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First quarantine measures

    In 1377, the Ragusans introduced plague protection measures, and in the opinion of many historians it was the first system of anti-plague measures in the world. The Ragusans, merchants through and through, enforced the quarantine so that trade wouldn’t be disrupted in times of great danger of plague.

    According to a 1377 decree, all who arrived from diseased parts of the world had to be quarantined for a month at Cavtat or on the island of Mrkan. The citizens of Dubrovnik weren’t allowed to visit the quarantined travelers, and whoever disobeyed the ban was forced into isolation.

Lazarettos before the Ploče Lazarettos

    Not long after issuing the 1377 decree, the authorities expanded the area of quarantine to the islands of Bobara and Supetar, and afterwards to Saint Mary’s Monastery on the island of Mljet.

    In the middle of the 15th century, a lazaretto was built on the Danče peninsula in the western suburbs of Dubrovnik. However, it stood far from the caravan route, which ended at the other side of the city, in Ploče.

    That is why construction of the lazaretto on the island of Lokrum began in the 1530s, but was never finished, probably for strategic reasons; namely the risk of the island being captured by the Venetians and of their using the lazaretto as their fortress near the City.

    All the while, travelers were also quarantined in several houses and barracks in Ploče, where their goods were disinfected. Even though this suggested that Ploče was the perfect place for the lazarettos, the authorities were uncertain, for they clearly didn’t want a walled-up lazaretto complex in close proximity to the City.

The Ploče Lazarettos

    The traffic of goods through Dubrovnik had grown staggeringly since the 15th century, mostly because of well-established relations with the Ottoman Empire. Even though these relations weren’t great in the beginning, the giant Ottoman army, the only professional army in the world, even though it had already reached the borders of Dubrovnik, never actually attacked the Republic of Ragusa.

    The Ottomans, despite being warriors and conquerors, greatly valued trade. The Ragusans also valued free trade, a profitable enterprise in which they were highly skilled. Fortunately, the interests of both countries came together in a wise agreement that the Ottomans would protect Dubrovnik, and the Ragusans would pay for protection in the form of an annual tribute.

    Therefore, instead of Ottoman soldiers, Dubrovnik was flooded by caravans packed with Ottoman goods intended for Ragusan and Italian markets. The caravan route ended at Ploče, which is exactly why the Lazarettos were erected here. The building process took two decades, from 1627 to 1647.


    Seeing as the Ottoman Empire didn’t have a plague protection system in place, Ottoman travelers and goods were always under suspicion. On top of that, at times the plague threatened from the West as well.

    That is why the Ragusan Lazarettos were always full. When not seriously threatened by the plague, the quarantine lasted from 3 to 30 days, but when the threat was more serious, it lasted for 40 days and more.

    Hippocrates thought that the incubation period for acute diseases like the plague lasted for no more than 40 days. Most likely it was because of this opinion that the isolation of suspicious persons and goods came to be known as “quarantine”.

Understanding the Plague Through History

    Hippocrates thought that the plague was caused by infected air. Galen further developed this theory and established the causes for air infection, such as stale water and unburried dead bodies. He thought that good diet and hygiene were vital for the prevention of the disease.

    For centuries the people believed that the plague was an expression of God’s wrath, and that demons made witches and other nefarious creatures brew potions that caused the plague. They also believed that the plague was caused by the positions of certain planets, eclipses, meteor showers, comets, and earthquakes.

    As protection against the plague, doctors in the Middle Ages suggested: “Run fast, run far, return as late as possible.” Besides running away, other methods of protection against the plague included quarantine procedures, disinfection using vinegar, regular and sea water, exposure to the sun and wind, as well as fumigation.

    A universally popular medicine called Theriac, made from more than 60 types of roots, medicinal plants, seeds, spices, and sliced snake meat, was also administered to plague sufferers.

Yersinia Pestis

    While man looked to the skies, the plague was spread unobserved by a duo – the rat (Rattus rattus) and the rat flea (Xenopsyla cheopis). The flea fed on the infected blood of its “host” until the rat died. When its “home” cooled off, the flea would abandon it, bite a human being, and infect it. The incubation period lasted up to seven days. From the appearance of symptoms of the bubonic, septicemic or pneumonic plague, it would take a man anywhere between a few hours and five days to die.

    Only at the end of the 19th century, during the plague epidemic in China and Manchuria, did a Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin manage to isolate the plague agent. It was a bacteria called Yersinia pestis, named after Yersin. Today, the plague is treated with antibiotics.

The Ragusan Epidemics

    Until the 16th century, the plague ravaged the territory of Dubrovnik with differing levels of intensity, at three-and-a-half to ten-year intervals.

    The Ragusans adhered to general plague protection measures, but they also turned to Heaven for help. As in other Christian countries, Dubrovnik served mass and held religious processions for salvation from the plague. Votive churches were built, their titulars being the Lady of Annunciation, main patron of plague sufferers, as well as patron saints Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch. During the most terrible epidemic of 1526/7, almost a fourth of the Republic’s populace was cut down, which amounted to around 20,000 people.

    The disease was, supposedly, brought from Ancona by a tailor who bypassed the quarantine and entered the City unreported. He was sentenced to death. His executioners tied him to a cart, dragged him around the City, and pinched him with burning pliers until he died. And the man was, most likely, infected…. by ?? (the implication is that he was not infected at all??

Sanitary Cordon

    Even though there was a constant threat of plague outbreaks in the Ottoman Empire, after the horrendous experience of 1526/7 the disease thinned out on Dubrovnik soil.

    We believe that the key to success was the introduction of a sanitary cordon, a system of anti-plague measures, which the Ragusans used to keep every inch of the country under control.

    As soon as the plague appeared in the hinterlands, the country would be split into eight districts, one of which was Ploče with its Lazarettos. Every district had an appointed “cazamorto” – “death hunter,” i.e. a sanitation assistant. With the help of sanitation soldiers, cazamorti oversaw local roads, kept watch over shepherds and their flocks, kept track of local residents and saw that no one crossed the border.

Plague in the Lazarettos

    The success of quarantine measures in the Lazarettos and the entire territory of Dubrovnik are best observed in the events of the 1760s and 1780s. During those times, plague outbreaks killed tens of thousands of people in the adjacent Venetian Dalmatia and Ottoman Bosnia, while the Republic of Ragusa had a negligible number of victims.

    The suburb of Ploče and its Lazarettos saw few cases of the plague. At three different times in the 18th century, only a handful of infected persons made their way into Ploče, and every time the Ragusans managed to stop the spread of the disease. Although they were obliged to notify the Mediterranean Health Offices that the plague appeared on the territory of Dubrovnik, they didn’t comply. The Ragusan trade instinct proved stronger than conscience.

    During the time of the Ploče Lazarettos, only a single plague outbreak affected the territory of the City of Dubrovnik. At the beginning of January 1691 it breached the city walls, but was suppressed in three months, and took 90 lives.

Special Significance of the Ploče Lazarettos

    In 1724, the people of Dubrovnik attributed special significance to the Ploče Lazarettos. They declared this fortification against the plague as a core part of the city fortifications.

    In 1979, Dubrovnik was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, while the Ragusan Lazarettos were added to the list in 1994.