What phrase comes to mind when you hear “Bosnia”? Sadly, it is likely to be “war-torn.” But when you hear “Sarajevo?” Perhaps, provided that you are in at least your 30s, it’s “Winter Olympics.” Yes, the city of Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina, went from hosting the Olympics in 1984 to becoming a war-ravaged city under siege within 10 years. Oh, such a sad turn for such a beautiful little town!

Bosnia has an ancient history going back to Roman times, but really came to be something akin to a discrete “nation” in the medieval era, when it was briefly an independent monarchy with its own Christian sect. It was during the later period when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, however, from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, that Bosnia developed into the unique fusion of east and west that it is today. The Ottoman Turks not only brought Turkish culture and Islam to the region, but founded the city of Sarajevo as a seat for the local governor.

The monuments from the Ottoman era are many and to a large extent define the historical core of Sarajevo, known as the Bascarsija district.

Gazi-Husreybey Mosque, built in 1531 by Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect

Domes of the Bedestan, or covered market, like the mosque essentially identical to its Turkish equivalent

Inside the Svrzo House, an Ottoman home on the hill rising behind the Old City

Buildings are not the only remnants of the Ottoman era. The Ottoman Empire may have lost control over Bosnia in the nineteenth century but myriad aspects of its Turkish culture persist. Especially considering that few people of Turkish ethnic or linguistic identity remain in Bosnia today, it’s surprising how many Turkish traces exist in Bosnian lifestyles. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in Bosnian cuisine.

In order, doner kebap, baklava and Turkish coffee, found all over Sarajevo.

Borek is also common, although it is substantially different from the Turkish variety. We also found borek all the way north to Ljubljana, including in a delicious pizza variety that leaves people lining up nightly to wait tens of minutes at the most popular shops. Oh, borek! When will you jump across the Atlantic?

The “national dish” of Sarajevo–the food that locals will tell you to try while visiting town–is cevapcici, which seems to be just a Slavic rendering of the Turkish “shish kebap,” although the dish itself is more similar to izgara kofte. Admittedly the flavor and presentation are somewhat different from kofte served in Turkey, but it’s still funny that locals consider something that can be found so readily throughout the Turkish world as a uniquely local specialty. I should note that Bosnian bread, pictured here, has a wonderful airy and chewy texture akin to good sourdough. Cevapcici is often eaten with a yogurt beverage, though one fairly dissimilar from ayran.

Another popular local dish, a plate of stuffed vegetables refered to as Sarajevski sahan. Known outside of Bosnia as Greek or Turkish dolma.

But the greatest legacy of the Ottoman Empire, of course, is in the area of religion.

Islamic cemetery at the Emperor’s Mosque, built to commemorate the rule of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Austrian Air advertising flights to Dubai and Jeddah, respectively the economic and religious (the latter for its proximity to Mecca) centers of the Islamic world. Showing how connected Bosnia is to the rest of the Islamic world, we even saw some Malaysians (working at the Malaysian embassy) while we were in town. Last September in Cairo, we also met some Bosnians studying at Al Azhar.

And by religion I do not mean just the Islamic faith that to an extent defines Bosnia and sets it apart (in the recent past, with tragic consequences) from some of its neighbors, but, more broadly, religious pluralism. The Ottoman Empire was a pluralistic and imperial power in which lived a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, most of which had a ready and accepted place (if not always equal) within society–in comparison to Western Europe during the same period, a model of religious tolerance, diversity and healthy coexistence. Under Ottoman control, Sarajevo became, at least in religion, quite a cosmopolitan metropolis, with a significant Muslim population of Turks and converts, Catholic Christians (now called Croats), Orthodox Christians (now called Serbs) and Sephardic Jews invited into the Ottoman Empire by the Turks after the Jews’ expulsion from Iberia. [post on historical relationships between Muslims and Jews hopefully to come]

Catholic church


Orthodox church


With a synogogue, an orthodox church, a catholic church and mosques just blocks apart, Sarajevo became, as it is sometimes called, a mini-Jerusalem, in the density and divergence of religious practice. It was also, until the 1990s, a model of religious harmony. It is important to keep in mind that, other than the Jewish population, which could be distinguished to a certain extent by culture (in the earlier years many of the Sephardic Jews preserved a Spanish-language culture), the religious divides in Bosnia are not “ethnic.” Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim Bosnians all look the same and speak the same language. During the communist years in particular, we were reminded, religion was simply a non-issue, as everyone considered him/herself an atheist.

