There are still controversies between the ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that’s why gathering artists is an important act

Half a millennium ago, during their rampage through the Balkans, the Ottoman army came upon a tiny village in the centre of what is now known as Bosnia. Seeing the prospect of its strategic location and signs of civilisation dating back many generations, they made a commercial centre and named it Saray Bosna, or The Palace of Bosnia. During the next 450 years many Christian Slavs became Muslim and a Bosnian Islamic elite gradually developed and took over rule from the Turks and Saray Bosna eventually grew into the capital city that we know today as Sarajevo. 

Reflective of its deep and multi-layered history, the many communities that have populated its limits have left their traces but it is undoubtedly an Ottoman centre at heart. That heart goes by the name of Baščaršija – or the Old Turkish Quarter, which was the first commercial centre built in the town after the Ottoman invasion. Despite the centuries of war and conflict to have passed through the city limits the Turkish Quarter remains intact. It is paved with cobbled pedestrian streets and zigzagging alleyways that lead you through a labyrinth of ancient treasures. 

Delve into this veritable maze and a visitor will come across the Sebilj; an enclosed wooden gazebo that functions as a public water fountain. It was built in 1753 to the orders of the Ottoman governor at the time Hadži Mehmed Pasha Kukavica and follows Neo-Moorish architecture style. Now populated by numerous pigeons and characterised by peculiar architecture it is one of hundreds of picture-postcard views afforded to the auspicious traveller in Sarajevo. 

Breathing the fresh air of the city surrounded by lush green hills and taking a historical tour through the capital is certaintly a pleasant experience but it is unavoidable, if you visit, to realise that not all the memories here carry such beauty. War and heritage go hand in hand.

The most recent of conflicts, the Balkan War, which raged through the region between 1992 and 1995, still pierces the landmarks with both physical and emotional scars. ‘In my city, everything revolves around the war; from historical sites recently renovated to insignificant buildings still blistered with bullets,’ says Alem, a 19-year old orphan who lost his parents during the siege. 

I met Alem this year’s Peace March; an annual event that commemorates the genocide of thousands of Muslims during the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995. Alem agreed to show me his city. Our first stop is Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque, part of the much larger Gazi Husrev Bey Vakuf complex which, in addition to the mosque, consists of a madrassa or Quranic school, a soup kitchen, hospice, library, khan, bazaar, public baths and two tombs. Considered as one of the world’s finest examples of Ottoman architecture, this structure, built in 1531, was badly damaged during the most recent war. ‘For about four years, the city was shelled on an almost daily basis. Mosques were not spared, and the Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque was reduced to rubbles,’ Alem explains with bitter tones. But thanks to intervention from renovators and financial backing from the community at home and abroad, the mosque was rescued from the edge of destruction. ‘Look up,’ says Alem as we walk into the impressive nod to a bygone past. I followed his advice and saw the wooden pergola sheltering the ablution fountain. Octagon in shape, each side was decorated with the same Quranic verse written in different calligraphies. ‘I think it reads: all that is alive depends chiefly on water,’ Alem had pondered – indeed he was right.

And so an appropriate next stop was the Miljacka River. After a stroll along its shallow borders we arrive at our Inat Kuća, which literally translates as the house of stubbornness. It is a two-story Ottoman house turned restaurant, whose story Alem tells me over a hearty lunch. In 1895, when occupying the city the Austro-Hungarians wanted to make way for a new city hall. Inat Kuća literally stood in the way and the owner firmly refused all propositions to move until and after much persuasion, he agreed to have his house moved brick by brick to the other side of the river. Today, Inat Kuća poses as a double bill – a historical site to visit and a lovely restaurant.

Although Bosnian cuisine revolves almost solely around meat with ćevapi – grilled lamb and beef mixed kebab served with onions, sour cream and bread – being the number one national dish, I still found options as a vegetarian. Over a vegetable soup and cheese pie I relaxed and watched the river serenely flow. Afterwards Alem and I drank traditional Bosnian coffee – a spice-less variation of Turkish coffee, eaten with Turkish sweets on the side.     

Close by, a late 19th century house turned boutique hotel was ideal for a night’s rest. Hotel Latinski Most has attic rooms overlooking the river and a view of the Latin bridge – the city’s most infamous landmark; the site of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the trigger for the first World War.

The following day was ideal to explore the cultural aspects of the city, which have come a long way since the war. Sarajevo Biennial, was launched this year from an underground bunker built to shelter former Yugoslav president Josip Tito. The biennial is hosting total of 42 contemporary artists including Turkish contemporary artists Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin and Caner Aslan.

At the opening in September the minister of culture and sport Salmir Kaplan explained the idea was to open up the preconceptions of the city and attract more visitors. ‘We do not have to build shelters for war anymore so we are trying to create art in the earlier ones,’ he said of the unusual venue. ‘To create art events in this shelter is an important approach as this will also increase the tourist initiatives in the country,’ he added. Turkey’s Sarajevo Ambassador Vefahan Ocak attended the opening. ‘There are still controversies between the ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that’s why gathering artists is an important act under the biennial event.’

Years of war may have ravaged Sarajevo, but like a phoenix the city is rising from the ashes. The sights carry history and are imbued with memories of its intriguing stories and now the artists, the true cultural commentators are taking their place in the conversation. As the walls of the city open again, perhaps we will see the capital reclaim its name and bloom into a shining palace.

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