A Journey to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Where Sleeping Beauty Awakens
More than 20 years after war upended this breathtakingly beautiful land in the Balkans, a writer explores her faith, and the challenges of history.
By Sarah A. Khan
May 20, 2019
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there stood emerald peaks woven with crystalline rivers, hillsides garlanded with stone villages, and canyons joined by lofty bridges arcing toward the heavens. This enchanting realm even had a suitably enchanting name: Bosnia and Herzegovina, as melodious as Narnia, Utopia or Shangri-La, worlds that exist in the imagination, not on maps.
But Bosnia, of course, isn’t exactly a fairy tale.
As much as I’d prepared myself, it didn’t register when I first glimpsed it: an apartment block a few minutes from Sarajevo’s airport, its otherwise unremarkable facade speckled with unseemly blisters. Soon after, a building with a gaping chasm where a window might have once been, and then another, with chunks of plaster gouged out like missing teeth.
“Are those from the war?” I asked my cabdriver.
War-damaged facades in Mostar, from the 1990s war. Susan Wright for The New York Times
Sarajevo roses — or craters left by shelling during the 1990s war, now filled with resin — in the Sarajevo market. Susan Wright for The New York Times
He didn’t understand me, or chose not to respond, but some questions don’t need answers. The lingering scars are reminders of an evil transpired not once upon a time but just a quarter of a century ago, from curses that were the doing of neighbors and friends, not the spell of some spiteful witch.
And yet, in Bosnia, I found scenery that fit the platonic ideal of a fairy tale, a dreamy dominion punctuated by spindly minarets instead of crosses. I could relate more to this landscape than to those of the fables of my childhood, in which valiant knights pursuing fair maidens were usually fresh off the horse from bloody quests that had a little something to do with vanquishing Islam. In a time when much of Europe is racked with a suspicion of my faith as a foreign entity breaching its shores, I’d come to Bosnia to see what a homegrown Muslim community, with 500 years of history rooted in the heart of Europe, might feel like.
Sarajevo, a city reborn
In the Bascarsija, the labyrinthine old quarter at the heart of Sarajevo, I strolled through various lanes of the 16th-century, Ottoman-era bazaar that had once been demarcated for different artisans: Coppersmiths would tak-tak-tak away at pots on Kazandziluk; blacksmiths forged iron tools on Kovaci; tanners hawked leather goods on Saraci; and shoemakers converged on Cizmedziluk.
These days, the shops blur into an endless expanse of tea sets, leather slippers and artwork that I’m assured is completely original (unlike those identical prints next door, of course). But what caught my eye most were the door knockers embellished with brass and silver. The zvekir is a symbol of the city, featuring prominently on the coat of arms of Sarajevo Canton; it is, I was told by a tour guide, a tribute to the hospitality of the Bosnians.
“Maybe because of the Islamic roots here, the people are warm,” Reshad Strik, owner of a cafe called Ministry of Cejf on the fringes of Bascarsija, told me over a pot of Bosnian coffee, thick with a bitter sediment reminiscent of its Turkish forebear. “Maybe that’s why there’s war here all the time. We’re too welcoming.”
Bosnia has had more than its share of visitors, welcome or otherwise: The Balkans’ coordinates — where the East spills into the West — means the region appears in the footnotes of major chapters in the histories of other countries and empires. It ricocheted from Romans to Goths to Byzantines to Slavs before being conquered by the Turks in the 15th century, becoming the westernmost outpost of the Ottoman Empire — until the Hapsburgs came along and it was swallowed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. World War I detonated after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand near Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge; after World War II, Bosnia was fused with Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia into Communist Yugoslavia.
Sarajevo City Hall, damaged during the 1990s war, reopened in 2014.
Susan Wright for The New York Times
Then, in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia dissolved, so did human civility. Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, who had lived for generations in a multiethnic society, suddenly became dangerously aware of their differences. Sarajevo found itself trapped in the longest siege in modern warfare, during which Serb forces, bolstered by the might of the former Yugoslav army, rained fury down on a defenseless city from the surrounding mountains. For 1,425 days, or nearly four years — from 1992 to 1996 — the city smoldered under a blitz that killed more than 10,000 people.
And yet, Sarajevans endured. “The city was living, people were psychologically fighting,” said Zana Karkin, the owner of Bazerdzan, a fashion boutique in the old quarter. “People were wearing nice clothes, having parties, having concerts.”
As we chatted, the Sarajevo Film Festival was filling the streets with revelers until all hours. Now one of Europe’s most glittering film festivals, it began in 1995 as an underground act of defiance powered by generators during the darkest days of the siege, and 10,000 Sarajevans braved the shelling to attend screenings.