Derek was struck by the appearance of some of the worshippers at a local mosque. The very caucasian young men with crewcuts and sturdy builds looked more to him like employees of Blackwater, the mercenary security force employed by the US in Iraq than like the observant Muslims that they are.

Sarajevo, the city of interfaith peace, the city of the Winter Olympics, came to a screeching halt in the 1990s with the dissolution of the Yugoslav Republic. For most of the twentieth century, the ethnic groups known as the Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians had been joined in a union called the Yugoslav Republic. With the end of the Cold War the country disintegrated into various ethnic states, with first Slovenia and then Croatia holding referenda declaring their independence. The Serbs, who formed the largest group within the union, did not want to accept the independence of the state known as Bosnia and Hercegovina, which contained a significant Orthodox Christian (=”Serbian”) minority, and so helped organize the Orthodox Christian residents of Bosnia into their own quasi-state, which boycotted and refused to accept the referendum on independence. Bosnia and Hercegovina, newly independent after the internationally accepted referendum vote but with no real military of its own (the Yugoslav army was essentially bequeathed to Serbia), was essentially defenseless when the Serbs attacked, quickly taking much of the territory of Bosnia and Hercegovina and totally surrounding its capital of Sarajevo.

Sarajevo was no stranger to conflict–the Latin Bridge, at which the assassination of Franz Ferdinand sparked World War One

The Siege of Sarajevo lasted 47 months, from April 1992 to February 1996. During that time, constant artillery and sniper fire by the Serbs, who occupied hills surrounding the city with vantage points into all of the key areas of downtown Sarajevo, killed over 12,000 people and injured tens of thousands more, the Sarajevans’ suffering eased slightly by international humanitarian assistance and monitoring by the United Nations.

Many damaged and ruined buildings still stand in downtown Sarajevo

Eventually, after the Serbian atrocities of genocide and mass rape became too much for the international community to stomach, the war was ended by NATO bombing of Serbian forces, and a peace was reached. [At times during our visit it was easy to wonder how the world could have let this happen, but then one is reminded that similar things are still going on today, with the world still standing by. Even in the case of Bosnia, where moral issues were fairly clear, U.S. involvement was controversial. It seems that ethnic cleansing is exactly the sort of conflict we should involve ourselves in–how different would support for the U.S. intervention have been if it had been the Muslims slaughtering the Christians?]

Markale Market, the site of two massacres that drew international forces into the war

The Sarajevo Tunnel, which helped ferry much-needed supplies into the city during the siege

Peace was reached in 1995, soon after the NATO bombing, but the peace is not a pretty one. International affairs being what they are, the conclusion was pragmatic, an effort to build a sustainable compromise rather than strict deserts. Serbian might, and the reality that Serbia and Serbian Bosnians had in fact succeeded in ethnically cleansing vast areas of their Muslim populations, was recognized with the grant of some 49% of the territory of Bosnia and Hercegovina to a so-called Republika Srpska, a Serb-ethnic Orthodox Christian autonomous state within Bosnia and Hercegovina. The Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats meanwhile occupy the remaining 51%, the so-called Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Like Jerusalem, Sarajevo is also divided, with the historical center of the city belonging to Catholic/Muslim federation but the Serbs occupying an “East Sarajevo.” (Like the Israelis in the West Bank (and perhaps some would argue the Turks in Northern Cyprus), the Serbians with their malfeasance succeeded in creating “facts on the ground” that had to be internationally recognized in the Dayton Agreement. Must we really reward such ill behavior?)

We were told that the Serbs do their best to make the Dayton Agreement compromise not function. From their position of economic and military advantage (not least due to the assistance of their sponsor, the country of Serbia next door), the Serbians seem to thumb their nose at the country into which they ostensibly signed up, even within the Republika Srpska flying the Serbian flag instead of that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, perhaps looking forward to a day when they can join their co-religious kinsmen next door.

