When I was planning our trip to Sarajevo I read everything I could on its history. Bosnia & Herzegovina’s capital city is such an interesting place and I couldn’t wait to learn about it all. Sarajevo today is one of the fastest developed cities in the region, although there are still some buildings which wear the scars of its past. Sarajevo will always stand as a product of its history, with a wonderful blend of Ottoman and Western architecture, a mix of the old and new, a diverse pot of culture.
The Ottoman Empire
Sarajevo was founded by the Ottoman Empire in the 1460’s and was transformed into a state capital, complete with a castle that gave the city its name (saray=castle). At this point the city was exclusively Muslim and the first mosque to be built during this time was the Emperor’s mosque, which still stands today, although there has been some rebuilding along the way thanks to war damage and fires. More mosques followed such as the Gazi Husrev- Beg Mosque and the Ferhadija Mosque. Once constructed the Gazi Husrev- Beg Mosque became the central mosque for the city and in later years the first mosque in the world to have electricity. Behind the mosque sits the clock tower, built during the same period and which keeps lunar time, possibly the only clock tower in the world to do so. The intention of this was to allow locals to time their prayers according to the clock. In order to be accurate the clock has to be recalibrated every 3 days and this is maintained by a single clock keeper, who has been in the role since the 1960’s. During the 90’s the mosque were heavily targeted during the war and suffered significant damage but a lot of reconstruction has since occurred, taking them back to their former glory.
Sarajevo was soon one of the largest cities in the region and soon expanded even more with the arrival of Jews in the 15th century, after their expulsion from Spain. With local Christians converting over to Islam, Orthodox Serbians arriving and Jewish migration the city transformed into the diverse place you still see today and earned its nickname ‘The Jerusalem of Europe’. For 11 years the city worked on a new cathedral for it’s growing Orthodox population and it was the first religious building in the city that wasn’t a mosque. The cathedral ended up towering above all of the cities mosques and for many Muslims in the city they didn’t think this was right. There were some early protests, which led to arrests and delayed the opening of the cathedral, and it was eventually opened with more than 1000 military men present for security.
Thanks to the wealth of the Ottoman Empire Sarajevo was able to grow into a very advanced city, at a time when education was seen as something afforded to the wealthy the residents of Sarajevo were very progressive thanks to the ability for everyone to access schools and libraries. Sarajevo was very important to the trade industry and had over 12,000 commercial shops. Baščaršija, a reduced area of the old bazaar, is still able to be walked around and enjoyed. There are a large number of unique artisan workshops to discover and it’s the perfect place to pick up a special souvenir from your trip.
The Sebilj fountain sits within Baščaršija. The fountain, originally built in 1753, was actually relocated in later years, but as it’s typically Ottoman style I’m keeping it in this timeframe! There would have been a time where these fountains were scattered across the city but today only one remains. These fountains would be manned by state workers who would be responsible for distributing free water to locals.
Another historical trading merchant that opened during this time was the Sarajevo Brewery, which has been in constant production since 1864. As such its presence intertwines through every significant historical period, even through the 90’s siege where it stood as the only water source for the residents of Sarajevo.
The Ottomans ruled over Sarajevo for over 200 years and this was seen as very much a golden time of the city’s history, where the standard of living was very high for its residents and the city was developing all the time.
The Austrian- Hungarian period
As the biggest city in the Ottoman Empire, after Istanbul, it soon attracted warfare and was conquered by the Austrians, who looted it and then left it in flames. The city remained under Ottoman rule for a few more years, until 1878, when the Austrian- Hungarian empire took rule over Bosnia and started to develop the city, introducing new technology such as trams and trying to rebuild the city into a modern European capital. The city was modernised, factories were built and Latin Script was introduced. Many of the buildings that stand in the centre today, and particularly along the river, were built during this time.
The most famous of these is probably the City Hall, built during the Austro-Hungarian period but built in a Moorish style, to honour the Muslim background of the city. It was built by Karel Parik, an architect who spent most of his life in Sarajevo and as a consequence created many of its buildings. It acted as the city hall until 1949, when it was converted into the National Library. The library was almost completely destroyed in the 90’s, ruining many of the rare manuscripts kept there. Over the subsequent years the building was restored and now stands as a national monument, used for a variety of events.
Parik also created one of my favourite buildings erected during this time, an Evangelical church. After WWII there were fewer Evangelists left in the city and so the church was handed over to the city authorities, and today it is used to house the Academy of Fine Arts. A modern loopy bridge, named the Festina Lente bridge, was a modern addition to the area.
Although Jews had already settled into the city and small synagogues had been built, once part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire the population grew even faster and a larger synagogue was required to accommodate them. They built the Ashkenazi Synagogue, today the only active Jewish temple in the city. This was also built by Parik and in a Moorish style, popular for synagogues at the time. Parik also designed the National Theatre, which meant ballet, opera, drama and the National philharmonic Orchestra were all under the same roof.
Another prominent architect during this time was Josip Vancas. He studied in Vienna and remained a devoted follower of the Viennese architecture style, bringing it to Bosnia. He designed a number of churches within the city, these included the Church of St Anthony of Padua and The Sacred Heart Cathedral. The Church of St Anthony is quite a stunning building, with a bright red exterior, and unique in that it welcomes attendees from all faiths. It may be for this reason that it managed to survive the Bosnian War with minimal damage. The same cannot be said for The Sacred Heart Cathedral, the largest Cathedral in Bosnia, which was badly damaged but has since been repaired.
Vancas also designed The Post Office, certainly one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, based on the Viennese Post office and it was from this office that the telegram was sent that informed the world Franz Ferdinand has just been assassinated. During the 90’s the post office was burnt down but thankfully restored in 2001.
