Bosnia Herzegovina: A Country of Bridges

I visit some countries to see a particular city,  a specific site or an event. Others are just in the general neighborhood and I think, if I am there, I might as well see what the place has to offer. Bosnia Herzegovina fell into the latter category, although I had always wanted to see the bridge at Mostar. I did no advance reading or research; I just showed up and asked: “what is of interest here?”

It turns out, a lot. Bosnia Herzegovina was one of the most inviting, friendly and beautiful countries I visited. It is abbreviated “BiH”, the “i” being “and” in Bosnian and to which I shall henceforth refer. BiH is a country which my lack of prior knowledge prevented me from fully enjoying and one to which I hope to return.


As usual, a brief history recitation to understand the country. Mostly landlocked, Bosnia is nestled between Croatia in the north and west and Serbia in the east and south. Much of the country is in the Dinaric Alps, hence the whole north is mountainous. The Sava River, a Danube tributary, flows through it, as does the Drina river on the Serbian border and the Neretva in the south. Being where it is, it was a crossroad for every ancient empire marching between Constantinople in the east and Greece/Rome/Venice in the west. It was settled by Slavic tribes in the 7th century, including large numbers of Serbs and Croats. In 1377, it became its own kingdom.

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire conquered the territory and set up shop, establishing Sarajevo as the regional capital (it is the capital of BiH today). Mosques were built, Turkish-like bazaars opened and the majority of the people became Muslims. The old city today retains its Ottoman architecture, although the shops sell copper and leather souvenirs and offer Bosnian coffee.

The Ottoman area of Sarajevo

In 1878, the Austria-Hungarian empire drove the Ottomans out and Sarajevo’s architectural style followed suit, with the new city looking decidedly Viennese. The majority of the population remained Muslim, but it was tolerant of other religions and proudly called itself the Jerusalem of Europe, because within a few hundred meters of each other were Islamic Mosques, Catholic Cathedrals, Jewish Synagogues and Serbian Orthodox Churches.

The Assassination:

BiH was in the Austria-Hungarian empire June 28, 1914, when a young Bosnian Serb seeking independence from the empire assassinated the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on a bridge in Sarajevo, and set in motion the events leading to WW1. The bridge still stands today.

The Latin Bridge where the assassination occurred

After WWI, BiH lost its identity when it became part of the Serbian, Croat, Slovenian Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During WW2, it was made part of Nazi Croatia and occupied first by Italy and later by Germany. Following the war, it became 1 of 6 regions in the newly formed Yugoslavia state under Tito.

The Olympics:

Sarajevo’s crowning achievement was hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics, a first for a communist country. Sporting events were held on and around the mountains surrounding the city. A bobsled and luge track, along with a cable car, were built. Sadly, the last event was held on the tracks in 1989. During the siege of Sarajevo, the tracks were convenient sniper points for the Bosnian Serbs, but today they bear the artwork of graffiti artists. Once a year, they become a racecourse for totally crazy bike riders, but not on the day we visited.

The bobsled track

The Bosnian War and Siege of Sarajevo:

Although there are differing perspectives of the precise causes of the wars that besot the former Yugoslavia, the following was the one provided by three guides from Sarajevo, all Muslim Bosnians. The death of the Yugoslav president, Joseph Tito, in 1980 unleashed a wave of nationalism. The Orthodox Serbs, centered in Belgrade wanted to keep Yugoslavia together, but in BiH, the 50% Muslims and 15% Croat Bosnians (Catholic) voted for independence in March, 1992, notwithstanding the desire of the 35% of Orthodox Serbians living in BiH to remain part of Serbia. On March 3, 1992, the day after the referendum BiH declared independence and hostilities broke out very quickly.

The siege of Sarajevo began in April, 1992, with pro-Serbian forces holding the mountains that surround the city, effectively isolating the city. The U.N. imposed an embargo, resulting in the Bosnians having no weapons but the pro-Serbians having all the fire power of the Yugoslav People’s Army. For 3 years, their artillery pounded the city, their snipers killed anyone unfortunate enough to be in their sights. Water, sewage and electricity were cut off for all but 3 hours of the 3 year siege, coinciding with the 1994 World Cup soccer final. Over 3,000 people were killed. Of its 500,000 pre-war population, only 200,000 remained. Today, its population is just 350,000.

The people of Sarajevo were stunned that the world did not help them. They could not believe that, at the end of the 20th century in Europe, a full blown war was allowed to occur and continue for 3 years. The U.N. did impose a no-fly zone over the city, to prevent Serbian air strikes, and U.N. troops occupied the airport, receiving drops of food and medicine to distribute to the inhabitants. But the U.N. forces were under strict orders not to use violence except to protect themselves and the locals began to refer to them as the United Nothing.

In 1993, Bosnians dug a tunnel from the mountains, under the airport, and into the city to move people, food and arms in and out of the city. The tunnels remain today and I entered one during a Siege of Sarajevo tour.

A tunnel under the airport in Sarajevo

After 3 years of the siege, war, concentration camps and mass murders in the name of ethnic cleansing, a country-wide truce was negotiated. Called the Dayton Agreement, it  divides BiH into 2 basically autonomous regions, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska. The latter is dominated by the Serbian population.


For centuries, the city of Mostar had been a figurative bridge between the Ottoman east and the Byzantine and later Austria-Hungarian empires in the west, bisected by the Neretva River. Over the river stood the Mostar bridge, completed in 1566 and considered to be one of the finest examples of Ottoman arch bridges.

