Bosnia: Sarajevo at the Crossroads of History

The story of Sarajevo unfolds in its historic centre, where Ottoman omnipresence and Austro-Hungarian elegance fuse with an unmistakable Balkan twist. The city is surrounded by hills and mountains from which the Serbs and their allies once poured hell on the helpless civilians. Such is the sadness of geography for a country that has paid a hefty price for its genius loci, always stuck between superpowers and hostile sides.

The historic city centre around Baščaršija (Sarajevo’s Old Bazaar) shows all the ‘usual suspects’ of an Ottoman city, and it should come as no surprise: the city centre is the brainchild of one benevolent and visionary ruler, namely the Ottoman Gazi Husrev Beg, sanjak-beg (district ruler) of Bosnia. Born to a Bosnian father and an Ottoman mother (and grandson of Sultan Bayazid II), his ensemble (architectural complex) includes a mosque, a madrasa, a library, a clock tower, a tašlihan (caravanserai or merchants’ inn), a bezistan (covered market), a hamam (bath), an aqueduct, fountains, to the end of the long list. More than just an ‘Ottoman fossil’, almost all these monuments are still functioning, whether serving their original function or recycled into a relevant use.

I started my day with some cheese-filled burek for breakfast. Walking down the Ferhadija Street (which was conceived around the Ferhad Pasha Mosque), I had a first stop at the Gazi Husrev Beg’s Mosque to admire the beautiful wooden Shadirwan (fountain) and the harmonious interior, before paying a visit to the Madrasa and Haniqah across the street. At the Sarači Street, I could not resist the coffee temptation. A little detour and I found myself at the heart of the Morića Han (Roadside Caravanserai) where I had my first Bosnian coffee (served in a copper-plated pot with a long, decorated neck, called a džezva, with a side cup containing sugar cubes and rahat lokum, better known as Turkish delights). Following the crowds, I ended up entering the busy 16th-century Bezistan, a roofed market lined with shops and workshops selling souvenirs and traditional products (mostly, metalwork, tablecloths and scarves). Back to daylight, I started zigzagging the narrow alleys around the Bezistan, had another coffee, then headed to the Pigeon Square, which seems to be whirling around the emblematic 1891 Sebilj (Public Fountain).

Following this overdose of Ottoman architecture and a hearty ćevapi lunch (a Bosnian variation on kafte and kebab served with traditional bread and chopped onions), it was time for something different, and the Austro-Hungarian splendour was just around the corner. As I crossed the river Miljacka to the other side, I could admire some interesting facades, but the real deal was the group of rather decadent buildings and villas with clear Vienna Secession touch at the nostalgic Petrakina Street. Unfortunately, time has not been so kind to them, but their charm lives on.

The city has many other gems to offer. A Jewish synagogue, a beautiful old orthodox church, and, saving the best for last, the spectacular National Library. Shelled on purpose during the Bosnian War, it was resurrected into its former splendour, having lost over one million books! The pseudo-Moorish façade striped in yellow and red is a visual reference of the city, but once inside, I was swept away by the incredible feat of architecture: arcades, half-domes, glass windows, calligraphy bands…all conceived to perfection. I don’t know how much I spend there, but I finally came back to my senses after walking out reluctantly from this oasis. As I crossed the Latin Bridge, I stopped to read a plaque explaining how a nationalist Serb assassinated the Archduke of Austria nearby, triggering WWI.

Far beyond the Old City, I came across bullet-riddled buildings, abandoned houses and ghastly reminders of the Siege of Sarajevo and the Balkan War: The Children Memorial, the Unitic Towers, the Snipers’ Alley, the Tunnel of Hope, and cemeteries wherever you look. That will be another story, another blogpost. Enjoy the photos and click any of them to enlarge it.

Herzegovnia: From Mostar to Blagaj

The Stari Grad (Historic City) of Mostar is relatively small. Seen from a distance; one quickly comes to understand the significance of the city’s most celebrated icon: The Stari Most (Old Bridge) which, at 25 meters high above the River Neretva, seems to defy gravity, but not time.

