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Volume 49, Number 5September/October 1998

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Hearts and Stones

"I was in my office, working to the sound of mortar fire, when we heard the cries in the street—cries that the bridge had fallen. And what happened then was so impressive that I will never forget it. Everyone came out to see. Grenades and bombs were falling everywhere, but still they came out of their hiding places: Young, and old, weak and strong, Muslim and Christian, they all came, all crying. Because that bridge, it was part of our identity. It represented us all."

A. Bubić, Commissioner of Culture and Sport—East Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995)

Written by Jerrilynn D. Dodds

Last September, a crowd of dignitaries, journalists and citizens watched as a truck-mounted crane lifted the first fragments of an old stone bridge from the bottom of the jade-green Neretva River. As the winch whined and the broken stones were laid gently on a barge, the onlookers scattered flowers on them, white petals on the black stain of four years' immersion. Some of the onlookers cheered, some wept.

This moment of mingled hope and apprehension took place at Mostar, a small city set like a jewel in the mountainous landscape of southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, once part of Yugoslavia. Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović presided over the ceremony, but its origins—and its future—were international. Officers of the NATO-led stabilization force in Bosnia (SFOR) planned it; a Hungarian bridge-building company engineered it; Bosnian architects directed it; and Spanish SFOR troops carried it out. As each cable-wrapped stone rose, so did the hearts of Bosnians at home and abroad. The reconstruction of Stari Most, Mostar's beloved Old Bridge, was under way.

For more than 400 years, Stari Most had linked the eastern and western banks of the Neretva, which carves a gorge through the oldest part of Mostar. It was a footbridge, of no military value, but famous as the longest single stone span in the world and as a jewel of Ottoman architecture. But at 10:15 on Tuesday morning, Croat tanks firing at point-blank range sent the bridge tumbling into the river. Today it is difficult to find a Bosnian in Mostar who cannot recall precisely what he or she was doing when the news spread that Stari Most had fallen.

The Balkan wars, through 1995, cost some 200,000 lives; two million people were driven from their homes and homelands under the crudest of circumstances. More than 1400 mosques, 150 Catholic churches and a score of Orthodox ones, and dozens of culturally important buildings, including the famous National and University Library, with its 1.6-million-item collection, were destroyed. So why, after the lives and homes and rights they had lost, did the Bosnians of Mostar still react with such passion to the destruction of a stone bridge?

Although, as an Ottoman monument, it was part of the city's Islamic heritage, Stari Most had become, over the centuries, a collective symbol of what it meant to be from Mostar. Among the Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews who shared a centuries-old multi-confessional Bosnian identity, Stari Most was the physical manifestation of the bonds that joined peoples who had worked and lived peacefully together over more than half a millennium.

Stari Most connected Stari Grad, Mostar's Old Town, on the eastern bank of the Neretva, to the largely new town on the western bank. It thus also linked the two parts of the city that were associated with Mostar's Muslim and Catholic populations respectively. Though the two sides of the river were largely integrated in 1992, the symbolism of the bridge as a link between Bosnian Muslims and Croat Catholics, as a representation of Bosnian multiculturalism, persisted and intensified during the war. It was that symbolism that made Stari Most a target of those who wanted an exclusively Croatian capital in Mostar.

András Riedlmayer, bibliographer in Islamic art and architecture at Harvard University's Fine Arts Library, has compiled the most complete archive of the hundreds of monuments destroyed in the 43-month war. "The bridge at Mostar survived the fall of the Ottoman Empire," he says. "It survived World War I, and it was spared during the Fascist retreat at the end of World War II, though many other bridges in the Balkan theater were destroyed. Its destruction was not an act of war, but an attempt to destroy the multicultural ideal of the Bosnian state."

Mostar architect Amir Pasić, who received the 1986 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for his restoration of Stari Most and many buildings of Stari Grad, believes that "the bridge's reconstruction can be the keystone of the healing of the city."

That is a tall order: Although Mostar today remains part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is a divided city. The west bank is held by Croat factions that have a troubled and tenuous relationship with the Bosnians who control the east side. Yet despite the enormous challenges of rebuilding Mostar on both sides of the Neretva, it seems as though the bridge has survived in spirit as, over the past four years, its symbolism has deepened among Bosnians and taken a firm hold on the hearts and minds of advocates of a multicultural community throughout the former Yugoslavia and in the international community.

"The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us," wrote Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić. "Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destinies."

The name Mostar itself means "bridge-keeper." Since long before Ottoman times, the town was an important river-crossing along the road from the Adriatic coast to the Bosnian heartland. As Mostar's economic and administrative importance grew with the gaming of Ottoman rule, the precarious wooden suspension bridge over the Neretva gorge required replacement.

"It was made of wood and hung on chains," wrote the Ottoman geographer Kâtib Çelebi, and it "swayed so much that people crossing it did so in mortal fear."