But perhaps the greatest tragedy is not a matter of right or wrong, or who was at fault, but the sad conclusion: a people that once lived together in harmony, as so clearly evidence by the religious architecture of downtown Sarajevo, is now divided; populations that were throughly integrated, geographically and socially, are now (as in Cyprus), segregated into enclaves and inimical.

Faces of Muslim Balkans

Just a few pictures from our few days among Muslims in the Balkans. The first picture below is of the Albanian-ethnic attendant of a mosque in Belgrade, Serbia; the rest are of Bosnians in Sarajevo. At an “ethnic” level, the story of Bosnia and Hercegovina is remarkably similar to the story of Cyprus (see posts of 10.27 and 10.28). Before the recent conflict, we were told, Muslim and Christian Bosnians thought of each other as people of the same “nationality” but merely different religions. Since the disintegration of the Yugoslav Republic and the subsequent conflicts, Christian Bosnians have been restyled as Serbs or Croats, with the “Serbian” Bosnians in particular identifying themselves with the Serbs of Serbia (even flying the Serbian flag within their semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska) rather than the Muslim Bosnians, or Bosniaks, with whom they had lived together for hundreds of years. We were told that it is not possible to tell Christian and Muslim Bosnians apart, just as with Christian and Muslim Cypriots, but as all of the pictures of Bosnians below were taken within the city of Sarajevo, the subjects are most likely Muslim. As you can see, Muslims Bosnians look typically Slavic–they are genetically no different from their Christian neighbors. Few Bosnian women wear headscarves and few Bosnian men beards.

Islam in the Balkans

We didn’t really set out to travel at all in the Balkans. Outside of southern Spain, for its historical importance as a major outpost of Islamic culture, Europe was not to play a big role in our trip. But as it turned out, the cheapest flight from Europe to Dakar departed from Milan, and we figured, what better way to get from Istanbul to Milan than by train? And so, through Sofia (Bulgaria), Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Hercegovina), Zagreb (Croatia), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Venice (Italy) we traveled to Milan, mostly on overnight trains.

In keeping with the theme of our year’s travels, we thought that we would use this opportunity to seek out historical and current Islam and Islamic culture in the Balkans. I knew that some of the countries in the Balkans had substantial Muslim populations (and detoured to Sarajevo to visit Bosnia in particular, post to come), but did not know how much Islamic influence we would see generally in the region. Given how extremely brief and superficial our travels in the region were, I was surprised to so easily find substantial remnants of Islam in the Balkans.

Islam came to the Balkans through the Ottoman Empire’s advances in the 15th century. From then until the 19th century, much of the Balkan peninsula was a part of that Turkish Muslim empire, and therefore subject to Turkish cultural and religious influence, as well as Turkish migration. We first saw evidence of the Ottoman and Turkish presence in the Balkans before we even left Turkey, at the Balkan Turks Foundation on Istanbul’s Divan Yolu (the sort of “main street” of the historical part of Istanbul), a cultural foundation similar to the East Turkistan Foundation for western China (see post of 11.05). It is unclear to me how many Turkish speakers remain in the Balkan countries now–given that some seem to have moved to Turkey–but in the period of Turkish advance before and during Ottoman rule, Turks must have moved into the Balkan peninsula just as they moved into Cyprus (see post of 10.27). Ataturk himself (see post of 11.02) was born in now Greece.

But Islam in the Balkans was not just a matter of Turkish-speaking Muslim migrants into the region, which seems to have been the primary phenomenon in Cyprus, but also of the gradual conversion of local populations. Just as there may not be any “Mughals” left in South Asia, but hundreds of millions of Muslims, there are far more Muslims in the Balkans than people of Turkish descent. As in other regions controlled by Islamic rulers, there was to some extent conversion in the local, originally non-Muslim population. There is one question, I have, however, about the spread of Islam in the Balkans, and that is why the Muslim populations seem so geographically concentrated today, in the more heavily Muslim republics of the Western Balkans (further from Turkey than the overwhelmingly Christian Eastern Balkans). I know that some of this has been exaggerated by recent conflicts, but it seems that the penetration of Islam was in fact greater in the west, perhaps due to greater/more direct/longer imperial presence/control in those regions. I would certainly appreciate clarification on this point from my readers!

