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.

 

 

 

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