World War I
One of the most important events in Modern History, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the trigger for World War I happened within the city centre, although the city managed to escape significant damage during the ensuing war. The Latin Bridge, built during the Ottoman period, was the scene for the assassination.
Yugoslavia (pre and post WII)
Following the war Sarajevo became part of Yugoslavia and the city lost a lot of its global influence. It remained like this until WWII, where it spent 4 years under German rule.
After the war, now back under Yugoslavian rule, Sarajevo was transformed as an industrial capital and heavily developed and the population started to grow once again. How far Sarajevo had come was seen when in 1984 they hosted the Winter Olympics and the following tourist boom bought a lot of money into the city.
When Yugoslavia first ruled over Bosnia they kept some of the Austrian influence, evidenced in the fact they kept Parik on hand to build St Joseph’s Church and luckily the central architecture of the city wasn’t influenced too heavily by this time, as Yugoslavia doesn’t have a reputation for beautiful buildings. Perhaps example of this is Papagajka, otherwise known as the parrot building, which was built in 1990 and is rather eccentrically painted yellow and green. It’s worth popping along to see some funky street art though.
Not all buildings that were erected in the 90’s were ugly though, there were some modern examples such as the Parliament building, finished in 1992. Just a short time later it would find itself on the front line of the Bosnian war.
World War II
During World War II the city was captured by Germans and handed over to Croatia. 85% of the Jewish population was sent to their deaths and the city suffered bombing. The Eternal Flame memorial is a powerful tribute to all those lost their lives during that time.
The Bosnian War
When Bosnia & Herzegovina finally declared independence from Yugoslavia the Serbian Army blockaded the city and what ensued was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Nearly 12,000 died with an additional 56,000 wounded, cultural sites were damaged and the city was left in a state of destruction.
The city has a number of museums dedicated to this time. The Museum of Crime Against Humanity and Genocide is a very rich resource of information with information portrayed through photography, personal items, film, replicas and more. The museum wasn’t put together by the government but instead by families of survivors and victims and the result is something that is raw, emotive and honest. The entry fee was 10km.
The Galerija 11/07/95 focuses on the Srebrenica tragedy, in which 8,372 people died. Although inside the gallery the tone was sombre, with everyone listening pretty intently to their audio guides, it had some very powerful images and was very informative. The entry fee was 12BAM, which included the audio guide.
The War Childhood Museum was one of the most moving museums I’ve ever been to in my life. It tells the stories of the children of the war, through their personal belongings. I think what was particularly hard-hitting for me was that I was born in 1989, a similar year to all the contributors. Their toys, their games, they were exactly the kind of thing I was playing with 1000 miles away in England. The major difference was that they were in a war zone and I was not. This museum struck me so deeply that the first thing I did upon coming home was set up a monthly donation to War Child. I cannot recommend this museum enough, the staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming too. Entry was 10km.
For a different perspective on it you can walk to Sniper Alley, the main boulevard where the numerous high-rise buildings made it prime position for sniper posts and where many lost their lives. A visit is more poignant if you’ve visited the museums beforehand and seen footage of what it used to look like.
The Holiday Inn is a particularly important building on the boulevard. When it was built in 1983 its bright yellow facade was considered a joke but it soon became a very reputable hotel, which hosted a number of famous faces. During the war it sat directly on the front line but continued to function, with journalists filling its rooms and dinner cooked on an open fire in the kitchen.
Just off Sniper Alley sits Vrbanja Bridge, also known as Suada and Olga Bridge or Romeo and Juliet Bridge. Suada and Olga were the first victims of the Bosnian War, shot after protesting the war. A plaque on the bridge commemorates them. A year later a couple, Admira and Bosko, would try to cross the bridge and die by sniper. She a Bosnian and he a Bosnian Serb, their intertwined bodies displayed in various media outlets, they became a symbol of the destruction of war.
Another important war site to explore is the Tunnel of Hope, an underground tunnel built by the Bosnian Army to supply the city with food and supplies. The tunnel and adjoining museum sits over 8 miles out of the city centre so we chose to visit as part of a tour. We booked a tour with Info Bosnia, which was 15 euros per person, and spent about 2.5 hours talking us through the war. It was very informative and thorough.
Within the beautiful greenery of Veliki Park sits a memorial to the children that lost their lives in the war. Around 1500 children were killed in the war, children that were mostly killed whilst playing in the streets and the memorial is simple but touching.
Another memorial to the war, one that is more unique, are the Sarajevo Roses. Red resin was used to fill in the mortar shell scars, which leave an almost floral impression. As the city’s pavements get replaced it is harder and harder to discover the roses but a few remain.
However my favourite memorial I’ve kept until last, the Canned Beef monument. During the Bosnian War aid was provided to the Bosnians in the form of out of date inedible canned beef, that rumour had it even stray dogs turned down. As a sarcastic thank you, a monument to the canned beef was set up after the war, thanking the international community for its help. The monument has fallen into some decay but I think it says a great deal about the sense of humour of the Bosnian people.
Since the Bosnian War a huge amount of money has gone into restoring Sarajevo, much more than we saw in Mostar. Not only have so many of its buildings been restored but new ones have been erected too. An example of this is the Avaz Twist Tower, newspaper headquarters, which is now the tallest skyscraper in the Former Yugoslavia. The City Center Mall, completed in 2014, is a modern (and more importantly air-conditioned!) mall with a wide range of shops.
Adam and I even took part in an escape room during our stay, at the Fox in a Box escape room. We did the ‘Mr Fox’s secret study’ room, which was really thought out and fun. It cost us 60BAM/ 30 euro for the two of us for an hour.
4 thoughts on “A week in Sarajevo: What to do”
Looks like a great place for the architecture photography 🙂
It is a very beautiful place!
Like your article, I am going in Sarajevo in two weeks, too 🙂
You’ll love it!