Some photos and thoughts tracing Islam in the Balkans, from Bulgaria to Slovenia.

Ottoman-era mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria. The Banya Bashi Mosque, located a couple blocks away from the Sofia Synagogue, was built by none other than Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect, in the 16th century. Bulgaria is one of two European countries bordering Turkey, but it is, as is Greece (and, to the north, Romania), overwhelmingly Christian, despite nearly five centuries under Ottoman rule. The mosque seemed primarily for use by the Turkish minority (around 10% of the total population of Bulgaria) and perhaps Turks in transit, as it had Turkish language signs and prayer timetables in Turkish.

Bayrakli Mosque, Belgrade, Serbia. The Serbs, who have pride of place as a nation that engaged in a horrific ethnic cleansing campaign in such recent history (though some of the glory should be shared with Greek volunteers who took part in some of the worst atrocities), destroyed most of Belgrade’s at one time many mosques during the 1990s conflicts. Perhaps the current authorities believe that there is still a possibility of anti-Muslim mob violence, as this mosque had its own police box. The only other conspicuously Ottoman building we saw in Belgrade was a tomb of a pasha inside Kalemegdan Citadel. Much more so, modern Serbia identifies itself as a part of the Slavic world, with two of downtown’s most prominent landmarks being the Moscow Hotel and the Russian Tsar Restaurant (see Derek’s post of 11.12).

Bosnia and Hercegovina, despite very significant Christian populations (particularly in the semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska), is very much a part of the Islamic world, and the most significant and northwesternmost bastion of Islam (if one does not count the large Muslim minorities within Western Europe). I will cover our visit to Sarajevo in a separate post to come.

Slovenia. Once you head into Croatia and Slovenia you leave the former Ottoman Empire for the former Austro-Hungarian, and traces of Islam disappear quickly. One small and depressing anecdote, however. Slovenia is by far the most financially successful of the former Yugoslav republics, now not only a member of the European Union but within the Eurozone as well. Slovenes are wealthy enough to be members of the international backpacker fraternity (we’ve run into them in Ethiopia and Kenya), and Ljubljana has a first world sheen that, say, Sarajevo does not. I asked a Slovene in Ljubljana what accounted for his nation’s success, and was told that the area that is now Slovenia has always been economically more developed than the rest of the former Yugoslavia, and as a sovereign state Slovenia was able to take better advantage of this lead. Another factor, I was told, was that the “southern people” of the other Yugoslav republics had a different mentality, in part because there were “many Muslims” and they “think differently” and were lazy and didn’t want to work. I had thought that Slovenes deserved credit for somehow staying out of the fray of the wars that entangled the other former Yugoslav republics, that Slovenes were perhaps less likely to think the sort of dangerous ethnic nationalism that their neighbors to the south seemed enamored with. Perhaps I was wrong.o

Breakfast in Belgrade

You might wonder why I’m coming out of obscurity to post for only the second time in these many months.  I’m doing it to dispel any myths anyone might have that traveling in Muslim countries is all joyful bliss, without any drawbacks.

While in Ethiopia in 2005, we met a Japanese couple that had been in the Sudan the month before.  They spoke of how hot and dusty it was and how exasperated they were that at the end of each hard day they “couldn’t even have a cold beer” because the Sudan, as with several other Islamic countries following the prescripts of the Quran, is dry.

For those into women, the site of female flesh can be a very limited commodity in Islamic countries.  In some, women are socially or culturally restricted to the home and you won’t even see them.  In others, most or all will have their heads covered and leave nothing exposed other than *maybe* their face and hands.

Taking pictures of women can be difficult in any country but in Islamic countries it can be much harder and even dangerous.  In parts of Pakistan, taking a picture of a woman can become life threatening when nearby men spot you doing it.  After showing some of my photos to men in some of the more restrictive countries, I think I know why.  Many of these men focus almost exclusively or entirely on the women in the photos, in a sexual manner and often accompanied by impolite, sexist or lewd comments, sometimes without regard for age, race or even beauty.  They just assume that others too will use photographs of women in this way.