In 1566, Mimar Hayruddin, a student of the great architect Sinan, designed Stari Most. At the time, Süleyman the Magnificent sat on the Ottoman throne, and the empire was at the zenith of its power. The bridge, which was said to have cost 300,000 silver coins to build, was but one component of the Ottomans' transformation of Mostar from modest settlement to vibrant colonial crossroads. The two-year construction project was supervised by Karagöz Mehmet Bey, Sultan Süleyman's son-in-law and the patron of Mostar's most important mosque complex, called the Hadži Mehmed Karadžozbeg Mosque. The bridge, 28 meters long and 20 meters high (90' by 64'), quickly became a wonder in its own time. The great traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote in the 17th century 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 God, 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."

Under the Ottomans, Mostar became successively a market village, then the seat of a na'ib, or deputy judge, then the seat of a full-fledged judge, or kadi, then a sanjakhk, or county seat—all levels of the well-organized hierarchy of communities through which the Ottomans administered the lands of the empire. Just as the Romans built aqueducts and fora in Nîmes and Trier, or the French built hôtels de ville in Rabat and Saigon, the Ottomans used architecture to mark their domination of a foreign land. By focusing not only on monumental structures but also on publicly useful beneficial works—roads, housing, libraries, soup kitchens, mosques and schools—they did more than advertise and consolidate their power. The new structures presented a physical context for the unification of newly subject peoples into the empire. Indeed, the new institutions were often gifts of wealthy individuals of the Ottoman court—many of them Bosnians themselves—whose largesse helped attach a benevolent and localized meaning to Ottoman rule.

The Karadžozbeg complex, under construction from 1556 to 1570, included a madrasah, or school, a caravansarai, a soup kitchen, a library and an elegant, jewel-like domed mosque at the city's mercantile hub. This mosque was designed by Sinan himself, the master architect of the court of Süleyman. Like Sinan's masterwork, the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Mostar's Karadžozbeg Mosque bore a single dome set on penden-tives, a form which became a mark of Ottoman mosque construction.

As part of this larger, ongoing construction, Stari Most both stimulated and benefited from Ottoman Mostar's burgeoning economy. The protection offered by the bridge's fortifications and the facility it offered to travelers enlarged the city's trade, evidenced by an expansion of its bazaar soon after the opening of the bridge.

It is also to the Ottoman period that Bosnian multiculturalism traces its origins. The Ottomans brought with them strict laws regarding religious toleration of Christians, Jews and other minorities, a policy of non-interference in communal affairs, and a recognition of the economic value of intercommunal trade. The clearly defined, officially recognized ethnic communities of Ottoman times survived long after the fall of the Ottoman Empire—survived, indeed, until this decade. Multiculturalism has thus been part of the city's identity from the height of Ottoman power in the 16th century through a de facto independence, a brief time within the ambit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, through two World Wars and some four decades of Yugoslavian-style communism.

But it was not by such political abstractions that Stari Most became the heart of Mostar.

"It was the place where someone might be kissed for the first time," muses Professor Muhammed Hamidović, director of the Institute for Preservation in Sarajevo. "It was the place where people met. It was the spot from which, for hundreds of years, all young boys—Muslim, Christian, Orthodox and Jew—dived into the river to prove their courage, as a sort of rite of passage."

"Muslims, Christians, it didn't matter to us before this war," said Rashko Yević, a Bosnian Croat and Catholic, as he paused near the ruins of the bridge last May. "All that time we have been here, together, with the bridge. It was the symbol of our city, of all of us together."

Though the first stones were lifted from the water last September, the reconstruction of Stari Most actually began at the moment of its destruction, and the groundwork for rebuilding was being laid before anyone knew it would be necessary.

It is in no small part thanks to the energy of Mostar architect Amir Pasić that Mostar and its bridge are so well known outside Bosnia. Pasić's award-winning prewar restoration of the bridge and old city had also included a plan for the development of local crafts and industry, which was well under way when the war broke out. It was this economic dimension that made Stari Grad an international model, and it secured Pasić his role as a leading advocate of the value of the city's architectural heritage.

Pasić left Mostar in April 1992, after a bomb exploded in the apartment courtyard where his children had been playing moments earlier. He took a position at the Research Center for Islamic Art, History and Culture in Istanbul and began teaching in the school of architecture at Yıldız University. In addition, he has traveled the world to speak to groups as large and official as the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland and as small and informal as clusters of architecture students in university lounges, always trying to keep the spirit of Mostar, and his hopes for its revival, alive in his listeners' minds.

His plans for Mostar's reconstruction date to his sojourn at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, not long before the bridge's destruction. Then, during the months that his city was under fire, he sent to more than 500 architects, planners, humanitarian organizations and others an extraordinary invitation to the inauguration of a newly reconstructed Old Town of Mostar in the year 2004. Pasić was startlingly specific: The ceremony, he noted, would be held on "September 15,2004, at 5:00 p.m. (sharp)."

"I wanted people to know that it would really happen," he explains. His combination of intensity and matter-of-factness has fired an influential informal coalition of professionals and agencies with his positive vision.