One of the most enduring images I’ve seen from the war is of a musician in tails cradling a cello; where there should be an orchestra lies only rubble, where there should be an audience stand the skeletal remains of pillars and arches, and where there should be a gilded ceiling there is only sky peeking through mangled rafters. Vedran Smailovic, who was a cellist in the Sarajevo Opera, became a symbol of perseverance when he played amid the ruins of Vijecnica, Sarajevo’s obliterated 19th-century city hall turned national library. The landmark was a neo-Moorish fantasy conceived by a Czech architect under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the spectacularly reborn atrium, perhaps in the very spot where Mr. Smailovic himself played, I watched a bride and groom dance in solitude for wedding pictures.
Kovaci street, in the Bascarsija quarter of Sarajevo. Susan Wright for The New York Times
Like Vijecnica, much of the city was resurrected from the embers. When I glanced one way down a street I was convinced I was in Istanbul; if I turned my head, I traveled to Vienna; hemmed in by mountains, it could be a Swiss diorama. The historical layering of religions has earned Sarajevo the designation Jerusalem of Europe. On one street, a synagogue, a mosque and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches stand within steps of one another.
But at each step I also found haunting wartime relics, preserved to ensure memories aren’t swept away with the ashes: Petal-shaped craters left by shelling, now embalmed in red resin and dubbed Sarajevo Roses. Toy tanks made out of bullets on sale at souvenir shops. And cemeteries — so, so many cemeteries. Everywhere you turn, hills are flecked with tombstones, rising from the slopes like forests of slender white obelisks. When I asked someone for directions to a particular graveyard I’d read about, she shook her head sadly: “Everywhere is a graveyard here.”
But honoring the past doesn’t have to mean living in it. “People are pessimistic after the war, but I really wanted to show how I see things here,” Ms. Karkin said. At Bazerdzan, I browsed chic designs marrying modern cuts with traditional crafts: thick zinc bracelets inlaid with Bosnian song lyrics by the local label Werkstatt; cotton wrap blouses with graphic prints from Plus Minus; and suede espadrilles from the New York- and Sarajevo-based label Intuitva.
“I wanted to promote Bosnian culture and tradition, to tell the story of Bosnia,” Ms. Karkin said. “I really wanted to show how I see things here.”
Bazerdzan, a boutique in Sarajevo. Susan Wright for The New York Times
Ms. Karkin was 8 when the war broke out. “My life, everything that I do today, has been impacted by the fact that I grew up in the city under siege — it’s a huge source of energy for me,” she said. “I remember being up on a mountain looking at the city being fired upon from grandmother’s house, and I said, ‘I will never leave, we will survive, and I will help recover it from ashes.’”
She’s kept her promise: “I’ve traveled everywhere, but I keep coming back.”
Bosnia’s struggling economy and convoluted postwar political setup — a three-way presidency made up of a Bosnian, a Serb and a Croat — have led many young Bosnians to seek opportunities overseas. But there are those who remain steadfastly optimistic.
Take Mr. Strik. Born in Australia to a Bosnian father and an Australian mother, the actor grew up overseas and worked in Hollywood (I later found a YouTube video of his role as a roller-skating love interest in a Jessica Simpson music video). A decade ago he came to his father’s hometown for a visit — and never left. “There’s just something about this city, it has so much soul,” he said. On a steep cobblestone road, his children play in neighboring shops as he slings flat whites alongside Bosnian coffee in a cozy nook that could easily be in Brooklyn, Berlin or on Instagram. It’s a modern approach to a Turkish legacy that’s ingrained in Bosnia’s national identity.
The Festina Lente pedestrian bridge in Sarajevo. Susan Wright for The New York Times
“What we’re doing is very important, we’re doing the art of our culture,” he said. “Coffee flourished in the Ottoman Empire. That’s our roots here.”
Across the street, I dropped into the workshop of Nermina Alic, a female coppersmith carrying on her father’s craft while reinventing a delicate form of engraving called savat in stylish candleholders. Nearby, I flipped through gossamer gowns by the designer Emina Hodzic Adilovic, who keeps her successful Kaftan Studio in Sarajevo, resisting the siren call of Milan and Paris. I sampled traditional dzandar baklava — a specialty of Sarajevo, made with walnuts or hazelnuts, that takes three days to make — at the modern bakery Baklava Ducan, and browsed contemporary Islamic calligraphy by the artist Smajovic Mirza at Morica Han, an 18th-century caravansary, now brimming with restaurants and galleries.