The impressive hump-backed bridge connecting both sides of the city is actually less than 20 years old. The original 1566 bridge commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent at the request of the city’s inhabitants and built by mimar Hayruddin was completely destroyed in the 1993 War and had to be reconstructed from scratch.

An icon of Mostar’s identity in every sense of the word, the bridge’s importance surpasses its architectural style and its functional significance: there is so much intangible heritage attached to the bridge in a way that is always present in popular memory and imagination. For centuries, it had inspired songs, paintings, poems, legends, love stories and even traditional sporting skills like high-diving.

Hanging around the bridge and contemplating the mesmerizing views of the river and the cityscape seems to be the national sport here, but as I gazed at the river banks, I realized the bridge was only one part of the story, or better said, the centerpiece of the greater architectural ensemble that appears on the UNESCO World Heritage List: fortifications and towers on bother sides of the bridge, cobblestone walkways, an Ottoman mosque here, another there; I finally decided to climb the highest minaret that dominated the horizon, and it was worth every step up the stairs!

From the top of the pencil-like Ottoman minaret of the 17th century Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, the old city unfolded before me like a dream; the hypnotic gift of Herzegovina to the world. Roaming beyond the Od City, one comes face to face with devastated and abandoned buildings; a sad reminder of the war toll in this peaceful part of the world.

It was lunchtime and, fortunately, I decided to head to the nearby village of Blagaj by the crystal clear karstic spring of the River Buna, so clear that you can actually drink its water. The landscape here is one of ravishing beauty: tender cataracts, green hills, and a dramatic rock wall embracing a serene white building hanging on the water. The building is the Ottoman Tekke (Takiyya) of Blagaj, the equivalent of a monastery hosting Muslim mystics and dervishes.

Dating back to the Bektasi Order of the 15th century, it eventually hosted followers of the Qadiri, Refai, Khalwati and Naqshabandi Orders (Tariqahs). The ensemble of the Tekke includes a musafirhane (guest room), abdesthane (washroom), hamam (bathroom), courtyard, kitchen, prayer rooms and turbe (tombs). The interior of the Tekke offers a little oasis over the river for the pilgrims of beauty: windows command soothing views of the river, a stairway takes you all the way down to the cold spring water, and the decoration of the rooms is both pleasant and elegant.

A great lunch of fresh trout by the river then back to Mostar to catch the Old City in a different light, that magical light that makes the city unforgettable forever after.

 

 

 

The Bridge on the Drina

“Nothing brings men closer together than a common misfortune happily overcome.”

Few writers are capable of tracing and presenting the turbulent and complex history of the Balkans through the centuries (since the Ottoman rule to the First World War) as masterfully as Bosnia’s Ivo Andrić, Winner of the Noble Prize for Literature and author of ‘The Bridge on the Drina’, his absolute masterpiece.

I was very lucky to read this novel before visiting Bosnia; it helped me understand the unique cultural legacy of that part of the world, always stuck between powerful empires (Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians) and warring sides (Serbs and Croats), always an easy and likely victim for religious zealots and political dogs of war.
The novel traces the lives of the people of Višegrad, whose lives have always revolved around the great Ottoman bridge that bears witness to their joys and sorrows, their pain and passion. One generation after another, the human condition is captured to perfection through a myriad stories and anecdotes; the bridge and the city become a microcosm at the mercy of greater powers and radical changes.

