Today the Alka of Sinj is a unique knightly tournament in Europe held every year in August in Sinj, a small town of inland Dalmatia, about 30 km north of Split.
The Alka originated at the beginning of 18th century; it has been a continuation – and the only remainder – of numerous chivalric contests held in some major places of Venetian Dalmatia. The most famous were those held in Zadar (up to 1820), in Imotski (up to around 1840) and in Makarska (up to 1832). The oldest known written mention of the Alka of Sinj comes from 1784. These are three sonnets and an ode written in Italian language by a doctor and musician from Split, Julije Bajamonti. The oldest official document is a letter written on 10th of February 1798 by count Raimund Thurn, the first Austrian commissioner for newly occupied regions, sent from Zadar to that-time commander of Sinj, Colonel Jakov Grabovac. Namely, Thurn reports that the Royal Commission has unanimously approved further competitions of the Alka in the Cetina region, on the last carnival day, as it was customary up to that time. From the same year comes a document about the Alka, held on 14th May in honour of Baron Corneo-Steffane, another accredited Austrian commissioner for Istria, Dalmatia and Albania, on which occasion, in his formal speech, he called the Alka “brillante spettacolo” (splendid spectacle).
The history of the Alka shows that in the past it was run at different times than today, and occasionally even two times a year. For example, in 1798 it was run two times, on the last carneval day and on 9th of May; in 1818 on 15th of May and 6th of July; in 1834 on 9th of February; in 1838 on 19th of April; in 1855 it was postponed (due to cholera) and held not until 4th of October.
However, it was not before 1849 since it was held on 18th of August, the birthday of Emperor Franz Joseph I, which was even determined by the Statute from 1902. Since then the Alka Tournament has been continually held in August (and under new regulations), in the first third of the month. The year 1818 is very important in the history of Alka. In that year, on the way through Dalmatia, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I visited Sinj, when the local people prepared a ceremonial Alka. He awarded the winner a brilliant ring 800 forint worth, and the Society awarded him the Imperial flag. Since then every year the winner would be awarded by 100 forint from Vienna, which was probably the major incentive, despite the harsh realities, for the further preservation of that ancient, but very expensive, knightly tournament.
Let us mention some more outstanding dates and personalities from the Alka history. In the year 1838 the Saxon King Friedrich August II attended the Alka, and on 28th of March 1842 the Alka was held in honour of the arrival of the Austrian Archduke Albrecht in Sinj. In the same year it was held in honour of the arrival of the Austrian Archduke Franz Karl. In the year 1875, on 18th of May, a special ceremonious Alka was held on the occasion of King and Emperor Franz Joseph’s I stay in Sinj. The Emperor awarded the winner Mato Bonić a golden ring.
In its long history Alka Tournament was held three times outside Sinj: in 1832 in Split (reason unknown); in 1922 in Belgrade – marriage of Yugoslav King Alexander; in 1946 in Zagreb – III United Yugoslav Youth Association Conference. The alkar who won the Alka most times was Nikola Cerinić (12), then Nikola Jelinčić (8), and then Jozo Boko, Janko Kelava, Anđelko Vučković and Ognjen Preost who won the Alka and became winners five times.
The first Statute of the Alka – which in details, on the basis of old traditions, speaks about its origin, purpose and way of running – comes from not earlier than 1833 and, according to the that-time custom, it was written in Italian language. It is interesting that its regulations almost literally match with the regulations of similar knightly tournaments of that-time Europe, especially in the region of the Venetian Republic (where the Alka was called “la giostra”). But, while in other tournaments only alkars the knights (i.e. privileged social class) were allowed to take part, the Alka of Sinj introduced a significant innovation from the beginning: along with the members of military aristocracy, immigrated or of domestic origin, country people (normally the wealthier) could also take part in knightly tournaments, which has left a kind of folk stamp on this tournament.
The exclusivity of belonging to Alka families was practically based on the exclusivity to belonging to the Cetina region and to Sinj – geographically precisely defined – which in the people of Sinj and in the Croats of the Cetina region has developed a special cult of warrior pride and even of noble birth. Moreover, in the ceremonious Alka procession, together with the selected troop of horsemen the knights, a troop of infantry, country folk from the surrounding villages, was also introduced.
That is the reason why the Alka, though having origin in the West-European knightly traditions, has so quickly become a folk tournament. The people of Sinj and the Cetina region have identified themselves with it so closely that they take it as insult if you say the Alka is not autochthonous. The Alka is the only European knightly tournament that has stayed alive with continuity for almost three hundred years, until today.