Saturday, July 2, 2011


It is hard to summarize a city full of as many contradictions as Sarajevo. In one sense, its history is rich as a mixing bowl of cultures, and relative tolerance, yet ten years ago it became eponymous with intolerant slaughter. But even before that, the Nazis and local allies effectively destroyed a Jewish community that came to Sarajevo the same time that Columbus was landing in the New World.

Architecturally, the city begins with the Baščaršija, the oldest, mostly Ottoman part of the city. The quarter remains pedestrianized, with plenty of touristy shops selling everything from intricately carved bullet shells to futbol jerseys. We stayed in a nearby pansion, just a few steps from the historic and still functional fountain. Cobblestone streets, locals sipping turkish coffee in numerous cafes, and we even spotted the traditional Muslim call to prayer from an imam at one of the older mosques, a rare sight these days as the adhan is typically delivered from electronic loudspeakers in much of the Muslim world.

When the Ottomans gave up Sarajevo in the Treaty of Berlin, the Austro-Hungarians moved in, and began to add to Sarajevo in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Turkish quarter. While seamless in terms of a street layout, the cobblestone gives way to pavement and the building take on a Viennese stamp in this part of the city. While the older, Turkish portion contains an important historical synagogue (now a museum) as well as a 15th century Orthodox church, the newer Austro-Hungarian portion contains the main Catholic cathedral as well as the new Orthodox church (although open as a tourist draw and lovely from the outside, much of the interior icons have been taken to other more Serb occupied parts of town.)

But the Austro-Hungarians did not stay for long, as on 28 June 1914 (97 years and one day before our arrival in Sarajevo), Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot the heir to the throne and his pregnant wife in Sarajevo, igniting the first world war, and in effect ending the imperial system that had so long ruled much of Europe and the Middle East. Standing on the bridge today - a little noticed pedestrian overpass over the river - one can imagine the fear and loathing of this simple nationalist who arguably set in motion every major world event of the 20th century.

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