In the distance, barely visible in the summer haze, winds the thread of the Cetina River. This gentle landscape is a welcome relief to the rocky desolation of inland Dalmatia. In the northwest corner of this green sea, in the shadow of Mt. Visoka and at the foot of an old fort, lies the town of Sinj, an attractive verdant setting difficult to imagine as the site of fierce combat and great suffering.
At the entrance to the town, coming from the direction of Split, stands a small bridge spanning a dried-up stream that the local inhabitants, with their characteristic sense of humor, call the Great Bridge. Just across the bridge stretches a tournament course, flanked by rows of chestnut trees. The town of Sinj is famous because of knights tournament - SINJSKA ALKA and because of celebrity of Madonna, SINJSKA GOSPA on 15th August, every year.
Sinj - the place of pilgrimage to Our Lady. Every year thousands of people from all parts of Croatia and further come to Our Lady and have left spiritually strengthened and renewed.
Every year, on the first Sunday in August, a tilting competition takes place here, brilliantly costumed knights (alkari) competing according to tourney rules preserved over the centuries. This tilting ceremonies last for a three days. On the first day the "Alkari" (tilters) complete for "Bara" and on the second for "Coja", which is the pre-qualification stage for the main competition. "Vojvoda" (the Duke) puts three meter long "Coja" (red homespun) on the winners lance point. The competitors in knightly postures on galloping horses aim the ring target called "Alka" with their lances. "Alka" consists of two concentric iron rings linked by three bars dividing the space between the rings into three equal parts. A hit into the smallest central part ("u sridu") gives three points, the top part two and the bottom parts one point each. The winner is the competitor that has collected the maximum number og points. Vojvoda ties a threecoloured flag called "plamenac" to the winner called "Slavodobitnik" and gives orders for the Alkar`s name to be recorded in golden letters in the Chronicle of Chivalrous Alkar (Tilting ) Club, saying: "For the coming generations to remember". The Alka tournament presents symbol of victory of the people of Sinj and the Cetina district from Turkish attacking.
Grandstands on either side of the course seat spectators who come from all over the country and foreign parts as well. Dozens of different languages can be heard in the crowd surging through the streets of Sinj in the direction of the tournament field. Past and present are juxtaposed. On all sides roast lamb turns on a spit, tables laden with smoked ham and cheese, soft drinks and local wines flowing in copious amounts.
When the procession of knights and their escorts finally makes its appearance in the afternoon, a sudden hush sweeps through the crowd, as if in response to some ancient ritual. The silence lasts only a brief moment, soon broken by waves of applause and shouting, laughter and whistling. The company of squires, keeping step, march proudly along in time to the music: vigorous mustachioed youths, glancing neither right nor left, carrying over their shoulders long flintlock guns and tucked into their waistband, the "serpent's nest" it is called, a pistol and a dagger. Behind them ride the splendidly outfitted contestants (alkari). They are dressed in venerable aristocratic attire, their caps of sable flaunting the white feather of a heron. The caparisoned horses prance friskily, their hooves digging into the sand. Thus begins the annual Alka tournament, the only one of its kind in Croatia and in Europe. In August 1715 a battle for the fortress of Sinj, which had a strategic position on the main road to the coast, ended in a Turkish defeat. In commemoration of their great victory, the people of Sinj instituted the Alka tournament. The Alka tournament has long since, and particularly in recent times, ceased to be simply a picturesque local event. Drawing upon, in general terms, the medieval tradition of tournaments and horsemanship competitions (carousels), the Alka of Sinj combines several features that attract the attention of the general public: the costumes of the contestants and their escorts, the splendidly caparisoned horses, the commemorative, legendary and sporting aspects of the event itself, the heroic spirit and traditions of the environment in which it has been preserved.
The Alka tournament has survived with few interruptions until the present day, adapted in conformity with regional characteristics, yet making a vital contribution to the formation of the ethics of heroism and self-sacrifice that have always guided the people of the Cetina district. Although, strictly speaking, the Alka tournament is not derived from the local ethnographic heritage - its origins have a wider frame of reference: the traditions of west European and oriental chivalry - it has long been an integral part of it. As tournaments go, the Alka is perhaps the most outstanding blending of tradition with its actual setting: here, in a unique manner, the universal heritage of chivalric tourneying, its pageantry and ceremony, are combined with local color, thus giving pleasure to everyone, regardless of the tradition he may be familiar with.
