Mostar. The word reminds me of another: mortar.
Which is fitting, as Mostar was subject to frequent mortar attack in the Bosnian War. The city still bears the scars. Pockmarked, bullet-ridden buildings litter the streets; other structures remain almost completely gutted.
Restoration is happening. Slowly.
But till it is completed: this daily reminder of the brutality of war.
Mostar was a battleground in the 1990s; the fighting culminating in the destruction of Mostar’s most prized possession: the sublime Stari Most (the Old Bridge).
Mostar takes its name from its bridge. The word Mostar comes from mostari, meaning bridge-keepers, referring to those who guarded the bridge during medieval times.
Back then the River Neretva was crossed via a precarious wooden suspension bridge, which was so shaky and perilous it put the fear of death into every soul who crossed it. The wooden bridge remained in use until Suleiman the Magnificent, the adept, long-serving sultan who commanded the Ottoman Empire at its zenith – a time when the Ottomans ruled 20-30 million people across Europe, Asia, the Middle-east, and Africa – ordered a new stone bridge created in 1557. The bridge took nine years to build.
A petite version of the Stari Most – purported to be a test run for the major project – named Kriva Cuprija (meaning: the Sloping Bridge) was erected over a nearby stream in 1558. Kriva Cuprija was completed eight years earlier than Stari Most, and is still standing today.
In 1878 the Congress of Berlin, in which the most powerful empires of the age came together to decide the fate of the Balkan states following the termination of the Russo-Turkish War, transferred administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the moribund Ottoman Empire to the upstart Austro-Hungarian Empire – bringing to an end the Ottoman’s 415 year reign over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Austro-Hungarians left their mark in Mostar with a suite of Moorish revivalist municipal buildings, such as the Gimnazija Mostar, a secondary school (seen on the far right in the picture above). The Austro-Hungarians went for Moorish revivalist architecture as they sought to introduce a new national identity for Bosnia and Herzegovina, one that carefully omitted any trace of their Slavic and Ottoman heritage.
In 1918, at the demise of WWI, Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, which quickly became the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (note the change in the order of names), and then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929, and finally the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in 1946.
In 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence From Yugoslavia, which led to the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army laying siege to Mostar. And thus the fighting began.
The Sniper Tower, Mostar
The siege of Mostar forced the Ljubljanska Banka (Ljubljana Bank) tower in central Mostar to close. But its advantageous height meant it wasn’t left empty for long. Various hostile forces inserted snipers in its uppermost levels. Pot-shots were taken at anyone foolish enough to show themselves on the streets.
The war began with the Yugoslav People’s Army fighting the allied forces of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Defence Council. But over the years political tensions shifted one way, then another, and then doubled-back on themselves. Former allies became mortal enemies. The Croats and Bosniaks were at war.
On the 9th of November 1993, a Croat tank fired shell after shell after shell into the Stari Most. The bridge, which had spanned the River Neretva for 427 years, and was considered the finest architectural piece left behind by the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, took sixty shells into the sternum before sinking to its knees, toppling forward, and falling into the fast-flowing water below.
The Croat-Bosniak conflict wrapped up in March 1994; the Bosnian War (the war between Bosnia/Herzegovina and Yugoslavia) concluded in 1995. Mostar buried two thousand of its citizens along the way.
A fresh beginning for Mostar
In 2004, a three-year reconstruction project – a concerted effort between UNESCO, the World Bank, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and the Bosnian government – came to an end. An exact replica of the Stari Most was revealed. The Old Bridge was reborn.
Stari Most is now a popular tourist attraction, and once again the symbol of the region.