In preparation, Pasić has held "Mostar 2004" workshops each year since the bridge's destruction. Last year, the workshop was held not in Istanbul but in Mostar itself for the first time, as Pasić joined forces with Zijad Demerović, then head of the town's Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. The workshops have attracted participants from six continents, and often include Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian students. Each workshop has documented problems and opportunities that arise as the city's rebuilding becomes a reality.

Demerović, an expansive and resourceful architect whose office is just steps from the ruins of the bridge, heard the news of its destruction while in a Croatian prison. "It was then that I determined to be part of its rebuilding," he says. In 1994 he began leading diving expeditions to locate, examine and document each of the stones that lay on the riverbed.

The reconstruction effort faces several obstacles. First, because Mostar is now a divided city, efforts to reunite the primarily Muslim east side with the Croat-held west side—even symbolically—must proceed slowly. East Mostar is where the majority of the city's historic monuments lie, nearly every one of which has sustained damage. Reconstruction of the bridge thus competes financially with efforts to reconstruct other historic sites, and any money that can be raised for such purposes must be over and above the staggering amounts required to rebuild schools, clinics, workplaces and other facilities to serve the basic needs of the war's survivors.

Last year, Pasić joined Mostar's mayor, Safet Orucević, in the creation of the Stari Mostar Foundation, an umbrella organization uniting colleagues from numerous national governments and international organizations in raising the funds to reconstruct the bridge and Stari Grad. In addition to the donated services of Hídépító, a Hungarian bridge-building contractor, support has also come from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Research Center for Islamic Art, History and Culture in Istanbul and the government of Turkey; the latter has pledged one million dollars of the estimated five million that the reconstruction of Stari Most will cost. And this summer, the Historic Cities Support Program of the Aga Khan Trust for Architecture, directed by Stefano Bianca, joined forces with the World Monuments Fund to provide money and technical help for the reconstruction.

Thanks to the success of Pasić's and others' efforts, and the potency of the symbolism of Stari Most, funding for the bridge has come more easily than for the other monuments of Stari Grad. Thus Stari Mostar officials are considering how they might financially link the reconstruction of the bridge to repairs in the rest of the historic town, "to ensure not just the reconstruction of the bridge as an edifice," says Pasić, "but the revitalization of the city's fabric and to strengthen the ideals the bridge represents."

John Calame of the World Monuments Fund, a specialist in historic preservation in politically sensitive contexts, points out another problem: "How to raise significant funds from a broad international base of institutions without disenfranchising the people of Mostar from the reconstruction of their own bridge." In Mostar, he adds, "the people need to continue their sense of investment and identity in the bridge, and in their own urban context."

Pasić has produced a strategy to accomplish just this: "The cutting and placing of the keystones of the bridge—the most important stones, the stones which sustain the entire structure—will be funded by the people of Mostar alone. We will do this, and we will give whatever we can, because it is our city. It is our bridge."

By the end of 1997, hundreds of stones ranging from the size of a handbag up to 40 tons' weight (88,000 pounds) had been dredged from the river and set on specially built platforms on the banks of the Neretva. The fragments must dry completely before they are reused, lest they crack after placement. The next stage will be to replace the old stones and carve scores of new ones to replace those that were not recovered. Fortunately, a host of Bosnian architects and preservationists know the bridge literally "stone by stone": They took part in four recent restorations of the bridge, in 1957,1970,1986 and 1991, and their documentation of it has been preserved.

On June 13, 1998 the temporary UN-built footbridge—a suspension span reminiscent of the heart-stoppingly precarious pre-Ottoman bridge—was removed and a temporary stationary bridge was built a few meters upstream so that the Stari Most site could be prepared for reconstruction.

It is hard to know whether rebuilding the bridge will help reunify this scarred and divided city. Today, only 30,000 of Mostar's 130,000 prewar inhabitants remain in the city, along with 30,000 refugees from outlying towns and villages. Muslim and Croat sectors of the city each have their own currency, license plates, police force and school system, as well as a rapidly firming acceptance of a separation that would have been unthinkable before the war. "The bridge can be theirs; give it to the Muslims," said a young Croat coolly. "It used to be a nice place to go, but now this is our part of the city, and that is theirs."

But Pasić has hope. "If we are moved by destruction, how can we not be affected by reconstruction?" he asks. And there are those among Mostar's Croats who agree with him. A charismatic, moderate Croat who is expected to run for mayor someday, Josip Muse, gives his profession simply as "Mostaru: I am, above all, a citizen of Mostar." "My mother died and I had not yet been able to cry," he said late last summer, eyes glistening, "but when the bridge fell, then I could cry, and here, you see, I am crying again. The bridge belongs to all the people of Mostar. If you heal the bridge, you will start something here."

Jerrilynn D. Dodds, author, filmmaker and curator, is professor of history and theory at the school of architecture at City College of the City University of New York. She is working on a film about the rebuilding of Stari Most.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the September/October 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1998 images.