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.

6 thoughts on “Sarajevo

  1. Wow,
    Wonderful post!
    I had shivers.
    I’m originally from Sarajevo, although I don’t live there anymore.
    Thanks for the lovely descriptions, history and photos


  2. What really catch my eyes are the foods. Those are really tempting and the place have a stunning beauty that a tourist is looking for. I hope that someday I could visit Sarajevo and enjoy the beauty of the place.

  3. nice posting….i like it…it is really helpfull to all…What really catch my eyes are the foods. Those are really tempting and the place have a stunning beauty that a tourist is looking for.


  4. really nice photos, i think that next year i'll be for a trip in Sarajevo, it's time for me to visit that beautiful city

  5. Usually I don’t learn article on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do so! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thanks, very nice article.

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