Bosnia and Herzegovina has an area of only 51,000 sq km, or 19,700 sq miles, but it contains three of the best-known bridges in the world. Near the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The assassination prompted the Great War. The bridge over the Drina in Višegrad, which was built by Mehmed Paša Sokolović in 1577, is famous for a couple of reasons. Writer Ivo Andrić made it the main character in his book The Bridge on the Drina (1945) – and won the Nobel Prize for it. During the 1992–1995 Bosnian wars, the Serbs living in the area used to murder local Muslims on the same bridge.
Until 9 November 1993 the Mostar bridge could not lay claim to such historical fame. It was known only for the bold elegance of its 27 m, or 89 ft, long stone arch straddling the banks of the Neretva River. The only known work of art to depict its beauty was a Wiehler gobelin.
The bridge over the Neretva at Mostar appeared in 1566, after nine years of construction supervised by its builder, the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin, a student of Mimar Sinan. It astonishes both with its lofty arch, which seems to defy gravity, and the harmonious way it fits in with its surroundings. The city, and indeed the whole surrounding area , appear to have been created only as a backdrop to the bridge.
A postal stamp from the late 19th Century when Mostar was a part of Austria-Hungary
Mostar stands on that part of the Neretva where the river flows out of the fearsome canyons of the Prenj, Čvrsnica and Čabulja Mountains and enters the fertile valley that takes it to the Adriatic. Lines of Ottoman houses flank both banks of the river in the Old City, which is the heart of the Muslim quarter. The Helebija and Tara Towers, the two mostari, or bridge keepers, guard the bridge at either end. They prove that Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent ordered the construction not only to help Mostar's citizens reach the local market more easily, but also as an important part of the trade and military routes of the Ottoman Empire, and as such it needed protecting.
Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque was erected in 1618. It is the second largest in Mostar and its minaret is open for visitors
In 1937, when tourists to Yugoslavia visited almost exclusively the Croatian Adriatic coast, the bridge in Mostar was already famous in its own right. The writer Dame Rebecca West stopped in the city to see it. "It is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. A slender arch lies between two round towers, its parapet bent in a shallow angle in the centre. To look at it is good; to stand on it is as good. Over the grey-green river swoop hundreds of swallows, and on the banks mosques and white houses stand among glades of trees and bushes," she wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
When Dame Rebecca West visited at the end of the 1930s she was struck by the bridge, the odd clothes of Muslim women, and the unusually unspoilt shores of the Neretva River
Few Bulgarians are familiar with West's work. But they know the bridge in Mostar from another source: the eponymous Wiehler tapestry. Together with such classical pieces as The Last Supper, Mona Lisa and Horses at the Trough, it is part of the repertoire of every Bulgarian woman who has perfected the art of needlepoint. On the Internet, you can find dozens of offers for The Bridge of Mostar. Prices range from 300 leva to $2,700, depending on size, frame and quality.
By 1993, the bridge had stood for 427 years, and history and the world's attention had passed it by – unlike the regular floods of the Neretva. But only a few months would change all this. When the union between Croats and Bosniaks against the Bosnian Serbs fell apart, Mostar became a divided city. Before the conflict (and today too), it was inhabited by an approximately equal number of Croats (Catholic Slavs) and Bosniaks (Muslim Slavs). The bridge over the Neretva was of paramount importance to the Muslims. It linked their quarters on both sides of the river and was the only escape route for those wounded by Croat bullets. Croat militia then subjected the bridge to mortar and sniper fire. Anybody crossing the stone humpback was a target. Bosniaks tried to reduce the danger by erecting an improvised screen made of planks and plastic sheeting. They became masters at scuttling along the slippery cobblestone pavement.
Croatian soldiers destroy the Old Bridge on 9 November 1993
The bridge withstood everything for months. However, on 9 November the tactics of the Croatian commanding officer Slobodan Praljak prevailed and the 427-year-old bridge collapsed.
The bridge at Mostar was not the only cultural heritage site that fell victim to the wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia. A year earlier, the Yugoslav People's Army, or JNA, bombed the Old City of Dubrovnik for no apparent reason, damaging 70 percent of its mediaeval and Baroque buildings. Churches and monasteries were looted and destroyed by the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, during the Kosovo War of 1998–1999 too.
So it is little wonder that back then the bridge at Mostar seemed lost forever.
But in July 2004, it rose again over the Neretva. Stari Most, or the Old Bridge, was rebuilt. Each stone from the original structure that could be found – usually by scuba divers – was reused.
