On the way to the next destination we pass the famous coastal towns of Croatia. For a minute I regret that I do not have the time to visit the popular tourist destination Dubrovnik. But this year I am determined to finally reach the city that I have been intending to visit ever since I first stayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At night I arrive in Mostar.
Half an hour after my arrival, the only thing that separates me and the part of the city where I hope to find a hostel, is the most iconic landmark of Herzegovina, and perhaps of the whole country. Built in 1566, the Stari Most (Old bridge) was known as the largest single span stone arch bridge in the world. In the 17th century, the traveler Evliya Celebri shared his impressions on this structure: "The bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other. ... I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky." As for me, another miserable slave of Allah who lives in the 21st century, yes I have seen higher bridges, but despite of having had the privilege to visit nearly sixty countries, there is no bridge that left an impression on me quite like the Stari Most does.
The bridge survived the fall of the Ottoman Empire, several natural disasters, World War I and World War II. For hundreds of years people crossed this bridge, until in 1993, Croatian forces destroyed the iconic landmark of the city that amid the war was divided in two parts based on different religions and ethnicities. A few years before that, the Germans euphorically celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, as they were no longer divided. But bridges connect, especially the Stari Most, considering its symbolical and historical meaning. Accordingly, this was a painful loss for the people in Mostar. One of the witnesses of its destruction reported that despite of the grenades and bombs that were falling, the people went back on open streets after realizing that the Stari Most was collapsing. In his words, "Young, and old, weak and strong, Muslim and Christian, they all came, all crying because that bridge, it is a part of our identity. It represented us all."
How painful the loss of a historical structure can feel for those affected is harder to grasp, if you live in a city that is dominated by modern buildings whose functions are rather commercial, with much less stress on the collective identity of a people or on common grounds in the spiritual or cultural sphere. Nowadays it is more and more the case that the most outstanding structures of a cityscape much rather reflect the needs and desires of wealthy foreigners, of foreign investors, as is the case in Dubai. As stunning as luxury hotels, malls and banks can look, when they dominate the cityscape, it naturally reflects the cultural heritage of the people that actually live in the respective countries much less than it used to reflect, and if it is not the case that such trends condition the people in a way that cultural cohesion is impeded, it is at least the case that such ambitions threaten to shape their collective identity on the basis of predominantly capitalistic and materialistic ideals that in reality much rather represent and only serve the interests of a marginal part of the people. For instance, in Frankfurt, the European Central Bank and the Commerzbank Tower dominate the cityscape, but the buildings only reflect the rather financially oriented collective identity of the higher upper class. It is much less part of the people's identity. It does not represent them all.
In Mostar, however, the most outstanding landmark was a unique bridge, accessible for everyone, a place where ordinary people spent their time, where children played, where couples fell in love, where friends hung out and looked back on common memories once they got older, a bridge that symbolically linked Western and Eastern civilization. It stood for the peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews for hundreds of years. After the destruction of the Stari Most, this physical and cultural link no longer existed, until in 2004 the reconstructions were completed, shortly before the restored Stari Most was declared a UNESCO World heritage site, and deservedly so, for to this day it remains one of the most recognizable bridges in the world with a unique history that reflects the cultural cohesion that has existed between the people who live in this region for centuries, indifferent of religion, ethnicity or financial status.
Although the physical bridge has been reconstructed, the cultural bridge is not yet fully restored. It will take some time until the wounds will heal, until the hatred that was fueled will fully extinguish. But
as Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs now frequently reach the other side of the restored bridge, they are
constantly being reminded of what for hundreds of years constituted the real source of pride.
It's getting late. I should continue walking. As I reach the middle of the Stari Most, two Bosnians approach me and - friendly as always - give me directions to find a hostel. After a small talk I scan my environment. It amazes me how familiar this place seems to me, although I have never been here. In certain ways it reminds me of Sarajevo, despite looking so different and having its completely own character. Typical for a Bosnian city, Mostar's cityscape consists of what the architectural theorist Dusan Grabrjan described as the five main components of Bosnian city planning: The surrounding hills define the form of the city, the main road is the spine, the Old town is the heart, the vegetation are the lungs and the river is the spirit. The place where I intend to stay is right in the heart of Mostar, and tonight this heart is beating fast. Actually, the beats come from a club called Ali Baba, located inside an underground cave in Carsija. After dropping my luggage in the Downtown hostel, I do not waste any time and directly head to the club. On the top of a rock inside the cave, an orientally decorated bed has been placed, where locals occasionally have a rest and look down on the dancing crowd.
As a new day begins, I head to the iconic bridge again. Though you can enjoy a nice view on the bridge from several spots even at night, it is not comparable to the view at daytime, when the sun exposes its colorful environment and you witness the harmonious interaction between the natural components - most notably the emerald waters of the Neretva river and the surrounding hills - and the Bosnian architecture from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian times. As the Adhan is being heard through the loudspeakers of the mosques, I look up to the Stari Most, where many people have gathered. While the muezzins are singing the quranic verses, some locals dive off that bridge down into the river, a common hobby among the trained locals. If you follow the sound of the Adhan, you may very well end up in the place that offers the most amazing view on the city of Mostar. The Koski Pasha Mosque, which is named after its creator, was built in the 17th century. The location of the mosque was carefully chosen, I conclude as I enjoy the picture perfect view on Mostar from the top of the minaret.
Situated on the other side of the river is the Franciscan monastery that was built in 1866, with help of the Ottoman rulers of that time. It is yet another landmark that was destroyed during the Yugoslav wars. In 2000 it was replaced by this new structure that I now observe from the minaret. It is not the only Christian site that was demolished. The Croatian Defense Council also destroyed the Serbian Old Orthodox Church. It was the first Christian structure that was ever built in Mostar, sponsored by the Ottoman rulers in 1834.
After examining the different components of the Koski Pasha mosque's simply designed interior, such as the colorfully highlighted mighrab and minbar, I head to the Old Town, where I eventually spot another remarkable bridge. While its size is much smaller, its form corresponds to the form of the Stari Most. Kriva Cupria, the crooked bridge, was built in 1558, just eight years before the construction of the Stari Most was completed, thereby actually being older than the "Old Bridge". Although Kriva Cupria survived the Bosnian war, it was destroyed in 2000 by a flood, only seven years after the people of Mostar had lost the Stari Most. Kriva Cupria was rebuilt a year later. When it was first built, it allegedly served as an experiment to see if the much more daring undertaking of constructing the Stari Most that would span the Neretva river.
Despite having had high expectations of this city, those expectations have been fulfilled. Half-heartedly I begin to prepare for my departure, because the other half of my heart reminds me that it is soon time to return to Sarajevo. Another good reason to look forward to the departure is the train ride from Mostar to Sarajevo, for it is known to offer spectacular views on the emerald waters of Herzegovina and the surroundings hills. But before I leave the southern part of this country, there is just one more place that I want to visit, a hidden gem that is too close now for me to miss it. Already prior to the trip I saw some pictures of this fabulous town that is only ten kilometres away from Mostar.