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.

 

 

 

Masterpieces of Islamic Art

The term ‘Islamic Art’ evokes images of flowing calligraphic bands, zellige-covered walls, carved wooden pulpits, Arabesque decoration, illustrated manuscripts, to the end of the long list of wonders and marvels produced from as far to the East as China and all the way to Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. Whether it is the Alhambra in Granada, the Sher Dor Madrasa in Samarkand or the Complex of Qalawun in Cairo, there seems to be a common storyline despite the profusion of styles. What is that storyline? What binds all these styles together across hundreds of years and tens of thousands of miles?

While many historians opt to the easy answer of ‘unity of faith’, the answer is not at all a straightforward one, and some other historians reject the term altogether. This should come as no surprise given the fact that most of the art history terms used today are relatively modern inventions. How can we define ‘Islamic Art’ then? What are the criteria and the parameters? Is it art produced by Muslim artists and artisans? Is it art commissioned by Muslim patrons? Is it art produced in territories subject to Muslim rule? Is it religious in nature? Secular? Both?

The term Islamic Art, in my opinion, is both reductionist and misleading, as it reduces the art of the Islamic World to only one of its cultural determinants: religion.
Most historians and critics tend to fall into the classical mistake of examining this art through a western lens/mentality, applying classical concepts to an entirely different realm. Abstraction, movement, horror vacui, density and intentional absence of naturalism are some of the most immediately recognizable characteristics of this art, while vegetal decoration, geometrical patterns and calligraphy are its three omnipresent elements.

Last Wednesday, I gave a lecture titled ‘Masterpieces of Islamic Art’, during which I presented 8 masterpieces, namely:

Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons
Miniature Painting
The Mughal Empire, India

The Ardabil Carpet
Textiles and Carpets
The Safavid Empire, Iran

The Blacas Ewer
Metalwork
Atabeg, Iraq

The Tughra of Suleyman the Magnificent
Calligraphy
The Ottoman Empire, Turkey

The Corning Ewer
Cameo Glassware
Fatimid, Egypt

The Djenbereger Mosque
Earthen Architecture
The Empire of Mali, Mali

The Kutubiyya Minaret

Carved Wood / Carpentry
Almoravids, Morocco

The Pyxis of al-Mughira
Carved Ivory
Umayyad, Spain

From the Pre-Islamic civilizations and cultures in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant, the art of the newly-born Islamic world took some inspiration. Nevertheless, the strongest impact on Islamic Art during its early years was that of the Byzantines and the Persians, visible in Umayyad and Abbasid art respectively. Following this early phase, and as Islam expanded, a second phase followed that was characterized by an incredible profusion of styles that coincided with a golden age. This eventually gave way to the Three Empires Phase, in which the Safavids of Iran, the Ottomans of Asia Minor and the Mughals of India controlled vast areas of the Islamic World between the 16th and the 18th centuries.

My gratitude to the 20+ attendees that made this course worth all the effort.