During the 1996-2004 reconstruction
Centuries after its construction, modern architects discovered that the Mostar bridge was still an engineering challenge. It proved impossible just to lay the old stones back in their original places and fill the gaps with new ones, because of a peculiarity that all builders of the Ottoman Empire adhered to in their work. When they made the stone filling between the walls, they piled the irregularly shaped blocks one above the other without any system. As a result, their structures are slightly out of shape – a side effect that makes them look exquisite and charming, but also almost impossible to replicate.
There was a similar problem with the Mostar bridge. Only when walking over it do you notice that it does not cross the river at right angles, but is at a slight slant.
The restoration was completed relatively successfully. The new Old Bridge looks just a little bit less elegant than the original. But it was OK for UNESCO. A year later, the organisation added the bridge and the old quarter of Mostar to its world heritage sites.
In the old cemetery near Kujundziluk there many graves dating to the 1992-1995 war
The bridge has also reclaimed the central role it played in city life until 1993. Leaping down from the 21 m, or 68 ft, high arch was a key moment in the lives of the local youths. Overcoming their fear of heights and the cold rapids of the Neretva, they proved to the world – and to the girls they fancied, in particular – that they had become men. This ritual has turned into a huge event. For several days in July, during the Ikari holiday, tens of thousands of spectators watch thrill-seekers from all over Bosnia jump from the Mostar bridge.
Of course, you don't have to be in Mostar in July to see people leaping off the Old Bridge. This extreme experience has become a tourist attraction and there are young men ready to dive into the river nearly every day. The only condition is that there are enough bystanders around who are ready to cough up sufficient coins to pay for the spectacle. However, to say that the new Old Bridge has become a symbol of unification among Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs in Mostar would be to look at the world through very rosetinted spectacles. During the inauguration of the bridge, a former Croat soldier told The Guardian: "To be honest, we prefer it destroyed. They're making a lot of fuss about it and all the money goes on the bridge. But it's got nothing to do with us. It's a Muslim bridge."
The old market was dubbed Kujundziluk for the many gold- and silversmiths. Mostar and its environs was listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005
Mostar remains a divided city. A large cross is clearly visible from the Old City. It stands on the west side of the river, on top of Hum Hill, and was put up by the Croatians. In 2001, the Bosniaks protested against its installation – in vain – because they saw it as a symbol of confrontation. When they could not get it removed, they took retaliatory measures. A huge inscription made with white pebbles appeared on the opposite hill: BiH, volimo te, or BiH, we love you.
Even the restoration of the old part of the city can't hide the fact that post-war Mostar is different from the one before 1992. When work was finished, the renovated houses around the marketplace, the cobbled streets, mostari and mosques had turned into a touched-up version of their old selves. The view – with the wooden bridges over the right-hand tributaries of the Neretva and the small slate-roofed houses around them – seems like the set of a 1980s fantasy film. The stone Kriva Ćuprija, or Crooked Bridge, over the Rabobolja Creek, which was built shortly before the Old Bridge, was carried away by a flood in 2000, but restored soon afterwards. Now Kriva Ćuprija is a centre of attention in its own right. The family-run hotels and restaurants that have sprung up around it are among the best places to try Mostar's ćevap, homemade sausages and grape brandy. The pubs in the market street, on the other side of the bridge, are their antithesis – unless you don't mind taking a chance on the strange combination of ingredients sold as "Shopska salad." You will find it contains some tomatoes, a lot of pickled gherkins, a certain amount of fresh cabbage and strained yogurt.
Mostar is perhaps the most popular tourism destination in Bosnia, but in wintertime you are likely to be the only visitor
Everything in the old part appears to have turned its back on the past and set its eyes on the future, believing that the future lies in tourism. The Karadjoz Bey and Koski Mehmed Pasha mosques have been restored after the ravages of the war. In the latter, you will even be allowed to climb up the minaret so that you can view the Old City from above. The workshops in Kujundziluk, that part of the old market which housed Mostar's renowned coppersmiths, are open again, but most of them now are art galleries.
The restored marketplace no longer bears much witness to what happened there but, beyond it, you will come across much more visible traces of the war. Some buildings still carry bullet marks and others are completely uninhabited.
Today the bridge no longer unites Mostar's citizens though, by an ironic quirk of fate, it was the very reason for the existence of the town. The very first document to mention the settlement, written by merchants from Dubrovnik in 1452, says it was located by a bridge. Until the invasion of the Ottomans, who conquered this part of the Balkans in the first half of the 16th Century, the bridge over the Neretva was made of wood.
It was only when the stunning stone arch appeared across the river that the town was given the name of Mostar. It comes from the Slavic word for bridge, most, or from mostari, the two watchtowers, which, now restored, still guard its approaches.