The novel is dotted with fantastic tales and heart-breaking moments. I chose two of them to share with you.
First, the horrendous blood tribute by the Ottomans in Eastern Bosnia:
“On that November day a long convoy of laden horses arrived on the left bank of the river and halted there to spend the night. The aga of the janissaries, with armed escort, was returning to Istanbul after collecting from the villages of eastern Bosnia the appointed number of Christian children for the blood tribute.
It was the sixth year since the last collection of this tribute of blood and so this time the choice has been easy and rich; the necessary number of healthy, bright and good-looking lads between ten and fifteen years old had been found without difficulty, even though many parents had hidden their children in the forests, taught them how to appear half-witted, clothed them in rags and let them get filthy, to avoid the aga’s choice. Some went so far as to maim their own children, cutting off one of their fingers with an axe.
(…) A little way behind the last horses in that strange convoy straggled, dishevelled and exhausted, many parents and relatives of those children who were being carried away forever to a foreign world, where they would be circumcized, become Turkish and, forgetting their faith, their country and their origin, would pass their lives in the ranks of the janissaries or in some other, higher service of the Empire.”

Second, an imaginary religious explanation of how and why bridges are divine structures:
“My father told me as a child how bridges first came to this world and how the first bridge was built. When Allah the Merciful and Compassionate first created this world, the earth was smooth and even as a finely engraved plate. That displeased the devil who envied man this gift of God. And while the earth was still just as it had come from God’s hands, damp and soft as unbaked clay, the devil stole up and scratched the face of God’s earth with his nails as much and as deeply as he could. Therefore, the story says, deep rivers and ravines were formed which divided one district from another and kept people apart, preventing them from travelling on that earth that God had given them as a garden for their food and their support.
And God felt pity when he saw what the Accursed One had done, but was not able to return to the task which the devil had spoiled with his nails, so God sent his angels to help people and make things easier for them. When the angels say how unfortunate men could not pass those abysses and ravines to finish the work they had to do, but tormented themselves and looking in vain and shouted from one side to the other, the angels spread their wings above those places and men were able to cross. So people learned from the angels of God how to build bridges, and therefore, after fountains, the greatest blessing is to build a bridge and the greatest sin to interfere with one, for every bridge, from a tree trunk crossing a mountain stream to this great bridge of Mehmed Pasha (Sokolovići), has its guardian angel who cares for it and maintains it as long as God has ordained that it should stand.”

ivo_andric_in_vic5a1egrad

Howe’s Wind-Powered Sculpture

One of the most captivating elements in the Inauguration Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio was the wind-powered kinetic sculpture designed for the Olympic cauldron by the American artist Anthony Howe. It’s a two-ton sculpture designed to symbolize the sun, and it moves swiftly with the wind. Surprisingly, no one in my circle talks about it.

xOlympics_opening_ceremony-1024x682_jpg_pagespeed_ic_HPbjsRVCLe

In his official website, Anthony Howe states that “kinetic sculpture resides at the intersection of artistic inspiration and mechanical complexity. The making of one of my pieces relies on creative expression, metal fabrication, and a slow design process in equal parts. It aims to alter one’s experience of time and space when witnessed. It also needs to weather winds of 90 mph and still move in a one mile per hour breeze and do so for hundreds of years.”

The one thing I like most about this art is that Nature becomes the paintbrush, rather than the subject. At a time when issues like global warming and climate change have become more pressing than ever, Howe’s works come -literally- as a breeze.

For a compilation of Anthony Howe’s works, you can watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4l5rHNSq9s

Variations on a Masterpiece

Those who adore their favorite artists, those culture vultures that would accept nothing less than a recognizable ‘masterpiece’, how do they feel when someone ‘messes around’ with the most iconic masterpieces that they have come to venerate in the name of artistic creativity?

Take the test, contemplate the images that I chose for this post, and decide for yourself.

Venus (after Botticelli) by Xin Yin:

untitled

The Last Supper (after Da Vinci) by José Manuel Ballester:

José Manuel Ballesters

The Anatomy Lesson (after Rembrandt) by Derek Gallon:

article-2636265-1E19C7EC00000578-73_964x652

Lecture in Cairo: Mystery Night (14 Jul. 2016)‎

This is to announce my coming lecture in Cairo on the 14th of July 2016:‎

Course Title: Mystery Night (Unsolved Ancient Mysteries)

Course Language: Arabic (slides in English) ‎

Venue: 33 A Meqias al-Roda Street, 4th floor apt. 9.

Date: Thursday, 14 July 2016

Duration: 2 hours (8:00pm – 10:00pm)‎

Course Description: Since the dawn of time, mystery has always fueled our imagination. From the Nazca Lines to the Nebra Sky Disc, there are many mysteries yet to be solved, and this lecture presents some of the most mind-blowing cases. We will not talk about UFOs or paranormal activity; we will only discuss tangible objects and visible landmarks: the flying men of Tassili n’Ajjer, the Diquís Spheres of Costa Rica, the Cart Ruts of Malta, the Ubaid Lizard Men, and many other fascinating mysteries.

Speaker: Mohammed Elrazzaz holds an MA in Arts & Cultural Management from the Universitat ‎Internacional de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain). He is Professor of Tools for Cultural ‎Management (since 2010) and Mediterranean Heritage (since 2015) at the same university. ‎He participated as speaker/lecturer in several international cultural conferences in Spain, Italy, ‎Denmark and Egypt. ‎

Course Fees: EGP 250 / person. ‎ The fee includes access to the PowerPoint ‎presentation (in pdf format). ‎ Voice and video recording not permitted.‎

Deadline for Reservation/Cancellation: ‎1 July 2016 (or as soon as the course is fully booked).‎

Please contact me for any further enquiries and for reservations:‎ vrazzaz@yahoo.com

Mystery night poster

 

Rodin sculpture sets $20 million artist’s record at auction

A Rodin sculpture set a new artist’s auction record at Sotheby’s on Monday when it sold for $20.4 million, but the strong price was likely to provide little reassurance to an art market that many fear is softening after years of spiking prices.

Sotheby’s sale of Impressionist and modern art took in a total of $144.4 million, missing the low pre-sale estimate of about $165 million for 62 lots offered. One-third of the works went unsold.

Despite some high points that drew spirited bidding, the sale was marked by its relatively high unsold rate, and somewhat tepid prices for works that did find buyers.

Rodin’s marble sculpture, “L’Eternal Printemps,” soared far beyond its estimated price of $8 million to $12 million, and broke the Rodin auction record of just under $20 million.

Drawing intense, global competition, Sotheby’s pointed to the work as emblematic of the kind of fresh-to-market, quality works that auction houses must now offer to elicit strong prices and spirited bidding.

Executives employed words such as discerning, measured and selective to characterize both the night’s results and the present market itself.

“It’s emblematic of the marketplace we’re in right now,” said Helena Newman, European chairman of Impressionist and modern art, adding “It’s nuanced market.”

After years of soaring prices, both Sotheby’s and rival Christie’s have assembled markedly smaller spring sales, with no works carrying estimates much beyond $40 million. In recent seasons several works have broken the $100 million mark.

The sale’s expected highlight, Andre Derain’s “Les Voiles rouges” estimated at $15 million to $20 million, failed to sell. Picasso’s “Buste d’homme Laure,” expected to fetch $8 million to $12 million, suffered the same fate.

Among highlights, Maurice de Vlaminck’s “Sous-bois” fetched $16.4 million, in the midst of the estimate range, and Monet’s “Maree basse aux Petites-Dalles” sold for $9.9 million, nearly doubling the high estimate. Three Monets were among the 10 highest-priced lots.

Sotheby’s has suffered a spate of resignations by top-tier executives, many of whom had worked there for decades, as well as the departure of its long-serving CEO.

The auction stood in contrast to Christie’s curated sale on Sunday featuring challenging works by artists typically considered less-than commercial. It took in $78 million, handily beating the pre-sale estimate of about $60 million. But Christie’s curated sale last fall, notably, totaled $495 million.

The auctions continue on Tuesday with Christie’s post-war and contemporary art auction.

(REUTERS)

Eterna-primavera