The town of Bjelaj is located on the edge of the Bilajsko polje along the road that leads from Bosanski Petrovac to Kulen Vakuf. The archaeological remains of Bjelaj, which are well preserved, indicate that the town had a majestic appearance during the Middle Ages. However, little can be said with certainty about its medieval history. The mention of Bjelaj in historical sources dates from the second half of the 15th century, and it appears only a few times before it fell under Ottoman control. Consequently, scientific interest was mainly limited to observations and analyses of the town walls, while efforts to learn more about the main characters and events that marked the development of Bjelaj were completely absent. In addition, the hazy notions about Bjelaj were further clouded by the existence of the town of Bjelaj in Lika, not far from today’s Gospić, which opened up space for poorly informed researchers to swap these two towns. The fact that some sources refer not to Bjelaj which is discussed here, but to Bjelaj in Lika further decreased the pool of available sources.
Administratively, Bjelaj belonged to the old county of Pset, which was mentioned by the emperor and writer Constantine VII Porphyrogenet in the middle of the 10th century as one of the 14 counties that made up the then Croatian state. There is a lack of knowledge regarding the county’s borders. It is usually assumed that it was bordered by the rivers Una and Unac in the west and Sana in the east, while in the north the border extended to Bihać and Krupa and in the south to today’s Drvar. Therefore, Bilajsko polje, where this town was located, was the core of the county. Thanks to a document from the church council in Split, which was held in 1185, it is known that the parish of Pset was part of the diocese of Knin. In the second half of the 13th century, Pset county was split into two smaller ones: Veliki and Mali Pset. At the end of the 13th century, the noble Babonić family had their possessions here, and a little later, the princes of Bribir took control of the county, and from the 15th century, the Kolunići took over the key role, for whom this county was home territory. The county of Pset bordered the Bosnian state, touching the Bosnian counties of Sana and Banica, which were ruled by the Hrvatinići. Although the Hrvatinići extended their territory all the way to the Una at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century, placing the towns of Bihać, Krupa, Ostrožac and Dubica under their rule, the core of Pset county – Bilajsko Polje remained outside their control.
The town of Bjelaj is frequently mentioned in contemporary texts as the place where the penultimate Bosnian king Stjepan Tomaš was killed in 1461. According to various chroniclers, King Tomaš was killed in this place by his son Stjepan Tomašević and his brother Radivoj Ostojić. Modern historiography rejects these claims as unfounded. More significant information about Bjelaj begins with the Ottoman threat, which gained special relevance after the fall of the Bosnian Kingdom in 1463, when the area of Pset county became subject to continuous Ottoman incursions. Even the establishment of the Jajce Banate in 1464 could not prevent raids, which drastically changed the demographic structure of this area, which forced the Hungarian authorities to additionally fortify the towns. In 1495, the treasurer of the Hungarian king Vladislav II wrote that he paid Gašpar Perušić the sum of 30 forints for the maintenance of the town of Bjelaj. At the beginning of the 16th century, in 1505, the princess of Bjelaj was Princess Beatrice Frankopan, the widow of Duke Janos Corvin, whose castellan Dujam Orlovčić commanded the military forces in Sokol, Ripač and Bjelaj. In all probability, the town was not part of the Jajce Banate, as older historiography erroneously claimed. On four maps made by the famous cartographer Sebastian Münster, published in the period from 1545 to 1558, on which the wider South Slavic area is shown, three towns named Bjelaj (Wellai, Wellai, Zvellay) are drawn, but a careful analysis established that none of the mentioned towns refers to the town in question here.
We do not know when the Ottomans occupied Bjelaj. The terminus ante quem is the year 1540, when the nahiya of Bjelaj is mentioned for the first time as part of the Neretva kadiluk. It seems that the town served the Ottoman army as a stronghold for further conquests, as can be seen from the report sent to the captain of Bihać, dated June 29, 1573, where it is stated that the Ottoman troops are gathering for the upcoming attack on Bilajsko polje.
The present-day appearance of Bjelaj can be attributed to medieval and Ottoman builders. The medieval part, located on the southern side, is similar in its characteristics to the other towns of today’s northwestern Bosnia that were under Hungarian rule. Thus, the medieval floor plan of the town is shaped like an irregular quadrangle with a dominant circular defense tower in the northwestern part. This tower, whose height is 16 meters, was built of hewn tufa. The main entrance to the town was located next to the tower. Certainly one of the most significant buildings in the town was the palace – a castle that shows a high level of mature Gothic in terms of comfort. As part of the town complex, there is also a spacious sub-town surrounded by ramparts.
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