To Westerners of a certain age, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country that still comes with many negative connotations. The memories of the Yugoslav wars of the mid-1990’s continue to colour our perceptions of this Eastern European country, and not without some reason. For as the USSR crumbled, causing masses of newly-independent countries to appear squinting in the light, a similar though far bloodier process was taking place as the independently communist Yugoslavia broke up. And nowhere was the fighting fiercer or more terrible than in the beautiful but divided jewel of the Herzegovina region, Mostar.
Today, elegant minarets and beautiful Christian church spires compete for attention on the skyline, hinting at the years of both co-existence and strife this remarkable region has hosted during the hundreds of years of its recorded history. Beginning in the fifteenth century, Mostar became an important hub for the ruling Ottoman Empire (Muslim Turks), under whom Jews and Christians were also tolerated to live (with certain restrictions). The result of this was that Mostar became a key trading post for the region, a melting pot of cultures and nationalities influencing (and occasionally fighting) one another.
In 1557, the ambitious and immodest Sultan Sulaiman the Magnificent commissioned the building of the justly-famous Mostar Bridge, the Stari Most. At four metres wide, 28 metres long and a perfect symbol of graceful Ottoman architecture, it was a bridge the likes of which had never before been attempted. Legend has it that the architect Mimar Hajrudin was commissioned to achieve this under pain of death. He so feared for his life that he made arrangements for his own funeral the day the scaffolding was to be removed. He needn’t have worried. For over 400 years this magnificent structure stood as a testament to Ottoman power.
On a dark day in November 1993, the bridge was destroyed by forces under the command of Slobodan Praljak, who is now on trial for this act, among others. Though Mostar’s volatile mix of Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs condemned it to endure some of the most bitter fighting of the Yugoslav wars, it seemed that the bridge, a target of no military value – and an icon that served as a literal connection between East and West, between the Orient and the Occident – would survive the conflict. It was not to be.
Today, the bridge has been rebuilt, and Mostar’s beautiful medieval Old Town has been declared a UNESCO heritage site. So what is it like today? Walking the cobbled streets is alternately fascinating and sobering, as beautiful Turkish-style houses and markets rub shoulders with still-uninhabited bombed-out houses from the recent conflict. Even the grim, communist era rail/bus station harks back to a different time. The Neretva River, with its striking emerald-green colouring, winds through the town from the scrubby hills above. Ironically, economic stagnation during the war years means that Bosnia-Herzegovina today boasts one of the last pristine natural environments in Europe.
Croats and Bosniaks live on opposite sides of the town, and there are separate schools and other social services for both, despite the rather small size of the city. The war, and its continuing side-effects, are complex and infrequently understood by outsiders, so the sensitive visitor will refrain from discussing them with locals unless very sure of his or her company. People of all kinds here are genuinely kind and affectionate, and most simply wish to get on with their lives. Western visitors may find the form of Islam practiced in Bosnia-Herzegovina is less ‘extreme’ than in certain other countries – it is frequently impossible, for example, to tell someone’s religion by how they are dressed alone.
Though there once was a time when the Ottomans seemed certain to overwhelm all of Christian Europe (Turkish troops came knocking at the gates of Vienna itself in 1529), Bosnia-Herzegovina is today virtually the sole significant remainder of Muslim influence in Europe. So to those intrigued by the prospect of Turkish coffee done right, bazaars selling hookah and Persian carpets, and good hospitality, Mostar remains a beautiful but divided jewel.
We’ll even throw in a free album.