The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Stari Most, the symbol of Bosnia: from ethnic division to reconstruction

The destruction and reconstruction of Stari Most, the 'Old Bridge' of Mostar was one of the most symbolic aspects of the Bosnian War. Yet while it now stands as a symbol of peace and cohesion, it was not always seen as such, identified with different groups and meanings at different times in its 400-year history, as Samuel Burke recalls.

Samuel Burke

Samuel Burke

Cities: Mostar

Topics: Emergencies and reconstruction, Social conflict, Architecture and urban design, Divided cities, War and terrorism

When we speak of the identity of a city, we usually think of its atmosphere or 'vibe'. Yet this is inseparable from the specific histories of its buildings — its churches, mosques, halls, plazas — its spaces of memory. These spaces are reassessed and renegotiated by each generation according to new standards; they also often underpin the identity of groups within the city. Where group claims over a space come into conflict, contests over that space may arise.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Stari Most — the 'Old Bridge' and symbol of Mostar as of Bosnia. Built by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, it has been admired by travellers, poets and artists for its daring span and majestic arch. But during the brutal wars that characterised the break-up of Yugoslavia, the bridge was destroyed in an act of symbolic violence by the Bosnian-Croat forces besieging the city. The destruction and reconstruction of the bridge illustrates how strongly it became a symbol amidst the shifting identities of the city, but how did this come about?

The emergence of a symbol

With the fracturing of Yugoslavia however, the bridge emerged as a symbol of the Muslim community, if not by them, then at least by those who wanted to take the city: the Serbs and the Croats.

The origins of the bridge as a symbol of Mostar lie in its Ottoman past. The city sits on the fault-line of three of the major cultural-religious groups of the world: Catholics, Muslims and Eastern Orthodox. Strategically important to the Ottomans, Mostar quickly became a major trading and military centre, and cultural and religious tolerance thrived. The Ottomans administered these groups through the millet system, which allowed those practising other monotheistic religions to continue observing their beliefs in return for a special tax. The Sultan even promoted the construction of the Catholic and Orthodox churches in the city.

Like many imperialists, the Ottomans used monumental architecture to beguile and impress their subjects and to consolidate their colonial holdings. Built in 1566 by the great architect Mimar Hajrudin, Stari Most was at the time the widest man-made arch in the world. Functionally it expanded the city, but it was also a statement of the cultural and artistic might of the empire, and for centuries a source of pride for Mostarians and Bosnians alike.

Although there were cultural and religious differences amongst the population, all were accepted as Mostarians and as Bosnians. This began to change when Bosnia was handed over to the Austro-Hungarians to prevent a Serbian takeover of the country. Although much of the social order remained the same, Croatia and Serbia were both emerging as strong nations and in response religious groups in Bosnia began to affiliate with these new nations — Catholics with Croatia, Orthodox with Serbia, Muslims with Bosnia.

When Bosnia came under the rule of the Socialist Federal Repubic of Yugoslavia, the religious and cultural diversity of Mostar found an ally in Josip Tito's ideology of 'brotherhood and unity' and was considered a showpiece of the Yugoslav project. It was under his strong hand that nationalist tendencies were silenced, and the city thrived.

Towards the end of Tito's life Yugoslavia started to fragment along territorial lines. Senada Dimirovic, an urban planner in Mostar, explained to me that 'there was some feeling that was growing, growing, growing and one day it just exploded and it was named nationalism.' This nationalism led to the violent conflicts that broke up the country and fragmented the city of Mostar.

The symbol evolves through the war

Prior to the war the bridge was not loaded with religious or nationalist symbolism, but was seen more as a general symbol of Mostar and Bosnia, admired primarily for its artistic qualities. With the fracturing of Yugoslavia however, the bridge emerged as a symbol of the Muslim community, if not by them, then at least by those who wanted to take the city: the Serbs and the Croats.

The city was subject to two sieges between 1992 and 1994, first by Serbian nationalists who wished to include the eastern part of Mostar into a new Serbian Republic, and then by the Croats who sought it as the future capital of a purified Croat statelet called Herzeg-Bosnia. The Serbs were unable to take the city and withdrew to the surrounding hills where they ceased to be a major factor for the remainder of the war. Attacking from the west, the Croat military cleansed the area of all non-Croats, however they were unable to take the entire city and when the Americans brokered peace in 1994, Mostar was truly split — the west belonged to the Catholic Croats and the east to the Muslim Bosniacs.

Retrospectively then, the bridge has come to represent the ideal of the multi-ethnic society that was created under the Ottomans, and the shared history that binds the many cultural and religious groups that make up this diverse country.

Throughout both sieges Stari Most was a focus of assault and was finally destroyed by Croat bombardment in November 1993. The Croats argued that the bridge was of strategic importance, but this is not an explanation that is commonly accepted.

In his book Urbicide: the politics of urban destruction Martin Coward argues that 'the destruction of the bridge gave credence (at least in the eyes of the destroyers) to the notion of two homogenous enclaevs. As such, this destruction created the conditions under which the Bosnian Croats could claim an ethnic separation from the Bosnian Muslims/Bosniacs.' Taso Sanel, a (Bosniac) resident of the city, confirms this view. 'I think that [by] destroying all those important things they were trying to break the moral of the people.'

The post-war identity of the bridge

The significance of a place is often reinterpreted in the aftermath of violence and tragedy. While the bridge evolved into a symbol of one particular ethno-religious group only during the break-up of Yugoslavia, its identity as an explicit symbol of peaceful coexistence did not appear until after the war broke out between the emerging states. The first mention of this reimagining was by the eminent Bosnian historian Amir Pašić in a lecture given at Carnegie Mellon University in 1994. It has since come to be seen as a literal and metaphorical 'bridge between cultures' and a symbol of the healing of a once diverse and tolerant society.

The reassessment of the bridge can be seen as a direct counter to everything that the nationalists represented — ethnic division and racial supremacism. In the aftermath of war, there is a tendency to look at the past as some nostalgic ideal. These ideals are often embodied within the very fabric of a city, in this case Stari Most. Retrospectively then, the bridge has come to represent the ideal of the multi-ethnic society that was created under the Ottomans, and the shared history that binds the many cultural and religious groups that make up this diverse country. The repositioning of the bridge as a symbol of multiculturalism has allowed the Ottoman spaces in the city to be imagined and promoted as shared spaces of ethnic tolerance. The imperial past is reinterpreted as a place of shared public space where a multitude of ethnicities, cultural and religious groups cohabited in a most peaceful fashion.

The Croatian journalist Ivan Lovrenović, who fled Bosnia during the war, explains the vital nature of the bridge now: 'The image and meaning of the Old Bridge embodied the meaning and spirit of all Bosnia. The essence of the bridge is meeting and linking, the opposite of separation and division. That is why the fate of this bridge and this country is one and the same.'

Stari Most represents an important insight into the way places gain new meaning. But it should not be assumed that the reconstruction of the bridge has closed all wounds. The city is still divided between a Croat west and Bosniac east. The bridge however can be used as a metaphor for rebuilding ties between the two sides, generating economic and social stability and slowly bringing a sense of cohesion to the city. In this sense the bridge acts to project a desired identity, making it an important, and indeed essential, tool in healing the scars of war.

recently completed the MSc in The City at the University of Edinburgh and now works as a freelance writer and researcher in Berlin. He is currently resident researcher for Bomb Gallery, an artistic collective with the aim of establishing a temporary international art space in the city of Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina.