SARAJEVO, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Sarajevo is stunning. It was the first place on my three week trip through the Balkan countries that I felt that I was truly in a land far, far, away. In Bosnian, Sarajevo translates to “castle valley,” as there was once a lone castle in the once undeveloped hollow. Now, an impressive mosque stands in its place.
I had the opportunity to take a tour with a local 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 still young at the time, Verena remembered unpleasant years of traveling from basement to basement, 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, and pedestrians will notice many “roses,”—shell indents filled in with red paint which serve as grim reminders that someone had met their end in that very spot. Although there are numerous similar reminders around the city, as a tourist it’s hard to imagine this somewhat sleepy, and undeniably peaceful town being so recently traumatized.
The arrival of the Ottoman empire in the 15th century transformed the mountain-dwelling existence of the Bosnians to more a trade-based civilization, spurring the development of Sarajevo. Silk importation was the city’s first claim to fame, and thanks to Ottoman governor Gazi Husrev-beg, 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 the view of another. Even now, many graveyards are visible in the hillside neighborhoods, and 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. They can be observed chiseling away at coffee sets and vases throughout the day.
Labyrinthine passages led to tiny 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. Continuing West along the main road past mosques (there are 204 in the Ottoman quarter!) and low buildings, there’s a sudden change in the architectural landscape as Austro-Hungarian design takes over.
Taking a stroll through central Sarajevo is like walking between two worlds. Trendy cafes blast European pop music as you continue down the Austro-Hungarian stretch.
- Sarajevo has historically been home to four main religious groups: Serbian Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. Sarajevo’s Jewish community was devastated after WW2
Fountain in front of the Gazi Husrev-beg mosque
- Austrian-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo- a single shot simultaneously killed both Franz and his wife and started WW1.
- 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 and had a sip.
- She showed me something called a Mangala (sp?) It’s a coal-heated device and its purpose is to keep coffee warm. Hosts would set coffee cups on the metal lip in order to keep them warm for guests.
- We visited the Gazi-Husrev-beg Vakauf, a beautiful building built in the 1530’s named after the Ottoman governor. 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 and opened, and the shocked clergy discovered the immaculately preserved body of a recently deceased child. The kid’s corpse was then displayed in the church and it was said that women who have trouble getting pregnant should visit the church and pray to this murdered child for fertility. Morbid, I know.
- According to Verena, nearly 50% of Bosnians are unemployed. My tour guide is a 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, since 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, more and more tourists are finding out about this hidden gem every year.