For the foreign visitor, the Alka tournament is a picturesque remnant of the past, an opulently costumed pageant far removed from everyday life, a romantic flight from the traumas of our age; for the people of Sinj and the Cetina district, it is a recurring event, new each time. As such, it has become a kind of public manifestation, to be experienced every year a new, never aging, a part not only of history but of all time. The Alka tournament has also been declared a historical monument of the highest order. For centuries the Alka tournament had a commemorative function that also gave the people of Sinj - who have known the blessings of peace only in the most recent times - an opportunity to engage in contests of strength and skill. These formerly impoverished peasants and shepherds, exploited by the Venetian Republic mostly as soldiers to protect its trade with the Turkish hinterland, embraced the Alka tournament as the focus of their dreams and aspirations. One might even say that the Alka gave these people, who had come from different parts of the former Turkish Empire, something in common, helped them develop their own identity. Exposed to the perils of life along the border, accustomed to taking care of them- selves, the people of Sinj and the Cetina district were always ready to take arms, unwilling to let anyone else decide their fate.
Proud and jewel of Sinj and Cetina district is Miracle Painting of Bless Virgin Mary of Mercy. This portrait is one of the most beautiful painting in Christian art. There are many Mary royal towns in catholic world. In Croatia there are: Olovo, Marija Bistrica, Trsat i Sinj. In these towns the Queen of heaven and earth is set throne of her goodness, love and charity. The Sinj sanctuary is famous all around the world where are Croats. Numerous pilgrims come to receive Marijaīs mercy. The experts suppose that painting was painted by unknown Venetian artist in 16th century.
In the beginning it was in Sinj. In 1536 Sinj fell in Turkish hands and the painting was removed in Rama (Bosnia) where it was left till 1687. The miracle power of painting was found out during that period when painting was in Rama. The Turks were raiding in Bosnia. They burned houses, monasteries and devastated everything. Because of the dangerousness Franciscans were running away from Rama. They took with them miraculous painting which was theirs consolation, defense and help. Finally in 1687, the painting came in Sinj and stays there till today. Special respect of this painting begins in the most difficult period of Croatian history, in times of fighting against the Turks. Croatian people were defenders of west civilization and Christianity during several centuries.
The borders were never peaceful. On August 7th, 1715 the Turks has been started to attack Sinj. The Turkish army under leader of Mehmed Pasa were numerous and better armed than Sinj brave defenders. The battle was finished on August 15, 1715 and brave heroes of Cetina district finally beat tremendous Turkish military. Defenders of Sinj were convinced that Our Lady Mary (Miracle Painting from the Sinj church) give them strength for glorious victory. Also, Turkish army was significant weakened by difficult disease which was raging among them. All were convinced that is also Godís deed. Also, it is said the Turks saw the women in light and were terrible frighten. That`s why in town of Sinj, the holiday of Great Lady Mary (VELIKA GOSPA) on August 15, is always specially respected and celebrated. Special pride in their achievement was taken by the surviving defenders who in commemoration of their victory instituted the ALKA tournament, as it is said before.
As a sign of thanksgiving, the military officers of Sinj army have the gold crown with cross made to ornament the Miracle Painting. In 1716 the archbishop of Split, Kupili crowned the Miracle Painting. The Bless Virgin Mary has been helping to her pilgrims so far, not only in general, common needs of town and Cetina district (during war, against plague, drought, earthquake), but also in different specific individual needs. There are so many cases when people have experienced the help of Madonna of Sinj (Sinjske Gospe). Many people were miracllous healed from different diseases. The people from Sinj and Cetina district as a sign of gratitude and love gave a wreath of 12 silver stars to their patroness. Every year on 2th July that wreath is set on alter of Holly Mother and it is served solemn mass of thanks. Pilgrims give the most precious presents to their patroness and from these presents is ornamented the Miracle Painting of Bless Virgin Mary.