During the Yugoslav Wars, the Croats had originally supported the Bosnians in their battle against the Serbs, but in 1993 began secretly negotiating with the Serbs to divide BiH between Croatia and Serbia. While the Bosnians were under siege in Sarajevo and being massacred in eastern BiH, the Croats turned on them and tried to capture Mostar. Battles raged between Croats and Bosnians and, finally,  on November 9, 1993, after extensive shelling, the world watched in horror as the Mostar Bridge collapsed, instantly becoming the symbol of broken relationships between the ethnic factions.

Thanks to international funding, the bridge was rebuilt in 2004, using Ottoman building materials and techniques as much as possible. Today, tourists make the pilgrimage to Mostar, not only to admire the newly built bridge, but to pay homage to the victims of the wars and the hope for the future.

Me at Mostar

The Sarajevo Haggadah: 

All the tours I took proudly mentioned the Sarajevo Haggadah. I’d never heard of it, but a Haggadah is the book read during the Jewish Passover dinner retelling the story of Moses and the Jews leaving Egypt. The Sarajevo Haggadah was commissioned by a Jewish family in Spain in the early 14th century and contains exquisite miniature artwork of the story and the Seder. Interestingly, the paintings recount the Genesis story, with a round world, some 150 years before Columbus came to the same conclusion.

Copy in the Museum of the Haggadah

How it got to Sarajevo is not known. It likely left Spain in 1492, following the expulsion of the Jews during the Inquisition; a large Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish population had lived in Sarajevo since the 15th century. Notations in the Haggadah trace it to Italy in the 17th century. In the 19th century, a Jewish family in Sarajevo sold it to the BiH National Museum.

During WW2, Hitler ordered it, and many other Jewish artworks, to be destroyed, but the story goes that when his soldier asked the Muslim guard at the Museum for it, the guard said it had already been taken by the Nazis. The guard then arranged for the book to be hidden in a Muslim mosque for the remainder of the war.

Its survival was also threatened during the war in Bosnia and the Sarajevo siege. Again, a Muslim, this time the director of the Museum, rescued it despite heavy shelling of the city and the Museum. He put it in an underground vault for safekeeping during the war. One of the greatest tragedies of the war was the loss of hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable books when the National Library was bombed and burned. Thus, the Haggadah’s continued existence is a cherished link to the city’s past and a much heralded example of different religions working together in this city which religion tore apart.

It remains on display at the Museum, but only for 2 hours per week and I was not there for either of them.


I discovered an entirely pleasurable way of moving from one town to the next that didn’t involve bus rides, which had become my usual means of transport in the Balkans. Offered by a company in Sarajevo called MeetBosnia, it provides transfers between cities with a tour on the way. As the alternative was a 6 hour bus ride from Sarajevo to Belgrade, it was a welcome choice.

Our driver was Adenne, who picked me and my two traveling companions for the day up in a Mercedes and announced we would be taking the backroads so as to enjoy the best of the countryside.

Our first stop was at in Visegrad, at the Old Stone Bridge over the Drina River. A stunning Ottoman arch bridge built in the 1577, the original withstood the wars and is a UNESCO World Heritage site:

Old Stone Bridge

We drove to Kamengrad, a theme park type town with 4 replicas of typical Byzantine, Ottoman, Viennese and Renaissance villages. It was a tad artificial and Adenne admitted it had not attracted the crowds its developer had hoped for. More successful was the Ethno Village in Drvengrad, with all buildings constructed entirely of wood. It now hosts a successful film festival.

The real star of the drive were the views. The highway meandered around mountains, through forest after forest, providing spectacular panoramas of the valleys below. Although not quite as awe-inspiring as the western part of Bosnia, with its waterfalls and snow peaked mountains, it was still beautiful.

Countryside View

Our last stop was a Serbian Orthodox monastery at Kolubarski. We were welcomed in by the caretaker. Inside, the church was covered with murals depicting Christ, as in all Orthodox churches, the Virgin Mary and some of the Apostles.

The Monastery

Final Thoughts:

I wish I had spent more time in Bosnia, especially enjoying  nature around Mostar. The countryside is unbelievably gorgeous. All the people I met were friendly; their worst fault is they smoke too much, even inside restaurants. The Bosniaks also practiced the most liberal form of Islam I have encountered. All of my Muslim guides admitted to drinking alcohol. I saw only one woman in a body covering Abaya and just a few wearing the Hajib. Even though it was Ramadan, when Muslims fast and don’t smoke during the day, restaurants were open as usual and plenty of tourists (and locals?) were enjoying coffee, a glass of wine and pizza, which was ubiquitous. The mosques did not use loud speakers to broadcast the Call to Prayer 5 times a day. Only the roar of a cannon at sunset to announce the end of the daily Ramadan fast broke the silence.

I came to BiH expecting to see a country recovering from a horrendous war. Obviously, the war and its after effects weigh heavy and are hard to miss. Shell holes mar many buildings in Sarajevo, mine signs warn not to step on certain land, pre-war industry has yet to recover with the result that BiH has huge unemployment and relies heavily on foreign aid. But my departing impressions were of a beautiful country with people trying hard to recover their reputation for tolerance which they had enjoyed for 500 years.

Next: Serbia: Subtle propaganda and anti-West sentiment.