways to continue improving.

An aerial view of Zagreb - and the Sava river - in 2018.
An aerial view of Zagreb - and the Sava river - in 2018.©

In order to prevent such a catastrophic event from reoccurring, flood defense and prevention systems were created in Zagreb, Karlovac, and Sisak; all cities which border the Sava.

The Zagreb Earthquake of March 22, 2020 - amid COVID-19

After first reaching Croatia, COVID-19 soon spread to every county in the country. Due to the tireless work of healthcare employees, measures taken by the government, and citizens who self-isolated, Oxford University deemed Croatia as the country with the world’s strictest measures in relation to infection reduction. Croatia is currently seeing a steady decline in COVID-19 cases. 

Atop the pandemic, Croatia was gripped with another unexpected hardship when a 5.4 magnitude earthquake struck Zagreb in the morning hours of March 22, 2020.

The city center was most affected. There were 26 injuries, one death, and over 26,000 buildings were damaged.

Two months after the earthquake, the city is on the way to recovery due to the unselfish efforts of humans helping each other.

Zagreb: The phoenix

In the previous stories of Zagreb’s most brutal natural disasters, one common theme arises: this city knows how to rise from the ashes.

Every time disaster arrives, Zagreb suffers and then emerges anew; ready to face new challenges, provide a loving home to its citizens, and bring joy to its visitors.

Over the past two months, we've seen the city, yet again, prevail after a natural disaster. We're sure that the pandemic of COVID-19 will also pass, and that Zagreb and the rest of the world will again overcome it - together.

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