A few blocks from the notorious Latin Bridge, I crossed the Miljacka River over the looped Festina Lente, a futuristic pedestrian bridge conceptualized by three design students at Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts. Atop Mount Trebevic, a bobsled track from the halcyon days of Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympics was decimated by Serbs who used the peak as a sniper position; today, enterprising Sarajevan artists have reclaimed it as a graffiti park.
“This is a very creative city,” Mr. Strik said. “During Ottoman times everything was beautiful. When they did things, if they did it, they did it perfect. The details really pay off. It’s like a fairy tale city.”
The fortress near the stone village of Pocitelj. Susan Wright for The New York Times
Crossing a fairy-tale bridge to Mostar
The fairy tale continued as I crossed over to the southern region of Herzegovina, where the craggy peaks and virgin forests and translucent rivers could have been immortalized in illustrations for “Sleeping Beauty” or “Cinderella” — that is, if the artist erased the pencil-thin minarets darting above the trees. I prayed inside the Sisman Pasa mosque in Pocitelj, a charming stone village that cascades down the contours of a sheer cliff. In Blagaj, at a 15th-century dervish monastery above the river Buna in the shadow of a towering bluff, I read the Arabic “hu,” a common Sufi dhikr, or chant.
But amid the magic, darkness still loomed: In Konjic, as I fantasized about putting a down payment on a lovely riverside cottage, I glimpsed the scorched stub of a bombed-out minaret behind it. It was one of 614 mosques destroyed across the country during the war.
While invaders have long helped themselves to Bosnia’s hospitality, tourists seeking to conquer new lands via Instagram feeds have mostly bypassed it. Twenty-four years after the end of the war, next-door Croatia has emerged as a bucket-list topper, welcoming nearly 14 million tourists in 2016. A glance at a map suggests why: Croatia won big in the cartography lottery, boomeranging around Bosnia and sweeping up most of the Balkan coastline. But its neighbor remains largely overlooked — in 2016, Bosnia had less than a million visitors.
The Neretva River, near Mostar. Susan Wright for The New York Times
A year’s worth of tourists seemed to have joined me in Mostar on the day I arrived. Thousands of day trippers flood the historic quarter to cross the 16th-century Stari Most bridge, receding come evening to nearby Dubrovnik or Split. The allure is obvious — when I beheld the majestic link that leaps gracefully across two cliffs wrenched apart by the Neretva River, the number of selfie sticks seemed not nearly high enough for a sight so ethereal.
The 17th-century Ottoman explorer Evliya Celebi wrote that “the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other . . . I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.” While modern technology has resulted in far higher bridges in the ensuing centuries, I, yet another poor and miserable slave of Allah, who’s passed through some 45 countries, have never seen such a lovely one.
In Mostar, shops near the Stari Most bridge. Susan Wright for The New York Times
The wounds of the war are more obvious in Mostar, a city that sustained some of the most intense bombing. And the Stari Most itself was among the victims, buckling into the Neretva in 1993 after relentless Croat shelling. The imposing bridge standing today is a replica, rebuilt in 2004 using the Ottoman-era techniques of the original, which had been commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent. It’s now Bosnia’s most recognizable landmark, and the tangle of quaint lanes spilling around it are quintessential tourist catnip à la Santorini or Bruges, packed with taverns plying travelers with everything from mediocre gelato and pasta to excellent cevapi (a type of kebab) and a fig cake called smokvara.
That evening, sitting in a restaurant on Mostar’s western cliff, with the bridge aglow under the crepuscular sky and the call to prayer echoing around it, I was, well, enchanted. For a moment, I let myself indulge the fantasy that I was in a fairy tale, and that, for Bosnia, happily ever after might finally be within grasp.
Mostar suffered some of the most intense bombing in the 1990s war. Susan Wright for The New York Times
Places to Stay
In Sarajevo, the Aziza Hotel is a sweet family-run hotel a short walk uphill from the Bascarsija (the bazaar). Information: Saburina 2; hotelaziza.ba. Doubles from around 40 euros (or about $45) in low season, 80 euros in the summer.
To be close to all the main sites, stay in or near the Bascarsija — Airbnb has entire apartments in this neighborhood for around $25 per night.
In Mostar, Muslibegovic House is an inn situated in what was once the 17th-century mansion of an Ottoman nobleman. The house is a national landmark; don’t miss the daily guided tour at 10 a.m. Information: Osmana Dikica 41; muslibegovichouse.com. Doubles from around 90 euros in the summer.
Sarah Khan, a frequent contributor to Travel, is based in New York.
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Correction: May 20, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated the branch of the Orthodox Church that many Serbs are associated with. It is the Serbian Orthodox Church, not the Russian Orthodox.
A version of this article appears in print on May 26, 2019, on Page TR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Balkan Beauty, Amid Scars.