SARAJEVO, Bosnia & Herzegovina
The city is absolutely beautiful- it was the first place on my trip that I felt that I was truly in a land far, far, away. Sarajevo translates in Bosnian to ‘castle valley’ after the one building in the once undeveloped valley. Now an impressive large mosque stands in its place.
I had the opportunity to take a guided tour with a lovely tour guide, Verena, who was born and raised in Sarajevo. She told so many interesting anecdotes that I could barely jot them all down. Hopefully I got the most important bits!
Sarajevo was under siege from 1992-1995. Serbian forces (Republik Srpska and the Yugoslav People’s Army) lined the mountains and attacked the city in an effort to claim Sarajevo as part of a new Serbian state. Over 11,000 citizens lost their lives and an estimated 50,000 were injured. Most of the city has since been rebuilt, but bullet and shell marks are visible on many of the town’s facades.
Although she was young at the time, my guide remembered unpleasant years of traveling from basement to basement and attending make-shift schools that had been set-up ‘temporarily’. “That was a long time to be underground” she told me. Plaques are visible on walls where shells killed pedestrians. There are ‘roses’ on the ground- shell indents filled with red paint to remind passersby that someone had been hit and killed in that very spot. Although there are such reminders around the city, as a tourist it’s hard to imagine this incredibly peaceful town being so recently traumatized. It’s a shocking reminder that this could happen almost anywhere.
The arrival of the Turks in the 15th century transformed the mountain-dwelling existence of the Bosnians to more a trade-based lifestyle in the developing city. Silk importation was the Sarajevo’s first claim to fame. Thanks to Ottoman mayor Gazi Husravbeg, many beautiful buildings, bazaars, and mosques, were built during this period in the 15th century. The Turks still believed in the importance of separating home life from trade, so the houses were built in the nearby hills. There was also a ‘right of view’ law – no house was allowed to block another’s view. Even now, many graveyards are visible in the hillside neighborhoods- Verena explained that the Ottomans had mixed the cemeteries with residential areas to remind the living to be on their best behavior each time they passed by.
The preserved Turkish part of the city center is called the Bascarsija which means ‘trade district’. I enjoyed this area the most- especially the street filled with coppersmiths. You can observe them chiseling away at coffee sets and vases throughout the day.
Labyrinthine passages led to little squares where people sat on plush cushions while smoking hookah, and drinking tea. I felt as if I was walking into some sort of mini-Istanbul. As you continue west along the main road past mosques (there are 204 in the Ottoman quarter!) and low buildings, you suddenly notice a change in landscape as Austro-Hungarian architecture takes over.
Taking a stroll through central Sarajevo is like walking between two worlds. Trendy cafes constantly play European pop music as you continue down the Austro-Hungarian stretch.
Interesting factoids from my tour:
**Sarajevo has historically been home to four main religious groups: Serbian Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. Sarajevo’s Jewish community was devastated after WW2
**You can still buy postcards advertising the 1984 winter olympics
**The Sebilj is a famous water fountain in the Bascarsija’s main square. The legend: if you take a drink from the fountain, you will return to Sarajevo. Verena made sure we stopped there and had a drink.
**She showed me something called a Mangala (sp?) It’s a coal-heated device and its purpose is to keep coffee warm.Traditionally hosts would set coffee cups on the metal lip in order to keep them warm for guests.
**We visited the Gazi-Husrevbeg Vakauf – a beautiful building built in the 1530′s and named after the Ottoman mayor. Now a carpet store and an attractive tea house, this used to be an inn which offered three nights of free stay to weary travelers. In Islamic culture, helping travelers is important and wealthy families would donate money to the vakauf (foundation) in order to fund this tradition.
**The Legend of the Church of the Holy Child- a mother once murdered her baby in the church yard. Centuries later the coffin was found, opened, and the shocked clergy found the preserved body of a recently deceased child. The child’s corpse was then displayed in the church. It was said that women who had trouble getting pregnant should visit the church and pray to this murdered child for fertility.
**Something like 50% of Bosnians are unemployed. My tour guide is a certified lawyer and has been searching for a job for over a year and a half. She said she is ready to practice whatever kind of law she can find a job in- specialization isn’t even an option when living in present-day Bosnia. High hopes are placed in tourism, and judging by the amount of souvenir tit-tat that’s already present, it seems like more and more tourists are finding out about this hidden gem every year.