So, given that I rarely drink, don’t care to look at women and manage to get the photos I need, what makes me write, here and now in Serbia?  


Our first experience with breakfast in an Islamic country was during our 2001 visit to Turkey.  I actually enjoy Turkish breakfast.  Olives, tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, boiled eggs, bread–tasty and even fun, really.  It turns out the Turks have the best of Islamic breakfasts.  It only gets slimmer and worse after that.  In some, a cup of tea with maybe a bit of bread.  In others, a limited version of the meal enjoyed in Turkey.

Over the last many months, this has worn on me.  Breakfast has always been my favorite meal and time of day.  Fried eggs, omelettes, eggs benedict and most importantly bacon and sausage are among the things I miss most.  Sure I’ve found a half-assed omelette here and there, or an egg that has been almost deep fried because of the amount of grease it was drenched in, but they just don’t suffice.  I’m not sure exactly what the Quran has to say about pork but I will say that any religion that restricts its consumption is a cruel one that cannot possibly be on the right track.  What sort of god would create such a meat and then forbid followers from eating it?  I know, forbidden fruit and all that but come on!  No apple has ever come even close to a strip of bacon.  

The Russian Tzar Restaurant, established 1890 and recently reopened after remodeling, is a place not to be missed on a swing through the Balkans.  This is what we had:

Breakfast “Russian Tzar”

eggs, crispy bacon, njegus smoked ham, and pancakes with forest strawberries all for a mere 330 dinars or roughly $6 USD

Paul was drawn in by the description of the

Omelette “Chef”

eggs, turkey fillet, mozzarella and njegus smoked ham for 300 dinars or less than $6 USD

The cappuccino was tasty and not expensive, and just to be friendly, they gave us a couple of berry muffins.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Belgrade.

Food in Turkey

To start the day, the Turkish breakfast. Breakfast is usually included with the room rate in Turkish hotels–this one is a particularly fine spread. Almost always provided are boiled eggs, some sort of processed meat product (the one pictured is quite common), cheese (not usually four different kinds, as pictured), olives, cucumbers and tomatoes, and butter, jam and honey. All is eaten with bread (not pictured).

Another way to start the day, a pretzel-like bread called simit, often sold on the street.

A third way to start the day, and perhaps the tastiest: the borek. Most often filled with egg, spinach or cheese, the layers of cooked dough end up having a consistency more similar to egg noodles than to flaky pastry, which somehow makes it all the more delicious. Here, behind a glass of tea in a traditional Turkish tea glass.

For lunch (or dinner), what you eat will often depend on the kind of restaurant you go to. Three common choices: a pide salonu, a kebap salonu or a lokanta.

At the first, you will be served pide, which is described fairly as Turkish pizza. Pide is shaped like a flat football, made to order and generally quite cheap and tasty.

More common than the pide salonu is the kebap salonu. Kebap in Turkey comes in numerous forms, suggesting to me that the country is in fact the origin of that category of food. Far from kebap fatigue, which some travelers develop, I found myself gaining a greater and greater affinity to the food, including especially…

The doner kebap. Possibly the single greatest export of Turkish cuisine, the doner kebap, eaten as a sandwich or on a plate, is also one of the most common foods in Turkey. I want to note that Turks still cut their doner using real knives, as Syrians and Jordanians do with their shawarma, which I believe is the only way that the chef can properly select the most optimally cooked segments. Shame on you, Palestinians, for using an electric shaving carver! What laziness!!

It also comes in chicken, the tavuk doner.

One important variant of doner on a plate is the Iskender kebap, otherwise known as Paul’s favorite Turkish dish. Iskender is doner with tomato sauce and yoghurt, served over a plate of chunks of bread. The bread soaks up the greasy, creamy, tomato-y sauce–yummy!

Other kebaps are cooked on individual skewers. Kebaps made of chunks of meat, as opposed to the more common kebaps made of ground meat, are generally called shish.

Chicken shish sandwich. As with (other) middle eastern cuisines, ordering kebap in sandwich form costs a fraction of what appears to be the same components–the meat, salad and bread–laid out separately on a plate. This sandwich/platter price disparity mystery lives on in middle eastern restaurants in the United States, although to a lesser extent.

