Balkan Renaissance

Perched high atop the steep banks of the Neretva River in southwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Ottoman city of Mostar was for centuries a shining example of multiethnic diversity in the heart of the Balkans, a region often rocked by war and conquest. Following the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s, however, the city came to symbolize the depths to which humanity can plunge in the name of religion. Today, as ethnic tensions fade, the city is witnessing a renaissance and becoming a cultural capital in central Europe. Centuries before the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia in 1463, Mostar was a small hamlet sited at a strategic crossing of the Neretva. Its hinterlands consisted of a broad agricultural plain on the west bank and steep terraces on the east bank surrounded by barren mountains. Ottoman administrators—many of them indigenous Bosnians who converted to Islam—strove to integrate local inhabitants into the empire and extend their influence through architecture, which they used to express important social and economic changes in Mostar. It was during this period that the Stari Most, the town’s most distinctive feature, was built to replace a precarious wooden suspension bridge that had previously spanned the river. Facilitating travel, trade, and the movement of military troops, the Stari Most became a symbol of the benevolence and power of Ottoman rule; it also ensured Mostar’s primacy as the capital of Herzegovina. The name Mostar literally, means “bridgekeeper.” Although Mostar remained part of the Ottoman Empire well into the nineteenth century, the city enjoyed an unusual measure of independence. Ottoman legislation assuring religious tolerance between Christians, Muslims, and Jews had become an integral part of indigenous social and political values of the city, which functioned as a bonded, multicultural social entity. In Mostar, historicist architectural styles reflected cosmopolitan interest and exposure to foreign aesthetic trends, and were artfully merged with indigenous styles. Examples include the Italianate Franciscan church, the Ottoman Muslibegovi´ca house, the Dalmatian Corovi´ca House, and an Orthodox church built with a gift from the Sultan.

In 1878, Bosnia became a crown property of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in an effort to avoid a Serbian takeover. Though Mostar’s city council aspired to autonomy, it cooperated with the Austro-Hungarians to implement sweeping reforms in city planning: broad avenues and an urban grid were imposed on the western bank of the Neretva, and significant investments were made in infrastructure, communications, and housing, which facilitated the growth of the city well beyond its Ottoman town.

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