The Adana kebap is perhaps the kebap most similar to the Iranian kubideh, although the seasoning is in fact different, as an Iranian-American friend of mine commented on an earlier post (see post of 5.25).

Kofte is a general name for kebap made with ground meat. Izgara kofte, shaped like half smoked cigars (or meat turds, as we called them), is one of its most common forms.

You can also add some vegetables to the mix, as we in non-Turkey are fond of doing with our shish kebabs. Here, mantarli kebap with mushrooms, served at a rather good Ankara restaurant.

Kokorec is frequently spotted rotating on sidewalk grills. It smells inviting–surprisingly like grilled pork–but is made of sheep guts. As I’m just not that into innards, as food goes, I haven’t tried it.

The third category of restaurant, in my lunch list, is the lokanta, which is what I like to call a “bin food restaurant.” I hold bin food restaurants, any doubts about food safety notwithstanding, to be among the traveler’s greatest friends, for they offer those unfamiliar with a cuisine the opportunity to try a wide variety of dishes, with no ordering difficulties. In Turkey and in other countries as well, bin food restaurants also offer great variety, including home-style cooking that is usually unavailable in other types of restaurants (particularly upmarket ones that specialize in grilled meat). Caribbean and Mexican bin food restaurants are among our favorite restaurants back in New York. There is one caveat, however, about Turkish lokantas–while bin food restaurants in other countries are often quite cheap, your bill at a Turkish lokanta, especially if you want to try many dishes (portions can be small), will likely end up being quite a bit higher than if you had just eaten kebap.

An Istanbul special: the fish sandwich, prepared on the shores of the Golden Horn.

The most Turkish beverage is of course chay, served in tulip-shaped glasses. Tea is drunk sweet with plenty of sugar.

The second most Turkish drink, ayran. Whatever Derek may say about ayran being more a sauce than a beverage, it is one of my favorites, and it indisputably goes great with kebap. A particularly frothy, freshly-made version–more common is factory-produced ayran in plastic containers.

Some Turkish desserts:

My favorite Turkish dessert, indeed one of my favorite desserts of any cuisine, firin sutlac. Firin sutlac is like rice pudding (more pudding than rice) baked in an oven and then cooled, so that it develops a delicious tough caramel-y skin on top. The Turks and the Indians tie for first place, in my opinion, in rice puddings. This sutlac is from Ozsut, a coffee and desserts chain in Turkey.

The most famous Turkish desert, baklava. Who knows whether baklava is originally Turkish, or Greek, or Syrian/Lebanese? Best when dripping with syrup.

Turkish delight, or lokum, at Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir, the Istanbul shop that invented it.

Ashure, or Noah’s pudding, of oh-so-many ingredients

Sahlep was one of the great discoveries of our first Turkey trip, and it remains one of our favorites. Although a bit expensive at Mado (first picture below), this cinnamon-ny, super-thick milky “drink” is wonderful in winter (playing the same role as hot chocolate or egg nog). In the second picture below, an itinerant sahlep vendor at the old book bazaar near the Grand Bazaar.

I must admit that I’ve left an entire category of Turkish meal, the meze meal, out of this post, mainly because meze are usually eaten at night, in challenging photography conditions. The meze culture of Turkey is similar to that of Greece or Syria/Lebanon (see post of 4.27), although the dishes themselves vary some. In our 2001 trip to Turkey, we had great difficulty understanding how a meze meal worked–how much cold meze (usually brought out to you on a platter) to select and eat, if and when to order how much hot meze, and if and when to order grill items after the meze. Almost all that we knew for sure was that meze was usually accompanied by raki, the national anise-flavored liqueur, which should be cut with water to produce its cloudy form. I have since 2001 had the Turkish meze meal explained to me: Eat as much cold meze (salads, pickles, etc.) as you’d like, usually with raki. The cold meze phase of the meal, with conversation and drinking, can take a great deal of time, and it’s not essential to have hot meze at all, or even to get to main courses. And whatever you do, there’s no real reason to sweat it, as the meal is not so ritualized that you can somehow commit a faux pas.